Illustration by Megan Knapp

Subtle Seclusions


Asian American students encounter microaggressions, a subtle yet impacting form of racism.

Meghan Morris / For The Post

Ever since they were a baby, Maile Thi Nguyen had felt like a foreigner on United States soil. Adopted from Vietnam, Nguyen never felt fully American nor fully Vietnamese, as many people questioned Nguyen’s and their brother’s backgrounds. Strangers on the street would ask Nguyen’s mother where they were from and get confused by the child’s white parents because both of the kids were adopted from Asia, someone once joked that the parents had gotten one for half off. Nguyen’s own grandmother has even called the children foreigners. Encounters like these continued. Most recently, Nguyen had a professor call them “exotic.”

“I remember feeling foreign, being almost rejected from my Asian friends growing up for ‘not being Asian enough,’” Nguyen, a 2018 Ohio University graduate who uses they/them pronouns, said. “My other Vietnamese friend said I was ‘basically only half Viet’ because my parents are white.”

Throughout U.S. history, Asian immigrants and people of Asian descent have experienced discrimination similar to that faced by other racial minorities. Students like Nguyen underwent this bigotry firsthand.

Asian immigrants played a crucial role in the development of the U.S. working as miners, railroad builders, factory workers, fishermen and farmers, according to the Center for Global Education. However, worries of Asian workers stealing American jobs led to violence against them.

During the Chinese Massacre of 1871, a mob of white men in Los Angeles killed as many as 28 Chinese residents while attacking and robbing countless others. A similar invasion called the Chinese Massacre at Deep Creek resulted in 34 Chinese miners robbed, killed and mutilated by white ranchers and schoolboys in Oregon.

Besides direct violence, the government also played a role in lowering Asians’ statuses in the United States. The Immigration Act of 1924 prevented all Asian immigrants, except for Filipino nationals, from achieving citizenship and naturalization, owning land and marrying Caucasians. In 1942, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which relocated over 117,000 people of Japanese descent into internment camps.

While these formal laws have been overturned and direct violence of Asian Americans has decreased, mistreatment of Asian Americans has become more rampant in the form of subtle yet hurtful comments, often called microaggressions, that can have detrimental long-term effects.

Nguyen, former president of Students Teaching About Racism in Society, said microaggressions can affect a student’s mentality because they are not easy to recognize until later on. These remarks can come from strangers but are usually said by friends, coworkers and authority figures who actually have good intentions, according to a Columbia University article.

“You’re never fully Asian, but you’re never fully American.”Maile Thi Nguyen

“(These comments) are even more hurtful when they are coming from a professor or someone in a place of power,” Nguyen said. “They have a responsibility to create an environment where their students feel safe to express their opinions and to participate in dialogue.”

Nguyen is not alone in these harrowing experiences. Thirty-five percent of Asian Americans say they have personally experienced insensitive or offensive comments because of their race or ethnicity, according to a 2017 NPR survey.

Students experiences overt and covert racism while attending university because these institutions mirror the views of society, Emmanuel Jean-Francois, an associate professor in comparative and international education, said. Colleges often have policies against discrimination based on race as well as offering training on sensitive topics. But there’s a more simple answer, he said.

“It’s common for universities to say ‘we want to embrace diversity,’ (but) what institutions can do is keep that awareness alive and acknowledge that sometimes we have bigots among our students and among our staff and that isn’t something we condone,” Jean-Francois said. “It has to be an ongoing process that evolves as the mindset of the community is evolving as well.”

While it can seem harmless to some people, asking questions such as “Where are you from?” can make Asian Americans feel like perpetual foreigners. Even if they speak perfect English and have lived in the U.S. for generations, they will always receive questions that imply not belonging, Nguyen said.

“You’re never fully Asian, but you’re never fully American,” Nguyen said.

Raquel Wu, a junior studying psychology, has a Taiwanese mom and Chinese dad who raised her in the U.S. But college peers still assume she was born elsewhere.


Mijana Mazur | FOR THE POST

Raquel Wu poses for a portrait outside of Baker Center on Friday, April 20, 2018.

Wu was passing through the dorm as some students were watching Star Wars, and someone asked who in the group had not seen the movie series. A few people, included Wu, said they had not. But the guy made an effort to single Wu out and mockingly said he knew why she did not watch it. Wu had to tell him again that she was born in the U.S., a fact he claimed to have forgotten.

“It’s not the mistake that matters, it’s the intent,” Jean-Francois said. “When you provide the context of why you ask people about their personal identity, they take it differently.”

Asian Americans have been at the bottom of conversation surrounding discrimination for decades, Amal Afyouni, an Arab-American senior studying political science and sociology/criminology, said.

But now, South Asians from countries such as Afghanistan, India and Pakistan have increasingly been targets of overt and covert racism because they are confused with Middle Easterners, she said. The growing existence of the Islamic State and attacks in the Middle East have created the misconception that anyone with darker skin is a terrorist.

Asian Americans can encounter a different form of racism than other minority races because theirs involves more than skin color, Afyouni said.

“It’s a very intersectional form of racism,” she said. “It’s definitely a race-based issue, but it’s also cultural, it’s ethnic, it’s religious.”

Andrew Liu, a Taiwanese-American 2018 OU graduate, said much of the hurtful comments he has received have been about his heritage and culture. Sometimes, people of Asian descent are even lumped with other racial minorities when people see anything non-white as the same.

When Liu was at his cousin’s wedding in Michigan, he took a walk around town with a relative and was verbally abused by an older black man who started screaming racial slurs. He made misguided comments about losing American jobs to them and praised Trump’s judgement in keeping their kind out of the country. His cousin remained calm and prevented the man from causing any harm.

“I froze in fear,” Liu said. “It can happen anytime and anywhere. Luckily, I had someone who handled it with much more maturity.”

Microaggressions have even affected the private parts of Asian American student lives.

“They’re my friends, and I understand that they don’t actually think that way, but it gets very, very frustrating to the point that I don’t want to talk to them. They’re just doing it to mess with me.”Raquel Wu

Liu said there is major discrimination against Asian American men in the dating world. They are not thought to be desirable partners because they are seen as less masculine than white guys and have stereotypes about small penis size.

“A lot of my friends typically can’t download dating apps because they might get a handful of matches compared to caucasian friends,” he said. “It’s a huge blow to their self-esteem.”

However, some harm to Asian American students comes from people who are not educated enough to know how to mention insensitive topics or when not to bring them up at all.

Wu has seen much more ignorance than outright discrimination in day-to-day interactions. Friends often make jokes about her ethnicity, but she finds most remarks harmless. She has heard comments about eating dogs and having small eyes along with racial slurs. But it makes her most upset when her friends mockingly use a Chinese accent.

“They’re my friends, and I understand that they don’t actually think that way,” she said. “But it gets very, very frustrating to the point that I don’t want to talk to them. They’re just doing it to mess with me.”

Unlike Wu’s friends, many people who say hurtful comments about race do so unintentionally.

Afyouni does not see any malicious intent when people ask questions about her race or ethnicity because most are good-natured inquiries that come from friends, professors and those who had just met her. However, she has ended friendships with friends who were too stubborn to learn how to speak about race in a respectable way.

She tries to educate people who say hurtful remarks about her race or ethnicity. She takes a moment to assess the situation, repeats the comment to the person and why it is problematic before she tells them the accurate information.

“Think before you open you mouth,” Afyouni said. “It’s not as much of a growing problem as it used to be. People are becoming a lot more educated.”

Development by: Megan Knapp / Digital Production Editor

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