A Balancing Act: Asian Affinity Groups Scrutinize Their Role On Campus
Students squeezed into the Winthrop Senior Common Room — some balancing on window sills, others perching on a nearby piano bench — last month for a two-hour discussion on the responsibilities of Asian affinity groups on campus.
Some of the biggest Asian cultural organizations, including the Asian American Association and the Chinese Students Association, had recently attracted censure for their membership policies and programming. The criticism, much of it taking place through anonymous posts to the Harvard Confessions Facebook page, spurred the April 23 meeting in Winthrop.
The event, titled “The Role of Asian Cultural Organizations on Campus,” kicked off with introductions from everyone present, revealing that the attendees came from a wide range of organizations — from the Vietnamese Association to the Asian American Brotherhood.
Throughout the evening, participants discussed issues of inclusivity and political advocacy. During lulls in the conversation, AAA co-President Amy Zhang ’21 read off anonymous comments submitted to a live feedback from.
The April 23 discussion — co-sponsored by six different organizations — marked the culmination of years of frustration from Asian and Asian American students at the College. Undergraduates have long questioned how Asian affinity groups should serve students on campus.
The College has roughly 25 Asian cultural affinity groups. Even more Asian-focused student organizations exist, running the gamut from the Asian American Dance Troupe to the Task Force on Asian and Pacific American Studies.
These groups have struggled with decisions over membership policies, the definition of “Asian American,” and the prioritization of political advocacy.
“Some people join certain organizations because they just want to find just a community or a place to feel at home whereas others join because they want to have more advocacy or they want purely cultural events or purely social events,” AAA co-president Sami G. Um ’21 said in an interview.
“As leaders of a cultural organization, especially an organization like AAA that's supposed to be catering to all those different interests, it's about finding a way to balance that,” she said.
When asked whether they are part of a certain cultural organization, many joke, “Well, technically I’m on the mailing list.”
Many students say a disconnect exists between board members and general members of Asian affinity groups. Though these groups hold weekly meetings and frequent bonding events for board members, they often do not host enough events that bring the entire membership together, according to Daniel Lu ’20.
“I don't think most students feel like they're part of CSA unless they're on CSA board. And that's myself included,” said Lu, who is on the CSA mailing list but does not consider himself a member.
Many organizations do occasionally host open snack-themed study breaks and coordinate “sib-fams,” which pair freshmen with an older “sibling” in the organization. Lu said he thinks these groups have the “right idea,” but must hold such events on a more regular basis and tailor them to their general membership.
The divide is apparent as early as September of freshman year. Many organizations have freshman-exclusive board positions for students looking to get involved with an affinity group. But these “frosh-rep” positions are often limited. For most Asian affinity groups, interested freshmen submit candidacy statements and deliver speeches to the general membership — people on the mailing list — who then vote.
This election process may not allow adequate assessment of prospective candidates’ qualifications, according to incoming South Asian Association Academic-Political chair Javin Pombra ’22. A candidate’s public speaking skills, pre-existing friendships with organization members, or previous leadership experience can often be the determining factor in such elections.
“I can't imagine being rejected by a cultural organization,” Pombra said. “Let's say a cultural organization rejects you as a frosh-rep and they're like, ‘But we still want you to be actively involved.’ How is it going to feel as a first semester freshman to go to all these cultural events and talk to people who have literally just said that you don't deserve to be on board?”
This year, SAA eliminated the frosh-rep election process, allowing any interested freshman to join the board. Previously, 20 to 30 freshmen would run for frosh-rep positions, but only eight people would be elected. Dharma, Harvard’s Hindu students organization, also has an open frosh-rep system.
“Culture is about buy-in,” Sonya Kalara ’21, who is a member of SAA and Dharma, said. “So if someone wants to be a part of a cultural organization, I don't think there's any sense in saying, ‘No, you can't be a part of a culture' because culture is something that only exists when it is shared.”
Some organizations not only have cuts for board positions, but also general membership. The Organization of Asian American Sisters in Service and AAB, for example, both have recruitment processes that require prospective members to get meals with every current member. Members then deliberate, accepting certain individuals through a unanimous vote.
Several students have criticized these organizations for gatekeeping spaces to students.
“Whenever you create barriers to entry, you privilege some types of people over others,” Kalara said. “That's just inevitable.”
OAASIS administrative co-Director Lily B. Ge ’20 did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
AAB president Jonathan T. Paek ’20 said the organization limits its membership to create a close environment that cultivates their members’ abilities to serve Asian American students on campus more broadly. He also pointed out that AAB has had a diverse membership including the leaders of many cultural organizations, as well as non-Asian members and non-male identifying members.
