To the Editor:
I was amused and entertained with the letter to the editor written by Michael Serizawa Brown in a recent printing of the International Examiner (Vol. 32, No. 14, July 20 – Aug. 2). Mr. Brown was replying to a letter in the International Examiner from the President of Washington State University, V. Lane Rawlins. In the letter, Mr. Brown portrays Washington State University as a hostile learning environment for ALL Asian students based on his six years of studies and employment at the university, accusing President Rawlins of “double-speak.” He makes the claim the university “tolerates and perpetuates racism at all levels” and then proceeds to list a number of grievances that has led him to this conclusion. He then continues to condemn recent actions the university has taken to correct past injustices towards Asian students and dismisses the action by the university as a token gesture. I found his experience at Washington State University very different from my own and was compelled to give another viewpoint of the university.
I am Asian as well as an alumnus of Washington State University. I attended the university from 1994 through 2001. During that time, I earned two degrees in mechanical engineering. In my department, there were a number of Asian students and faculty who enjoyed and excelled in their learning and teaching at the university. I knew a number of Asian students from China, Japan, and Korea. Of the international students from Asia that I knew, none of them complained of racial harassment by the faculty or the university administration. Nor did they sense any prejudice from the student body as a whole. I still know a handful of Asian graduate students who stayed and continued their pursuit of a doctoral degree. The accounts of Mr. Brown seem to be very isolated, if not grossly exaggerated. Granted, WSU is not the most diverse university but that is not a solid case to support Mr. Brown’s view that the university is racist. The university attempts to recruit many minority students with every incoming freshman class.
I am not defending the university’s handling of recent incidents of reported harassment towards Asian students, but the image of the university that Mr. Brown has painted is one of a university where racism is thriving and promoted in all echelons, as well as in the attitudes of the student body. This is clearly a blatant public smearing campaign. Are we to believe that all faculty members that are Caucasian go out of their way to harass Asian students? Do graduate students have so much time on their hands to go around screaming at Asian students in the computer lab or concocting the next act of harassment? In these times of state budget cuts to higher education, do university officials sit around a table discussing university enrollment attempt to cut the recruitment of Asian students or other minority students? “Gee, Asian students are a good source of revenue, but let’s harass them out of town because we really don’t like their kind or the tuition money they bring.” Give me a break. Mr. Brown has cried wolf by painting himself and other Asian students at the university as the victims of a vast university conspiracy, which does not exist. .
There are a number of successful Asian faculty members at the university. A couple of examples:
1. Professor Juming Tang in the Biological Systems Engineering Department, who is a leader in the field of microwave and radio frequency thermal sterilization of food. His research has spawned over 100 publications on the subject as well as attracted millions of dollars from the Department of Defense and food companies.
2. Professor Alex Kuo from the English Department, who has been honored as the 2002 American Book Award for a collection of short stories in a book entitled “Lipstick.”
3. Professor Jow-Lian Ding in the Mechanical Engineering Department, who is contributing to the study of Shock Physics, a field of study where material properties change under impact. A $12.4 million facility has been constructed in support of Dr. Ding’s research.
This is just a small sampling of successful Asian professors at WSU. My point in listing these Asian faculty members is to beg the question: “If WSU fosters an environment of racism at all levels, would these Asian faculty members even have a chance of thriving in their respective fields at this university?” Given Mr. Brown’s version of the university and its environs, the clear answer would be “No.” Yet the above mentioned faculty members have all achieved full professorship and tenure. And yes, they are ALL Asians who have spent much of their academic careers at the university excelling in their respective fields of research and classroom instruction.
There are also a number of Asian student groups that are supported by the university that promote and foster a better understanding of Asian culture. I was a member of the Asian Pacific American Graduate and Professional Student Association (APAGPSA). My experience in this organization was positive, and we had plenty of support from the university and the Multicultural Center on campus. In addition to attending and promoting the APAGPSA at various university events, we participated in an annual conference for high school students of Asian and Pacific Island descent (known as the SHAPING conference), promoting higher education. A number of other Asian groups exist to bring the Asian community at WSU together with other minority group associations and the student body.
