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Reducing anti-Asian bias on campus, a Q&A with Edmund Fong

In this 18-month project, University Communications reached out to campus experts to provide content for these Q&As based on their academic and/or lived experience. These Q&As are part of a larger series. They do not represent the official position of the University of Utah and are provided for educational purposes.

Edmund Fong is the Chair of Ethnic Studies at the University of Utah. His research is focused on the role racial politics play in the development of American political culture and American political institutions, with a special interest in the historical interplay between ideas and institutions.

To contextualize this conversation about race and bias on campus, what are important things to understand about the history of Asian people in the United States?

 People often don’t realize how long Asians have been a part of the United States. It’s been at least a century and a half since we first began to see the large waves of Asian immigrants to this country. And those migrations were not the first ones. There were early Filipino communities in the U.S. in the 1700s.

This long history has been hostile since the beginning for Asian people in this country. For example, in the Intermountain region, there used to be many local Chinatowns, including in Salt Lake City, and they were driven out. In modern times, when we see examples of Asian people experiencing hostility and being made to feel unwelcome, it brings up that longer, deeper history.

It’s also important to note that while there are many reasons for Asian migration to the U.S., people often had to leave because of wars in which the United States had been involved. This goes beyond the Vietnam War to the Opium Wars and other conflicts in the 19th Century. Often there is a presumption that people who immigrate here do so voluntarily, so they should accept whatever terms they face when they arrive here. But that is not the case.

Would you like to add anything else about Utah’s history?

The history of Chinese immigrants and the building of the Transcontinental Railroad in Utah is generally better known. Most Utahns I’ve encountered are aware of that and that is a good thing.  What is often not understood about that history is it’s not just a triumphant story, which is often the way it is told. These workers experienced a lot of injustice and repression and later Asian immigrants continued to experience the same things.

The other major touchstone in Utah is the internment camp at Topaz, in the West Desert, where Japanese-Americans were imprisoned during World War II. While I think people are aware of the internment camp, I think many people are unaware of the role the Japanese-American people held there played in the state’s agricultural economy.

In more recent history, Utah has had a burgeoning Asian refugee population, with many people coming from places in Western Asia, like Nepal and Bhutan.

What are common stereotypes, assumptions, and microaggressions?

When it comes to Asian American stereotypes and prejudicial views, unfortunately, I don’t think there has been a broader recognition of things being taboo. It is still a work in progress. In recent years, it has gotten worse because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Trump administration.

An older notion that we saw re-emerge during the pandemic is: not only are Asian Americans foreign, but they are diseased or contaminated in some way. During the pandemic, we saw then-President Trump refer to the coronavirus as the “kung flu” and things like that. This stereotype dates back to the 19th Century when Asian immigrants were unwelcome because they were seen as somehow unwell, morally depraved, and prone to vice. This led to Chinatowns being seen as a place for things like gambling, prostitution, and so forth. We also see those stereotypes exhibited in what people may see as more palatable forms, such as when people refer to the smell of Asian cuisines as being noxious.

There are a few things I’ve heard from students over the years. Pronunciation is a big thing. This goes back to the issue of if you keep hearing the same thing over and over, this takes a toll. I don’t expect everyone to be able to pronounce Asian names or Asian countries perfectly. But I do think people need to acknowledge they may not be aware of how something is pronounced and show that they are open to being corrected.

What is the model minority myth and why is it a problem?

One major stereotype for Asian Americans is the myth of the model minority, which played a prominent role in the recent affirmative action case at the U.S. Supreme Court. This is the idea that all Asian Americans are successful. It developed in the 1960s out of conservative circles. It emerged during the civil rights era as commentators in conservative magazines wrote articles about how African Americans were calling for reforms, but Japanese and Chinese immigrants were relatively successful and not part of this wave of civil rights agitation. This observation was not true, but the perspective led to the argument that Asians were a model minority. This implied that other minority groups were not model and was an effort to undercut the push for social and institutional change by pitting people against one another.

The myth continued to build over time. It’s an ironic myth in the context of Asian American history because it directly contradicts other myths about Asian immigrants, including the perpetual foreigner myth. This is a term scholars use to describe the perception that Asian immigrants and Asian Americans are always considered new immigrants—it doesn’t matter if their family dates back to being in the U.S. for generations.

This bias can take fairly innocuous forms. It may look like asking someone how long they’ve been in the U.S., or where they are really from. But when those questions happen over and over again, it reinforces the idea that no matter how long you’ve been here and no matter how accustomed to the culture you are, you will always be an outsider. The internment camps of the 1940s illustrate why this myth can be so detrimental— a good portion of the people interned were U.S. citizens.

One reason why it is harmful is Asians in the United States are not a monolith. There are many different Asian ethnic groups in the U.S., and some of these groups have the highest poverty rates in the country. When statistics are put out that Asians have the highest rates of education among all racial groups, these numbers often aren’t interrogated on a closer level. The people who need more resources are made invisible. And it’s also important to note that research shows Asians don’t receive the same return on education that their white counterparts do.

How can people be better allies to the Asian members of our campus community?

Don’t be presumptuous. You may have wonderful Asian friends who are not U.S. citizens and are in the country temporarily. Or you may have traveled in Asia. This does not mean you understand that country, much less Asian Americans, some of whom have been in this country for generations.

If you want to share your own experiences, strive to do it in a non-presumptuous way. Work to educate yourself about the history of Asian Americans in the United States. It’s wise to treat every encounter you have with an Asian American or a member of the Asian community as a fresh start. If it’s relevant, you can bring up your experience. And if it’s not appropriate, you’ll pick up on the cue.