My mother taught me that a true friend tells you what you need to hear, even if it may not be what you want to hear. I am writing today because Berkeley was my first true home in this country and the first place I felt safe. In returning as a teacher at UC Berkeley, I am troubled by what I see as unconscious marginalization and invisibilization of our Asian American students, especially at a time when they need us to help them feel safe.
I am speaking up because I have witnessed Asian American students cry after my lectures. They cry not because I have been mean to them but because I have spoken out loud their racial experiences in the United States — experiences of marginalization and exclusion. Some may cry because they have never had an Asian American professor before and finally see themselves represented in someone they can look up to and emulate. Some may cry because they are here in this country alone and apart from family.
Others cry because they have been conditioned by white supremacy to believe their experiences of suffering as Asian Americans are not legitimate. They cry from carrying the silent, oppressive weight of anxiety and fear that they or a family member might be attacked. They cry because they finally have a space to be safe and fully human. And then they all apologize profusely for crying, for taking up space.
I am grateful to Chancellor Carol Christ for her statement of solidarity in response to escalating attacks on Asian Americans. But I wonder, why isn’t our amazing campus community fully activating in its role as chief educator, consciousness raiser and protector of the minds, bodies, spirits of its student body? The relative silence feels like benign neglect.
We know that former president Donald Trump’s scapegoating of China for his failed COVID-19 responses helped spur anti-Asian American attacks. But Trump’s maligning of the Chinese government only invigorated preexisting and underlying conditions of racial antipathy against Asian Americans — conditions that emerge not only through the commission of racial violence but also through the omission of care.
At UC Berkeley, where we purport to practice a community of caring, I know we can do better. In “A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America,” former UC Berkeley professor Ronald Takaki quotes Carlos Fuentes’ retelling of the legend of the deity Quetzalcóatl. In the legend, Quetzalcóatl is given a mirror to look at; seeing a man’s face in the mirror, he realizes the reflection is his own humanity. Takaki evokes this legend as a way of urging us to address the history of white supremacy that has excluded the histories and experiences of communities of color. He tells us to create different “mirrors” of inclusion and belonging.
Professors serve as these very mirrors for our students and their humanity. This is an awesome power that, by its commission or its omission, can change a student’s life.
I know this from lived experience. My family arrived in the United States shortly after the last vestiges of the Chinese Exclusion Act were lifted. As one of the first Asian American families in our community, we experienced racial bullying and hate on a regular basis. Coming to UC Berkeley for law school in 1987 was the first time in this country I felt seen and valued as a full human being. It was here where I met Asian American activists, actors, poets and hip-hop artists for the first time and tapped into my full humanity, where my professors, such as June Jordan, Robert Berring and David Caron, saw potential and believed in me. At UC Berkeley, I learned about the power of organizing in the faculty diversity movement. I found my voice and my calling in life.
Today, Asian American students need their professors, their mirrors, to provide that safe space. They need us to acknowledge that the attacks against Asian Americans occurring across the nation are wrong. We can denounce these attacks while also calling for a model of restorative justice, rather than criminalization, in addressing them. Both are possible, indeed critical. But if we remain silent when the fundamental humanity of any racial group is challenged or undermined, we perpetuate white supremacy’s system of dehumanization.
When people speak of racial injustice or COVID-19 impacts and exclude mention of Asian American front-line workers or of persistent health, mental health, employment, educational and housing disparities faced by Asian Americans, that hurts and harms. We must acknowledge the existential racial angst of Asian Americans whose experiences with racism and exclusion continue to be invisibilized. We must acknowledge a long history of Asian Americans being used as a racial wedge against Black Americans, including during discussions about affirmative action, as well as a long history of multiracial justice solidarity. We must acknowledge that Asian Americans had the highest growth of homelessness in the nation from 2016 to 2017. And we can do all of this without taking away from the pain and suffering of underrepresented minorities who have also long suffered racism and racial disparities.
To acknowledge these truths, professors and students can issue statements of solidarity, including checking in with Asian American students to see how they’re doing. We can also identify skilled facilitators and offer safe spaces for students to talk about and process feelings of marginalization and fear, as well as the complexities of interracial violence. The UC Berkeley community, in our role as an education institution, should work with Asian American student and community organizations to offer educational panels and workshops.
Speaking up and showing up for all of our students — Asian American, Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Pacific Islander, white — is how professors practice our community of caring. It’s how we, their mirrors, give them the tools they need to further powerful, profound, transformative healing in themselves and of our world.