I find some of the past incidents at the university in Mr. Brown’s testimony questionable and quite self-centered. Mr. Brown assumes the role of the victim, where no racial hostility may have been intended. For example, Mr. Brown describes an experience where he attempted to acquire access to a university computer laboratory, only to be treated unprofessionally because, from his perspective, he’s Asian. What we don’t know is the history of the computer administrator. Have other Asian graduate students in the department complained of this individual’s behavior toward them? Or does this individual treat all graduate students the way Mr. Brown was treated regardless of race? During my tenure at WSU, I dealt with a similar individual in my department, but the first thought wasn’t “This guy’s a racist.” It was “What a rude jerk!” Another example cited by Mr. Brown was the negative comments he received on student course evaluations at the end of a semester for a course he taught. The comments, in Mr. Brown’s opinion, were “non-sensical, yet extremely hostile, feelings my student’s had towards me.” It was not mentioned if these evaluations had any racially hostile statements towards Asians. Were the student’s merely venting their semester long frustrations at the instruction and coursework they received in his class? If one is to accuse the university of fostering racism, a history of similar grievances and complaints from other Asian students needs to be established to justify Mr. Brown’s accusations.
A recent letter to the editor in another local Asian paper from an Indian doctoral student in pharmacology listed incidents of harassment that he had experienced at a peer university. One involved a beer bottle being thrown at him at night out of a Ford pickup near a university when he was walking home from a friend’s house. Following the thrown bottle, a person in the pickup yelled “This is for you, you f*****g jihadi.” Another incident he cites occurred on campus of the same university. While walking home and talking to a friend on a cell phone, an old Caucasian man walking by yelled “You brown b*****d, stop talking on the phone.” The Indian student ignored his comment and continued walking. The Caucasian man then yelled, “Speak in English, boy. Speak in f*****g English. You think you own this place? Shut the f**k up and speak in English.” Sounds like something that would happen at Mr. Brown’s version of Washington State University right? This actually occurred right here in our own backyard at the University of Washington! Based on the testimony of this single student, should I just assume the University of Washington is racist? Or consider something I witnessed this past November. I had just arrived at San Francisco International Airport. A gentleman of Indian descent was working at one of the security gates. A Caucasian couple in their twenties were trying to get directions from the Indian gentlemen but had a hard time understanding him because of his accent. As they were walking away, I overheard the Caucasian male say “God! Learn how to speak English!” under his breath. Based on that single incident, with this single intolerant and impatient individual, am I to assume people in San Francisco are all racist? Racial harassment or racial hatred can occur anywhere. It’s not just limited to Pullman, Washington. The acts or behavior of individuals should not be misconstrued or generalized as the sentiments of a community as whole. When one views oneself as the victim all the time racism can be found everywhere. How one perceives the actions of another can always be misinterpreted. The blatant misuse of the racism label on questionable testimony will only dilute truly egregious incidents of racial hostility and injustice.
It would be a lie to say that racism has never occurred at WSU but such incidents based on my experience are few and far in between. During my time at WSU only one incident of racism comes to mind, and it was not directed solely at Asians. Flyers bearing white supremacist rhetoric were posted throughout campus billboards. The student body government and the university administration were quick to condemn the posting of the flyers and an investigation was initiated to determine who had posted the flyers. Unfortunately, the guilty parties were not found. This incident occurred in my junior year at the university, and no other racially hostile incident in my memory comes to mind. Many of my memories of WSU are not of a campus or student body of racial hate, but a university community that is very welcoming and inclusive of all students, Asian or not. I only have fond memories of my time in the Palouse and of the university.
I do hope Asians considering attending WSU give it a fair chance. Make a campus visit and make a point to discuss race issues with the professors, university administrators, and students that you meet on your visit. Do make sure to visit the Multicultural Center on campus and speak with Asian students about their experiences at the university. I’m confident you’ll find the majority of Asian students there enjoying their experiences at WSU, harassment free.