Grabbing Jello: The Obscurity of Social Oppresion of Asian Americans

by Mary Ni

When I think of trying to conceptualize the experiences of Asian American students in the United States and at MIT, it makes me think of trying to grab jello. I see something that looks substantial and colorful and appealing, but when I go to take hold of it, to grab it, I must do so gently and with a soft touch. For, if I am the least bit brusque or abrupt or rough, I'll reach out, squeeze too hard, and the substance of what I want to get hold of will elude me. However elusive, I think the time is ripe to begin to look at this large group of people at MIT and to try to make sense of all our experiences as Asians and Americans of Asian heritage who are living in the United States. What is it to be "Asian American'?

The first difficulty that I come across when contemplating "Asian American-ness' is defining what it is to be "Asian American'. I have come to the conclusion that to be Asian American is to be so by self-definition, on the one hand, as well as to be cast (sometimes unwillingly) into that group by the majority culture, on the other hand.

Here, we already run in to difficulties. For example, one person of Asian descent may want to classify himself as purely "American' (not Asian at all) but finds he cannot do so because of his outward appearance. Although he, his parents and one of his grandparents grew up in, say, Mississippi in an all-white, conservative neighborhood, although he only speaks English (with no hint of an Asian accent), although he doesn't have any other Asian or Asian American friends or family around him, although he may even "feel' completely white, he will be labeled Asian or Asian American by his appearance. All kinds of assumptions will be made about him because of the way he looks. And, he will tend to constantly feel insulted that people frequently judge him by stereotypes and do not see him for who he really is.

Some other people, perhaps Asian immigrants, would only classify themselves by their particular Asian ethnicity, never as "Asian-American', because they feel very identified with their country of origin and do not feel, or think that they ever will be, totally accepted into American society. With their sometimes heavily accented English, tendency to congregate with those of the same ethnicity, their unfamiliarity of American culture, are still usually lumped with the former type of "assimilated' Asian personality in the "Asian American' category.

Then, there are Asians in America that just do not want to deal with the "problem' of racial identity. They may truly believe that everyone is equal. They truly believe that people are all treated equally and fairly so why complicate things by trying to sort out if, when, and why someone may treat a particular person differently? Don't we all get what we deserve? These Asian heritage people are also considered Asian-American. (Herein one may begin to see what types of within-group problems are related to what is involved in one's potential claim to Asian American-ness.)

Then, there are some self-identified Asian Americans who seem to realize more of the political implications of the label and the importance of trying to understand the nuances of how their background, appearance, and culture affect their experiences in US. society. They know that despite however they may feel about the label of "Asian American' that they are predominantly perceived to be "different' from the dominant (white) culture. They know that to understand what these perceptions involve is having access to some important self-knowledge that can inform them about others behavior towards them.


I define racism as "thought patterns, behavioral acts, laws, policies, procedures used to oppress and/or subjugate a person or persons of one ethnic group by a person or persons of another ethnic group.' Racism is like a cancer that eats away at the heart of humanity. Its destructive potential is manifest in hurtful behaviors, misinformation, suspicion, and fear.

Blatant acts of racism are not too hard to miss: acts of violence, demeaning words or gestures pointing out the supposed inferiority of one ethnic group and the assumed superiority of another. We've all seen it. We've all experienced it, whether as observer, victim, or perpetrator.

Subtle acts of racism, on the other hand, are much more difficult to track. Subtle racism contains elements of personal and social deceit which enables the perpetrators to quietly, and even innocently, strip away whatever is fine about the human spirit. Examples of subtle racism are what I would like to address for the remainder of this article. Particularly, some of the ways that racial biases and misinformation feed into the perceptions and treatment of Asian Americans.

From the Outside

I think that probably one of the most hurtful, racial stereotypes about Asian Americans is the one that suggests that Asian Americans are the "model minority': We work hard, don't make waves, and are the only "good' minority group. We respect authority. We pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and go on without complaint to meet the task at hand. We are smart(er). We are tireless. If humiliated, we turn away and quietly ignore the insult. If we are not recognized for our achievements, we just work harder, hoping for the grace of future recognition.

Many Asian Americans do possess fine characteristics which may include hard work, a cooperative spirit, tremendous perseverance and patience. But some problems with this type of stereotyping is that it is one dimensional, it separates us from other struggling groups of color. It dismisses our problems as Asian Americans, at the same time it dismisses the "model' qualities that all other groups of color exhibit and possess. Worst of all, it lulls many, many Asian Americans into the false belief that we are "better' than or superior to other ethnic groups, and that we are, in fact, "white' or "as good as white.'

Another way subtle racism is manifest against Asian Americans is how Asian Americans are lumped all together. The prevalent assumption is that we are all one monolithic, homogeneous, happy, successful group of people. Despite coming from innumerable cultural, class, and socially disparate groupings, the dominant culture sees us all as being "the same.' Once when I was working in the public schools, for example, a nurse called me down to her office. Frantic, she told me that a sick Laotian student could not understand a single word she was saying and could I please come down to help her out. Given my background as an English-speaking, first generation Chinese-American, I didn't really know if I could be of much help but I knew she called on me because I looked like her student, and she therefore thought I'd be able to "speak the same language.' This is just a simple example. But this type of attitude is prevalent and imposes unrealistic demands on Asian Americans regarding our abilities to understand each other past linguistic and cultural differences. It also rationalizes dismissing Asian Americans, as one large group that is just too complicated to address or understand.

