The February incident at the UW Law School involving Professor Leonard Kaplan and several Asian American law students acted as a catalyst for Asian Americans on campus and in the community to reflect on their position in American society like no other incident had in recent memory. While there was much ado made about the incident in the local and national press, the public discourse provided little context to understand the climate that Asian American students face on the UW campus. Was the Kaplan incident a blip in an otherwise excellent climate for Asian American students? Or was it an extreme and visible symptom of the conditions that Asian American students face?
      The Capital City Hues conducted a focus group with six Asian American UW students comprised of five graduate and one undergraduate students in March while the memory of the Kaplan incident was still fresh. While the insights that these students offered should not be viewed as the definitive, scientific view of the conditions that Asian American students face -- none of the students professed to speak for the students as a whole -- their insights do offer some understanding of the context of the lives of Asian American students on campus. In the first part of this three part feature, we looked at some of the stereotypes and situations Asian Americans face. In the second part, we looked at efforts to connect with other students and, in particular, other Asian American students and community members. In this final part, we look at UW diversity efforts.
      Since Donna Shalala became UW Chancellor in the late 1980s, the University of Wisconsin-Madison has taken proactive measures to increase the level of diversity on the Madison campus by increasing the number of students of color through programs like PEOPLE and POSSE and creating a better campus climate for students of color in order to retain them.
      While almost any group of students of color would say that there are real diversity issues on campus, there are still many people in the state of denial. "It is ignorant to not acknowledge there is a problem or not understand what the problem is and how to define the problem beyond individuals and to see more systemic problems," Jackie said.  "To me, that's ignorance. You can certainly have feelings of prejudice against other groups without being educated. Education and knowledge is the biggest problem. It's not racism as much as it is ignorance."
      Some people think we should just get to the point where we tolerate each other. But several members of the focus group felt building tolerance isn't very helpful. "Does ignorance come from too much tolerance," Linda asked. "That's a word I learned after coming to Madison. You have to be tolerant and accept everyone. Sometimes when you just accept everyone, you miss out on the unique differences that make us different and wonderful. I'm not sure if any of that comes into play. It's a word I've had to learn, what it meant and the different connotations of what that brings. I think 'Yes, tolerance is a good thing.' But when you have this blanket idea of tolerance to cover everything, then maybe it can feed more ignorance."
      "Doesn';t tolerance presume there is a 'we' that is on the inside of the boundary and 'we' are just tolerating the people on the other side of the boundary," Mai Tuan added. "Tolerance is not engagement of people on a personal level and it isn't intercultural education."
      One initiative the university has undertaken to foster a higher level of understanding is the requirement that undergraduates take an ethnic studies class in order to graduate. While the concept is a good one, most of the members of the focus group felt there were too many loopholes for the requirement to be effective. "When they started this Plan 2008 thing, somewhere along the way, they decided undergrads have an ethnic studies requirement," Linda said. "But that can be covered by any number of classes. You can take a class that has nothing to do with race or ethnicity, but if they cover something on the syllabus, it counts for that requirement. Foreign language would count as this requirement."
      "The reason I feel so strong about this side-stepping of the ethnic requirement -- you can do languages for the requirement -- is people don't know how to talk about race here," Nancy emphasized. "I think this is part of the larger problem. Why don't we know how to talk about race on this campus? In a larger sense, from what I understand, we are in a Wisconsin state school. We are all from different places in the United States. My undergraduate work was at a small liberal arts school. Most of the people here are from Wisconsin. They're from Northern Wisconsin; they're from Western Wisconsin. A lot of people are from Wisconsin, which isn't a diverse state. You have to ask that as a large institution of the state, what is the responsibility of the University of Wisconsin-Madison to educate people when they come in, to filter people through this different lens of understanding."
      And even if the students take one "real" class in ethnic studies, the exposure may be too superficial to make an impact. "From a personal experience, by taking one class, a 'Race and Ethnic Relations' class, the theories that were presented were a bit conservative," Marlene said. "Because there are a lot of ideas of what race may be and it's very socially constructed, my concern from this particular professor is he educating other students in a way that doesn't allow these students to talk about these kinds of issues and doesn't foster that kind of community. Again this might be the only class that these other students may have about any kind of ethnicity and may be using it as a filler to graduate. My concern is that student of course isn't going to care about certain issues that are going on because they have never been introduced and still may not be able to talk about them. It contributes to this idea of apathy that is on this campus."
      Nancy also felt that the classes may not go far enough to engage the students in a meaningful dialogue about diversity. "In this one class, all of these students were talking about various stereotypes," Nancy recalled. "They had traveled to other countries. The class was about writing about other cultures. How do you write about different cultures? This was a very interesting class to me. The professor had taught this class before. She's a great professor and I had heard great things about her. I went to this class and you could tell that everyone felt stereotypes are bad. 'We never want to stereotype anyone.' But they never moved past that. Why are stereotypes bad? What stereotypes are you talking about? And the professor wasn't pushing them. I felt very uncomfortable because I was the only person of color in the class. After the class, I talked to the professor about this. She said, 'I feel it is kind of a mantra, stereotypes are bad, we should stay away from stereotypes.' I was sitting in on the class. I asked 'How would you push beyond that?' Her answer was real disheartening because she said 'You can only push UW-Madison students so far.' This is the best class to talk about stereotypes and how you work with them and how you work around them, how you do them, if you do them, why you do them, who does them. I didn't know how far the class was going to go as far as that discussion goes. I told her that she needed to push it further."
      And to Mai Tuan, a superficial treatment might do more harm than good. "In Travel Writing, they have to describe their sites and feelings about the 'other' in the country they are visiting," Mai Tuan said. "And so you get phrases such as 'All of these small Asian women squatting.'
      It gets back down to a critique of multiculturalism, which is that we are all just out to consume every culture. We as a privileged White male can consume all of these different cultures by going to the restaurants and watching them do their ethnic/cultural dances. But at the end of the day, it's a very sick way of looking at them and enjoying it and then not really dealing with the real people."
      And what it may boil down to is a situation where people aren't really dealing with each other and their own perceptions as they go about their business on campus. While students may be brought to the edge of dealing with race relations, there is nothing that is compelling them to truly deal with it. Due to their status and numbers, majority students don't have to. And students of color, like the Asian American students in the focus group, have to deal with every day in an environment where the majority of people they come in contact with aren't listening.
The isolation of being different continues.
A look at the campus climate for Asian American students on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus
The isolation of being different
ByJonathan Gramling
Part 3 of 3
May 16,2007 Archives