If you are reading this you are more than likely not a racist. You may be monolingual and/or somewhat culturally sheltered. You may not be. Whatever your subject position as you read this essay is, you’re here because its title called to you. You do care when you see news stories about anti-Chinese sentiment. You certainly do notice that there are some who connect China with COVID19 in an effort to redirect public sentiment towards a convenient scapegoat. For whatever reason, you, like me, are alarmed and you do want to meet xenophobia and misplaced anger with something substantive and definitive and good.
Even so, you are not sure what to do or when to do it, and maybe you haven’t necessarily taken a stand on the topic. There is so much to worry about right now, isn’t there?
Yes, there is. And yet, as a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine whose beloved mentor is from Beijing, this subject hits home for me on a very personal level. This also resonates with what I did in my previous career in academia. In fact, I am thinking about what I would be doing right now, if I were still a Spanish professor, in response to the growing swell of anti-Asian sentiment. My students learned not what to think but, instead, ways to think under my tutelage. At present, and with news cycles shifting so rapidly, it is more important than ever to think critically and behave with integrity. In this essay, consequently, I offer an outline of ways that I inspired critical thought in my classrooms over the course of my eighteen years in academia. I hope that you will be inspired, and that you will take what you like best and share it.
It is not enough simply to be appalled at slurs like “Kung flu” or “Chinese corona virus.” It is not. Instead, we must unflinchingly question viewpoints and dissect their cultural construction in various milieux. Given that this is an environment where I spent the majority of my adult life, I hold that we can start with academia. We will, for instance, recollect that UC Berkeley sent around a notice giving tacit support for xenophobia, as you can see from a screenshot that I took from Twitter February 1st, 2020:
I earned my undergraduate degree at a UC school, as did one of my siblings. My parents both earned graduate degrees at a UC school and my grandmother, may she rest in peace, was Chancellor Cheadle’s administrative assistant when he was shaping UC Santa Barbara into the institution that it is now. Reading that UC Berkeley felt it appropriate to reassure their students that xenophobia against Asians is a normal reaction to a looming pandemic offended me to my very core. I was not the only one to be outraged, as you can see here and in the following:
Students who remember me will already know what I’d say to this, and they know that my response would include questions for them to discuss in small groups and together as a unit. I would ask them to read this communiqué and consider who was its recipient. Only the white students? Who here is getting permission to be xenophobic (and excused by the comforting reassurance that it’s also “normal” to feel guilty about it)? I’d ask them to parse the notion of “Asians.” Which Asians? Would the students feel justified in feeling scared of ALL Asians, or only of Chinese persons? And how would they distinguish? Are they actually able to tell if someone is Chinese or some other nationality? What about the large Filipino population in Northern California? Do they count as potentially fright-inducing Asians or are there “good Asians” and “bad Asians” in this scenario? Who do they think wrote this, I’d ask my students, and why did the authors somehow think it was appropriate?
One of the very central questions to teaching a Spanish language class is “¿Somos un crisol? ¿O somos una ensalada mixta?” This question, “Are we a melting pot or are we a mixed salad?” was a great way for students to ponder cultural identity. For me, and for many, the United States is a mixed salad. I am of Mediterranean ancestry and I lived in Spain and Italy during a good portion of my twenties. I have spent the entirety of my personal and professional life in multicultural and multilingual settings. For me, the notion that we are a melting pot and that homogeneity is a worthy goal is astonishing and offensive. But the answer to that question is different for everyone and it is a question worth thinking about, now more than ever.
How do you see the world? is a great question for any class, from language to culture to literature. It’s a great question for anyone, now and always. For instance, you might ask yourself now: how many different languages do you hear in your daily life? Do you have the opportunity to interact with people of varying ethnicities each day? What sort of interactions are they? And, finally, do you have means to expand your connection with people other than those of your immediate cultural context? And if you ask your friends, your colleagues, and/or your family members these questions, how do you think that they will answer them? I’m not just asking about Asian people here; instead, I am asking about anybody that is not-just-like-you. Then, in my hypothetical classroom, we would take these questions and connect Spanish-speaking countries to Asian ones.
The history of Spain and the Philippines, for instance, is worth discussion, as you can see here. We would probably talk about the historical connections of Peru and China, which are significant. Ultimately, the point of the conversations would be to bring awareness to Asian people and shared history. I think, for example, that many students would be surprised to learn how readily the history of Mexican and Chinese immigrants can be compared. How they banded together and turned inward in an attempt to hold on to at least some of their rights during the westward encroachment of white settlers could provide fodder for great in-class conversation and even greater thought thereafter, as you can see, here. (And I’d bring this up last, in order to bring the topic back home to the the United States.)
Conversations like these are not meant to cast blame for colonial history or for imperialism. That topic is not relevant in this context, at least not at first. Instead, they are meant to give students an opportunity to engage with a wide view of history so that they can take a look around themselves right now and begin to critically analyze the messages that they may be hearing about Asians today. There is most certainly a lot more to all of what is going on now than simply finding a convenient scapegoat, I’d say; and so, returning the ball back to my students, I would ask: “Entonces, ¿qué opináis?” (“So, what is your opinion?”).
