I presume that by now, you have heard about the furor surrounding UCLA student Alexandra Wallace and her ill-advised video that she posted to YouTube in which she “complains” about Asian Americans talking in the library by mocking them with such offensive phrases such as “Ohhhhhhhhhh ching chong ling long ting tong ohhhhhhhhhh” and makes light of the natural disasters and human suffering in Japan (the video in its entirety is below).

For various reasons, there quickly followed a big backlash and firestorm against her — UCLA’s Chancellor, Dean G. Block, issued a statement condemning the video (but later and separately adding that she would not be expelled because she did not commit a violation of the school’s code of ethnics):

I am appalled by the thoughtless and hurtful comments of a UCLA student posted on YouTube. Like many of you, I recoil when someone invokes the right of free expression to demean other individuals or groups. . . . I believe that speech that expresses intolerance toward any group of people on the basis of race or gender, or sexual, religious or cultural identity is indefensible and has no place at UCLA.

UCLA’s well-respected Asian American Studies Center summed up the sentiments of many in the academic community very well:

[T]his rant — beyond the action of an individual — is clear evidence that we still have much work to do before we can claim to live in a “post-racial” society. . . . “Asians in the Library” is a travesty on many levels, representing an attack on Asian and Asian American students and their families and undermining UCLA as a global university with deep ties to communities and institutions in Asia and other parts of the world.

It entails a “new racism” by foregrounding students who speak Asian languages and have different family traditions, as it insidiously groups and attacks UCLA’s American-born as well as our international students of Asian ancestry. As the only University of California campus without a diversity requirement, UCLA surely needs to implement a diversity requirement that will expose every student to the task of living civilly with people of different origins, backgrounds, orientations, and beliefs, whether they are born here or come from abroad.

I would like to highlight and expand on some of the points raised in UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center statement. Specifically, I see this video rant as another unfortunate and dangerous example of what happens (and is likely to continue happening) when institutional factors intersect with each other, as they are doing right now: White privilege, colorblindness, Asian Americans seen as the quiet ‘model minority,’ and ‘yellow peril’ fears of the rise of Asian countries.

Lesson 1: White Privilege

Let’s start with White privilege. However difficult it is for many White Americans to hear, examples like this video clearly show that many (as in a large number, but certainly not all) Whites implicitly think there’s nothing wrong with invoking cultural stereotypes to portray an entire group of color. I have written about this dynamic many times before, but needless to say, this is certainly not the first time that Whites have tried to “make fun” of Asian Americans or other groups of color on college campuses and elsewhere in society.

© Pascal Campion, Ikon Images/Corbis

In her video, Alexandra Wallace unconsciously invokes White privilege by assuming that she can say whatever she wants about Asian Americans. For the sake of argument, I might accept that she is not aware that such phrases as “Ohhhhhhhhhh ching chong ling long ting tong ohhhhhhhhhh” and calling them “hordes” are deeply offensive and conjure up historical examples of Asians as faceless, sub-human invaders and villains.

But unfortunately, this “lack of awareness” is at the heart of the problem and in fact, forms the basis for much of the racism that Asians and Asian Americans encounter on an everyday basis. In other words, most non-Asians (most of whom are admittedly White) don’t purposely intend to be racist when make jokes or casual comments about Asians.

But when they do so, based on their ignorance of Asians and Asian Americans, they only reinforce and perpetuate their racial privileges as Whites. That privilege also gives them the ability to not have to worry about saying or doing offensive things about other racial groups.

That is, their racial privilege gives them a larger “comfort zone” to say and do things that they think are funny or harmless but ultimately, minorities find very offensive. Even if most Whites don’t have this consciously or even unconsciously in their minds when it comes to Asians, this climate of racial ignorance is a reality and functions to “protect” and “insulate” Whites — whether or not they’re even aware of it — at the expense of people of color.

Of course, many Whites will respond by basically saying that it was just a joke, Asians should just shrug it off, that it was harmless and that we Asians should just lighten up and not take things so seriously. The problem with that argument is that it ignores the larger historical and cultural context and that there are fundamental institutional power differences inherent in situations in which Whites denigrate minorities.

Each time an incident like that happens, it reinforces the notion of White supremacy — that Whites can say and do whatever they want toward anybody at any time without facing any negative repercussions. Ultimately, suggesting to us that we should just “get over it” only serves as another clear illustration of White privilege — of those with in an institutionally superior position telling those below them what to do and what they should think.

Lesson 2: Colorblindness

A contributing factor that functions to reinforce and perpetuate White privilege is the ideology of colorblindness. Again, I have written about the fallacies and failures of trying to be colorblind in U.S. society many times.

