Racial tension boils over on campus

Diem Ly April 15, 2008 0

Everything from hate crimes to satire at the expense of Asian American students is finding a breeding ground on college campuses lately. Why is this and what does it reveal about the state of Asian America?

Racially-charged incidents towards Asian American students on college campuses nationwide are raising serious concerns.

Decades after winning major strides on campuses such as demanding administrators hire more Asian American professors, establishing an Asian American Studies program at numerous colleges, and supporting APA student enrollment—these successes are all for nothing if there are no strides at the most base level. In the human heart and mind. Asian Americans have a right to go to whatever school they want, whenever they want, however many they want—without judgment, fear, or issue.

But in recent months, incidents have proven this is not the tolerant and highly-evolved society we thought. Hate crimes against Asian students, racial remarks masked under the term “satire,” and institutional discrimination—are just a few causes triggering racial tension on college campuses.

In light of the upcoming anniversary of the Virginia Tech shooting, the IE examines the campus incidents changing what it means to be a student, to be Asian American, and to be an American. Because, it seems these things are still separate from one another.


On Jan. 21, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Kyle Descher, a Korean American, headed out to a bar with his roommate after a Washington State University football victory over Oregon. Minutes after hearing a racial slur from one of three unknown men, Descher is “sucker-punched” in an unprovoked attack. Doctors add three titanium plates to Descher’s broken jaw and it’s wired shut.

Descher’s roommate tells police that as the pair approached the bar, he heard the remark, “f—ing Asian” directed towards Descher. He told police Descher responded by asking them what they said and then heard a repeat of the comment. The roommate said Descher replied by telling them, “Whatever, have a nice life,” and walked into the bar. Descher was then punched by an assailant. Witnesses in the bar claim they’re unable to describe the attacker. Investigators are classifying this attack as a possible hate crime.

“I have been able to talk alright with my jaw wired shut,” Descher told the University of Idaho newspaper, The Argonaut, “but not being able to eat is terrible. Everything must be liquid and squeezed through the cracks in my teeth.” The IE attempted to conduct an interview with Descher, but will respect the Descher family’s desire for privacy and in moving forward from the incident.

Brian Lock, former acting director at the Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs (CAPAA) and a former student at WSU, empathizes with Descher. Lock has communicated with Descher’s dad, uncle, members of the Human Rights Commission, CAPAA, and the Asian Pacific Islander Coalition regarding the attack.

“In Kyle’s situation, it went beyond just a few hurtful words,” says Lock. “I always have a close connection to situations like Kyle’s. I’ve been in close situations going back to my college/grad school days where one sharp reply back to a racially motivated comment could have easily led to a reaction similar to what happened to Kyle—for no apparent reason other than being Asian.”

Police have not captured the attacker(s) to date. A forum at WSU on Feb. 15 addressed the Descher incident and opened the floor to possible solutions for the WSU campus.

In November, at the University of Washington, witnesses told Seattle Police several people from the Delta Upsilon fraternity house hurled water balloons and yelled anti-immigrant slurs at an Asian man, who ran from the house. The fraternity president Kyle Sahagun told officers he and members of the fraternity were in a meeting when the incident occurred. Officers classified the incident as assault and malicious harassment. Police were not able to locate either victim immediately after the incident.

Harassment and hate crimes like these are on the rise. New American Media reports that race and ethnicity are cited as one of the most common factors instigating harassment, ridicule, and threat of violence in schools.

According to the Uniform Crime Reporting Program (UCR), nearly 7 percent of all racially-motivated incidents in 2001, whether school-related or not, reflected an anti-Asian or anti-Pacific Islander bias.

And according to U.S. Dept. of Education records, most school-related hate crimes occur on-campus and are classified as aggravated assaults. The other most common forms of campus hate crimes manifest itself as arson or bodily injury. In 2002, 168 college-related hate crimes were reported, according to the U.S. Dept. of Education.

But, not all acts of campus racism are demonstrated by outright force. Sometimes it’s in the power of the pen.


