As a Resident Assistant (RA) at Okada, Stanford’s Asian American ethnic-themed dorm, Takeo Rivera helped raise awareness about campus acts of intolerance after his dorm was the subject of an anti-Asian backlash in the spring of 2007.
Here’s some excerpts from the interview.
These predominantly white fraternities would pass by Okada and would shout various things. They would shout in mock Asian accents things like “F— Okada,” Azia Kim this, Azia Kim that. Each time I would sort of pursue them and tell them to disperse and eventually they would. And in this third incident, someone urinated on the lawn of the dorm and someone shouted, “Put that away, they don’t want to see any non-Asian (expletive) here.” I was able to recognize specific individuals in the group and I knew what fraternity they belonged to, so I was able to pursue that further. The problem, though, was that at Stanford, while we have sort of a working definition for acts of intolerance, there was no protocol to follow at the time, procedurally, to confront these acts of intolerance.
I think what’s more effective, in my own experience, and the problem with this is it’s hard to institutionalize, is the day-to-day stuff. As an RA, at least for me, I’ve had to take a personal responsibility to really watch what I say and to constantly be listening to what others say. And I think that discourse is a big deal for whether or not the Petri dish of racism can be allowed to thrive.
[W]hen people were telling me that I was taking it too personally, I started questioning myself, like “Are these feelings legit?” Maybe I am taking it too personally, I question myself too much. I think it’s important to have a resolve and to trust your instincts on this. Chances are you’re right, and even if you’re not completely right, there’s something troubling that is illuminated whenever you’re irritated.
The backlash started after it had been discovered that an Asian American student, Azia Kim, had been posing as a Stanford student and living at your dorm. Can you tell us more about what happened?
I was an RA at Okada, which is the Asian American-themed dorm. Eventually, we as a staff discovered the hoax as it were and got her effectively kicked out. But what happened was there was very large media attention around this particular incident…suddenly we were having everyone from the SF Chronicle to even some national papers. One of the Stanford Daily reporters, I believe he was interviewed by CNN about the incident, so it was a very big deal at the time.
The thing that was not necessarily covered by the media was the sort of aftermath which was a very racialized aftermath. For example, on the first article in the Stanford Daily about Azia Kim, there were a lot of degrading comments about Asian women, like, “She’s probably more interesting than most Asian women at Stanford.” We saw one fraternity, I believe it was a Jewish fraternity that is currently unidentified, they had an Azia Kim-themed party that one of my residents attended. My resident, who is half-Asian American, phenotypically looks very Asian American, was asked at the door if she was Azia Kim, and other Asian women were similarly asked at the door. And obviously this very much offended her. Furthermore, this also led to a general maligning of Okada as a theme dorm on campus, there was just a lot of bad press and a lot of bad discourse, people telling my residents that they should be ashamed to live where they were living.
I think the most striking incidents were, there were three separate incidents from three separate fraternities. These predominantly white fraternities would pass by Okada and would shout various things. They would shout in mock Asian accents things like “F*k Okada,” Azia Kim this, Azia Kim that. Each time I would sort of pursue them and tell them to disperse and eventually they would. And in this third incident, someone urinated on the lawn of the dorm and someone shouted, “Put that away, they don’t want to see any non-Asian dicks here.” I was able to recognize specific individuals in the group and I knew what fraternity they belonged to, so I was able to pursue that further.
The problem, though, was that at Stanford, while we have sort of a working definition for acts of intolerance, there was no protocol to follow at the time, procedurally, to confront these acts of intolerance. What I ended up doing was I just sort of emailed contacts that I had developed over the years of working with the Stanford student community, various administrators who I had come in contact with who fortunately could do something about it. And eventually this fraternity was indicted, not by the police but by Stanford’s Judicial Affairs and they pled guilty. But the thing is what they were caught guilty on by Judicial Affairs was not necessarily the acts of intolerance, that was sort of off to the side. The main point of contention from the administration was the fact they had violated alcohol rules during their pledging process. Nevertheless, we managed to talk about the racialized aspects at the hearing.
And this was one of several incidents in a stretch of a particular period of time from 2007 to 2008 that actually heightened the light on acts of intolerance at Stanford. An unrelated homophobic incident that had occurred several months later heightened the issue further such that the university took more and more notice and as a result of petitioning, as a result of increased campus awareness about it, this year [2008-2009 school year], an acts of intolerance protocol has officially been enacted at Stanford, so progress has been made.
Did you encounter any resistance from other staff members at Okada?