“AAB is a very internally facing organization, but we have a lot of individuals who are very ingrained within the Asian American community,” Paek said. “The purpose of our [AAB] check-ins, to me, is to have a tight-knit space where we can always continually challenge ourselves to be better and then to go off into our individual spaces to improve those organizations, those communities as well.”
Some organizations have created more programming open to their entire membership, not just board members. SAA, for example, organizes Ghungroo, an annual dance showcase that celebrates South Asian culture. Students of any background can participate as producers, dancers, choreographers, and set designers.
“Ghungroo is probably one of our most inclusive events,” incoming SAA co-President Fatima Shabhaz ’21 said in an interview. “A huge goal of mine as president is to create more events like Ghungroo where people can come out to feel like they’re part of the community.”
The Korean Association has also hosted more open events for non-board members, according to outgoing KA co-President Nicole H. Kim ’20. The organization started a Facebook group to more easily communicate information to members and has begun hosting biweekly “Community Kickbacks.”
Some organizations must also deal with exclusivity in the form of demographic representation. Pan-Asian groups like AAA face the unique challenge of encompassing a diverse population originating from a continent that comprises 48 different countries.
Though cultural organizations serve as spaces for people to negotiate identities, many South Asian Americans and Southeast Asian Americans at Harvard say they do not feel that their identities are represented in pan-Asian groups like AAA, whose board is predominantly East Asian.
“When people think of Asian American they mostly think of East Asia,” Harvard Vietnamese Association president Thang Diep ’19 said. “And so I can’t help but feel like this ‘pan-Asian’ community is a specific way that doesn't include me in the first place.”
Some students say attempts to coalesce a pan-Asian community oftentimes homogenize and neglect the culturally and socioeconomically unique experiences of different groups. Catherine H. Ho ’21, who has attended AAA events in the past, says the relative homogeneity of AAA’s membership is reflected in its programming.
“I've never seen any of their programming that talks about Southeast Asia,” Ho said. “Their programming is really interesting about representation, Jeremy Lin, and their study breaks are really cool. But I never felt like my identity was represented there.”
“Southeast Asians are systemically underrepresented,” she added. “There are huge poverty differences and economic differences within different groups of people, whether that be ethnicity-wise or how they came to America, whether they were, like, immigrants, or had work visas, or were refugees.”
Many Southeast Asian and South Asian students have instead opted to join organizations like SAA or HVA.
“The first thing that I saw when I went to an AAA event was that it was primarily East Asian,” Narayan T. Narasimhan ’19, a former SAA Academic-Political chair, said. “I think that while AAA is a wonderful organization in its own right, the only difference was that SAA specifically catered towards my culture compared to AAA which frequently went and participated with CSA and other East Asian organizations.”
Um said it is impossible for a pan-Asian organization like AAA to represent every single experience, but the organization is taking steps to address the issue, including partnering with other groups.
“We could start by being more open or having branches of the organization that are responsible for organizing certain initiatives to help cater to these different identities run by people who have actually experienced that themselves,” she said.
Various groups have tried to foster “pan-Asian” solidarity at Harvard.
Two years ago, Alex Z. Zhang ’20 and Julie S. Chung ’20 founded the Pan-Asian Council to promote coalition building. PAC unites the leaders of 16 Asian affinity groups.
During monthly council meetings, organization leaders update others on upcoming events and possibilities for co-sponsorships. For example, AAB annually hosts Reflections, a catered dinner honoring graduating seniors who have made a positive impact on Asian American students. Twelve other organizations decided to co-sponsor Reflections after hearing about it at a council meeting.
“I think PAC is just a way for people to connect,” Ho, a current council co-chair, said. “Even though we do have differences being Vietnamese American versus Chinese American, there are issues that affect all of us.”
Students have also organized events independent of specific organizations. Former Asian American Women’s Association board members Emily C. Zhu ’19 and Chung — an inactive Crimson editorial editor — started “Asian American Community Brunches” this semester to give students a space to unpack what it means to be Asian American at Harvard.
“We're not really tied strongly to any particular organizations,” Zhu said. “We were thinking about what Asian American community feels like outside of a specific group or board.”
During the first brunch, the some 20 attendees brainstormed topics to discuss in upcoming weeks. Those topics include public service and a debrief of “East Side,” a recent musical put on by the Harvard College Asian Students Arts Project.
“It's really meant to be a space where people can grow together,” Zhu said. “And even if there's no clear answer, and there will never be one, we can try to figure things out together.”