The University of Pennsylvania’s humorous quarterly student publication, “The Punch Bowl,” dates back to 1899. And by all accounts, it’s still the 19th century.

In its latest Winter 2008 edition, “The Racism (slash) Diversity Issue,” Asian Americans got the most laughs—at their expense.

In the “Where Asians Don’t Belong” section, staffers of the “Punch Bowl” listed Math 104, in a panties drawer, on the basketball court, at a frat party, and behind the wheel. Imagine why the staff didn’t make jokes with the same glee for all the places African Americans “don’t belong.” In their defense, “Punch Bowl” editors said some of the writers of the “satirical” issue were Asian Americans themselves, even posing in photos poking fun at APIs.

Phil Yu doesn’t accept that excuse. Yu, the master of the popular Web site, AngryAsianMan.com, dedicates the site to all things “inspire-Asian” and staying “angry” at incidents like this. He says it’s the right of the Asian students to make jabs at their culture—but points out, this hinders those who are offended and trying to speak out against it.

“We’re not one huge monolithic mind,” says Yu. “We’ve got diverse, divergent identities and opinions, and many will not be offended by the stuff that was in the “Punch Bowl.” That said, there were many who were indeed hurt and offended by the Punch Bowl’s material, and they shouldn’t be ignored.”

In another instance where “satire” went too far, at the University of Colorado, the “Campus Press,” an on-line student newspaper, published an opinion piece on Feb. 18, titled, “If it’s war the Asians want … it’s war they’ll get.” CU Boulder student Max Karson wrote the article, describing why he thinks “Asians hate us all” and what people should do about it. This “lesson” includes kidnapping and tying up Asians and yelling racial slurs at them. He says his “satirical” commentary is meant to provoke dialogue about racism at CU. But he says he was “disappointed when the conversation instead became about suppressing [his] right to free speech.”

In the “War on Asians,” Karson describes a strange ordeal to teach Asians a “lesson” including, capturing as many Asians as possible with a butterfly net (step #1), forcing them to eat bad sushi (step #2), make facial expressions to match a word on a card, and play Dance Dance Revolution. Once Asians are “corrected” in their ways, they’re freed.

“Now, I understand that this plan may upset some of you Asian readers,” Karson writes in the column, “but the only other way to make peace would be to expel you. If you’re smart, you’ll turn yourselves in now, and it will all be over in a few days.”

CU students were not amused.

Yu isn’t laughing either. He thinks the column signals an underlying aggression towards Asians and reveals the fine line between humor and perpetuating harmful stereotypes.

“No one can be that good at coming up with the imagery evoked in Karson’s column without feeling some of it himself,” said Yu. “The problem with addressing race so irresponsibly and then excusing it as satire is that when it reaches its audience, there will inevitably be people who find themselves nodding in agreement with the stereotypes.”

In response to Karson’s article, the University of Colorado came close to placing the “Campus Press” under faculty control—a move that could have triggered a First Amendment lawsuit. Instead, CU hosted a public forum on Feb. 27 and posted apologetic letters on the university Web site from “Press” editors. In addition, “Press” staffers suspended the opinion page and agreed to attend diversity-related training sessions.

When the IE asked Karson whether his perspectives have changed since his “War On Asians,” he says, “No, my feelings toward Asians have not changed, I wouldn’t do anything differently, and for the most part people on campus like me—including Asians.”

Karson didn’t want to comment further, but in a statement following the controversy, he explains the purpose of his column was to raise awareness about race issues at CU.

“The days of hood-wearing and cross-burning, at least in Boulder, are over,” Karson wrote. “Now racism lives in policies and micro-messages such as looks, remarks, and avoidance. If you really want to fight racism, you have to allow people to express it, and then you have to engage it, not stomp it back into invisibility. No matter how much it hurts us, open dialogue is the answer.”

Open dialogue IS the answer. But, promoting stereotypes, even making light of racism, doesn’t call attention to it—it strengthens ignorance and apathy.


At Bellevue Community College, some say it all started with a math question.