At first, at first. I think on a personal level it was very difficult. There were several people who told me, “You’re just taking this too personally.” And mind you that the entire staff at Okada at this time were all Asian American [Ed: Staff at Okada consists of 9 students and 1 staff/faculty member]. Some people were supportive in name but wouldn’t necessarily appear with me at points in which it was necessary. Eventually, the following year, when the Judicial Affairs finally followed up with indicting the frat, then we were all pretty much supportive. But at the time of the incident, there were some people on staff who seemed to be more concerned about the frat’s standing than they were about Okada – they didn’t want to necessarily get the frat in trouble. But then, I’m talking about a few specific individuals, it’s not necessarily representative of everyone on staff, I think ultimately the staff ended up being very supportive. And they’re all close friends of mine too…but definitely at first there was hesitation.
In your experience that you’ve had as an RA, what sort of strategies have you seen or what sort of advice you would give that helps confront issues of intolerance?
I think what’s more effective, in my own experience, and the problem with this is it’s hard to institutionalize, is the day-to-day stuff. As an RA, at least for me, I’ve had to take a personal responsibility to really watch what I say and to constantly be listening to what others say. And I think that discourse is a big deal for whether or not the Petri dish of racism can be allowed to thrive. It’s not a matter of censoring people, censoring doesn’t work. What you have to do is problematize people’s assumptions. And the thing is, I am able to do that, and I think it works, because I’ve had ethnic studies training. But most people don’t, so that’s kind of the problem, it’s not necessarily a sustainable solution, but I’ve found it to be effective. A lot of people at the end of the year will tell me that their conversations with me about this stuff kind of changes their perspective on a lot of things. Might be a lot of folks will become, have become more involved in issues like this due to the conversations we’ve had.
Setting the tone is half the battle. If you can set the tone at the beginning very well, great. And you have to maintain that tone of tolerance. And you have to make sure that it’s genuine and not from the standpoint of, “you don’t want to offend anyone.” That’s not what it’s about, it’s about perpetuating systems of power and once people understand that and how discourse connects, then we can talk.
However, just as a side note, queer issues is really hard, that’s a really hard one. I have a particular anecdote in which I failed. There was this group of freshmen who then continued into Okada as sophomores over the course of my two years as an RA. A bunch of gamer guys and they made a lot of homophobic comments because it’s kind of the culture. And at first I was fairly confrontational about it, but it was kind of hard to get them to adjust their behavior because they were an enclosed clique. And at a certain point, I’m like, most of the dorms are doing better, I’ll just sort of criticize it when it leaves the border of that clique. Bad call! Because as I found out in the following year, one of them was gay and was in the closet and I had no idea! And it just pointed to a failure of my own, just in terms of my assumption. So I think it’s important for an RA to get involved in adjusting the culture, but in a way that is not paternalistic. And that’s easier said than done.
An RA, if you do it right, if you take on that role, you are a strong role model, and if you role model, “I saw this, this is wrong and why.” Don’t just call people homophobic, you have to explain why it’s a problem. Even if you think it’s funny, and you have to be sympathetic to the racists and the homophobes too, you got to be sympathetic. It’s all in the rhetorical approach. But frankly, there’s no easy answer. I wish you could institutionalize that, but that’s just a method I’ve come across. But it’s not sustainable over a large group of people, you can’t expect everyone to do that systematically in the same way.
To be completely honest with you, sometimes programming…it sort of contains the issue within the hour block. The problem with it is that if it is not executed well, sometimes people have points of disagreement from this thing and never really reconcile it because after the two-and-a-half block, it’s over and you just go back to your lives because you have finals and stuff. I think programs oftentimes do not have enough carryover past the ending of the program.
You had said your ethnic studies training helped you in handling these situations. Can you explain in what ways specifically how that perspective plays a role?
Particularly in a couple of ways. One is in anticipating counter arguments. If you go through ethnic studies, you’re aware of the colorblindness argument, you’re aware of the “racism is dead” argument. From an ethnic studies standpoint, you develop the rhetorical shortcuts. You’ve already argued against it so you know how to keep arguing against it. Second of all, you know what to look out for in general, knowing what kind of attitudes lead to other kinds of attitudes. And also just factually speaking, ethnic studies allows you to have the factual meats, the historical meats to back up what you’re saying. Because without it, you can just feel uncomfortable and say that’s wrong, it makes me feel this way, but sometimes you can’t provide concrete examples of when a racist or homophobic statement they’re saying is just wrong. So I think it’s just being familiar with the discourse, it makes it easier. It makes you more aware of things.