A third subtle, socially oppressive stereotype that hurts Asians and Asian Americans is the tendency for the majority group to see us as easily assimilated into white culture and, hence, without special needs. In conjunction with the "model minority' myth, this belief pattern suggests that Asians and Asian Americans really have no problems. At MIT, this type of thinking has perpetuated the idea that because of the large numbers of Asian and Asian American students (30% of the student body), and because of this group's ability to enter and graduate from the Institute, Asian and Asian American students are seen as doing just fine. While this belief is slowly starting to change, there is still widespread acceptance of the idea that Asian students do not really need culturally sensitive administrators, faculty and staff to support their particular needs. Therefore, such areas as the Office of Minority Education are set up to deal with all "minority' students but excludes Asian and Asian American students from significant functions. The rationale is that Asian heritage students are not an "underrepresented minority' on the MIT campus, hence, are not considered a group in need of special support.

However, do Asian and Asian American students have special needs worthy of support? I believe so. For example, Asian cultural conditioning stresses such things as obedience to authority, filial piety, and the importance of such qualities as delayed gratification, work before play, sacrifice before indulgence, scholarship before friendship. Some of the pressures Asian and Asian American students face may be considered existential, but are no less real. Many Asian students are pressured by parents into majors they do not want and have no interest in. Many Asian students struggle with the tension of growing up caught between the expectations of their parents, themselves and their Western peers. Recently, I realized that while many Asian and Asian American students are managing to achieve decent GPAs and are staying out of "trouble,' a surprising number of these same outwardly "well adjusted' students are taking, had been taking, or want to take anti-depressant medication in order to numb their pain so that they can continue functioning in their lives. A few years ago, an MIT Asian American student committed suicide. He apparently was a good student, seemed well-adjusted and had not confided his deep despair to anyone prior to his death. Even at MIT, I do not think this is a "normal' state of affairs.

From the Inside

While the types of misinformation and hurtful attitudes perpetrated from outside sources and social norms on Asian Americans are physically and psychologically damaging, I believe what is even more insidious is the type of ongoing damage that occurs when Asians and Asian Americans internalize mainstream stereotypes about themselves and begin to believe the myths and lies. For example, many Asian and Asian American students at MIT really do believe Asians have "made it' in American society and do not think anything racist has ever happened to them. Time and again, I hear this type of comment. However, when I take the time to ask an Asian student to tell me about the details of their lives, the more they tell, the more obvious it is to me-and to them-that they have been victims of racist behavior. They have seen their parents humiliated, discriminated against, and dismissed because of their accents and their looks. They have seen their siblings beaten up for looking "foreign.' They have been uninvited to their girlfriends' and boyfriends' homes because they were not of the "right' ethnicity. They were assumed to be good at math and science, but bad at English and other social arts. They have been classified as good workers but poor managers.

A problem with believing that nothing racist has ever happened to you is that when something racist does happen, the tendency is to personalize the reaction and to believe that it was something you did that offended the offending party, not something they did, without just cause, to you. Another problem with this type of thinking is that you may consciously or unconsciously "decide' to "be white' and can come to disassociate with (and dislike) anything that appears "Asian,' including yourself.

Along these same lines, I find another common problem Asian students have is one of believing that "everything is really fine.' Many Asian and Asian American students at MIT realize how fortunate they are to be here. They realize the sacrifices their parents have made or are making to keep them at this Institute, and they are grateful. When they find themselves unhappy or feel that everything is not fine with them, Asian students may feel guilty, undeserving, ungrateful, and selfish, and not know why. The dissonance between how they think they should be feeling and how they really feel can result in tremendous psychological distress. But how do you deal with feelings that you don't think you should be feeling? The common MIT way: ignoring them or stuffing them deeper into ourselves, is not ultimately helpful in the long run. It makes for pressure cooker explosions of anger, grief, hopelessness, and great despair. It makes for killings of the human spirit.

But, There is Hope

From my perspective, while many Asian and Asian American students are doing well in their lives, many are not. A big problem is the obscured personal understanding of what it is to be who we really are. Not what our parents want us to be, not what our classes are pushing us to be, but who we really want to be. Like all evolving human beings, Asian and Asian American students need more opportunities to understand themselves, each other and their particular group and personal histories. Asian and Asian American students need more opportunities to read about their histories in the US, and to understand the actuality and impact of socially oppressive behaviors towards Asian Americans. They need opportunities to assess and re-assess parental values and beliefs as these beliefs and values impact upon their lives. They need opportunities to be supported to dialogue and educate each other so that they can reach a deeper, fuller understanding of exactly what it is to be themselves.

I think it is timely to note that the MIT Administration is just starting to look more closely at the particular issues that confront Asian and Asian American students. Also, student groups such as the Asian American Caucus are focusing more specifically on educating around and addressing more types of Asian and Asian American issues and needs. But, there is much work to be done and many questions: Should there be particular programs during R/O that address specific Asian and Asian American student concerns? Should there be more culturally sensitive Asian and Asian American faculty, staff, administrators and counselors employed who can support the needs of Asian and Asian American students? How does the "Asian student' question and needs fit into re-engineering and downsizing? What will it mean to include Asian students with the other "recognized' minority students on the MIT campus? How will the "recognized' minority community accept Asian students into their midst? What kind of faculty/administrative support is necessary to make any kind of positive changes regarding Asian students?

I think all the above types of questions are worthy of attention. But perhaps the two most important questions, if you are an Asian or Asian American student, would be: (1) What do you need to insure that you are able to thrive here at MIT and in your life? And, (2) how can you get what you need? If you are interested in pursuing and/or sharing the answers to these types of questions, please let me and other people in the administration know. You can be instrumental in helping to develop positive student programs for Asians and Asian Americans at MIT not only for yourself, but also for others like you. What is obscured can be clarified. From what is clarified can come important direction and understanding.

Mary Ni is an Assistant Dean in Residence and Campus Activities. Currently she is the only Asian American administrator at MIT, and is a valuable resource for Asian American students here. If you would like to contact her, you may drop by her office in W20-549, call her at X3-6777, or email her at

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