A Paradox: Safe Spaces and Asian Student Invisibility

I agree wholeheartedly with Joy Huang ’15’s op-ed response to the recent demand by Asian student organizations for a designated space on campus, in which she stated that demographics deserve spaces not because others have them but because they are members of the Amherst College community. While she brings attention to the potential backlash such argumentation may elicit from other affinity groups, I am more concerned about the internal issues of Asian student organizations that might have led to this misstep. What I find most unsettling is that the demand’s two main arguments both beg the question of whether such space, if granted, would be properly used to further the goals of Asian student organizations. I want to begin with the demand’s particular use of Asian-American invisibility and other grievances as a call for institutional recognition before turning to further implications of listing other existing affinity spaces as justification for one’s own.

The passivity with which the demand is written suggests that its signatories overlooked a crucial reality of Asian-American invisibility: the fact that we are complicit. The demand’s language paints an image of Asian students as a powerless demographic being acted upon, in a manner that is almost self-fulfilling. It claims that “The model minority myth largely erases the narratives of Asian Americans who are low-income and first-generation college students” and “Asian students are routinely left out of conversations surrounding diversity.” While parts of these statements are true, I am skeptical as to whether Asian Americans are at the complete mercy of myths or are actively thrown out of campus conversations.

I take greatest issue with the central statement, that “the absence of a student room for Asian students at Amherst replicates the displacement and invisibility that Asians feel in the United States at large.” It is not that Asians merely feel invisibility in America, but that many Asian Americans use it as a measure of self-protection. A recent piece in the Harvard Advocate by Byung Joon Lee powerfully captures this observation:

“Someone told me once that being Asian American was a serious anticlimaxes [sic] and learning to get used to them. That this was a destruction partially of our own doing, the natural conclusion of generations asymptotically striving for ‘passability.’ Passable decoys of the white upper-middle class. Passable decoys of Americans. Passable decoys of not-yet-Americanized Asians when we went back home. Even when we were victims, we were simply passable victims: unidentified Chinese workers buried beneath the Gold Rush tracks, the interned Japanese valued only as rhetorical counterarguments that footnote the liberal triumph of FDR-ism, Koreans slaving away in sugar plantations in Honolulu.”

While the othering of a fictional “East” is a real and potent force that whites out Asian-American individuality (central to several legal disputes over affirmative action), Byung Joon Lee’s piece stresses the fact that our invisibility stems as much from a conscious decision as it does from necessity. While invisibility is indeed dehumanizing, it is also a shield: how can one verbally or physically assault what does not exist? For the struggling immigrant household, this is a survival tactic — for today’s college students it is the most secure safe space.

Consequently, even if the administration grants the space and thereby recognizes the Asian student body, such visibility is meaningless if a safe space for Asian students becomes a vehicle for even greater invisibility. The demand notes that “Asian students at Amherst have frequently expressed a sense of not belonging and feeling uncomfortable in many spaces on campus” and that “there is no physical space where [international students] may explore some of the cultural and intellectual tensions between nationality and race.” All demographics deserve safe spaces, but Asian students face the unique conundrum of already being, to an extent, safely wrapped in invisibility. The discomfort Asian students feel and the lack of opportunities for international students to engage with other cultures stems from a painful erasure (and self-erasure) that cannot be remedied by simply gaining affinity spaces. If anything, seeking validation solely from the administration in this manner exacerbates the situation, ceding authority to an external entity rather than taking individual ownership.

All of this makes the listing of various other affinity spaces on campus even more alarming, because it suggests a lack of awareness of the unique challenges Asian students must address. By requesting a generic, one-size-fits-all safe space, the demand misses the opportunity to shape and further justify its place. While the space might naturally serve as room for existing affinity groups to meet, Asian students may paradoxically benefit from an “unsafe” space, in which students might educate their peers on Asian and Asian-American histories and identities, generating discussion that directly confronts issues related to invisibility and lost narratives. Additionally, the fact that Asia is so vast is evident in the multitude of student organizations (three signatories and presumably more), and consequently the space could serve for similar discussion on various cultures within the Asian student body itself. Furthermore, some Asian Americans shun Asian student organizations in hopes of heightening their visibility and potential for acceptance in the wider Amherst community. Asian student organizations would do well to open forums for discussions with Asian students who would normally avoid such spaces. The recent “Amherst Doesn’t Teach Me” photo campaign and push for an Asian American Studies major is admirable, and hopefully such momentum will inspire students not just to raise awareness for particular needs but also to grapple with the difficult questions of Asian and Asian-American identities, a task necessary to further delineate what these needs might be.