“The story of the AAPI [Asian American Pacific Islander] community is not monolithic,” read a letter penned this month by Deborah J. Ikeda, President of the Asian Pacific Islander Trustee and Administrator Caucus of the California Community Colleges, to the California State Board of Education in pursuit of an expanded K-12 curriculum that better encompasses the AAPI experience.
“In the United States,” the letter goes on, “the AAPI community consists of about 50 ethnic groups with over 100 languages, and the ‘Asian Americans and the Model Minority Myth’ lesson is foundational in highlighting that diversity and fostering a sense of belonging.”
In its continuing coverage of anti-Asian hate crimes locally and nationally, The Milpitas Beat held a discussion with San Jose City College (SJCC) President Rowena Tomaneng and Ethnic Studies instructor Dr. Cindy Huynh to gain further insights into the issue, including workable solutions. Tomaneng is also currently Vice President of the national organization APAHE (Asian Pacific Americans in Higher Education).
Much of the AAPI community’s story is indeed not widely shared, taught, or known. The dearth of knowledge leaves room for monolithic stereotypes, which have flared up since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March of 2020, leading to a rash of hate crimes in the Bay Area and around the United States.
Said Tomaneng, “In terms of my network of Asian Pacific Americans in higher ed, we were already sort of concerned about the rhetoric that was coming from the Trump administration around the ‘Chinese Virus’ and the ‘Kung Flu.’ So we’ve already been tracking that just because we are very concerned with representation in social media and additionally we’ve been concerned about anti-immigrant rhetoric across different ethnic communities with the former administration…”
Since Donald Trump’s election to the presidency in 2016, SJCC as an organization and Tomaneng personally found themselves serving an anxious student population. Students expressed fears about ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) showing up on SJCC’s campuses.
“I was already aware and tracking all of this,” Tomaneng explained, in reference to the lack of visibility around Asian American and Pacific Islander issues and the concurrent, interlinked racism. “It’s just something that I am very cognizant about all the time.”
Huynh echoed that statement: “Many Asian businesses were not being patronized because of the rhetoric that was around coronavirus coming out of China and the Trump administration really pushing that rhetoric and discourse, but I think we were aware prior to the shelter in place happening.”
Dr. Huynh went on, “It’s just not that present in mainstream media. But we know that if you look at the 1800, 1900s, [the] anti-immigrant sentiment that involves Asian Americans…Asian Americans are a large immigrant population. I don’t think it’s necessarily anything that’s new; I think it shifts. It becomes alarming because it is being discussed in mainstream media, but if you do follow the history…that presence has always been there.”
Tomaneng added that the mainstream media tends to focus on representing the undocumented community in terms of the Latinx population, but for a long time Asian Americans have organized around undocumented issues and immigration issues and calling for reform. “When President Trump started his leadership of the federal government,” she explained, “there were already immediate attacks on immigrant populations and especially undocumented populations.”
Tomaneng recalled her time working at Berkeley City College, where there’s an undocumented community resource center. She had to move that center to the campus’s main building for a greater sense of safety and an added layer of protection, because the center had been right next door to the international student center, where ICE could come in at any time to check on student visas.
“And we did have some ICE visits,” she went on. “We did have some ICE visits in 2017 and as you know Berkeley kind of became also a center of white supremacists coming into town.
“Some of our Asian America Pacific Islander students did express to me that they felt that the community didn’t necessarily care about how they were feeling at this time. Or that there was little attention or expressions of solidarity being directed towards the Asian American community…As a response, we really made it a point to try to have listening sessions, and across different ethnic groups, as well, so that we can hear from our students and then also adapt accordingly in terms of practices.”
Dr. Huynh highlighted some of the ugly rhetoric against Asian Americans which has persisted now for centuries: “I think in terms of discourse and rhetoric it’s really similar to what we saw in the 1800s where ‘Asians are dirty,’ ‘Asians are diseased,’ ‘they’re foreign,’ ‘they eat animals like rats and bats’ and stuff.”
She included an overriding prejudicial sentiment that Asian Americans have not done well in terms of assimilating themselves into American culture: “That’s why they are eating these wild animals, traveling back and forth, are dirty, et cetera,” she said, highlighting more stereotypes.
“So I think that’s kind of part of how Asians have been discussed and that Asians are a threatening figure…But also in terms of anti-Asian racism that we’re foreign bodies, that we really don’t actually belong here, that we’re not actually American and not fully American. So that’s very much part of the conversation and sentiment that people have been feeling.”
Tomaneng shared a personal note about traveling to conferences in her capacity as a college president. She generally does not make a point of advertising her job status or title, even in the context of conferences. And she gets asked all the time, “Where did you come from?”
The second thing that non-people of color comment on is that her “English is so good.”
Huynh explained, “People will value [Rowena] because she’s a college president and say she’s assimilated that way, but yet she’s still othered.”
She also added, “When you have a background in ethnic studies like we both do, you understand white supremacy and whiteness and you understand the colonial violence in this country. None of this becomes surprising, but it does not mean that it’s not devastating, and I think that that needs to be very clear.”
In terms of a path forward toward more inclusion, peace, and diversity, Tomaneng was thinking about increasing SJCC’s inclusion efforts and sense of belonging among its diverse student pool even before the pandemic. She seeks improvements in terms of how resources are allocated: “The kinds of workshops that we put on, the kinds of media that we put out in terms of visibility…”
To that end, SJCC is developing more diverse banners, more diverse newsletters, and more diverse brochures, the better to represent their Asian American student population.
“If our AAPI students don’t even see themselves reflected in our outreach materials and other college collateral, then that does undermine their sense of belonging,” Tomaneng explained.
The college has also increased its professional development learning opportunities in relation to anti-racism and humanizing education, bringing in workshop speakers, other experts, and in-house experts to teach and lecture.
Huynh highlighted efforts in the college to define social justice and understand racism in context while developing a strong anti-racism pedagogy: “So look at it from a theoretical framework but also look at it from a practical standpoint, like how do we implement that into our classroom? How do we address equity and inequality? How do we better take care of our students right now in the pandemic, but also just in general?”
Widening the focus beyond SJCC’s campuses, Huynh spoke to positive outreach efforts such as escorting Asian American elders home or throughout their communities, picking up groceries for elders, putting in monetary resources to meet community needs, and pursuing greater media representation.
She added, “Calling out politicians for more resources, mental health resources, just basically food to housing. Educational resources.” She frames such solutions as alternatives to calling the police or involving law enforcement. “I don’t think that’s beneficial to our community because it just creates [a] cycle of violence…And you have to imagine a world outside of continual violence.”