The following correspondence occurred in the last issue of The Claremont Independent. Ms. Viebeck, the CI's magnanimous and beautiful editor-in-chief, has graciously given the text so that I might post it here. The writers directly challenge me on the question of racial retreats and their balkanizing effects on school race relations. Here's the original article, "Race Retreats Antagonize Students," for your perusal.
Concerning “Race Retreat”
Volume XIV, Number 3
In “Race Retreat Antagonizes Students,” Charles Johnson provides a biased account of the recent AdBoard retreat, quotes only those opinions and thoughts condemning the retreat’s activities, and does not open himself for a balanced argument.
Johnson introduces the debate over the recent race retreat with OBSA, CLSA, and AdBoard. His article only bashes the Asian American student retreat, while Johnson fails to consider, or at least include, OBSA and CLSA in his argument to make for an evenhanded piece.
At its heart, the AdBoard retreat tries to increase awareness about the situation of Asian Americans; it does not “try to break down class unity” as Johnson claims. Yes, the AdBoard retreat had flaws. However, Johnson makes assumptions on the basis of his own opinions and obtains others’ opinions in the same light of his own ideals.
Simply put, Johnson fails to report fairly and include in his article even those involved in AdBoard. Shiyuan Deng (Scripps ’08), who was part of the committee that organized the retreat, explained that Johnson’s article “encourages students to stop talking about unpacking racism and privilege on our campuses, [which] is in itself a racist project.” Shedding light on the real reason for the AdBoard retreat, Deng says, “Sure, the AdBoard retreat could be improved. We need to get better at politicizing students without alienating them. Johnson would wish that we stopped talking about politics completely. He’s advocating for woeful ignorance among the student body about issues that affect members of our community.”
Also, the identity sheet Johnson writes about had several options which were not constricting, contrary to what he reports. The worksheets were intended to make us think about our identity not as Asian Americans, but as people.
Another problem in Johnson’s article was his assertion of who was considered “Asian American.” The AdBoard retreat takes Asian Americans as defined by the colleges, which is in turn dictated by society. AdBoard tried to educate the retreat attendees on the problem of diversity even within the Asian American group and their classification into one entity.
AdBoard never told us that “white people” thought up stereotypes about Asian Americans—it was the culmination of society’s social constructs that want to define our identity—and such is what we need to be aware of.
Further, contrary to what Johnson’s article reports, we were also encouraged to mingle with the OBSA and CLSA students. I remember doing so, but I also remember several other freshmen from the AdBoard retreat sitting in their seats despite being prodded to mix.
One of the most problematic thoughts I found in the article was one student’s remark on the Asian Americans on campus wanting an office with professional staff like OBSA: “Special needs are for the disabled.” That would imply that OBSA or CLSA is “disabled” and have “special needs”-- which is not true. The model minority myth has been engrained in the minds of our Claremont institutions and apparently in those of some of its students who assume that all Asian Americans achieve and strive in the same manner and do not have separate needs.
Obviously this does not pertain to everyone, and each individual can and will decide whether he or she has these needs. It is important, however, not to disregard those who do have other needs and these needs must be accounted for.
Courtney Wai & Rachel Wong, Scripps ’11
Charles Johnson responds:
First and foremost, I apologize for not interviewing OBSA and CLSA students. These students were not the focus of my investigation. Ms. Deng’s suggestion that I am involved in a “racist project” because I honestly report the sentiments of a segment of the Asian community is prima facie wrong and deeply offensive to me. Presumably, students that speak to me are collaborators in this racist project. No wonder they refused to go on record.
Fortunately, that offensive is countered by Deng’s words. She says that my article hurts the “unpacking racism and privilege on our campuses.” On the contrary, I am unpacking racism – racism that Asian students all have special needs and that their definition of themselves can be neatly put into several boxes.
Further, I see nothing more “privileged” than the use of school funds to “politicize students” to one particular point of view. Deng herself admits that this is the point of these racial retreats: “we need to get better at politicizing students without alienating them.”
Every fact I asserted was confirmed by my sources. (One of those sources will respond on both my blog and on the Claremont Independent website.) According to my sources, Ms. Wai and Ms. Wong are mistaken about the identity sheets. My source stands by what s/he told me earlier – that they were too limiting. Their definition of Asian, they confess is one the school uses and that society uses. As I mentioned earlier, it leaves out Israeli, Russian, and Middle Eastern students’ culture and explicitly defines those students as not Asian enough.
Of course, the overall problem in trying to define an Asian culture is that it does not exist. If one cannot find any overriding similarity – be it religion, race, nationality, or culture – within a community, there is no need to form a special needs group.
Ms. Wai and Ms. Wong try to attack me for the model minority problem, but this too is offensive. I simply use the words of students who say that they do not have “special needs.” I challenge the authors to list any special need that an Asian student has that the rest of us do not have. If the student needs tutoring, many other students need it as well. If the student needs language instruction, many other students need that as well. Perhaps the real danger is that the authors and others know that there are these voices in their very ranks who disagree with their argument’s racist underpinnings. As past polling has indicated, many Asian students do not support an Asian student center, probably because they find the notion of “special needs” for Asian students only as offensive.