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Building a Community and an Understanding of Asian American Identity: Analytical Essay

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In 1979, Wong and Houn—the very women who were excluded just three years prior—co-chaired this “third world” orientation program themselves.

Beyond reforming the original minority orientation program, Asian American students also advocated for changes in admissions recruitment initiatives to reflect their full minority status. Prior to 1977, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare only required that the Harvard Undergraduate Admissions Office provide statistical breakdowns of the numbers of applications it received from minority groups. While the classification at Harvard included Asian Americans as minorities, it did not necessarily promote active and extensive recruitment programs for the applicant group as it did for Black and Latino applicants.

In 1976, Asian Americans comprised just 2.5% of the undergraduate student body at Harvard College and had the lowest admissions rate among any single applicant group. To Asian American students, the absence of race-specific recruitment initiatives was one of the sources of their underrepresentation on campus and precluded them from full minority status. Concerned about the small Asian American student body and the disadvantages they deemed possible for prospective Asian American applicants in the admissions process, the Asian American Association made it one of its primary goals in the late-1980s to establish Asian-American-specific recruitment initiatives in partnership with the admissions office.

In a letter sent to Dean Jewett in October 1978, the Asian American Association outlined the necessity of Asian American applicant recruitment for admissions, claiming that, “higher education is a democratic right of Asian Americans, although we have faced systematic exclusion from such universities as Harvard, especially with regard to Asian Americans from the inner city, rural, and Asian ghetto areas.” Students highlighted the ways in which they believed Asian Americans experienced disadvantages in the admissions process, pointing to challenging cultural and language barriers, as well as the common stereotypes of Asians as deferential and solely focused on fields such as science, medicine, and mathematics. Without full integration into all minority-oriented programs and activities, such as admissions recruitment, Asian American students believed that the university’s policies perpetuated the idea of Asian Americans as a socioeconomically and academically homogenous group.

In addition to their formal correspondence with Dean Jewett, Asian American students took the initiative to draft written demands, create pamphlets, and meet with admissions staff to clarify why Asian Americans were, in fact—counter to Dean Jewett’s original insistence in the fall 1976—underrepresented in Harvard’s undergraduate admissions. In the late 1970s and through the 1980s, members of the Asian American Association volunteered as student recruiters in the admissions office to coordinate activities intended to increase the number and diversity of applicants. Students coordinated admissions panels, mailed out letters and brochures, corresponded with prospective applicants, traveled with admissions officers to speak on info sessions, and ran phone-a-thons from the admissions office at night. Some even recruited students into the Asian American Association by inviting newly admitted students to meet with them during on-campus admitted students’ days and stay overnight in freshman dorms.

Between 1980 and 1985, the admissions office witnessed the number of Asian American applicants increase by over 165%. Harvard’s prominence as a leading academic institution was likely a source of interest that attracted the growing number of college-going Asian Americans during this period. However, as Dean Jewett expressed in 1985, the admissions office now made a more concerted effort to recruit underrepresented Asian American applicants specifically from low-income, working-class communities. This shift in focus and approach was attributed to student-initiated efforts from Harvard’s Asian American community, who now comprised 11% of Harvard’s student body. It was clear to both administration and students by this time that the Asian American Association had a clear advocacy-based mission and that the Asian American student community had embraced their investment in the pursuit of inclusion at Harvard College.

Building a Community and an Understanding of Asian American Identity

Running parallel to the awakening of political consciousness and a sense of advocacy was the emphasis that Asian American students placed on cultural understanding and community building. In light of the discrimination against and ambiguity surrounding their identities, many students sought to explore their ethnic backgrounds and learn about Asian American history in greater detail. Hoping that Harvard would follow the example of other institutions such as the University of California at Berkeley and San Francisco State University—both of which had established some of the earliest Asian American Studies programs in the 1960s—students began to petition and stage protests to have an Asian American Studies program instituted at Harvard College. To meet student interest, Harvard professors Jean Wu and Kiyo Morimoto began to offer a seminar on Asian American history in the late-1970s. After several years of persistent advocacy from the Asian American Association, Harvard approved the seminar for elective credit in the early-1980s and began to offer extracurricular seminars on Asian American studies on an ad-hoc basis.