In 2004, BCC Professor Peter Ratener composed a question for a math exam that read, “Condoleezza holds a watermelon just over the edge of the roof of the 300-foot Federal Building, and tosses it up with a velocity of 20 feet per second.” At the time, no complaints were made.

That is, until March 2006, when a different professor distributed the exam featuring Ratener’s question to his class. A student told the math department chair she was offended by the question that invoked a racial stereotype. Months later, BCC decided to suspend Prof. Ratener for a week without pay.

Faculty and students who wanted Ratener fired saw the suspension as leniency on the administration’s part. Since then, the BCC campus community has not had rest, struggling endlessly over issues of discrimination and unequal treatment towards staffers and students of color. Faculty members are speaking up and feeling ignored and isolated. One of the faculty members, Akemi Matsumoto, says since voicing her grievances, she’s experienced harassment from co-workers, overlooked job promotions and raises, and a significant lack of support from administrators.

In response, in the fall of 2006, BCC was the second community college in the state to establish an executive-level position to focus solely on diversity and race issues in the college’s program of equity and pluralism. Part of the role is to hire more faculty of color, recruit more minority students, and promote racial awareness through seminars for student and faculty.

But not all of the seminars went smoothly. Mediated in part by the faculty of color who had lodged discrimination complaints against BCC, the “talks” were controversial and left many participants, including students, confused and divided. Some BCC staffers called the mediators “bigots of color” and accused them of using a “Kampuchean style re-education program.”

Former BCC student officer Peter Tran agrees the talks were unproductive as the mediators acted like bullies. “They are not in the position to make quick and rash decisions,” said Tran. “And from the past incidents like the watermelon question, we can see that racial issues were handled [by BCC] seriously and thoroughly within a reasonable amount of time.”

Tran, who participated in the dialogues and seminars, said the answer is team effort.

“I don’t want racism, students don’t want racism, any legitimate professor would not want racism, and the college definitely does not want to be associated anywhere near the word ‘racism.’ So why the polarity?”

Tran thinks some of the faculty members are unfairly targeting BCC’s administration.

“These are isolated incidents that need to be resolved not by BCC administration, but rather by the individuals,” said Tran. “Whether or not some faculty chooses to retaliate with anger is his/her own personal choice.”

In another case sparking racial tension on campus—the University of Washington’s student group, the College Republicans (CR) kicked off an “Affirmative Action Bake Sale” in 2004, where students could purchase baked goods depending upon their racial make up. Whites paid a dollar for a cookie, while Asians paid 50 cents, Latinos 30 cents, etc. The “bake sale” immediately triggered outrage. Protestors organized a massive rally and press event with the NAACP at the UW Ethnic Cultural Center the same day.

Four years later, the College Republicans haven’t missed a beat.

On April 15, the group is hosting a “Find the Illegal Immigrant Tag” event. According to CR’s president, the event is meant to send a “clear statement that we need to get serious and crack down on illegal immigration and secure our borders.”

Community members are organizing to protest the discriminatory “tagging” event.

Both sides agree the immigration system is broken and in need of reform, but to immigration advocates, fair immigration reform does not mean scape-goating immigrants and/or promoting hateful actions.

Whether it’s new findings by academics, subtle discrimination hovering just above the radar, or outright attacks on our young people—these events put the spotlight on our community and force us to uphold a vision of what Asian America is and where it belongs.

“We’ve long been fighting the idea that Asians are a passive, quiet community, unwilling to rock the boat and make any noise,” says Yu. “Basically, people think they can get away with it because we won’t fight back. In many ways, we’re still fighting for respect and the right to belong.”

The challenge is trying to ever understand these incidents of racism. It’s a painful experience not only for the student, but for all involved.

So instead of looking on these incidents as a step backwards—the message is to look on them as an opportunity. Events like these do not show up without drawing attention and eliciting a profound desire for change. It’s time to face the hard truths, whether it makes us uncomfortable or not, whether we’re passive about these kinds of issues or not—and wake up! Racism is not a thing of the past. It’s real, and if it’s at our schools—then it’s on our doorstep.

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