Panelists discuss Asian/American issues

by Erin Lee | 5/20/15 7:26pm

The first time Akiko Okuda ’15 visited Dartmouth, she said her mother asked her, “Where are the Asians?” Last night this question was the defining theme of a panel, as six seniors — Carla Yoon ’15, Justin Sha ’15, Diksha Gautham ’15, Shweta Raghu ’15, Aditya Shah ’15 and Okuda — spoke to an audience of 150 people in Collis Common Ground about their experiences as Asian and Asian-American students at the College.

The panelists shared stories about race and identity, touching on topics such as Greek system affiliation as a minority student and anonymous, racially-insensitive comments on social media platforms. The second annual event, titled “Where are the Asians?,” was hosted by the Asian/Asian-American Students for Action, or 4A@Dartmouth.

Co-organizer Moulshri Mohan ’15 said the organization was formed after a group of students thought it was important to highlight the racial and political experiences of those who subscribe to any kind of Asian identity at the College.

“We hadn’t seen Asians aside from ourselves in conversations about race and politics,” she said.

Co-organizer Sandy Kim ’15 said the panel showcased specific experiences of being Asian at the College, which she said is “very different” from the experiences of other minorities. Panelists wanted to share how the College has shaped the way they perceive themselves and others, she said.

Kim said last year’s event had a higher attendance than expected, something organizers took into account when planning this year. The event received positive feedback last year, reflecting a need for outlets where Asian students can share their experiences and talk about racial issues, she said.

Mohan said they focused specifically on advertising the event and used posts from the social media app Yik Yak to pique people’s interests “by highlighting ignorant things people said, things that were problematic on these forums, things people are saying about Asians.”

Yoon spoke about internalized racism she experienced both at Dartmouth and abroad and about her experience with the Greek system. After moving from South Korea to Bahrain when she was young, she found that her international school was racially divided. Even at the age of five or six years old, she said she picked up the idea that white girls were better than her and was excluded from their cliques.

When she came to the College, she encountered more labels and unwritten rules, particularly in the Greek system, she said. Only four of the 37 girls in her pledge class were Asian. She noted that many people, including Asians, enjoy and benefit from the Greek system, but she said she thought the Greek system can be divisive.

“We’d all be kidding ourselves if we don’t see the enormous racial divides,” Yoon said. “The Greek system is only a stark symptom of racism that pervades Dartmouth.”

Like Yoon, Sha discussed Greek social hierarchies and talked about how they interact with Asian masculinity. He said that a common Asian male stereotype is feminine and nerdy.

“Dartmouth accentuates these racial masculine hierarchies that are already in our society,” he said. “Our story is a uniquely marginalized one that’s often forgotten or brushed aside.”

He said that as a queer Asian male, when he rushed, he encountered externally imposed classifications based on gender and race. He noted that he now sees more Asian-American faces in sororities, while “A-side” fraternities still have fewer Asian members.

At Dartmouth, Gautham said she became more “hyper-aware” of being Asian. She went to high school in Hanover, a school with a largely white population, and said she was relatively out of touch with her Asian identity as a result. When she started dating a Chinese-American classmate during her freshman year, she said she noticed cultural and parental differences that surprised her. She also joined sports teams that were predominantly white, and she realized that there are certain pockets of campus culture that lack diversity, to her stated surprise.

“I think this kind of awareness is going to follow me and help me in my future career in the tech industry,” she said.

Raghu spoke of the erasure of identity and how her Asian identity is tied to her name. She said that throughout her educational career, she has gone by several different pronunciations of her name, many of which were imposed by others. For a period of time, when she ordered coffee, she would tell the barista her name was “Jane.”

“It felt antithetical,” she said. “My name is a connection to my Asian, Indian, Hindu identities. I was trying to erase the Asian part of my Asian-American identity.”

She said many people ask her where she is from in an attempt to discern her ethnicity or nationality, something that Okuda discussed as well.

Okuda noted that many Asians, regardless of their backgrounds, struggle to find a sense of home and a voice that matters in an adopted country, much like her parents did. She said her mother felt like she did not belong at the primarily white environment of Dartmouth, though Okuda said she has found spaces on campus where she feels comfortable.

She said she has tried to find strength and pride in her Asian identity and has come to self-identify more with it in college.

Shah discussed the intersectional nature of the Asian-American identity and spoke about the social and cultural privileges with which he has grew up. He said that the narrative of his family’s history is one of Indian-Americans who have taught him to be proud of his heritage.

“I come from a lineage that has strongly told me to trust in my own humanity and have the utmost confidence in my own traditions,” he said. “Victimizing ourselves takes away our own agency. It silences the fight inherent in our history.”

Jungbin Choi ’16, who attended the event, said that he came because he was genuinely curious. He said this was the first time he has seen Asians come together as a group for an activist cause and liked the personal essence of the panelists’ stories.