18 April, 2007

Some of my students are afraid.

In case you are just checking in, I've already posted this initial response about the Virginia Tech story. But right now, I am most concerned that some University of Iowa Asian and Asian American students are afraid to go outside. It's not just Korean students. Here are some of the feelings some of my students have described to me in email messages, notes, and conversations:

*I feel like people are looking at me differently.
*I'm afraid of what people think when they see me.
*I worry about anti-Asian revenge.
*I worry about how people will treat Asians in the future.
*I hope nothing bad happens to Asian students on this campus.
*My friend called me and told me to go back home as soon as possible.
*I worry about the relationship between Korea and the US and the relationships between people.
*I am afraid of opening the door to a classroom.
*I'm scared someone is going to think about the tragedy and blame me.

Some of the above comments came from female students. One student told me about a friend who has not left home or gone to classes. Apparently there are more than a few students who feel that way. A few of my Asian and Asian American students have been brave enough to say stuff like this in public forums, but most haven't.

I brought up the subject of such fears with colleagues throughout the day, and I was alarmed and dismayed by the tendency to minimize and discount the students' feelings. When I told one colleague about the girl who felt afraid to open classroom doors, he rolled his eyes and replied, "I'm heartened to see Asian reporters covering the story and issues besides race addressed in the coverage. That's a sign of progress." WTF? While this may have been the most dissociated and weirdest reaction of the day, it was not inconsistent with many other responses I heard. Leaving aside all the problems with the content of his reply, I want to note that it shifted the discussion away from the feelings of the students to the subjectivity of that professor. It doesn't matter what he thinks or feels or predicts. What matters is the reality that some students are afraid. What he thinks isn't going to make them feel suddenly unafraid or more connected in the community. A response like that can be seen as an admonition to repress: "You have no reason to be afraid, so get over it." (Given the track record of race-based hate crimes after high-profile violent incidents involving people of color, I also think we are wrong to downplay the origins of those fears, but even if you disagree, your disagreement doesn't change the fact that some students are still afraid.)

Does anyone know about plans for meetings or discussions to respond to these fears or efforts to make common cause with our Asian and Asian American students so that they don't feel isolated or, as more than a few described to me today, like people will think they are "liars" for saying they are afraid? Doesn't that say something about our community – that students anticipate having their feelings about this denied or discounted?

I tried to emphasize to my colleagues throughout the day that they should resist any urge to minimize these students' fears. If Iowa City and the UI want to be welcoming to people of color, especially our students, we better figure out a better way to respond to fears like this than saying those fears shouldn't be there. They are there.


Kota said...

What the lack of interest in the students' real fear indicates is a profound disconnect from history to me. The callous indifference towards those who are afraid is appalling given the recent history of this country, which saw consistent and increasing vilification of people of color in the name of national security (anti-Arab and anti-Hispanic hysteria have caused may ruined and lost lives), not to mention the vicious attack on Japanese-Americans during WWII, but, sadly, it is also entirely predictable in this country that Gore Vidal calls "United States of Amnesia." How many of us remember now the Sikh who was killed in Phoenix during the intense racist hysteria following 9/11? Secret roundups of "Middle-Eastern men"? Harrasments, arrests, and detentions based on groundless accusations? How could you not feel concerned if you are Asian today?

Just one more comment. One outcome of such lose of history is, in my view, the false, yet comforting belief that this nation is a paragon of social equality. Many people who grow up here seem to have a peculiar belief in a level playing field, remaining oblivious to the blatant inequality that pretty much determines most aspects of our lives. And I think it is this remarkable blindness to the fundamental reality that fosters such strange notions as "reverse racism against white people" or "freedom of speech for hate preachers" in this country, as the anonymous poster a few entries before concretely demonstrated.

Anonymous said...

When Wen Ho Lee was arrested for being a Chinese spy, I felt a sense of uncontrollable shame. It was after he was vindicated that I began to question where these feelings came from and what they meant (it also motivated me to look more closely at racial profiling). Although I'd been politicized before then, it was this moment that really catalyzed something in me. The realization of deep self-hatred really gave me the commitment to do social justice work, much more so than my experiences of poverty.

I remember a San Francisco bay area television crew followed a pair of young Sikh men to a Giants game shortly after 9/11, and there were countless random people who brazenly went up to them and said "we" are bombing your villages etc. etc. Sikhs, of course, are from the Punjab region of India.

I find myself wondering what circumstances could have had me ending up like the shooter.