You said you went through this process of emailing different administrative contacts that you had. Can you elaborate more about what it is that you did to be able to sort of build this momentum?
As far as contacting the administrators part, it was basically a scattershot, it was very blunt and very sloppy on my part. All I did basically was I thought of every single person who could do something about it and added them to the “to” field….RAs, our main solution to most serious problems is to email the residence dean, John Giammalva in my case. However I did not just email him, I emailed several people because I felt this was a big deal, a campus-specific issue that I thought the discussion needed to be expanded beyond res-ed [residential education], and that’s why I did sort of the scatter shot email, which ended up being effective, but it was very crude.
In terms of the follow up, I wasn’t the one person who did that. Shelley Tadaki [assistant director of the Asian American Activities Center] had a big role in pushing this as an issue, as well as a student project that really raised student awareness about acts of intolerance. The project was called LEAD, Leadership through Education, Activism, and Diversity. And they basically did a public display of acts of intolerance over the last ten years in a very public area at Stanford. And I’d be sort of consulted in a lot of random things as the movement built. I was not like the major player, it was definitely a coalescing of so many different things. But this was definitely one of several catalyzing moments that generated that movement for this.
For students coming into the dorms, is there any sort of formalized program they can go through for diversity awareness or anything like that?
Stanford has that, and we are decent, we could be better. One of the things is, Stanford has a big spoil fest for their frosh, we have New Student Orientation. Out of that whole week, the issue of diversity awareness comes up primarily at this event we call “Faces of Community.” “Faces of Community” is one of the big events, it has all the freshmen in Memorial Auditorium, like 2000 people. It’s a series of performances and speeches from the diverse cavalcade of Stanford’s student population.
For me, I’ve spoken at three of them. Well, actually I’ve performed at one with the Spoken Word Collective and then two years following I read a speech. And my speech was about the existence of racism at Stanford and that it’s there. The general very colorblind assumption that racism is over, that Stanford is a very tolerant place, I think that assumption that there’s tolerance and everything is precisely where the racism is most allowed to thrive. The speech is also a defense of theme dorms because every year, I see that there’s definitely a reactionary political response to the theme dorms, usually coming from the Stanford Review, the conservative paper on campus.
So “Faces” is one thing, and then afterwards, RAs are supposed to lead a discussion about “Faces,” usually lasts an hour. Sometimes the staff don’t even do it, sometimes it is superfluous, honestly. We’re given a list of questions, but the approach, and “Faces” for that matter, the approach is generally pretty “multiculti.” The atmosphere is less about power and privilege, far more about, “Look, we are all different cultures. Yay!” There’s not a discussion about power.
But in sum, formally that’s kind of all there is. I think in RA training, we are trained more to contain the anger of people offended by acts of intolerance than confronting the people who actually perpetrated the acts of intolerance, which is interesting. I think it speaks to Stanford’s general mantra of promoting harmony, but not necessarily justice. And it’s unfortunate that at times those two values come into conflict. And again, it stems from idealized notions of how Stanford’s student population is. I mean it is pretty bonded, I’ll give it that, it’s not bad. But to accept that, it overlooks the problems.
Any last advice you would give to students who are encountering these situations and how they can approach it?
I think the efficacy of the RA depends on the RA, the efficacy of the administration depends on the administration. Sometimes you’ll find someone who’s great and sympathetic, and sometimes you won’t. But in any case, no matter what, find your allies. Even if that person’s not an RA or someone in authority, but with two people, it’s a lot easier to mobilize and raise awareness and organize something than one person.
And more importantly than that is, know that your feelings are legitimate. I think one of the big questions that I had, especially when people were telling me that I was taking it too personally, was that I started questioning myself, like “Are these feelings legit?” Maybe I am taking it too personally, I question myself too much. I think it’s important to have a resolve and to trust your instincts on this. Chances are you’re right, and even if you’re not completely right, there’s something troubling that is illuminated whenever you’re irritated. I think that, maybe it’s possible to have a hypersensitivity to racism, but it’s better to err in that direction than the other because if the discourse errs in that direction, frankly it’s a slippery slope in terms of what types of people can be excluded. That happens very quickly.
Takeo graduated from the Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity program last spring. He is currently a Masters student at Stanford studying Modern Thought and Literature, as well as a research assistant and teaching assistant at the Haas Center for Public Service at Stanford.
Interested in standing up to intolerance on your campus? Check out how students have organized in their residence halls here.