Why activism for many AAPIs starts with their voice in the classroom

In recent times — with the rise of Asian culture and the COVID-19 pandemic — my identity as an Asian American is suddenly in the spotlight. 

From articles celebrating the many cultures that make up my community to the social media posts featuring Asian models, there seems to be a sudden wave of faces that look like mine. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic and the #StopAsianHate movement, this increase in Asian visibility seems to be more important than ever. 

In an era where my community and I face endless oppression and hatred, I have realized the importance of speaking loudly, solidifying my stance and assisting others in doing the same. 

Yet when I attempt to take part in activism, I tend to ask myself: why am I hesitating?

Finding the root of hesitation

Like other young Asian Americans, I found safety within my community and “looking Asian.” But as I walked into a University of Virginia classroom for the first time in my life, my heart stopped and I hesitated. 

Coming from a culture that emphasizes collectivism, many of us, including myself, have been taught to remain silent to maintain the alleged peace of society. But, as we have seen, this peace comes at the price of our most vulnerable, whether that be children, our elders or other members of our community. 

When I spoke with other Asian American students, however, the topic of activism was taboo. Yes, activism was promising; but it was also loud and disturbing. And — as my father stated — protesting was dangerous and would leave a permanent record, especially with the violence seen in the media today. As I attempted to share my desire for activism and in-person movements, I was met with concerned glances and half smiles from my peers.

Education’s role

As students, the classroom is where we are meant to thrive and grow. From memorizing mathematical equations to participating in heavy discussions, the classroom becomes a space where students are allowed to express, defend and reconsider their values. But it can also be a space of self-censorship and scrutiny, making sure we have the “correct” opinion. 

This, I believe, is where our activism begins. In the midst of education, our voices force others to listen and take our perspectives into account. In an environment where many of us have been considered invisible, participation in the classroom is an opportunity to try testing out one’s unique voice.

The classroom becomes a place where we are unavoidable. 

Through education, students are given the opportunity to form their own thoughts and opinions, solidifying what our identities mean to us and the world we live in. This experience is given to us, and it also impacts our peers who share our classrooms.

AAPI placement in the classroom

AAPI students, however, remain in the outer circle when it comes to the classroom. This can be seen not only in the rise of schools mandating Asian American studies, but also in how AAPI students perceive themselves in the classroom.

As Asian American students, we are expected to conform to the stereotype of being studious, quiet, introverted and high-achieving. 

Examples of this expectation are enforced not only within AAPI families, but also through media representation. This expectation creates a contrast between the stereotypes of the East (AAPI) and the West. While the “Eastern” stereotypes expect academic and introverted qualities, “Western” stereotypes promote outgoing and extroverted qualities. 

Thus, it can become easy for AAPI students to become lost while balancing two aspects that polarize one another. If a student chooses to conform to one stereotype, they are seen as ignoring – or lacking – the other. As a result, silence echoes as we attempt to decode where we belong in our own schools. 

Many of today’s AAPI students, including myself, have encountered racism in the phrase “Go back to where you came from.” This is indicative of how AAPI individuals are perceived as foreigners regardless of their status as American. 

Further, we have a tendency to internalize criticism, racist remarks and perceptions such as the model minority myth, thereby leading to us focusing on our faults.  Doing so allows stereotypes and negative mindsets to bleed into our performances in the classroom, impacting how we carry ourselves and interact in an environment where we are encouraged to be loud. 

The expectation given to “active” students in a classroom is one that involves participation and extroverted behaviors, those that conform more to Western expectations. However, this is contrary to the ideologies and stereotypes that have been enforced upon AAPI throughout their lives. 

This creates an inner conflict and heightens anxiety when it comes to not only high academic achievement and embodying the model minority myth, but also how we are allowed to be loud. Additionally, we are tasked with navigating the academic world of politics, free speech and “correct opinion.”

So, what can we do?

As we continue down our path as an AAPI community, it is imperative that we encourage one another to peel apart the layers containing our own disdain for ourselves. This begins by separating how we have been perceived by society and who we truly are as individuals. By confronting the reality of our identities, we can take accountability not only of ourselves, but also of those who have fallen victim to the hatred that is so abundant in our society. 

As AAPI students, we are not only given an opportunity to pursue education — something that was refused to many of our ancestors — but we are also placed at the forefront of the future. Thus, by speaking out and amplifying other voices of our community, we can become an unavoidable reality that represents us and those who have been silenced in the past. 

To anyone considering engaging in activism as a student, in or out of the classroom: Take the first step, whether that be by raising your hand to speak in class or by joining a local demonstration. 

With those initial steps, hopefully you experience an environment where you can find confidence in your identity and the passion that comes with it. 

Featured Image via Getty Images

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