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What’s DEIBJ for Berkeley’s Asian diaspora?

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MARCH 22, 2023

I have been reflecting on what diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging and justice, or DEIBJ, mean for UC Berkeley’s Asian and Asian American students. There is a tendency in DEIBJ efforts to not include Asian Americans. The imperative to address racism against Black Americans and Latine and Hispanic communities should not prevent us from also addressing the exclusion of Asian and Asian American communities. This is how a fundamental tool of white supremacy, divide and conquer, wins the day.

How will UC Berkeley’s emerging DEIBJ initiatives define the target populations for caring? Will they strictly adhere to UC’s diversity statement which seeks to “remove barriers from historically excluded populations who are currently underrepresented.” Or will we apply a broader definition in order to also include UC Berkeley’s Asian and Asian American students, staff and faculty?

Regarding the criteria of “historic exclusion,” I wonder how many people know about the history of and current racist exclusion against Asians and Asian Americans? I certainly did not know until I studied Asian American studies at UC Berkeley. For example, do we know that some of the first racial housing covenants in California targeted Asians or about more current forms of racist planning against Asian ethnic enclaves?  

Regarding the criteria of “current underrepresentation,” UC Berkeley does not consider Asian and Asian Americans as an “underrepresented minority” group. 

For full disclosure, I am a long-time supporter of affirmative action and I also believe that there are significant differences between a low-income, first-generation student from Chinatown versus an upper-middle class student from the suburbs. That being said, the greatest income inequality in the United States today is among Asians and Asian Americans. Asians and Asian Americans with extremely different socioeconomic and educational status should not be lumped together.  

What about international students who may be sizable in numbers but feel marginalized in their programs? How do they fit into how we think about DEIBJ?

In considering these issues, I’ve been reflecting on an experience when I was 12 years old. It was the height of the United States war against Vietnam. The campaign to dehumanize Vietnamese people in order to justify atrocities was underway and was best exemplified by the infamous racist quote from General William Westmoreland, head of U.S. forces, “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does the Westerner … As the philosophy of the Orient expresses it, life is not important.”  

I babysat for a Korean family with two boys, and we were the only Asian families in the area. One day at school, the boys were called a racist slur used against Vietnamese people. I did nothing to defend them, not even to correct the bullies that the boys were Korean and not Vietnamese, as if the distinction mattered. The boys must have told their parents because I was never asked to babysit for them again.  

I think about my 12-year-old self and what was going on for her. Of the intense conditioning to believe that we were inferior through the daily racial bullying or from never ever seeing accurate depictions of Asians and Asian Americans in the fullness of our humanity. Of how my parents with their accents were treated as less intelligent and mocked in public spaces. Or of how my brilliant and hardworking father was passed over for promotions at work. 

These and so many other daily occurrences drilled into me that being Asian was something wrong and one had to become as “American,” meaning non-Asian, as possible. It meant distancing myself from other Asians, the “others,” even if they were my own family members.

Why in 2023 do I think about occurrences from decades ago? It’s because of stories I have heard from Asian and Asian American students today that are similar to my childhood experiences. These range from the more subtle experiences of exclusion to more aggressive forms of racism. For example, in a May 2021 survey I conducted with city of Berkeley officials and co-sponsored by the Asian Pacific American Student Development office, 44% of Asian and Asian American respondents, both Berkeley residents and UC Berkeley students, reported experiencing racial harassment in Berkeley, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. One common theme was that 80% of respondents did not feel safe reporting the incidents. 

The difference between today and when I was 12, however, is that we are not alone. We have resources to create fully inclusive DEIBJ efforts. First, we can do what the civil and environmental engineering, or CEE, department has recently launched in response to unconscious bias against Asian students. The CEE faculty and student leaders are taking the courageous first step of having uncomfortable conversations about what’s really happening, guided by student experiences. 

Second, we can invest in educating ourselves about one another, including organizing book clubs to read impactful books such as the late campus professor Ronald Takaki’s “Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans” and “A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America.”

Lastly, we should serve all of our students, faculty and staff rather than limiting which people we will care about. This is how we will achieve real inclusion and belonging as articulated by campus professor john a. powell, “The human condition is one about belonging. We simply cannot thrive unless we are in relationship … And so, when you look at what groups are doing … they are really trying to make a claim of, ‘I belong. I’m a member.’ ”

Margaretta Lin is a lifelong racial justice and healing movement leader, a project scientist at the Institute of Urban & Regional Development and teacher at UCB’s Department of City & Regional Planning and the Goldman School of Public Policy. She received her JD from Berkeley Law and MA in Asian Studies from UC Berkeley. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter.

APRIL 23, 2023