What do you, dear reader, think?
My area specialty as a scholar was–and remains–national trauma (civil war, dictatorship, genocide, and torture) and how it filtered through literature and art. My focus was primarily Spain, with some forays into Latin America and Italy (my undergraduate degree, first master’s degree, and one of my Ph.D. minors all pertain to Italian literature and art). But I taught at American universities and my students came from a range of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. It meant a great deal to me to be able to teach subjects relating to US Latinx literature, culture, and language. Spanish is a beautiful language and it has been used and shaped by so many. I wanted my students to learn pride in the breadth and depth of Spanish [language] literature and culture. For this reason (and others), the ever-increasing popularity of service learning at the university level (and younger) disturbed me even when I was a very junior academic. Why, I wondered, was it ok to use impoverished communities of color to teach students?
There are many benefits to coupling service and learning, but when the learning is prioritized over the service, then the recipients are at best belittled and, at worst, damaged. I am most certainly not the only one who raised these concerns, but I was very proud when I developed my own service learning course while still a graduate student. I wrote an article about it that was peer-reviewed and then published in 2003. This article, “Nuestra Comunidad: Service-Learning and Communities in Albuquerque, New Mexico” is still cited in pedagogy texts (as you can see here) and it provided a blueprint for how to develop courses that taught about the strengths of Hispanic/Latinx communities in this country. Before sending anyone anywhere, I argued, students needed to learn what was good and strong and admirable about those cultures, histories, and languages. I later developed seminars to teach other academics to create such courses and I was invited to become a national representative for the American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese’s Service Learning Corps. I accepted the invite as a duty and an honor.
I share this background not to pat myself on the back but, instead, to remind us all that we do a disservice when we only focus on marginalization and victimization. As we are alarmed at the rise of anti-Asian sentiment or are frightened at the thought of violence against our Asian fellow human beings, let us remember to educate ourselves about the richness of Asian culture and history. Speaking for myself, I am always so eager to discover more and more about China. There is so much to learn, from achievements that cover the long course of history (here) to lessons for children (here) to this wonderful history of Chinese American achievements (here). There are many ways to become familiar with a range of Chinese cultural material (I would be amiss if I did not link my annotated bibliography, here). There is a lot to be worried about and much that can anger us but let us always keep in mind that there are great achievements and any number of lovely and small daily things that make up a culture. When we are genuinely interested, our service becomes a helping hand extended to an equal rather than an act of charity distributed to a mendicant. (And, in the case of China, let us not forget that Chinese people everywhere are sharing what they have in solidarity with other stricken communities, as you can see here, here, and here).
And yet, we must not whitewash history. Especially for those of us who are in a position to educate, it is imperative that we continue to question institutions. To this end, I offer Exhibit B, in the form of Twitter communication from and to Yale University. As you can see, Yale sent around an older article with the screenshot (at right, with link) attached:
Yale paints a rosy view of the artist, Lam Qua, and the Presbyterian missionary with whom he worked, one Peter Parker (as you can see here). According to their narrative, this was a fruitful collaboration and, if there were negative effects, Yale does not mention them.
I found this rather surprising, and thus sent Yale a tweet in response.
After all, surely they realized that sending their students to gaze at ill and disfigured Chinese people as though they were either animals in a zoo or–as one does in poorly-planned service learning projects–damaged goods that could be fixed by Western intervention and know-how, is hardly something to take pride in doing…right?
My response, which you see above, got no reaction from Yale. Maybe nobody at Yale thought that the impression of a former Spanish professor and current practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine was worth notice. But I’m not the only one who views the Lam Qua paintings as damaging, and I quote, “Those images made their way to Europe, where they were interpreted as indicative of the ill health and medical backwardness of the Chinese.” ( This comes from the description of Ari Larissa Heinrich’s The Afterlife of Images: Translating the Pathological Body Between China and the West (link); my annotated bibliography entry that you see in the above link can be found here.) These images are not benign. Teaching medical students to look at them and to use them as nothing other than teaching tools for future clinical encounters misses a crucial lesson in construction of narrative surrounding illness and power structure, among other things. I do hope that there is more to it than what Yale’s PR department sent around and I hope that their Asian students don’t feel marginalized on Lam Qua day.
I am a hopeful woman, what can I tell you?
If I were still teaching Spanish for Professional Use, as I have in the past, and I had a classroom full of future nurses, doctors, police officers, and teachers, as I used to have in such courses, I would have used this moment to ask my students about Lam Qua day at Yale. I would ask them about looking at the pain of others. How are they taught to look at and view and see those upon whom they will be applying the tenets of their eventual professions? How are ways to look upon suffering, and what might be some potential effects of such an act? I would probably ask them to consider the case of Kevin Carter, a photojournalist who committed suicide soon after being awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his iconic photograph, “Vulture and Little Girl.” Of course, I would need to bring the topic back to a Spanish focus. Consequently, I would assign them my article, “Red and Blue Triangles in a Gray Place: Spain and the Holocaust in Stories, Letters, and Photographs” (here), and we would consider what we learn when we gaze upon the suffering of others.
