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Lack of Asian-American studies program leaves Asian-Americans pushing for representation

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Jessie Huang is the president of the Asian Students Association.

Senior David Choi believes he has the right to an education on his own racial history. 

“Right now, Asian-Americans have close to nothing," Choi said. "And when I say nothing, I mean we have like, one exhibit at Wilson Library, and we have one (book)shelf at Davis Library. Those are the only spaces dedicated to Asian-Americans on campus.” 

Choi is involved with the Asian American and Pacific Islander Working Group, a group that works to establish long-term resources for Asian-Americans at UNC. And it’s not just the lack of physical space dedicated to AAPI students that Choi finds concerning. 

“The class of 2021, 16 percent of the class identifies as Asian-American. That’s a considerable amount of an incoming class,” Choi said. “Next semester, I think (there’ll be) one or two courses that teach Asian-American topics. Just one or two, for 16 percent of an undergraduate population.” 

Jessie Huang, president of the Asian Students Association, said there are many misconstrued perceptions of Asian-Americans in the United States. 

“People often cite statistics like, Asian-Americans are one of the most economically well-off (minorities) in the nation … (but) different populations within the Asian-American community have different economic standings,” Huang said. “This myth is really harmful because it also pits Asian-Americans against other racial minorities.” 

Huang pointed out how she is learning about many of these racial myths for the first time in English 270, one of the few Asian-American studies course offerings on campus, taught by professor Heidi Kim. Like Choi, Huang would like an Asian-American studies department to be created at UNC. 

While UNC currently has a Department of Asian Studies, this course of study is quite distinctive from Asian-American studies. Morgan Pitelka, a professor in the Department of History and the Department of Asian Studies, explained the difference. 

Morgan Pitelka is a professor in the Department of History and the Department of Asian studies. Photo by Johnny Andrews, courtesy of UNC.

“Historically, Asian studies and Asian-American studies are completely separate,” Pitelka said. “Historically, Asian studies focuses on … the study of the histories and cultures of these countries that are very, very, very far away.” 

While Asian studies examines the history and cultures of countries in Asia, Asian-American studies examines the racial experience, history and culture of people of Asian descent in America, many of whom have no direct experience with the languages and cultures that someone like Pitelka studies. 

Pitelka, who also serves as the director of the Carolina Asia Center, mentioned how Asian-American studies professors have viewed academic approaches to Asian Studies as problematic for approaching Asia with a degree of exoticism, suggesting that Asia is only interesting for its history and culture — something most Asian-Americans have limited personal connection to. 

“That’s something that even some people in our fields are still wrestling with: How are these things different or not different?” Pitelka said. 

Although Pitelka affirmed there is no longer the same tension between the two academic disciplines, Choi mentioned how this attitude of exoticism still affects Asian-American students today. 

“You don’t look at a Latinx-American student and ask, you know ‘What is it like in Ecuador, or Honduras?’” Choi said. “But when we look at Asian-American students, they’re like ‘Where are you from? Where are you really from?’ That is a central issue.” 

In addition to helping dispel stereotypes, both Choi and Huang mentioned how an Asian-American studies program could help Asian-American students understand their own racial identity. 

“(By) having classes like Asian-American studies, people can learn about the commonalities we share and how we can move forward from them,” Huang said. “In my mind, it’s kind of like a moral obligation … to the growing population of Asian-American students here at UNC.” 

Jennifer Ho is a professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature.

Jennifer Ho, professor in the department of English and Comparative Literature and associate director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities, said the field of Asian-American studies is often viewed as a place for Asian-American students to learn about their own identities and experiences. But she wanted to clarify the scholarly value of Asian-American studies as an academic discipline. 

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“If students want to take Asian-American studies for a variety of reasons, personal reasons, that’s great,” Ho said. “I do not think Asian-American studies exists as a form of identity formation.” 

Ho continued, “I think the value of Asian-American studies is that it is a rigorous discipline that asks interesting and important and timely intellectual questions that all students would benefit from.” 

Asian-Americans aren’t discussed as underrepresented minorities in fields like STEM, Ho said, and this is problematic. 

“When you start talking about white students and underrepresented minorities, right, that’s great, but you’re actually completely leaving out of that equation Asian-American students,” Ho said. 

Ho said that such an “invisible” Asian-American racial category is monolithic, and does not account for more underrepresented sectors of the Asian-American population, such as Burmese or Filipino-Americans. 

“We do within Chapel Hill, within UNC, have this Asian-American community that I would say is underrepresented, but they’re not considered underrepresented because technically speaking they fall under this Asian-American umbrella,” Ho said. “One of the things that Asian-American studies does is to shine a light on that.” 

Heidi Kim, associate professor of English and Comparative Literature, commented on the far-reaching benefits of an education in Asian-American studies. 

“I could go on all day about the issues that Asian-American studies can illuminate,” Kim wrote in an email, “but the bottom line is that students, both Asian-American and non-Asian-American, can learn so much from seeing how these political issues and identities intersect, and what our ongoing social, legal, ethical and artistic challenges are in confronting these issues openly and equitably.” 

Although an Asian-American studies program could contribute greatly to the discussion of race at UNC, Ho noted the extensive requirements for creating a department. 

“It takes $1 billion to create a department,” Ho said, mentioning hiring new faculty members and an administrative staff as formidable costs. 

“The idea that you’re going to start from zero and develop a department with a major, or house a major within an existing department … you’re talking about a lot of resources that are going into that, and the question is, to what end?” Ho said. 

Pitelka seemed optimistic for the future of Asian-American studies on campus. 

“There’s no immediate plan that I’m aware of, but I believe in the power of persuasion,” Pitelka said. “And I’m working with Professor Ho and Professor Kim to try to slowly gather data, gather evidence that this would really make a big impact on campus ... I think we have to grow Asian-American studies in some form.” 

Despite administrative obstacles and a slow rate of change, Choi has no intention of giving up his push for the creation of the program or the recognition of Asian-American students on campus. 

“It’s so unfair to Asian-American students,” Choi said. “Because we just want to get our education, and we just want to be able to study and learn about who we are.”