Student efforts to formalize a department for Asian American Studies, however, did not take off during the 1970s and 1980s, leading students to take it upon themselves to create other avenues for exploring their Asian Americanness. As one of the founders of the Asian American Association Renee E. Tajima-Peña ’80 expressed in an interview with The Harvard Crimson, the onus was on students to find out who they were as Asian Americans because the university did not adequately support it. The Asian American Association sought to fill this gap by employing a variety of tactics that would teach classmates about Asian American history, raise peers’ consciousness about what it meant to be an Asian American, and work towards equality as a unified group. As many of its early members recalled in a 2019 interview with The Harvard Crimson, much of their work was casual and often impromptu: walking between classes, chatting over coffee, and sharing meals at campus dining halls.

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Other efforts were pre-arranged. In addition to these informal conversations meant to help students navigate their identities, the Asian American Association also directed its efforts to establish a sense of belonging and an intentional social network. Printed flyers and newsletter communication show that students coordinated and promoted regular social events ranging from dances and mixers to picnics with other affinity groups at Harvard. One of the most prominent events that the Asian American Association hosted in its early beginnings was the intercollegiate conference with the Wellesley College Asian Association. First taking place in April 1978, the two Boston-based associations convened students from twelve eastern colleges, including Yale University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to participate in a weekend-long series of discussions, student-led workshops, and keynote speaker panels on issues confronting the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. Though it had political beginnings, the Asian American Association soon became a place where students could participate not only in dialogue about Asian American history but also be in a community with others who shared similar life questions, challenges, and experiences.

Educating the Campus on Asian Americans

The Asian American Association did not limit their educational pursuits to themselves, however. According to its student newsletters, part of its mission was explicitly to educate the larger Harvard community about the experiences of Asian Americans and correct misleading stereotypes. These efforts spanned literary readings from Asian American poets and writers such as Walter K. Lew to displays of historical artwork from Asian American artists. Students also coordinated documentary viewings on issues such as Japanese American internment during World War II, sponsored talks and documentaries on topics such as redress and reparations, produced shows celebrating Asian American culture and worked to bring Asian American theater and performing arts to Harvard’s campus. The events served to increase awareness of the multi-faceted nature of the Asian American experience, as well as differences in the histories of Asian immigrant and ethnic groups.

One of the most memorable events during this period was the “Images of Asian

American Women, 1850-the 1980s” slideshow, which was produced by Florence Houn ‘80, Jane Sujen Bock ’81, and Renee E. Tajima-Peña ’80, members from the Radcliffe Asian American Women’s Group. Presented at the Radcliffe Centennial celebration in 1978, the slideshow presentation was designed to teach about the culture and history of Asian American women and the Harvard-Radcliffe experience. Soundtracked by the first album of Asian American music, “A Grain of Sand” by Nobuko Miyamoto and Chris Ijima, the slideshow conjured the impression of the Vietnam War and Asian American movement. The film and photographic content spanned Japanese American internment notices, silk qipao, the early beginnings of Chinatowns, and the development of traditional practices such as female infanticide and foot binding. In facilitation notes included in the slideshow, Houn, Bock, and Tajima-Peña noted that “traditionally, Asian women have been portrayed as delicate flowers, obedient daughters, or exotic concubines. Outdated as these images are, they still haunt us to affect the Asian women and the identity of Asian American women of today.” In its powerful artistic display, the event highlighted the importance of addressing the lingering stereotypes that stemmed from the historical oppression of Asian women.

This fight against pernicious stereotypes of Asian Americans persisted into the 1980s with the most notable campaign from the Asian American Association emerging in the winter of 1980, following a Hasty Pudding Theatricals show. A theatrical student society at Harvard, Hasty Pudding had employed an evil character named “Edgar Foo Yung” in a student-written and produced a play called “A Little Knife Music.” In the show, the students presented Yung as a stereotypical Asian with broken English, small stature, and pigtails, who bowed to other characters, moved with awkward mannerisms and is killed at the end of the show for his unwarranted romantic interest in the white female protagonist. The insensitive depiction of Asians enraged student groups, specifically members of the Asian American Association, who declared Yung a racist caricature.