In this case, the institutional backdrop to Alexandra Wallace’s rant is the misguided belief that we now live in a colorblind society in which everyone and every racial group is now politically, economically, and socially equal, and that racial/ethnic discrimination, inequality, and racism no longer exist. Further, being colorblind also means that it’s impolite to discuss race or the U.S.’s history of racial oppression and domination — let’s just forget about them since they’re not important anymore, right?

Suffice it to say, and as this video shows, race and racial differences are clearly still very important today. They are still relevant because inequalities still exist and discrimination still takes place, and because colorblindness still provides a crucial foundation upon which White privilege can exist. In other words, if everybody is the same and on an equal playing field, it’s perfectly fine to joke about them however we want, right?

Lesson 3: The Model Minority Image

Another factor that comes into play is the image of Asian Americans as the model minority: smart and high achieving, but also quiet, passive, and obedient. While it is true that on the aggregate level, Asian Americans as a collective group outperform Whites on many measures of socioeconomic achievement, when we look beneath the surface, we see that there are notable differences between ethnic groups (some Asian immigrant groups are more self-selective in terms of their human capital while others are more likely to be involuntary refugees). Further, generalizing the seemingly positive belief that Asian Americans are successful puts extraordinary pressure on all Asian Americans to live up to those standards.

In this particular case, I will hypothesize that Alexandra Wallace (and many others like her) presume that almost all Asian Americans are smart ans successful but also passive and therefore, won’t care if she complains and mocks them. Also, I cannot rule out some degree of resentment about the success of Asian Americans as well, particularly at a university where 40% of the student population is Asian American.

This resentment leads me to my final lesson . . .

Lesson 4: Yellow Peril and Fears About Rising Asia

At the risk of being redundant, again I have already highlighted numerous examples in which U.S. society and U.S. citizens are increasingly feeling destabilized by demographic changes in the U.S. population, the negative effects of globalization, and increased competition with the rising economies of Asian countries such as China and India.

The latter is often referred to as the new “yellow peril” image of Asians “invading” the U.S. and taking over or destroying its institutions and society. It is an image that frequently gets conjured up in times of economic recession and especially when Americans perceive others to be benefiting and prospering at their expense. With the economic and political emergence of Asian countries such as Japan, China, and India in recent decades and the concurrent decline of U.S. superiority, this yellow peril image has gained new life and indeed, seems to be a growing fear, consciously and unconsciously, for many Americans these days.

When people feel that their standard of living or “way of life” is being threatened, they are likely to get defensive, consciously and unconsciously. In that situation, one way to react is to draw a more rigid cultural boundary between “us” and “them.” In this case, Alexandra Wallace invoked this nativist sentiment clearly when she said, “In America, we don’t talk in the library.” Inside Higher Education has a very well-written analysis of this entire episode and journalist Allie Grasgreen quotes Professor Joe Feagin, former President of the American Sociological Association and well-respect expert on White privilege research, on this emerging distinction between “insiders” and “outsiders”:

For Joe R. Feagin, a sociology professor at Texas A&M University and co-author of The Myth of the Model Minority: Asian Americans Facing Racism, Wallace made a blatant statement that Asian students are separate from — and less important than — white students. “A key part of the stereotyping of Asians and Asian Americans is their foreignness,” Feagin said. “She makes the point that not only are Asians and Asian-Americans stereotyped and evaluated from the old, white vs. others — you know, racial framing — but they also face this dimension of not being American. That is, foreign vs. American.”

Taken together, all of these factors form the sociological context within which Alexandra Wallace publicly expressed her anti-Asian sentiments. The sad part of this episode is that she is certainly not the first person to engage in racism against Asian Americans and alas, she will not be the last.

As an educator and a person of color, I have a particular interest in issues surrounding racial/ethnic diversity on college campuses. In fact, this topic is a common theme that I’ve written about on this blog. Like most liberals, I happen to think that greater diversity is generally a good thing, although I acknowledge that there are some ways in which diversity can lead to some challenges in the short run.

In other words, racial/ethnic diversity is a complicated and multidimensional phenomenon. This is especially true on college campuses where, in most cases, there are students who come from a wide range of backgrounds and once they interact with each other, can lead to an equally wide range of outcomes. To illustrate this point, Inside Higher Education reports on the release of a new study that looks at actual outcomes of racial/ethnic diversity on college students and finds, you guessed it, some mixed results:

One key finding was the generally positive impact on racial attitudes of living with someone of a different race. Students were surveyed on their attitudes before being assigned someone to live with, and after a year in which some lived with “outgroup roommates.”

Generally, and regardless of the attitudes with which students entered UCLA, those who lived with members of other ethnic groups showed statistically significant gains in comfort levels with people of different groups, having circles of friends beyond one’s own group, and a variety of other measures of tolerance toward different groups. The changes in attitudes were most striking for those living with either black or Latino roommates.

The one exception to this positive impact was with Asian students as roommates: White and black students who lived with Asians tended to show increased prejudice against Asians on some measures after living with them. . . .

