Civil Rights

What It’s Like Being an Asian Student at an Historically Black College or University

I attend Howard University, an historically Black college/university in Washington, D.C. As a Black student attending the unapologetically Black Mecca, I have never felt like my race was a barrier here – an obvious blessing of an HBCU.  But for Asian students, of which Howard has a fair percentage, does this also ring true?

Living in a WASPy suburb of Seattle made me intimately familiar with the painful feeling of not belonging. I sought out friendships with my POC classmates — Black, Asian, Samoan, and Latinx — just so I could feel more confident in my own skin. At Howard, I was a part of the dominant group for the first time in my academic career. I couldn’t help but wonder if my Asian friends and classmates felt out of place, like I did when surrounded by a sea of white faces?  

Sunil Lamichhane, a rising senior and Chemical Engineering major from Kathmandu, Nepal experienced isolation in his freshman year: 

“That was a bit of a challenge, because of the barrier with language and culture, I [did not feel] equally welcome in all settings. I used to restrain myself from going out to events where I didn’t know people. I felt it would be awkward and I held myself back from some really amazing experiences.”

Adi Suresh, a Howard alum and first-year med student from Alexandria, V.A., can sympathize: 

“When I came to Howard, fellow desi people gravitated together and I kind of ended up in that group. It happens naturally, I think, due to a kind of culture shock. It’s like an attempt to preserve what you’re used to. But what helps me get around that is brazenness, you have to make yourself available to people who are not in the same group as you.”

Howards lacks a significant amount of coursework in Asian culture or history. To be fair, we do offer intro-level courses in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean language. But the purpose is increasing job-market value, not cultural immersion or fluency. Many students would consider it unacceptable if a White institution offered limited and inadequate opportunities to critically engage in Black culture. Is it wrong to do the same thing to Asian students?

For Tomo Okamoto Williams, a psychology major and rising junior from Seattle, Howard’s lack of Asian-focused coursework is a non-issue, especially since they feel Howard is already a diverse university, with different cultures across the Black Diaspora. Williams said that, “If you know you are going to a university that is catered towards a group that’s not your own… disconnect is going to be a given. It’s not necessarily the responsibility of the university to be knowledgeable about Asian issues. But acknowledging their ignorance is their responsibility… like, don’t make blanket statements.”

Tomo Okamoto Williams (fourth from left) during their Summer 2017 study abroad trip to Tanzania.

False assumptions leave other Asian students disappointed as well. Min, a Howard alum and first-year med student from Vietnam, struggles with combatting assumptions that others sometimes make about her:

“I’ve actually had people say to me that ‘Asian people belong to White people more than they belong to Black people.’ When I asked her how she felt Black and Asian students could better understand each other, she sadly said, ‘I’m from Vietnam… we don’t have access to books about slavery and Black history and culture like the ones I read at Howard. All we get is through the media, those movies that White people make, where Black people are in gangs and stuff. Those are the movies that we see every day. When you’re exposed to that your whole life, it changes how you think. [I don’t think] most Asian people are trying to be racist. We just haven’t seen the right side of history.’”

Howard could improve upon its views about race and ethnicity — especially regarding identity convergences. For instance, I’m Black and Jewish, which means that I am often left negotiating my place at Howard – a school where many students embrace the teachings of anti-Semites like Louis Farrakhan. The lack of interest in accommodating uncomfortable identities has often made me feel isolated.  So, is this an experience that Asian students share?

Suresh says, “Yes”:

“It’s important to think critically… I had a teacher who insisted that I wasn’t American, like three times in a row. She didn’t bother asking the right question, which was ‘Where is your family from?’ If you ask where I’m from I’m not going to say India, because I wasn’t even born there. Her insistence on getting this answer, which wasn’t the right answer… it pissed me off, I’m not going to lie.”

Defiantly, Williams resists being put into boxes because of their identity as a queer mixed person, half-Japanese and half-White: 

“I’ve heard people say ‘Asians are basically White.’ No, we’re Asian. [And] we’re exposed to many different African cultures just by being here. If we’ve gotten to this point, you just can’t assume that we’re ignorant. And if you think we’re ignorant about you, maybe you need to accept the fact that you might be ignorant about us.”

Lakai Legg, a rising junior and biology/chemistry double major from Denver, is more than used to reconciling with these uncomfortable identity convergences. She is multi-racial; her father is half-Vietnamese and half-Black, and her mother is half-White and half-Mexican. Howard has largely been a positive experience for her. But she does admit that she has been stigmatized due to her White-passing appearance. “I was taken aback when I got to campus and people had trust issues about my motives for coming. A lot of people, though, it was just for the scholarship.”

Many of the students I spoke to were told that by taking those Freshman scholarships, Asian students were preventing Black students from receiving financial aid awards. I find this hypocritical; there are many higher-income Black students at Howard who received this award. Did they face hostility from lower-income Black students?

Lakai Legg. Photo taken on her first day in her dorm freshman year.

Legg, who also received an identical award from the University of Colorado at Boulder, had other reasons for attending Howard.

“I wanted to explore… especially to show my sisters that they could go away to school and still be loyal to their family… When I visited Howard, I loved it. The people were so inviting.”

Lamichhane has also found his experience with Howard, particularly campus activism, to be welcoming:

“When attending those events, I generally do feel welcome. I usually get invited. They make me feel like my opinion matters. For me, I see my position on this campus as a collaborator, as an ally, as a person who supports the people who are leading.”

I learned a lot about my friends and classmates by speaking with them about their experiences at Howard – more than I have room to share. Howard’s Asian students are beautifully complex; overall they love their university and the opportunities they have been afforded. But as with everyone, there is a deep need to be understood.

After our interview ended, Min said something that stuck with me: 

“We try to assimilate to Howard, but Howard doesn’t try to understand us.”

A D.C. native, Nylah Burton is a senior at Howard University, where she majors in Humanities. She likes to cook and geek out about poetry with Tomo. You can find her on Instagram and  Twitter.


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