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July 8, 2022

This is a two-part blog post reflecting upon AAPI experiences in classical studies. Part 1 reflected upon the author’s personal experience teaching race & ethnicity in antiquity in the context of the ongoing surge of anti-Asian violence in the country. Part 2 reflects upon the shared experiences of students and scholars of Asian descent in classical studies through a series of interviews.

Curious about whether other people of Asian descent in Classical Studies have had experiences similar to mine and how that affects our lives in the field, I reached out this spring to scholars and students from other institutions in North America, public and private, large and small, through the recently formed Asian & Asian American Classical Caucus (AAACC).

The vast majority who responded to me are other pre-tenure scholars or students. And because our field is relatively small — and junior scholars’ careers are utterly dependent upon supervisors and others in positions of power — most were justifiably concerned about speaking on the record because of the real possibility of professional retaliation. But in our off-the-record conversations, I found remarkable consistency in certain experiences, regardless of our generational status, whether our ancestors hailed from South, East, or South East Asia, and even whether our departments are making overt diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts: bigoted statements about Asians in academic settings, feelings of isolation, self-doubt, and exclusion from discussions about race in America.
Many reported the same tired tropes I myself have heard throughout the years: These Asian students are so good at Greek because they’re robots. While common, this dehumanizing statement should be alarming because of its proximity to the idea of Asian laborers as “machine-like,” a notion so entrenched that it appears as far back as 1882, in Senator John F. Miller’s “Great Anti-Chinese Speech” propounding the Exclusion Act.

Similarly, Why are these Asian students so interested in Rome? covertly implies that white students are naturally interested in Greece and Rome, ignoring the fact that western European interest in Classics is a well-known historical construction. The ubiquitous Why are Asian students so quiet? was almost universally echoed. As educators, we must ask ourselves why the quietness of a white-presenting student is racialized differently from the quietness of an Asian-one: one is deep and intellectual; the other impassive, robotic.

Young Richard Kim, Associate Professor of Classics and Mediterranean Studies and History at University of Illinois, Chicago, sees a pedagogical problem underlying these attitudes towards international students from Asia, but also towards Asian American students: “There is the assumption that Asian students who are quiet are ‘passive’ and that white students who talk a lot are ‘engaged,’ without actually evaluating the depth of mere talk or probing the knowledge and thinking of the Asian students,” he told me. These assumptions inform instructors' views of their students' receptivity to the material, which can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Moreover, because professors sometimes explicitly pass them on to their graduate teaching assistants (as one early-career scholar attested to me), assumptions become entrenched as pedagogical norms.

A common theme among AAPI graduate students was that questions of identity and professionalization collide in ways that I myself have seen when informally mentoring students of color. How much of your background can you reveal through what you bring to the seminar table? One put it pithily: “How much do I have to white myself up?” And another: “How much do I have to engage in abject worship of white scholars in order to be accepted in the field?” — echoing the abjection that Wax demands of Asian immigrants who succeed academically and professionally.

When the students I’ve spoken with are forced to navigate problems like these on their own, the answer they often come up with is to efface who they are, a response tacitly required by the current white-centered norms of academic practices, in which little space is made for non-European cultural knowledge. Under the current regime, students are saddled with the grief of self-negation, which affects their emotional well-being and academic performance. I see a great deal of wasted energy in the efforts to self-regulate and conform, where instead we could see intellectual engagement. These norms can and must be changed. But they need to be recognized and discussed for that change to happen.

Most of the students and scholars I spoke with shared that when they do draw attention to examples of anti-Asian racism, they are often met with defensiveness or, worse, disbelief. Within the context of an overwhelmingly white field, the nagging doubts of Was that racist or was that just me? snowball into the “labor of worry,” as one early career scholar put it. Without a coherent, sustained conversation about Asians in the Humanities more broadly or in Classics in particular, most of my interlocutors expressed that there is no one with whom to check in or work through that question, even when there are other people of color in their departments and sometimes even when that small number includes other people from Asian backgrounds — a sign that something significant is missing from our current discourses on race.

Grace Kao, IBM Professor of Sociology and Professor of Ethnicity, Race, and Migration at Yale, explained to me that, over time, the defensiveness and disbelief AAPI scholars face when voicing these feelings becomes tiring. “The ongoing ugliness contributes to burnout, suffering careers, and people of color leaving their institutions and/or dropping out of the academy altogether in exhaustion,” she said. “All of us want to be able to do our research without constantly battling these institutions.” To produce research without a constant battle — or the work of the racial “second shift” — is a privilege that white colleagues take for granted.

Another early career scholar told me that she feels paradoxically both “invisible and hypervisible, when I’m the only person of color in the room but not recognized as part of the conversation on race.” Many expressed some version of this paradox of both invisibility and hypervisibility in a country in which the overwhelming conversation around race remains framed largely in Black-and-white terms. This remains true even as people of Asian descent continue to be singularly blamed for the COVID-19 virus. Feelings of invisibility arise even within concerted, “well-meaning” discussions of race in the field and current events. One graduate student at a program with explicit DEI initiatives told me that their department’s environment was “intolerable.” Most expressed dismay that there was no room to discuss anti-Asian violence — even as headlines on assaults skyrocketed. This held true even within spaces putatively dedicated for conversations about race.

Similar to my own first reaction to Wax, I also learned from our conversations that we often self-protectively choose to “block out” these experiences, “laugh them off,” or “deliberately forget” to preserve our sanity — and careers. Academia demands amnesia — but at what cost?

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This experience of isolation and invisibility is, ironically, a shared one. And the learned tendency to shrug off problems or doubt our experiences, because we are not believed when we do discuss the racism we encounter, is starting to break down — I hope. This is, in part, due to a general awakening in response to the national surge in anti-Asian violence and rhetoric, but it is also the important consequence of a growing body of scholarship on the particular problems that the AAPI community face.