[However], the researchers examined the impact of membership in groups that are defined largely by race and ethnicity (such as black student unions) as well as membership in groups that do not have an explicit racial or ethnic mission, but have overwhelmingly white members (some fraternities and sororities). Generally, they found that a negative impact resulted from membership in these groups — white or minority — in which belonging to such a group led to an increase in feelings of victimization.

There are several key findings here, so let me address them one at a time.

The Benefits of Diversity

The study’s finding that increased racial/ethnic contact and interaction among students leads to greater comfort with others of a different race is not new and in fact, reinforces what sociologists have been saying for decades — this is frequently referred to as the “Contact Hypothesis.” Nonetheless, it is nice to see real, concrete evidence of this idea in a real-world situation.

As the article also notes, this finding confirms one of the basic principles of affirmative action — that increased racial/ethnic diversity represents a net benefit for American society and is therefore a worthwhile goal. Opponents of affirmative action are free to criticize other aspects of affirmative action that they disapprove of, but as this study confirms, the argument that increased diversity can’t improve people’s attitudes and levels of acceptance towards others is simply not true.

The Drawbacks of ‘Segregated’ Student Groups

On the other hand, the study points out that racially/ethnically homogeneous student groups and organizations generally do not improve racial tolerance and acceptance. This finding is basically the flip side to the first one that I discussed above. The only potentially controversial part of this finding is that it applies to all kinds of homogeneous groups, whether they are all-White fraternities/sororities or Black Student Unions, Asian American Student Associations, etc. that are based explicitly on a particular racial/ethnic identity.

On that count, I would point out that while feelings of victimization and anger may exist among students of color in such racial/ethnic student organizations, there are many benefits that also exist within such groups. For example, these groups can also foster a sense of community identity and support and can also empower students by educating them about their group’s history and shared experiences, as well as giving them opportunities to turn their feelings and emotions into positive, constructive activities that provide the campus community the chance to further promote racial/ethnic diversity.

In other words, to echo another central theme of this blog, there is a difference between all-White and all-minority organizations in terms of their historical, cultural, and political meanings. That is, in the past and frequently still true today, all-White organizations have been associated with excluding marginalized groups and perpetuating a superior position of power for themselves.

In contrast, minority organizations have traditionally been focused on working to eliminate that kind of social inequality and to improve the conditions and lives of its members so that they more equally match that of their White counterparts. Therefore, the social dynamics are likely to be different between all-White and all-minority organizations.

I am not saying that all-White fraternities or sororities exist to actively reinforce White superiority. Rather, the nature and impact of the “negative” consequences of segregation are different because the history of American race relations has been different through the years. That’s what we should keep in mind when considering the dynamics of such groups.

The Negative Impact of Having an Asian Roommate

I’ve left this finding for last because I have the most trouble understanding it. My first reaction is skepticism of the results themselves. But as an academic myself, for now I will presume that the results are valid and reliable until I read the study’s exact methodology myself.

That said, my first question is, are there differences between having an Asian immigrant roommate versus a U.S.-born Asian American roommate? In other words, did White and Black students who had an Asian roommate have conflicts with the fact that their roommate was Asian or that s/he was an immigrant and therefore, presumably not as “Americanized” as they were. That may help to explain this particular finding.

If there is no difference between having an immigrant versus U.S.-born Asian American roommate, then my second thought is that perhaps it has to do with the fact that Asian Americans are something like 40% of the student population at UCLA. More generally and at the national level, perhaps White and Black Americans see us as symbols of globalization and how the U.S. is slowing losing its cultural superiority around the world as the 21st century progresses.

In that sense, it is conceivable that Whites and Blacks unconsciously feel threatened by Asians/Asian Americans and see us as competitors, either on the international level or at the level of a college campus. On several occasions I’ve posted about anti-Asian incidents on college campuses, and more generally, the rise of racial tensions in general in recent years.

With that in mind, perhaps this finding that having an Asian roommate actually had a negative impact on racial tolerance for White and Black students at UCLA reflects this general atmosphere of economic insecurity and cultural change and instability.

While it is possible that individually, Asian American roommates exhibited specific behaviors that offended their White or Black roommates, I have a hard time seeing that this was a systemic or consistent pattern among most Asian American roommates. I will have to read the actual study and the authors’ explanations for this finding to have a more concrete idea.

Ultimately and with most studies dealing with the topic of racial diversity, there are many interpretations and conclusions to make. On the one hand, I am encouraged to see the study’s results that in almost all cases, increased racial/ethic diversity led directly to increased racial/ethnic tolerance among students.

At the same time, I am a little worried about how Asian Americans fit into this equation and to what extent this finding — that having an Asian American roommate had the lone negative impact on racial tolerance — is reliable and generalizable to American society in general.