How can universities in the US tackle anti-Asian racism?

Seeing more opinion pieces like this, not just focussed on Asian international students:

In 2011, I moved to the United States for my graduate studies in Boston. Having lived all my life in China until that point, I had never needed to analyse the world through the lens of race because race was, and still is, not a salient social category in Chinese society. 

“You speak very good English” was not an offensive comment to me at all, but rather I received it as a compliment about my many years of learning the language. 

“Where are you from?” at the beginning of a conversation was not a xenophobic remark or a denial of my Americanness, but instead, a genuine curiosity about my background. At least, that’s how I felt back then.

Political tensions between the United States and China in the past few years – and then-president Donald Trump’s labelling of COVID-19 as the ‘China virus’ or ‘kung flu’ – have made conversations about race and racism for Chinese students in particular more real as racism against them and the larger Asian communities has become more rampant. 

It is a crushing realisation for many Asian international students – who comprise 70% of all international students in the United States (China alone accounts for 35% of that total) – that, despite their foreign upbringing, they are instantly racialised once they set foot in the United States. 

The thought that their skin colour alone could see them subjected to physical or verbal violence is unfathomable back in their home countries.

Historic roots

Fear of the ‘yellow peril’, the racist and dangerous view of Asians as dirty, disease-ridden, invasive and perpetually foreign, is nothing new in US history, of course. 

The pandemic was only a catalyst that has exposed, and arguably augmented, this systemic, centuries-old ‘American tradition’ in its ugliest form.

Reports of anti-Asian incidents across all Asian populations – and towards the Chinese in particular – are on the rise, as is violence targeting these groups, the murders of six Asian women in Atlanta in March 2021 being the most horrific example of this. 

And in spite of protests, awareness campaigns and pleas from such non-profits as Stop AAPI Hate, anti-Asian incidents show no signs of abating and the fear is still palpable.

So what can we do to stop this insidious movement? US colleges and universities can play a critical role. 

Countering anti-Asian racism on campus

We should continue to voice our support and solidarity with Asian students on campus and provide tangible short- and long-term action plans to educate the entire campus community on anti-Asian racism. 

Such support should come directly from college presidents and chancellors in order to raise campus-wide awareness. If done right, according to American rhetorician Lloyd Bitzer’s rhetorical situation theory, it has the potential to alter human action

Not issuing any statements or issuing statements that ring hollow not only misses the opportunity for campus-wide learning, but further distresses Asian students, leaving them feeling more invisible and forgotten.

Second, instead of seeing Asian international students simply as a source of revenue, we need to recognise and acknowledge their unique experiences of navigating racism on college campuses and in the greater American society. 

One way to do that is to create on-campus spaces and support groups facilitated by college administrators to validate their experiences and create a safe environment for Asian international students – and all other international students of colour – dedicated to community building and conversations. 

One example of this is a programme at Amherst College, where I work, called Racialization of International Students, organised jointly by the Center for International Student Engagement and the Multicultural Resource Center. It focuses on international students’ own experiences and struggles around race and racism.

Third, it is important for colleges and universities to consider incorporating workshops or training that introduce the concept of race and racism in the United States for all incoming international students during orientation. 

This will equip international students as well as domestic students with proper knowledge and tools to contextualise their unique positions in dialogues on race and racism and prepare them to voice their needs and seek help when they experience racial hatred. 

This is a critical step that will also empower international students to become change agents in combating systemic and institutional racism on and off campus. 

One recent example of this is Princeton University’s new first-year orientation training module required for all entering first-years on the university’s racist history and the power of student activism.

Last but not least, colleges and universities should enhance their counselling centre staffing by hiring more counsellors who are proficient in foreign languages or are from international backgrounds, to provide more culturally responsive counselling services to international students. 

In general, international students experience mental health issues related to transitioning from their home culture to a different culture, that of the host country. 

Since the onset of the pandemic, many of them have been dealing with extra layers of stress, including isolation in a foreign country away from their families and navigating health concerns and racial violence in a non-native language and environment that are different from the experiences of their domestic peers. 

All of these acute realities warrant dedicated institutional attention. For example, Tufts University’s Counselling and Mental Healthteam hires a culturally sensitive generalist clinician who is bilingual in English and Mandarin and has expertise in counselling international students on life transitions, cultural adaptation and racial dilemmas.

Time for action

One of the biggest strengths of the United States as a study destination for international students is its diversity – the diversity of the student body on college campuses and the ‘melting pot’ signature of the nation that is known worldwide. 

But underneath the surface of diversity, race and racism permeate almost every aspect of American life. That reality often overwhelms many newly arrived international students, particularly those from homogenous societies. 

As the United States undergoes an awakening to racism against the backdrop of anti-black and anti-Asian racism, there is no better time than now for US colleges and universities to take concrete actions to orient international students better for a more complete American experience. 

We cannot afford to do nothing because doing nothing will further marginalise and devalue Asian international students on our campuses. We also cannot afford to lose their voices in the fight against racism because that will make our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion just another empty promise.

Xiaofeng Wan is an associate dean of admissions and the coordinator of international recruitment at Amherst College, United States. He is also a doctoral candidate in the Executive EdD in Higher Education programme at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education and Human Development, United States.


About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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