A letter to the editor in The Harvard Crimson in February 1980 exhorted the Harvard community to disapprove of the ugly caricature as a form of humor. It argued that the Chinese were not “fair game” for racist jokes and that Hasty Pudding should not have stooped so low “just to elicit a nervous laugh or two.” On March 7th, the Asian American Association sent a letter to Hasty Pudding, requesting the removal of Yung for its “racist, humiliating, and dangerous portrayal.” Following their initial contact, they met with Hasty Pudding’s cast and staff to discuss and demand the removal of the character from the play or to at least to re-characterize him as non-racial. Though Hasty Pudding admitted that some audience members could interpret the character in a controversial way, its producers Charles A. Milot ’80, contended that it was simply intended to be a satirical portrayal of an Englishman’s views, and refused to alter the play.

In response, the Asian American Association launched a massive two-month-long poster campaign against “A Little Knife Music.” They gathered more than 50 protestors in front of the Pudding building as patrons arrived for performances, displayed posters illustrating Hasty Pudding’s racism, distributed leaflets, and chanted “racism isn’t funny” and “don’t support this racist play.” Persistent, the Asian American Association penned a letter to the editor of The Harvard Crimson on March 15th, in which they adamantly disagreed with Hasty Pudding’s understanding of racial portrayals. They asserted that “to callously ridicule racial cultures and classify it as typical humor demonstrates a lack of understanding to the cause of racial problems in our society.” The letter continued on to illuminate how racist caricatures isolated and divided human beings, and drew parallels to the ways in which “gross depictions of Asians as evil and subhuman” had contributed to atrocities such as the condoning of Japanese internment during World War II and the Mỹ Lai mass murder of unarmed South Vietnamese civilians by U.S. troops in 1968.

With increased pressure from the backing of other prominent affinity groups such as the Black Student Alliance, La Organización, and La RAZA, the Asian American Association successfully convinced Hasty Pudding’s production team to include an iteration of the March 15th letter in the play’s future print programs. The modified copy invited audience members to consider the causes and implications behind laughter directed as the character and to join them in their attempts to eliminate the gross racial humor. As a follow-up, the president of Hasty Pudding, David I. Levi ’80, published an article in The Harvard Crimson on behalf of the show’s production team that outlined their team’s response. “As a result of discussions with the Harvard-Radcliffe Asian American Association,” it read, “we have been made aware that our characterizations might be misconstrued. In the future, we will be far more sensitive in the creation of Pudding characters.” The letter concluded by expressing gratitude to Asian American students for raising the issue to their attention and for welcoming further dialogue with communities across campus. SENTENCE


The exclusion of two Asian American women at the minority students orientation banquet in 1976 was an embodiment of the burdensome and challenging position of Asian Americans in the mid-1970s. They were excluded from the white dominant culture in America but perceived as insufficiently disadvantaged to be embraced as minorities. The banquet was a reflection of this shared Asian American experience of being “othered” and yet America’s “model minority,” of being excluded and yet expected to assimilate. Compelled by the blatant discrimination at the banquet, Harvard students assembled to found the Asian American Association as a unified group of pan-Asian ethnicities and to drive an ongoing legacy of activism and community for Asian Americans at the university.

What originated as a protest to acquire minority status quickly progressed into a larger student movement of organizing in the late-1970s and early-1980s. Students advocated for inclusion in campus privileges from minority-oriented programs to admissions recruitment initiatives, built spaces to gather with students with similar life experiences and to make minority voices heard, and invested in campus-wide discussions about attitudes towards and perceptions of Asian Americans. In the process of doing so, they became the primary communicators of their own narratives both to themselves and to administrators and peers. It was a movement in which they demonstrated the value of collective power in reclaiming their identities at Harvard, grounding their presence in the university’s consciousness for years to come.

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