Some argue Asian American was never really a cultural identity to begin with — it’s a political one.
Activist and historian Yuji Ichioka coined the term “Asian American” in 1968 to build a collective political identity after seeing the success of the Black Power movement. It signaled an interconnected history of a once relatively small population in the United States, united by issues like immigration, labor exploitation, and racism. The term was also a rejection of the label “Oriental,” an imperialist, Eurocentric term that geographically saw Asia as relative to Europe.
“The term Asian American was built out of a necessity for coalition building,” James Z. Gui ’20 said. “It's more important than ever that we really examine what are the problems that people sharing this racial identification have in this country and what are we doing to build community that isn't solely based on boba or partying.”
AAA was initially conceived with this political identity in mind. After Harvard refused to recognize Asian Americans as a minority, a group of students founded AAA to seek minority status for Asian American students and repudiate the Asian “model minority” myth.
But a common perception of AAA today is that they have strayed from their political roots. For some, the lack of advocacy opportunities and conversations in AAA and other Asian cultural organizations has been disappointing.
Lu argued that it is impossible to separate culture from politics.
“Part of what defines our racial identity or cultural identity is how it interacts with other people in society and how it interacts with different political issues,” he said. “When we talk about immigration and undocumented people, that's affecting our very culture and sometimes even the different members of these organizations.”
In recent years, TAPAS, a student organization that advocates for a formalized ethnic studies program at Harvard, has become a “de-facto progressive Asian students association,” according to Lu. He and Gui joined TAPAS — which is explicitly not a cultural organization — because of its focus on advocacy.
Several Asian American cultural organizations have opted to take a more apolitical stance on issues so as to not alienate members with different views.
But Lu argued that cultural organizations do not have to take a stance on an issue to be politically engaged.
“You can just provide a space to talk about things like mental health, immigration issues, sexual assault,” he said. “Maybe there will be some people with pretty differing opinions on them, but that doesn't mean it's a bad idea to still have the conversation.”
Political issues can also creep into social spaces, according to Diep.
“It's not wrong to want a social space,” Diep said. “I think it's wrong when you have a social space that also ends up excluding people. It's hard to separate the social from political because I think even when planning our social events, we have to think critically about who are you having these social events for.”
At the April meeting, an AAB member off-handedly mentioned that he had heard homophobic and anti-black comments at an AAB meeting, drawing criticism to the group for tolerating homophobia and racism.
Responding to those criticisms, Paek said in an interview that AAB does not accept “any form of homophobia, misogyny, anti-blackness.”
“We absolutely condemn that,” Paek said. “And what’s important is we constantly keep each other and our communities accountable.”
Even beyond political engagement within the Asian American community, Narasimhan said he wants to see Asian affinity groups work on activism related to other marginalized groups, including Latinx, black, and queer students at Harvard.
“There needs to be a really great push to accept the fact that if we want to be true allies with one another, we have to accept the fact that we have to be allies with everybody else,” he said. “I think that's historically been a problem within the Asian American community.”
Several Asian affinity group leaders said the April meeting has already prompted plans for new initiatives.
Immediately following the event, CSA emailed its members, stating it would release an open calendar of events to general members, host two town halls each semester, publicize open board meetings, and reform board training.
Similarly, AAA will hold more open board meetings, host organization-wide check-ins three times a semester, and email members a calendar of events at the beginning of each semester. The group will also create “Chair Committees,” which anyone can join to plan events.
“Cultural spaces should be an inclusive, open place where you can connect with people who look like you,” CSA co-President Cindy Gao ’21 said in an interview. “It's a very valuable space for people to not have to necessarily think about, or feel alienated because of, the cultural part of their identity just because they're surrounded by people who also share that.”
Though tensions rose during the forum, organization leaders said they are appreciative of the event’s high turnout and eager for future opportunities during which Asian American students at Harvard can convene under one roof.
“I was pleasantly surprised by how much I felt like the community and all these disparate organizations really came together to come up with concrete ideas about things they’d like to see,” Zhang said. “I think it just goes to show how much people care about this community.”
Several students said they are hopeful campus groups will coalesce into a broader pan-Asian body.
“I think a pan-Asian community at Harvard exists insofar as we had this event and people who maybe don't always feel like they're that connected still came out and still shared space together,” Lu said. “The question is just how we want to move forward from it. Clearly it's not very well formed or well organized.”
“But seeing a lot of people at this event is encouraging to me because a lot of people do want to make it an even stronger and inclusive, supportive community,” he added.
—Staff Writer Amanda Y. Su can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @amandaysu.