This year’s International Education week is focused on Asia with an emphasis on East Asia. It is a spotlight on a region that is economically, politically, socially and culturally significant to the world, but does not generally enjoy a large presence in the University of Richmond's curriculum, programming or campus life. With UR’s last strategic plan promoting the internationalization of the campus and its current one promoting thriving, inclusivity, diversity and equity (TIDE), Asia Week is an opportunity to highlight explicitly — however briefly — an important region of the world and the experiences of the communities of students, staff members and faculty members associated with it.
We use this moment to think seriously about the place that Asia, and Asian and Asian-American communities, occupy on our predominantly white campus as a way to reflect critically on issues that cut to the heart of what UR says it is and what it aspires to be. We call for a meaningful engagement with Asia that not only advances UR’s current work on internationalization, inclusion and thriving but also views these goals as imbricated and mutually sustaining. The stakes are high: Without such engagement, diversity risks becoming mere branding and internationalization risks becoming Western-centric cultural tourism.
Thanks in part to UR’s commitment to internationalization, Asia is closer to UR than many realize. A significant number of our international students hail from different parts of Asia, especially China, and study abroad offerings make different places in Asia accessible to domestic students. Additionally, a small community of Asian-American students, staff members and faculty members have a connection with “Asia” as a social construct than informs heritage and identity. UR, however, remains an overwhelmingly white space. Thus, both these communities — international and domestic — are affected by and invested in how Asia, the continent, is represented on the campus. “Asia” is not just a geographical entity to which many of us are connected, but a racialized place that exists in the American imagination, abounding with stereotypes and antagonisms that affect Asians and Asian-Americans in tangible ways. To “engage Asia” without confronting these stereotypes and antagonisms would run contrary to our vision statement, in which we aspire to model “the way that colleges and universities can effectively meet the challenges of our time.”
What might a substantial and consequential engagement with Asia, the continent and the construct, look like and what are the issues it would raise?
First, it would mean acknowledging the diversity of Asia. Asia is an enormous geographical area that encompasses a multiformity of people, cultures, practices and ideas, each with their own histories. Despite this diversity, it is common to hear “Asia” or “Asians” referred to as an undifferentiated group or to assume that one part of Asia (for instance China or Japan) can serve as shorthand for all of “Asia.” The easy default to China or Japan ignores the many different races and ethnicities in Asia and risks reproducing the hierarchies of power that operate within the region. Although these speech acts may seem harmless, in reality they reflect both ignorance of the specific nationalities, ethnicities and cultures that comprise Asia and a disrespect for the different peoples of Asia and immigrant communities in the U.S. They fail to confront the long history of Western colonialism in the region, a legacy that continues to shape national boundaries, geographic and ethnic rivalries, and cultural and social politics in the region.
In short, when we acknowledge and engage with Asia as diverse peoples and nations, we explicitly reject the flattening of history and culture that leads to the all-too-common stereotype that Asians are “all the same.” Consequential engagement would replace the dehumanizing rhetoric of uniformity and, instead, privilege a discourse that is aware of individuality and agency, opening a space where Asians’ and Asian-Americans’ constructions of their own identities are respected.
Consequential engagement would, secondly, insist “Asia” informs and inflects conversations and practice on campus. An especially pertinent issue is that of inclusion, especially racial inclusion. On the one hand, Asian international students bring their own conceptions of race that are not necessarily aligned with those of native-born Americans. What constitutes race, its implications and its hierarchies operate differently within and across the Asian region than they do in the American context.
Given this, it is imperative that international students be included in conversations about TIDE; they have a stake in such conversations precisely because American notions of race shape their everyday experiences on our campus and in the wider Richmond community. On the other hand, Asian-American students frequently come from communities that carry with them particular histories of exclusion. For over half a century, the United States banned the immigration of Asians, especially those from China, and denied them naturalized citizenship because they were not white. These measures reached their culmination in the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, which inserted concerns about loyalties into pre-existing discourses of race: White Americans doubted whether citizens of Japanese descent were “truly” American. That history is not as far away as we might like; on our campus, Asian-Americans confront these biases when they are asked “Where are you really from?” and when they are told “You are not really a person of color.” “Well, I think of you as white.” “You have not been oppressed enough to understand.” These statements do harm by framing Asian-Americans as Other because they are not white, but also excluding Asian-Americans because they are not non-white, all the while questioning their right to speak of their own unique experiences with discrimination.
Third, Asians and Asian-Americans challenge the institutional separation of internationalization and TIDE initiatives. That Common Ground and International Education function independently reflects the misguided assumption that racial politics and discourses of diversity engage only Americans and stand separate and distinct from what happens in the rest of the world. This approach is untenable in the current climate because it cannot grapple with contemporary racial discourse, which is cross-cut by Islamophobia and anti-blackness, polarized by debates over immigration and migration, and complicated by multiracial identity and nationalism.
These complexities are lost when we fail to acknowledge that race and its myriad implications cross the boundaries of nation-states and carry different meanings in different places. They are lost when we fail to acknowledge that all students who come to UR become entangled in an American racial hierarchy, regardless of where they are from and whether they choose to participate in discussions of race or not. Separating TIDE initiatives from the internationalization of campus introduces a false dichotomy for a range of students, and denies these students an institutional home that represents them and gives voice to their experiences, concerns and needs.
Communities of international students from Asia, along with students, faculty members and staff members from other parts of the world, diversify our campus and help us in the work of broadening our community’s horizons. Domestic students, staff members and faculty members of color are equally important; their experiences and knowledge and the ways they inhabit the world enrich our whole campus community. These communities are the very reason that UR is able to boast of its diverse and internationalized campus and to benefit from those accolades in a variety of ways.
But if these communities of color are brought onto campus primarily to make UR look cosmopolitan and diverse, then we have failed them and the rest of the UR community.
Achieving meaningful cosmopolitanism and diversity is extremely hard work and necessarily entails effort that extends beyond the five days of Asia Week. It requires, among other things, an expansive understanding of who deserves a seat at the table, whose voices will be heard and whose concerns will be taken seriously. It also likely challenges existing configurations of power and requires difficult conversations that both imagine and enact new ways of being in community.
We hope that UR has the courage and commitment to ensure that every member of our community is included in the life of our campus so that we may deserve to call ourselves a “thriving and inclusive community.”
Contact Dr. Tze Loo, associate professor of history and global studies, at email@example.com. Contact Dr. Jennifer Erkulwater, professor of political science, at firstname.lastname@example.org.