On Wednesday, February 5, a petition circulated throughout the student body calling for greater inclusion of Asian and Asian-American voices in the Women’s Studies program. The petition was part of a student-led initiative to fight against what some students see as a pattern of Asian erasure at Vassar and in the US more generally. The petition calls for 1000 signatures. As of Tuesday, 345 people from across the country have signed.
Though the petition was the result of collaboration between many students on campus, two students in particular headed the initiative: Michelle Zhang ’15 and Grace Sparapani ’16. As Sparapani explained, “This was something she and I talked about quite a bit, along with other issues facing Asian women on this campus, and it was Michelle that took the initiative to connect everyone that she had talked with about this in an email thread so we could come up with a solution. She and I wrote the original petition mainly because it was so hard to get everyone together all at once to do so.”
The petition begins by establishing what students feel is the main problem with the Women’s Studies Program as it relates to Asian and Asian American voices. As the petition reads, “We believe in the power of academics to shape social conversations and would thus like to challenge the Women’s Studies program to accept the responsibility of initiating this change. As Asian and Asian American women, we do not see our voices in the literature we read.”
One of the main concerns expressed in the petition is that Asian and Asian American women often read about the perspectives of other women of color without having the opportunity to hear from voices that represent their own identity. As Sparapani explained, “I’ve found that quite often Asian women are expected to be content with just a general discussion of race. In the intro to Women’s Studies course (WMST 130), there are multiple Latina and Black women on the syllabus who talk about race, though draw primarily and almost exclusively from their specific experiences.”
This experience was echoed by co-president of the Asian Students Alliance, Katherine Zhou. She said, “I think in general that the Women’s Studies department should put some emphasis on multiculturalism in Women’s Studies. Twitter movements like #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen have made it clear that women of color feel marginalized in the modern feminist movement. The recent reformation of the Women of Color Alliance on our campus also speaks to that.”
She continued, “Unfortunately, erasure of Asian and Asian-American experiences is a very real thing. As Asian-Americans attempting to hold meaningful dialogue on our identities on this campus, we feel it’s important to add our own voices to the narrative and make an environment where other Asian-Americans feel comfortable speaking up as well.”
Zhang also spoke of the Intro to Women’s Studies course at Vassar. She called the class the impetus for the petition. As she recalled, “Last semester, I took the Intro Women’s Studies class and outright noticed a lack of Asian and Asian American feminist literature (with the exception of Uma Narayan’s “Contesting Cultures”). I wrote a thinkpiece about a firsthand encounter with sexism and racism, and Diane Harriford suggested that we write a letter to the Women’s Studies Steering committee. Basically, we wanted to express our discontent with being overlooked in the syllabus and the greater curriculum.”
After explaining the gap students have noticed in the Women’s Studies program with regards to Asian and Asian American inclusion, the petition goes on to highlight the complex role Asians play in the highly hierarchical system of race-based oppression that exists today. Often, Asian perspectives are left out of discussions of race because of the perception that they experience oppression differently from other oppressed racial groups.
Sparapani echoed this idea, saying ,“…I think Asians are often seen as an “in-between” race. We’re referred to as model minorities, Eastern Asians tend to be more light-skinned, Asian immigrant populations tend to try to assimilate more than other [people of color] communities. There is also a huge problem of Asian discrimination against other [people of color] communities because we try to align ourselves with white communities in hopes of finding more favor and privilege.”
She continued, “I hope that Asian struggles being presented alongside the struggles of other POC will help other [people of color] see Asians as a part of the [people of color] community, something I don’t believe always happens, and help Asians identify proudly as [people of color] themselves.”
Ultimately, the petition called for more discussions of race and intersecitonality and the instatement of an Asian or Asian American woman on the steering committee of the Women’s Studies Program. The petition also states that if the administration can’t find a person for this committee, than the committee should collaborate with Asian and Asian American students.
As Zhang said, “Our demands included the inclusion of an Asian or Asian American woman in the Steering Committee and inclusion of Asian and Asian American literature. Previously, Peipei Qiu of the Chinese, Japanese, and Asian Studies departments served on the committee and she plans on returning to her previous place.”
Zhang also said that the Vassar faculty was very receptive to this idea. “I hope this illuminates and encourages social conversations for what I believe to be the largely ignored topic of Asian oppression on campus,” she said.
She continued, “The goal is to give voice and agency to all women on this campus, just as we hope to inspire any all people who feel invisible or ignored to speak up, because their voices will be heard and supported.”