I would ask the students to consider whose suffering they look upon and who brought those images to their attention. Whose narrative constructed that image, and why? And what is their responsibility to look, really look, at such suffering; and how, then, would they or could they engage? How, most of all, could they interrogate this received wisdom and, in consequence, then be able to approach their subject with critical thought, genuine integrity, and–most of all–a determination to see more than just an outline of one who needs to be instructed, protected, controlled, and/or healed?
It’s easy to overlook one’s cultural conditioning when there are good intentions. It’s easy, in effect, to be stupid. One current example that I now share resonates at this time. Just this week, a colleague in the field of acupuncture sent around an essay that, they said, anyone could use as a template for communicating with patients. (Many of us are limiting our in-office hours and more of us are shutting our offices for the interim. Online and telemedicine is a hot topic in quite a few health provider circles at present.) The essay this colleague sent around started out well enough, with useful information about COVID19, tips for staying healthy, and discussion of … [insert the sound of a record screeching to a halt] Chinese Whispers, also known as the Telephone Game. The colleague intended to use this term to introduce the topic of not falling for misleading or false news. The colleague apparently did not know that this term is racist and/or that it might not be the best choice for the given context. I was nice about it, just as I would have been nice to an undergraduate student who displayed ignorance but yes, I did speak up and make it clear that this was not acceptable.
And this, of course, brings me to the subject of other unacceptable actions, most notably the upsurge of racist attacks against Chinese and other Asian people in response to some of the narratives pertaining to COVID19. It’s easy to find reports of a rise in such activity (one example is here). Google “racist attacks against Asians” and you can find pages of information. A web site by Russell Jeung, a professor of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University, is now gathering information on the topic (you can find out more about that here). Not just an American problem, racism and scapegoating are on the rise in Australia and in the UK. Indeed, this is a worldwide problem, as you can see, here.
I would ask my students to consider how they would react if they were witness to racism in public. If any of my Asian students felt comfortable speaking, I would ask them what they would do if they experienced such abuse. What might each person in the scenario–from victim to witness–do? What could they do? What, as decent people who don’t find scapegoating acceptable, should any of us do?
And you, dear reader? What will you do if you see or hear something unacceptable? What would you do if you see an act of harassment or violence against an Asian person? I have my own thoughts on all of this and will share them in a new blog post very soon, but I hold that it is a good idea to think about this now instead of waiting to see what happens when it happens. The bystander effect is no excuse to stand there like a turnip while abuse is in progress. And a cell phone can be useful, but the ability to grab a video clip is not an excuse for inaction. We all need to think about it and decide, in advance, what we will do if we are witness to or victims of racist abuse against Asian people as the events of this pandemic unfold.
There is no one right answer to any of the questions I’ve posed thus far. But I can say, after teaching for eighteen years, that intercultural competence is a learned skill for many and that it can require a lot of self-knowledge before a student is able to step out of self and see the humanity and value of someone else, especially if that someone is ostensibly foreign to you. It is also important to instill humility and to model it. Just as nobody can speak for me as a woman of Mediterranean heritage, I am not able to speak for Asians. We must know ourselves and thus we know our limits.
Before I began my second career in traditional Chinese medicine, I really didn’t have a lot of up-close experience with Asian people. When I was tiny, one of my favorite books was Tales of a Chinese Grandmother. I remember that I loved the picture of the Chinese grandmother in the frontispiece of the collection. I do not remember this because I was so little, but apparently I went into my own (not Chinese) grandmother’s clothes closet and made myself a Chinese grandmother costume for Halloween. My mother used to say that it was amazing for such a little girl to make a costume so creative and that I wanted to wear it all the time, not just at Halloween. I do remember wishing I could be Chinese when I was small. But when I got old enough, I moved to Spain and then to Italy. I dated a Spanish guy whose mother was Filipina. I became a Spanish professor and loved that career very much. I had Asian students in my Spanish classes and I have had varying Asian friends and colleagues over the years. But it wasn’t until I went to acupuncture school and spent four and a half years in close contact with my beloved Chinese teachers that I became reasonably familiar with Chinese culture.
None of this makes me an expert on the subject of Asian or Chinese people and racism. But I’m still me, and–though I practice traditional Chinese medicine and aspire to be a credit to my treasured teacher and mentor, Dr. Yongxin Fan of Beijing, China–I’m still Professor Bruno and I still love to teach. I still believe in the power of critical thinking. I still believe that reason and fortitude can defeat mindlessness and racism.
I believe in the power of community, integrity, and solidarity.
What about you? What do you know, and how do you know it? What would you like to share as we consider ways to build solidarity, instill respect, and–ideally–move beyond this painful time, ultimately coming out on the other end that much kinder and wiser and more culturally aware?
What about you? What do you think…and what, as a consequence, will you do?
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