The inception of race-specific resources at Northwestern reflected a larger paradigm shift on college campuses that took place in the early 2000s. Reports like this one, published in 2000 by the American Council on Education, began asserting that race, and acknowledging these existing lines of difference, could improve experiences for all students. The formation of Northwestern’s “ethnic departments”* (African American Student Affairs in 1972, Hispanic/Latino Student Affairs in 2000, and Asian/Asian American Student Affairs in 2001) was an effort to address this need for “culturally specific” resources. Now, 15 years later, race is one of the primary ways of organizing student affairs. However, the single-race organization of “multicultural”* affairs, and subsequent organization of student organizations & activities, may inadvertently lead to compressions or distortions of multiplicity. This brief ethnographic analysis of Northwestern’s Asian American student-organized speaker events highlights the need for greater intersectionality of race and gender in established Asian American student spaces.
Certain incidences within the Asian/Asian American cultural student organizations have revealed the limitations to racial or cultural primacy in identity. In 2014, YouTube celebrity Tim Chantarangsu (known by his channel name Timothy DeLaGhetto), whose videos capitalize on antiquated ideas about women and sex for humor, was invited for a Spring Speaker event to perform. Andrew and David Fung (aka Fung Bros), whose most famous videos essentialize Asian American females to tropes (exhibit A and B), were invited for a similar event in Spring 2015. And in February of this year, Eliot Chang was invited to perform during Celebrasia, the campus’ Lunar New Year celebration. Chang, an up and coming Asian American male comedian, relied heavily on characterizations of women as shallow, materialistic “gold diggers” whose value as people was minimized to their sexuality (a quick perusing of his YouTube channel gives a sense of what kind of comedy he is known for):
While the first two examples were smaller speaker events, the student response to all three events was quite similar – enthusiasm at seeing relatively well-known Asian American entertainers coupled with more-or-less acceptance of their less-than-innovative content. However, Eliot Chang’s act (which took place at the Asian American community’s most widely attended event of the year), while eliciting some approval during the show, also provoked social media responses in the days following. These two posts exemplified the discomfort caused by his comedy’s subject matter:
“As a woman, I am not an object. I don’t exist to please men. Felt so dehumanized at Celebrasia tonight” – tweet from audience member
“Eliot Chang was unapologetically sexist, racist, and homophobic at Celebrasia…. but his presence on campus wasn’t just an anomaly” – anonymous student, via Facebook post
Despite the initial pockets of disapproval, resistance fizzled out, with the student organizations hosting the event expressing veiled remorse via a formal letter (which avoids naming Elliot Chang), while also expressing in a Daily Northwestern article that Chang’s performance should not detract from the “success of the show overall”.
The invitation of these Asian male entertainers is not, in isolation, problematic. The longstanding lack of opportunities for Asian Americans in mainstream entertainment makes the popularity of these entertainers undoubtedly significant. However, representations do not exist in isolation. The choice of whose voices are amplified, especially among groups that so rarely have platforms to be heard, is not inconsequential. The continued implicit endorsement of these types of performers perpetuates the idea that feminism and Asian American success are mutually exclusive. Cultural groups’ myopic focus on celebrating popular Asian American artists neglects the fact that masculinity is often the assumed default through which immigrants assert their sense of belonging (Bow 30). Indeed, the popularity of figures like Eliot Chang is partly due to their reliance on and rearticulations of traditional American patriarchal ideas – of female submission to men’s will, of men’s sense of value defined by their sexual conquest, of the “’naturalness’ of male aggression, competition, and dominance, and of female caring, cooperation, and subordination” (Johnson 84). Perpetuating ideas of Eurocentric patriarchy in an effort to assert Asian American belonging effectively relegates Asian American women, who throughout history have accepted certain aspects of patriarchal logics for the sake of preserving stable families, to the peripheries of Asian American visibility (Espiritu 95).
Student-run Asian American cultural groups have a history of perpetuating the false dichotomy of an Asian American “nationalism” and feminism. But pride for Asian American success stories and advocating for feminism are not inherently incompatible – if anything, these instances highlight the need to redefine the aims & responsibilities of cultural spaces on campus. What does it mean to center the multiplicity of Asian American experience, particularly along gender lines? How can we move beyond organizing student life in terms of singular identity politics? Over the past few years, Multicultural Student Affairs has taken steps to promote intersectionality, but how theoretical emphasis will translate into ideological change will become one of the primary imperatives of institutionally mandated diversity initiatives & cultural groups on college campuses in the years to come.
Bow, Leslie. Betrayal and Other Acts of Subversion: Feminism, Sexual Politics, Asian American Women’s Literature. Princeton University Press, 2011. Google Scholar. Web. 9 Oct. 2016.
Johnson, Allan G. “Patriarchy, the System.” Women’s lives: Multicultural perspectives (2004): 25–32. Print.
Le Espiritu, Yen. Asian American Women and Men: Labor, Laws, and Love. Rowman & Littlefield, 2008. Google Scholar. Web. 9 Oct. 2016.