Letter to the Editor: Oxy needs to add Asian American Studies to its repertoire

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Letter to the editor

Content warning: This article discusses the texts that emerged in February between two Occidental students that included genocidal, racist speech toward Asian people.

Upon hearing about the recent anti-Asian text messages sent by Oxy students, I felt disgusted and disappointed — but not surprised. The text really made me reconsider the student activism my friends, peers and I put our time into while at Oxy. Experiencing racism (compounded with other -isms) while at Oxy isn’t new — it gives me remarkable déjà vu. I was only at Occidental for two years, eventually deciding to transfer to Pitzer. My short time as a Critical Theory & Social Justice (CTSJ) major gave me enough insight to know that even now, at its core Oxy remains the same. Oxy still seems to put more effort into churning out “good” white allies than implementing resources for students of color, such as an Asian American Studies (AsAm Studies) program.

The texts make me reflect on my first year — the same year as the historic 2015 Arthur G. Coons Administrative Center (AGC) Protest. One of the amazing outcomes of the protest was the creation of a Black Studies program. I want to mention that the 2015 AGC Protest would not have been possible without the senior women of color – the majority of whom were Black women – who took the initiative and time to plan non-stop. Black students make up just 4.2 percent of the student body yet still make undeniable impacts on campus.

Let’s rewind to Fall 2015. President Jonathan Veitch is heading the administration. Some of your fellow classmates are sleeping in the AGC building, lugging mattresses from their dorm (I was one of them). Speeches ensue. Professors show their true colors. Then, my sophomore year was the inauguration of Trump which also activated student activists to protest for change on and off campus. Suffice to say, my two years felt longer.

While I was at Oxy, I cherished all the healing I was able to do among student-led spaces like Queer House (now Baldwin House). But that is not a student’s job. Nor should it solely be the job of the professors leading clubs after hours. I wonder if the burden of healing would have been lighter if we had learned about the legacy of Asian American activism in the classroom itself. People like Yuri Kochiyama, close friends with Malcolm X or revolutionary Grace Lee Boggs and activist Richard Aoki, who was a Black Panther, should be studied and honored.

An Asian American Studies (AsAm Studies) program would also have helped with future employment for Oxy students. I didn’t even know about Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics (LEAP) until after my time at Oxy. They are located in LA and offer summer full-time internships in non-profit work. I wish I had been plugged into places like API-Equality, a queer non-profit, while I still lived in LA.

I can’t be the only one that finds it odd that Black Studies, East Asian Studies, Diplomacy & World Affairs (DWA) and Latino/a & Latin American Studies (LLAS) exist at Occidental without AsAm Studies. At other schools, like San Francisco State University where student protests lead to the creation of an Ethnic Studies college, AsAm Studies are included alongside American Indian Studies, Africana Studies, and Latina/Latino Studies. Diversity and equity (still) have no structural integrity at Occidental and meaningful social change requires far more than an Asian Pacific Islander Desi American (APIDA) space in Berkus Hall or a First-Year Seminar on racism.

For a school sans AsAm Studies, Occidental is planted very squarely in a city of immigrants. The college is a 20 to 30 minute drive from Little Tokyo, Koreatown and Chinatown and only 15 minutes from Historic Filipinotown. If you go 15 minutes the other direction, you’re in the San Gabriel Valley, famous for its “minority majority” Asian and Asian American populations. Oxy has a legacy of disrespecting student activists, but it could at least respect the history and ongoing struggles of its neighboring ethnic enclaves by offering classes about them.

Did you know the longest-running Asian American open mic in the United States is based in Little Tokyo? It goes by the name Tuesday Night Cafe (TNC). But I did not know of it until I was at Pitzer College, which is much further from LA than Oxy. At Pitzer, I did my senior capstone on TNC. This was a phenomenal opportunity to get paid to research a place I myself have performed and forged friendships. The lack of institutional support from an AsAm Studies program at Oxy kept me from realizing this type of research was within my grasp.

While the “China virus” has brought anti-Asian hate into a new era, this hate has long been an issue. From the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, 1935 Filipino Anti-Miscegenation laws and Vincent Chin’s death in 1982 — Asians in America have been going through it for decades and continue to speak out about their experiences with racism. Unfortunately, until my senior year of high school, I hardly knew any Asian American history myself.

The lack of AsAm Studies perpetuates the idea that Asian Americans are fine. We are not and have not been fine. Excluding AsAm Studies from Oxy’s curricula promotes erasure of Asian American history, ongoing struggles and interactions with other minority groups. California has a long-standing history of both cross-racial solidarity and ongoing tension (ex. The Watts Riot, Little Tokyo’s relationship to Bronzeville and the Farm Workers Union between Cesar Chavez and the Filipino community).

In the face of mounting anti-Asian hate, Oxy must do more, including adding an AsAm Studies program. “Sorry” is hollow without concrete effort. Do more for your Asian students; do more than switching up the dining hall menu on Lunar New Year; do more than giving us boba money.

I viscerally recall what it was like being 18, living in Pauley Hall, clamoring to make a difference by talking late into the night with new friends. But our individual efforts could only do so much. Without any concrete institutional change, no matter how many Asian American town halls Oxy hosts or money it gives student clubs, the well-being of Asian American students cannot thrive.

Creating an AsAm Studies program is one way to implement long-lasting change (which, as SFSU showcases is important to include alongside Black studies, Latinx Studies and Indigenous Studies). Especially as a private liberal arts college located in one of the most diverse cities in the world, it only makes sense. Additionally, it would honor the efforts of Oxy’s student activists — past and present. I do not think an Ethnic Studies Department solves the recent “all Asian people need to die” behavior, but I do think it can provide resources and institutional support currently absent from the college.

One of the most memorable things I did at Occidental was reading a speech on behalf of API in support of Oxy United for Black Liberation Movement written by Abhilasha Bhola ‘16 and Aaron Noffke ‘16 to the entire school on the AGC steps. When I found the speech in my Google Drive, it was like dusting off an artifact. I wonder how many current students know about it — unless students pass on institutional memory, it is often forgotten. Which is funny because Oxy is quick to remind everyone Obama went there (and transferred away).

Orating the words for seniors I admired made me feel seen, and made me feel like I was making a difference. It called in faces that looked like mine to do more and reminded non-Black BIPOC and white classmates of our value as allies. We have important history too — not that Ming dynasty kind. The type that uniquely resonates with a queer Missouri-born, second-generation Chinese American gal like me.

To my Asians currently at Occidental, know that I see you. You are not a monolith. You are not invisible, even if sometimes you may feel like it. In Mandarin, there is an idiom that goes 一路平安 – yīlù píng’ān; it means to have a pleasant journey. I wish this for each of you. Stay vigilant, love vigilant.

Occidental, do not be the person who loves Instagramming Asian food, but still says racist shit about Asians. You market yourself as such a progressive place: now prove it.

Em/Emily Lu Gao (she/they) attended Occidental from 2015 to 2017. She graduated from Pitzer College with a degree in Asian American Studies. She is currently a graduate student at Rutgers-Newark where she is earning her MFA in Poetry while also teaching Introduction to Creative Writing.