Asian Americans discuss stereotypes


"Asian and Asian-American Experiences: A Forum on the Racial Climate at MIT," the second program in MIT's Race 2000 series, opened on a dramatic political note, with individuals standing to read aloud US laws that have discriminated against people of Asian descent.

The November 20 program closed on an equally dramatic yet highly personal note as students and faculty shared their experiences in confronting issues of identity, class and interracial relationships.

Panel members were moderator J. Emma Teng, instructor in history and foreign languages and literatures; James E. Chung, associate professor of electrical engineering and co-chair of the Committee on Campus Race Relations; Dr. Kristine A. Cha, a psychiatrist in the Medical Department; and Professor Mary Ni from Counseling Services at Boston University (formerly an assistant dean for residence and campus activities at MIT).

Also on the panel were junior May-Li Khoe, sophomore Lei Wang and graduate student Anant Sahai, all of electrical engineering and computer science; Samit Chattopadhyay, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Cancer Research; and Anthony Ng, a graduate student in urban studies and planning.

The evening opened with a video montage created by Yu Chen, a sophomore in EECS, with historical images of Asian-American experiences such as immigration and Executive Order 9066 (President Franklin Roosevelt's 1942 internment order for Japanese-Americans), film clips from "The World of Suzy Wong," and Pam Prasarttongosoth (SB '97), a Thai-American, declaring with emotion, "I have no sense of place."

Discussing the notion of Asian-Americans as a "model minority," Professor Chung called the stereotype a "gross oversimplification" that denies differences among and within groups of Asian-Americans. Dr. Ni agreed. "It's very divisive for Asians and pits them against other minority groups," she said.

"The 'model minority' puts on more pressure; it's a setup for not being able to be human," Dr. Cha said. "The stereotype also makes it hard for Asians to come for help, to admit weakness and vulnerability."

Considering the question of whether Asians at MIT shared issues that might unite them, Dr. Teng said there is "little pan-Asian unity at MIT" now.

"Our commonality is this issue of identity," Mr. Ng responded. "Whether your family is first- or second-generation, we're always trying to figure out where and how we're going to fit in."

"Our common experience is survival," Professor Chung said. "Growing up where I did, we had to assimilate to survive. My brother and sister and I were three of only five Asians in our school of 2,800."

The effects of racism also bind Asian-Americans together, asserted Ms. Ni, whose family, like Professor Chung's, were the only Asians in her Maryland town. Beyond wanting to assimilate, she said, she sought to avoid the racism that she observed against African-Americans.

"I grew up wanting to be white. Whites were the ones with the power, the material possessions, the homes in better neighborhoods," she said.

"The best way to understand racism is to experience it blatantly," Professor Chung said. "We're now affluent, we're now the 'model minority.' I worry that, by not remembering the lessons the first generation went through, we may repeat them in relation to others."

Other stereotypes of Asian Americans provoked discussion. Asian women are portrayed in movies and television as either exotic or docile or both, while Asian men are depicted as neither handsome nor sexy, panelists said. They cited the "Chinese delivery guy" on "Seinfeld," Apu the Kwik-E Mart owner on "The Simpsons," and characters in "The Temple of Doom."

Mr. Sahai observed, however, that some South Asians' angry response to the character of Apu may arise from internalized class bias. "When we're portrayed as Kwik-E Mart owners, our righteous anger demands to know, how dare they portray us as less privileged or lower-class than we really are?"

"About the question of stereotypes, I invite people to join my personal boycott: I'm so sick of 'yellow face' in the media," Associate Dean for Counseling and Support Services Ayida Mthembu added later. As an example of white actors wearing 'yellow' makeup to play Asian characters, she singled out "Red Corner," a current movie about Chinese-Tibetan history.

Questions about the impact and significance of interracial dating and marriage generated several comments. "Asians are as racist as anyone else. Asian parents may not be comfortable with a white boyfriend, but with an African-American, they'd basically faint," Professor Chung said.

The room shared a groan of recognition when a young woman described Chinese mothers as likely to say to their daughters, "White men are Westernized. They'll treat their wives as equals."

An African-American audience member challenged the gathering to look beyond the divisive effects of racism to see possibilities for mutual development. "Don't believe the hype that so long as you're successful, you're safe," he said. "The black and Asian communities can learn from each other. Blacks can learn about economic development from Asians and Asians can learn about political development from blacks."

Other audience comments included those of two faculty members whose working lives had been much affected by discrimination against Asian-Americans. One of them, Professor Chiang C. Mei of civil and environmental engineering, said he hoped future Race 2000 events would include faculty and staff representation.

The program was organized by the Asian Pacific American Caucus (APAC), SANGAM, South Asian American Students (SAAS), and the Committee on Campus Race Relations.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 26, 1997.


Topics: Campus services, Special events and guest speakers

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