This month, students at Miami University are making the distinction between humor and discrimination. A student-created Twitter account called "Oxford Asians" attracted nearly 1,000 followers using language that some called "benign humor," while others found it a "form of cyber racial bullying."
In response, the university's Asian American Association turned the hurtful incident into an opportunity for learning by launching "The Real Oxford Asians," which rewrites offensive tweets, transforms them into positive messages and defies stereotypes. In this guest post, graduate student Suey Park discusses the impact of this atmosphere of intolerance and the need to speak up.
By Suey Park
Although the Twitter account “@OxfordAsians” has been removed, most tweets the author(s) of the account wrote can still be found archived here. Students leaders from the Asian American Association (AAA) at Miami University of Ohio have decided to speak up and turn this incident into a learning moment. Alumna Ashley Hornsby says regarding the incident, “It is always better to be the bigger person. The creator and some of the followers honestly have a different mindset and do not realize what they are doing is hurtful. They should have another chance to learn.” In order to promote this learning, the students of the AAA have taken it upon themselves to begin a campaign that humanizes Asian-Americans in order to show these bias-motivated beliefs and tweets have a real impact on real students. Tolulope Perrin-Stowe, Junior in Zoology and AAA Fusion Chair shares she is “saddened, but honestly not very surprised, because many people have similar sentiments on campus. There is still a lot of growing for Miami University and its students to do and this was just another unfortunate reminder of that fact.” The Twitter account is one more manifestation of an overarching culture of intolerance.
Many of these students express how the lack of a distinction between humor and discrimination has resulted in them feeling uncomfortable and unwelcome in spaces on campus. “Sometimes I take some racial jokes lightly. However, it can go too far easily,” says Karolin Ginting, Junior and Publicity Chair of AAA. Christina Lam, a Junior studying Early Childhood Education, says, “I’m usually the only Asian person in my classes. Sometimes when my classmates brings up Asian-related humor and everyone laughs at it, I don’t know whether I should join in on the laughter or just sit there because I feel uncomfortable.” Many of Lam’s peers in AAA share similar sentiments. “Posting jokes belittling another culture only serves to create a divide between students. I did not find the ‘humor’ to be funny or entertaining at all. The worst part was that so many students followed this account without even considering the harm,” says Scott Dougherty, Senior in Psychology.
Other times, students are victims of active discrimination that causes real fear. HaeJi Lee, an international student in Speech Language Pathology/Audiology, shares, “Some people would say that I need go back to my country.” Mallory Chen, a Sophomore and domestic student, reports that “I was told to go back to my own country once. As an Asian-American, it’s pretty unsettling that there are people who still do not recognize that diversity is what defines America.” These sort of statements make students feel they do not belong on campus. Not only international students, who are far from home and desiring to find acceptance at Miami University, but also to domestic students of marginalized racial/ethnic identities, who are continually seen as an “other” despite being born and raised in the United States.
Lam shares that “eating alone at the dining halls has been extremely hard on me. I try to avoid it as much as possible. There are instances when I am alone where people would just look at me and stare and laugh at me. Or when people would start talking bad about Asians in front of me, as if I can’t understand what they’re saying. Or when people make fun of how Chinese people speak in some made-up version of Chinese, thinking it’s funny. I noticed that all these things happen when students see an Asian person. Somehow it triggers in their brains that it’s okay for them to talk or act this way. They think it’s hilarious, while I’m the one getting hurt by it.” These sort of incidents leave students with feelings of exclusion and isolation.
Lee and Hornsby express how being Asian-American women can contribute to feeling even more vulnerable to attacks, especially in spaces where alcohol is present. “One time, I was walking by a fraternity house, and they yelled, ‘Do you want some eggrolls? and ‘Come up and play with us.’ And ‘Sexy Asian!’” recalls Lee. Similarly, Chen has experienced similar objectification and exotification, saying there have been “countless incidents where I’ve been attempted to be picked up with ‘Ni hao.’” Issues of street harassment and hate speech often go unchecked by the university, but students still feel its very real effects.
Students met at the AAA general body meeting last Thursday and discussed how Asian-Americans are seen as being silent about their experiences. However, “ignoring discrimination does not make it go away, it just gives the aggressor more assurance that what they are doing is acceptable and won’t be challenged,” shares Perrin-Stowe. “I’ve decided to break the silence on this issue because Miami needs to hear our personal encounters with this type of behavior. Microaggressions against international students, Asian-American students, and other minority groups occurs at Miami University more often than people think. If this trend continues, many potential minority students will lose interest in attending Miami due to its lack of cultural diversity and acceptance. We planned this event to to educate the student body on how deal with these types of situations, promote cultural awareness, and explain that having the right of freedom of speech also means being responsible enough to use it appropriately,” says Christine Pil, Senior, Zoology Major, and Vice-President of AAA. “As a member of AAA, it is important that everyone speak up and that we stand together to show that these tweets are not acceptable. Change and understanding will require a group effort. There is an underlying bias at this and other universities against Asians, particularly international students, that needs to stop,” urges Dougherty.
Although the students of AAA have taken action and are receiving support from the Office of Diversity Affairs, they still desire that the university “acknowledge this problem and take some actions and make minority student feel they are more welcomed” says Ginting. Dougherty says that “this is an opportunity for open discussion about the underlying issue here: that is, racism and bias towards minority students. However, the first step in this would be the University taking a stand and making it known that this is unacceptable,” before moving forward and enacting real change. Forrest McGuire, Chief of Staff for Associated Student Government and Junior, shares, “I want my peers and my university not to be bystanders in situations like this–they need to speak up against any form of racism on Miami’s campus.”
The students of AAA see one another as family, people who make them feel they belong on this campus. They have created a space where their unique cultures and stories can be embraced. Still, they desire for future Asian-American students to feel they are accepted and included in more places on Miami University’s campus. These students are attempting to do something we should all do: to leave our environments in a better state than we first encounter them.
On March 19, as part of Diversity Week, the Miami University Office of Diversity Affairs & Asian American Association are hosting a dialogue, "Social Media—Tweeting Across Racial Lines." Learn more about the event here.
Suey Park is an graduate student and emerging student affairs in higher education professional. Outside of her professional roles, she strives to promote social justice and community engagement in various spaces. This post was originally published on Critical Spontaneity and is republished with permission.