When a University of California at Los Angeles student, in a video she posted online, used a mock foreign language to imitate Asian students talking loudly in the library, she probably didn’t think twice about it. But for many, that moment -- along with others in the video -- was yet another illustration of students’ willingness to openly criticize their Asian peers.
And while UCLA Chancellor Gene D. Block acted swiftly by issuing a statement and video saying the young woman’s speech “has no place at UCLA,” the reality is that it’s commonplace.
The reputation of Asian Americans as a “model minority” has long plagued students of that ethnicity. They have said that professors hold them to higher standards. Affirmative action debates often touch on the fear that without the policy, students of Asian descent would replace other minority populations on campuses. And satirical articles in student newspapers have mocked studious Asians in very public fashion. (The student newspaper at the University of Colorado at Boulder suspended its opinion section and pledged to undergo sensitivity and diversity training three years ago, after it published an anti-Asian satire.)
"Incidents of bigotry and racism against Asians are too often overlooked and dismissed," Robert T. Teranishi, author of Asians in the Ivory Tower: Dilemmas of Racial Inequality in American Higher Education, wrote in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed. "I would like to see the university provide the space and resources for the campus community to come together to talk about and find solutions for this incident, rather than having this conflict just play out in the media."
Students and others who take issue with the video have posted hundreds of comments on Facebook, Twitter and news articles. The video's creator, a white student named Alexandra Wallace, last week issued a statement to the UCLA student newspaper, The Daily Bruin, apologizing for the "inappropriate" video. "I cannot explain what possessed me to approach the subject as I did, and if I could undo it, I would," she said.
One commenter on the Bruin website wrote, "As a recent alumnus, this story really is embarrassing.... I do not wish to see Ms. Wallace's academic future end prematurely, but UCLA must protect its reputation by setting an example." Block is also getting an earful on his Facebook page. One student wrote, "I'm applying to colleges next year and I was a little nervous to apply to UCLA. But knowing that you guys accepted the brilliant mind that is Alexandra Wallace, I'm not that nervous anymore!" A Japanese student trying to transfer to UCLA echoed the comments of many other Asian students, though: "The video did make me mad when I first saw it," she wrote. "But let's grow up here. She is just very ignorant and everybody makes mistakes."
UCLA said last week that Wallace would not be disciplined because her actions did not violate the student code of conduct, but the next day she announced in a letter to the newspaper that she would withdraw from the university, saying she had received death threats and her family had been harassed, as well. "In an attempt to produce a humorous YouTube video, I have offended the UCLA community and the entire Asian culture," Wallace wrote, adding that her "mistake" has led to her being "ostracized from an entire community."
Experts acknowledge that many students feel more comfortable mocking their Asian peers because they are billed as overachievers, and their success in college may make it seem like they haven’t faced the historical oppression that black students have. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Asians and Pacific Islanders tied with Hispanics for the fastest rates of growth in undergraduate fall enrollment from 1976-2008. And in 2008, about 52 percent of Asian and Pacific Islander adults had at least a bachelor’s degree, compared to 33 percent of white adults.
Those outcomes are relatively well-known. But for those same experts, this video illustrated the other, less talked-about stereotypes that cling to Asian students – and make their white classmates comfortable documenting insults of an entire ethnic group, for the whole world to see.
For Joe R. Feagin, a sociology professor at Texas A&M University and co-author of The Myth of the Model Minority: Asian Americans Facing Racism, Wallace made a blatant statement that Asian students are separate from -- and less important than -- white students. “A key part of the stereotyping of Asians and Asian Americans is their foreignness,” Feagin said. “She makes the point that not only are Asians and Asian-Americans stereotyped and evaluated from the old, white vs. others -- you know, racial framing -- but they also face this dimension of not being American. That is, foreign vs. American.”
Warren J. Blumenfeld, an assistant professor of curriculum and instruction at Iowa State University and faculty director of Iowa State's Dialogues on Diversity program, said this xenophobia stems from daily public discourse surrounding the same issues. "What I saw in the video itself was a frustration that I've been seeing within the society in general," Blumenfeld said. "There's a lot, really, that's going on in that two-minute video that is deeply troubling, but unfortunately reflects what we're being taught by the larger culture, to call into question anything that seems to be different -- quote unquote, foreign."
As examples, Blumenfeld pointed to immigration debates in the Southwest, where Hispanics -- many of whom are legal American citizens -- are often painted as criminals. These questions come up in the top echelons of politics, too: the presidential contender Mike Huckabee was criticized this month when he mistakenly proclaimed that President Obama's world views had been shaped by his childhood in Kenya. (Obama first visited Kenya when he was in his twenties.)
And predictions that China already is or is becoming the dominant world economic powerhouse are scaring many people -- including young men and women preparing to enter the job market -- into believing Americans from abroad are forcing them out of college or a career. "In higher education, I see this -- the targeting of Asian students as being basically a privileged group, a group that is taking over the university system. So I don't think it was a coincidence that she was specifically targeting Asian students and no other specific group," Blumenfeld said. He described a recent interaction with a student on the bus who said Iowa State is accepting too many Asian students, that they're everywhere on campus (despite the fact that Iowa State's student body is 80 percent white). "I see these kinds of, not just frustrations but reactions, against international students all the time," he said.
In the video, Wallace says, "Ohhhhh, ching chong ling long ting tong, ohhhhh," when imitating students on cell phones in the library, and repeatedly uses terms like “hordes” that are often affiliated with immigrant movement. She tells students to “use American manners,” and tells them, “Hi. In America, we do not talk on our cell phones in the library.”
These kinds of messages not only reinforce stereotypes that are ingrained in people from a young age through media and social interactions, but they also deeply affect the Asian students who are targeted, said Rosalind S. Chou, co-author of Myth of the Model Minority and a Duke University postdoctoral fellow in the Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity and Gender in the Social Sciences. Chou works with Asian students at Duke and has spoken to them and others many times about these issues. “They suffer from this,” she said. “While we can be looking at this young lady as an individual actor, we really need to ask about the larger structure and how racism and racist notions are embedded. Because she’s not alone in her thinking.”
Media portrayals of Asians as “people to be laughed at” (think "American Idol" hopeful William Hung) contribute to the other major misconception exhibited by Wallace’s decision to record and post her video: the idea that Asians are docile and passive, and that people can treat the population as inferior with no repercussions.
“Many Asians [face] this open racist taunting that goes on without the fear that they are dangerous minorities, or violent, where that’s associated with other racial groups,” Chou said. She noted the recent case of a student who was verbally harassed in the library, as well as an article in the student newspaper that made fun of Asian students, saying they were the only ones who didn’t hear about a campus scandal because they were all in the library. “A newspaper at Duke would never run something like that about African Americans, for fear that there’s an active history of resistance.” (Teranishi, associate professor of higher education at New York University, said the video "reinforces the need for colleges and universities to address issues of race and diversity beyond the dominant black/white paradigm.")
When students approach Chou for advice on how to respond to such taunts, she tells them all they can do is try to defy the stereotypes. That might involve something as simple as calling out the assailant as a racist.
UCLA can do its part too, Blumenfeld said. Wallace did not see Asian students as human beings, he said. "She saw them as the other, as even less than human," he said. "She saw herself as dominant." By hosting diversity awareness lectures and events, requiring students to take multicultural courses, and having precise and visible anti-discrimination policies that are enforced on campus, students and administrators can gain from this incident rather than dwell on it, Blumenfeld said. "When we see people as fully dimensional human beings, it's harder to put them in that box," he said. "In that way, we will learn from them, they will learn from us."