Yes, Asian Americans also face discrimination in the US

Hate crimes against Asians and Asian Americans have been getting some news lately.  Not as much news as they ought to be, especially if you don’t follow any Asian American people on social media.

Our university, like many in the country right now, is only hiring for positions that increase the diversity of the faculty.  Unlike many universities that are only responding superficially to the Black Lives Matter movement, ours is taking a broader view and not just hiring people who do various versions of “African American Studies” or whatever else I’ve been seeing on job ads.  (Research suggests that doing a big cluster hire AND taking into account diversity as a structural whole will likely be more successful in retention and improved climate than the places that hire one black person to teach all diversity studies classes and then forget about diversity as soon as BLM is out of the news cycle.)

Our percent of Asian American graduate students and of Asian American faculty are much smaller than the percent of the population (at the undergraduate level we’re closer to matching).  As a large R1 public state school, we are supposed to look like our constituents and we don’t.

When we get “diversity points”* for students and faculty, in general, international students count as “international” regardless of their race or ethnicity and only domestic students (citizens, permanent residents, and those who could be included in DACA) count as diverse, meaning they qualify for university-level scholarships only available to increase diversity in our graduate student body.  Because our numbers are low for Asian Americans, our university gives us “diversity points” for recruiting and enrolling Asian Americans, but we are supposed to try to keep international within a certain percent so that we have international exposure but aren’t entirely international.  For this hire focused on increasing diversity, those guidelines have been relaxed (I assume because immigrant faculty are assumed to become US Citizens) and Black and Hispanic international faculty are considered to be increasing diversity for this targeted hire.

So we had two international candidates and the third candidate was Asian American.

The worst thing about discrimination against Asian Americans is that so many people believe that it doesn’t exist.  They look at numbers of Asian Americans at Berkeley or Harvard and argue that quotas should go in the opposite direction– that Asian Americans should be limited rather than encouraged.  That we should discriminate against them rather have affirmative actions for them.  They are expected to be “higher quality” if a place hires them over a White applicant– if equal, people believe the White person should be hired.  This is a kind of discrimination that plenty of people who believe they are Woke have– they deny that Asian Americans face discrimination and they put them in the “model minority” box.  One of my grad school professors told me that the hardest candidate for him to place (because of discrimination) was any Asian American male.  And indeed, it’s a bit jarring realizing how few Asian Americans we have in graduate school in my field outside of California.

Worse, not only do they treat all Asian Americans as the same (ignoring that Asia is an entire continent and that Asian Americans have widely varied histories depending on when, where, and why their families settled here and what their families experienced once here).  But they treat all Asians IN America as the same.

So when I noted that we only get maybe one Asian American graduate student every couple of years and that’s a known problem and we’re actually doing better with Hispanic and Black students since our last major intervention… several of my colleagues shook their heads.  We get TONS of Asian students from South Korea and China(!)  (!!!!!) they argued.  And I couldn’t even.  But instead I gently argued that no, Asians from Asia and Asian Americans have not had the same life experiences and are treated differently by admissions.  I did not mention that before that last admissions intervention, our graduate admissions officer referred to Asian Americans as “Oriental” (which is not a slur when referring to carpets but most definitely is when referring to PEOPLE) and worse, color coded them yellow (zie also coded Native Americans as red– I am not making this up).  I mean, is there any question about why we have so few Asian Americans in our graduate programs?

This is not to say that international faculty aren’t discriminated against or that Black and Hispanic faculty aren’t discriminated against.  They obviously are.  But the most insidious thing about discrimination against Asian Americans is the general belief that it doesn’t exist or that if it does exist it’s ok because: “model minority.”

In any case, we decided all three candidates were acceptable.  We’re making offers in order of the quality of their work and how well they fit gaps in our curriculum.  But that was after a lot of discussion about the intention of the cluster hire (the university had provided guidance that they found all three candidates equally acceptable in terms of increasing diversity, but some of my colleagues wanted to argue about that even though we currently have no Asian Americans in our department**).

*diversity points is an amorphous concept– basically we get audited every few years and if we are too white/non-Hispanic, we get dinged, and we get dinged the more off from the state averages we are for each major group.  Being dinged generally means having to write up a plan to fix the problem; I was in charge of one of the committees when we were doing really badly almost a decade ago as a newly minted associate professor.  Also there are scholarships from the university that only underrepresented minorities are eligible for.  At our uni, Asian-Americans are underrepresented at the graduate level.

**the department that shares a building with us has an Asian American professor of Japanese descent and an international professor from China.  A couple of my colleagues regularly mix them up with each other even though they are *nothing* alike in any way other than both having black hair.  They don’t even dress similarly (one is more business and the other business casual).

15 Responses to “Yes, Asian Americans also face discrimination in the US”

  1. Nanani Says:

    Amazing how a lot of nominally-woke white people seem to think “Can Boomers who’ve never left their home continent tell the difference between these groups” is somehow a useful metric. It pops up in a lot of spheres, too.

    You’re doing good work pointing all this out.

  2. CG Says:

    DH is Asian-American. We have already had discussions about what box(es) our kids should check on their college applications in order to not be discriminated against. We are hoping that they can get away with “other” as our last name is somewhat ambiguous. Or maybe they should just check “white” because that would be preferable to being Asian from an admissions standpoint. Which is disgusting. I don’t ever want them to not be proud of who they are or to have to try to hide it.

