The designation “Asian American” itself is complex. While Chinese, Korean, and Japanese Americans often occupy positions of privilege in middle- and upper-class America, Asian Americans from countries such as Vietnam and Cambodia are among the most socially and economically disadvantaged in America. When talking about Princeton, I am referring to the former group, which makes up the majority of Asian American students on campus.
Following the administration’s decision to at least consider the Black Justice League’s demands, Hunter Dong, a junior involved in the school’s undergraduate student government, posted a Facebook status that praised the actions of the group as a positive step in racial progress but questioned the inclusiveness of the demands.
“I really wish other cultural groups representing minorities on campus were at least broadly mentioned as part of the final document,” Dong wrote, in reference to the demands’ emphasis on prioritizing the Black Justice League’s role in future campus reform over that of other students. When I asked Dong about his view on the protests, he highlighted his frustration with the oftentimes-overlooked Asian American perspective during discussions of minority rights. “It seemed like there wasn’t any room in there for any other minority or culture groups to attend these meetings and talk with the administration,” Dong said. He was especially concerned that these conversations about racial equality would not address issues that Asian Americans face on campus.
Julie Chen, a junior who participated in the Princeton protests, told me about the implicit racism she experienced as an Asian American woman in the philosophy department, a field historically dominated in the U.S. by white men. Chen said she attended one of her philosophy classes the night of the Black Justice League’s sit-in and “in a very condescending way” was asked by a classmate whether she felt like she needed an Asian center on campus. “I think that they expected the answer to be no,” Chen said. “Asians are minorities whenever it’s useful for people to frame them as such.”
Last spring, Princeton’s Asian American Students Association (AASA) ostensibly got involved in campus activism when the group changed its Facebook cover photo to express solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. But this fall, when the activism came to Princeton, the group did not take an official stance. For Lena Sun, a senior and former president of AASA, the recent protests presented a point of conflict. On Wednesday, she had planned to participate in the walkout the Black Justice League organized before the sit-in but ultimately decided against leaving class.
During our conversation, Sun, illustrating a common mindset shared among Asian Americans, suggested that the stakes for their participation in the protests may feel lower than they are for their African American peers. When the model-minority stereotype is internalized, she suggested, an Asian American student might think, “Look at the privilege that we have. Does it make sense to be as invested in this as other people are when things are so much better for us?”