A psychologically harmful, pervasive problem that has affected much of the Asian American experience, and no less Asian Americans in academia, is the model-minority myth. One graduate student I spoke with told me she felt there was “no room to fail.” Madeline Y. Hsu, author of The Good Immigrants: How The Yellow Peril Became The Model Minority and Professor of History at the University of Texas, confirmed to me that, in her experience, AAPI scholars “often struggle with how to resist stereotypes when the model-minority myth imposes upon them a standard of outstanding accomplishment.” The myth prevails, too, when AAPI students who come from underserved backgrounds are disbelieved about the poverty in which they were raised — a scenario vividly brought to my attention by more than one student — despite the fact that income inequality among Asian Americans has been rising for decades.

The often-overwhelming feelings of invisibility, isolation, and even grief shared with me by my interlocutors also cohere with larger phenomena. David Eng, co-author with Shinhee Han of Racial Melancholia, Racial Dissociation: On the Social and Psychic Lives of Asian Americans, a book that explores loss and alienation in the community over two decades, affirmed to me that Asian Americans are taught to succeed through dissociation, to render themselves invisible.” Eng argues, “a more robust discussion around comparative race relations is required.…Asians in America are in a unique subject position. They disappear within a dominant Black-white binary, at times aligned with whites against Blacks and more rarely aligned with Blacks against whites,” but never, seemingly, “recognized on their own terms.”

This racialized invisibility works in tandem with the model-minority myth, which is weaponized against other communities of color through anti-Blackness, as well as against immigration from the U.S.A.’s southern border. One South Asian graduate student I spoke with, who has served on undergraduate scholarship committees, noticed how clashing stereotypes pit in particular East Asian women against Black women within the Academy: “Asian women are talked about as ‘well-prepared’ but ‘too quiet’ and ‘not interesting,’ while Black women are talked about as ‘interesting’ and ‘charismatic’ but ‘not academic enough,’ with no regard to the actual work or behavior of either.” The ongoing, crucial labor of building solidarity among and across communities is performed especially by Black and Asian radical and feminist activists and thinkers working against the grain of interests that would keep us divided.

As Young Kim, who grew up in southern California during the 1980s and 1990s, put it

to me, powerful white interests in the U.S.A. have long “cultivated interracial conflict in order to feed a particular narrative about Black and brown people, including the myth of Asian immigrants as the model minority.” This was echoed by Josephine Park, who told me that Wax’s recent claims about “Asians as horrible ‘over-achievers’ must be understood in the context of her lying statements about Black law students as ‘can’t-achievers,’” emphasizing, too, that the relative privilege of Asians and Asian Americans within the academy is tied to anti-Black racism. For that reason, Park said, “the use of model minorities to discipline African Americans and keep them out of the academy” is a crucial part of a white-supremacist logic that seeks to pit communities of color against each other. It is a logic that is increasingly being called out by young people as awareness of Asian Americans’ mutable and often weaponized place in the racializing landscape of this country grows.

The relative privilege of Asians and Asian Americans within the Academy is playing out against the backdrop of declining majors in the Humanities, including disciplines in which Asians are decidedly underrepresented. For those of us who care about the longevity of the Humanities, the fact that AAPI matriculation is on the rise overall, while enrollments in our own majors are decreasing, might make it easy to pin the blame for the decline and fall of the humanities on “all the Asians.” One graduate student of Asian descent who spoke with me was asked by a professor to explain AAPI undergraduates’ lack of interest in their institution’s Classics major, as if the graduate student had escaped the general fate of their kind. But consider, too, that a Korean American undergraduate told me that, as soon as she is confused for a Chinese student in a humanities classroom — a common enough occurrence that underscores the apparent fungibility and thus dehumanization of students of Asian descent — she knows that “this space is not really for me.” She had, she told me, “learned not to expect too much” from the university setting. Why would students with similar experiences rush to enroll in humanities courses that reinforce in ways large and small, conscious or unconscious, that they are insufficiently human?

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I believe that our students should expect much from us educators — and that they should receive much from us. Instead of asking why Asians are “ruining” the humanities, then, those of us who are educators and power-wielders of any kind within the field should instead look within, should ask ourselves what we are offering our students if we even cannot recognize them and extend to them the humanity in which we are supposedly experts.

This spring, as I watched my students immerse themselves in the Egyptian tale of Sinuhe, the histories of Herodotus (a Greek-speaker from Asia Minor), and the tragedies of the Athenian Aeschylus, I felt a deep optimism that broke through my despair. They brought together their intellectually and personally diverse viewpoints with a rich combination of personal perspective and critical distance to discuss migration, asylum, assimilation, and gender. They dazzled with their precision and their questions, negotiating their own experiences of racialization alongside the evidence of the ancient world as they developed compelling insights into texts that have been argued about for millennia — in the context of care and attention not only to the ancient world, but also to the contemporary world they navigate.

My choice to stop “blocking it out” was an important one for me this semester, personally and pedagogically. The choice came with some pain and, yes, more noticeable resentment, but such “minor feelings” (to use Cathy Park Hong’s term) hum in the background even when they go unrecognized. My choice also allowed me to connect on a deeper level with students, to teach them in a more honest, and ultimately rigorous way, and, finally, to open up meaningful conversations inside the field and gain clarity from perspectives outside it. If the common threads that emerged from my conversations with Asian and Asian American classicists and scholars are the feelings of isolation and hypervisible invisibility, then it’s important to bring home that the experience of racial loneliness is, at least, a shared one that can be resisted. As Grace Kao told me: “Don’t feel alone.”

Header image: Bronze statuette, Ordos culture, 4th-1st century BCE. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Kate Meng Brassel teaches as a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.