  3. becca Says:

    We need nuance here.
    First, if someone out there is arguing Asians aren’t discriminated against in our culture at all, they’re just wrong. Like so full of wrong, I don’t even know what to say. It’d be as awful as arguing there was no bias against Muslims post 9/11 (not that that is all gone now! Just that Americans react to acute perceived threats in really virulently racist ways and we all know how “China virus” was gasoline on that racist dumpster fire impulse). And of course “Asian” is a really big and diverse group and even talking about that kind of diversity correctly is kind of challenging.
    But discrimination in society is not precisely discrimination in the academy. I mean, Jews face loads of the former and a lot less of the later.

    For your specific university/discipline/demographic reference population, I think it’s pretty obvious there’s a solid case to be made for any of the candidates will add to diversity. I think you could argue one way or the other that the Asian American is “best” on diversity grounds, but it seems to me they’d add diversity not only in the broad sense but also potentially in the specific way of “role model for students”, which is compelling.

    However, there are education focused diversity-in-mathematics or computer science initiatives, where it doesn’t really make sense to give a slot to a Chinese male instead of a White female. And I still remember being told by a Chinese prof in grad school he understood what it was like to be an under-represented minority in biology and feeling something between baffled and irritated (biology has plenty of White female grad students, who are much more likely to work for Chinese male full professors than White female ones…). On the other hand, I can think of several non-STEM disciplines where if we were talking about faculty appointments to leadership, you’d absolutely want to prioritize a Chinese male instead of a White female. The way gendered stereotypes about leadership intersect with Asian stereotypes is just a big old pile of flaming bigoted poo.

    Anyway, I don’t expect liberal/enlightened/anti-racist people to automatically prioritize Asians as an effort to promote diversity. Sometimes “is this group under-represented *in this context*?” is appropriate to ask. But we also have to recognize the myriad ways racism does play out- it’s not one single battle.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      We need nuance that Asian Americans aren’t one uniform block and that Asians aren’t one uniform block and Asians from Asia aren’t the same as Asian Americans? Really? Nuance?

      Do you REALLY think it helps ANYONE to argue that Asians aren’t discriminated against? How does it help Black or Hispanic people to say that Asian Americans don’t face discrimination? How does it help to deny that they’re not treated fairly or that my friend’s kid gets told to go back where he came from at tennis meets (he was born here, but you know, of Asian descent)? Really? You want to go there?

      The most insidious thing about discrimination against Asian Americans is how “Woke” white people think it doesn’t exist. In fact, want to argue that it isn’t a problem. When there’s no reason to. You’re part of the problem, Becca.

  4. Matthew D Healy Says:

    Much of the discussion about Asian American people now reminds me of similar discussions about Jewish Americans in the first half of the 20th Century. Bigotry has many flavors.

  5. Jenny F. Scientist Says:

    Our university has a big push for diversity, and by diversity they mean Black. Not Latino or Native or Asian of any persuasion, just Black, and not even necessarily Black and American, immigrants count, but only if they’re Black. Goodness knows they need more diversity and there has been horrific systemic racism towards ALL the minority groups but…. maybe…. we could have different kinds of diverse faculty? Not just one?

    My department also has no Asian or Asian-American faculty, and there are very few overall, despite how many get PhDs in the US in science fields. (There is exactly one Native faculty member, representing 0.2% of the total faculty.)

    I did once mix up two very similar looking Asian students but it was because they’re sisters and *legitimately* look and sound extremely similar! I apologized though after I once called the younger sister by the other one’s name, and never did it again.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Yeah, the universities pushing for Black faculty because of BLM pushback are not going to be as successful at keeping them and helping them to succeed as the universities that have comprehensive diversity programs showing they genuinely value diversity as a whole.

      I’m bad with faces and get people regularly mixed up, and people often mix me up with the other short brunette woman labor economist in my department who teaches some of the same classes, so it’s understandable to me, but even I have never mixed up the two ladies in the other department.

  6. anon today Says:

    One of the things that pisses me off quite a bit is that the NSF will not count Asian or Asian-American students when evaluating the diversity of STEM programs. I am working in an area of the US where many Asian-American families settled as the result of war and political persecution in southeast Asia. These folks came here with literally nothing except the clothes on their back, in many cases, and they’ve faced a lot of headwinds — but when it comes to my STEM outreach programs, those kids are counted for zero “diversity” just like the daughter of Chinese physics graduate students or a yonsei kid whose family has been in California four times longer than mine has been on the continent. It’s really frustrating to me.

    Here’s a thought-provoking article that has a lot of anger in it but really vividly points out some of the issue, that was initially posted by an Asian-American friend:

  7. revanche @ a gai shan life Says:


    I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been forced to play out the “no but where are you REALLY from” conversation with complete strangers because of course I couldn’t possibly be “from” America despite being born and raised here (I will never be “from” here because I’m not white), or had to run the gauntlet of “no but let me guess what race you are because I can tell the difference between Asians” (you can’t), or of course the natural fallback of “if you don’t like it here, why don’t you go back to where you came from” if you ever have an issue with how America is run.

    I cannot say how strongly I despise the model minority myth and how harmful it is to so many. I especially get ranty when racists in the PF community use that to claim that there isn’t racism against Black people and Hispanic/ Latinx people because “these three Asians I can name are doing well against the odds”.

    I’m sick and tired of all of this nonsense.

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