How do we create an inclusive Asian American community at Harvard?
This past spring, anonymous posts on the Harvard Confessions Facebook page sharply criticized several Asian affinity organizations at Harvard over their perceived exclusivity. In April, these online arguments prompted a wide range of students to come together for a discussion on the role of Asian affinity organizations on campus. Today, the task of building an Asian American community seems especially urgent as the Harvard student body continues to change: For the Class of 2023, slightly more than one in four students are Asian American, a record high at Harvard.
We may be at an inflection point for Asian American life at Harvard. Frustration over exclusivity is not a particularly new or unique sentiment, but I am excited that student leaders of some organizations seem ready to meet it head on, stating that they plan on working to make their organizations more inclusive. The new initiatives student leaders have proposed – like large, open forum-style town halls and organization-wide check-ins – have the potential to succeed, and I’m hopeful that Harvard’s Asian American community is ready to change its status quo.
I believe that, to become more inclusive, Asian affinity organizations must focus more on politics and education.
Education and politics leadership roles have become a designated board position in many Asian affinity organizations, but board positions of seemingly equivalent importance also exist for things like cultural and social programming. Cultural and social events create real connections across the Asian American community and I wouldn’t want to go to a Harvard without the culture shows, study breaks, and parties that so many students attend and enjoy. Still, I don’t think cultural and social activities are enough to create a truly inclusive Asian American community.
Cultural activities fail to be inclusive because of the diversity of experiences that all fall within the broad category of Asian American. If a student who identifies as Asian American comes to an event and doesn’t relate to the language that’s being spoken, the dance that’s being performed or the food that’s being served, at what point do they decide that this space just isn’t for them? Social events similarly struggle to be fully inclusive because there is no fixed norm of inclusion. Social dynamics can be tough to navigate, and no one is obligated to be friends with someone else. If a student feels out of place at social event, there is no easy way to make them feel included outside of forcing club members to befriend them. While that solution might not sound that bad, it does seem unrealistic and restrictive.
We need political and educational events to be fully inclusive, since such modes of discussion encourage us to reflect on questions like who is included while also giving everyone an equal voice in the discussion. Political events can account for the diversity of the Asian American experience in a way that cultural events cannot, since most educational and political events encourage us to ask that exact question of inclusion — a study break serving dumplings may leave a Chinese American student who never ate dumplings growing up feeling out of place, but a discussion about the food of Chinese America allows that same student to assert their experience as Chinese American too. Moreover, political events give everyone an equal standing in a way that social events cannot — it feels forced and limiting to say that everyone must dance with each other at a party, but it is natural and empowering to insist that everyone listen and respect each other in a discussion.
Even with these benefits, many might think political and educational events are still exclusive in their own ways. It takes a lot of time and resources to stay informed on every political issue and the most up-to-date social justice jargon. Some students may not have the emotional energy to delve into deeply personal political topics. In addition, some may worry that Harvard’s liberal climate would lead to power dynamics that suppress opposing viewpoints.
These concerns are valid and serious, but addressing these concerns is possible.
Neutrality and equal respect may not be easy on a campus that is overwhelmingly liberal, but in the various discussions previously hosted by Asian affinity organizations and other groups on campus, I’ve seen students establish and abide by clear norms of respect and tolerance.
Political and academic topics may seem unapproachable and elitist on the surface, but they are fundamentally relatable for every Asian American. Being Asian means being the racial group facing the fastest increase in homelessness and also the least likely racial group to be promoted to management across a huge range of professions. An Asian Amercian individual may worry more about homelessness than promotions or vice versa, but regardless, our racial identity as Asian American deeply affects how all of us interact with the world. That universal experience of the same systemic racism is what could make political and educational events consistently relatable: Whether you start by talking about racial disparities in sexual assault or racial dating preferences, both points of entry can lead to a productive discussion on race and gender as long as we take seriously the underlying connections and structures. In this way, every Asian American person can recognize the importance of political and educational issues in their own lives.
When I started freshman year at Harvard, I didn’t try to join an Asian affinity organization. I didn’t feel like I had a place in them. I told myself I didn’t need one.
I want to go to a school where no student feels out of place. I want to be in an Asian American community that has all the wonderful events that so many of us love, but that also helps everyone feel included. For all the Asian affinity organizations working to make a community we can be proud of, we must return to our roots and become more political, more educational, and more inclusive.
Daniel Lu ’20 is a joint concentrator in Physics and Philosophy in Lowell House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.