On Asian student groups

Back in my college days, I participated in queer Asian student groups. When I’ve told people about this, many of them have had a kind of negative or suspicious reaction. Why is there a need for students to subdivide themselves out by race like that? One or two people have also compared it to the idea of having a student group for White people, which sounds problematic.

This is similar to reactions that people have to Pride parades, or Black history month. Where’s the straight pride parade, they ask? Where’s White history month? I’m assuming readers already understand why there isn’t a White history month, and I’m just listing out standard arguments as a reminder: Because Black people are an oppressed group, and White people are not. Because White people come from an incoherent collection of distinct backgrounds such as German, Italian, Polish, etc. Because every other month is already effectively White history month.

The funny thing is, the same arguments don’t quite work for these Asian student groups. My university had more Asian students than White students. While you could say that Asian Americans face some degree of marginalization and stereotyping, the fact of the matter is, that’s not the primary reason students came together, and not the primary thing students would talk about. And if you thought “White” was an incoherent collection of distinct backgrounds, I invite you to consider how much larger Asia is than Europe.

So why was it okay to have queer Asian student groups?

I would always say, it just works, okay? Despite the incoherence of talking about “Asian” culture, there was nonetheless some common ground apparent.

For example, a common experience was having a family that didn’t so much mind that you were queer, but who talked about it in hushed tones. Sometimes the immediate family would hide it from the extended family, or perhaps rumors would circulate and nobody would perhaps rumors would circulate and nobody would bring it up in front of you. Nobody claims that only Asian Americans have this experience, or that all Asian Americans have this experience. Nonetheless, I observe that this narrative is absent in mainstream portrayals of queer people, and a lot of queer Asian students found it relatable.

There were many other little things. Being a 1st or 2nd generation immigrant. Taking an interest in Asian cultural imports, even from cultures that are not in our own background. Having to work to understand one’s own ethnic background and what that means.

But for the most part, it was just a queer social group. There was no requirement that everything had to relate back to being Asian–or queer, for that matter. In fact, there was no particular reason that White students couldn’t join and just enjoy the same things that everyone else did. Some students did that, and it was never a problem. (Or perhaps they were part Asian and just had light skin? I never found out, and that was okay.)

When I imagine a hypothetical White student group, it just doesn’t work in my mind. Most people would consider it a joke at best, and an attack at worst. There are many student groups that are de facto very White, and make non-White people uncomfortable to participate, but a group that is explicitly White feels like a group that exists only to make non-White people uncomfortable. I think the only people you could persuade to participate in such a group, would be people who are really racist. So regardless of the intentions in creating the group, the group would ultimately become a White supremacist group.

This is not to say that creating a White student group is necessarily bad, it just needs to be transformed into something different. For example, it could be framed as a White anti-racist group–such groups actually exist around here.

TL;DR: Just because racism often involves making distinctions between different racial/ethnic groups, doesn’t mean that it’s always racist to make distinctions. Student groups that are oriented around a particular ethnic identity can allow them to find relatable experiences, and there’s nothing wrong with that. And in principle, I have nothing against the idea of a White group, you just need a reliable way to prevent it from becoming a racist shitstorm.


  1. Bruce H says

    I think the idea of “White” groups of any kind are inherently tied to old, racist ideas about white supremacy. That’s because the idea of whiteness itself is tied to racist ideology. Now, groups based on distinct European ethnicities can and do exist and work fine. There are many German, Czech, or Italian-American associations that do not embrace racism. They exist only to promote the cultures and social ties within their own groups.

    I think the reason African-American, or Asian-American groups work even though they constitute many discrete ethnicities is because they are not tied up with racist ideology. There aren’t any significant ideologies that claim that Asians (or Africans) as a group are superior to other groups.

  2. says

    Aren’t people of Asian descent still a minority in this country?
    And Native Americans are a very diverse groups of peoples as well, from a land area bigger than Europe.

  3. says

    > “And in principle, I have nothing against the idea of a White group, you just need a reliable way to prevent it from becoming a racist shitstorm.”

    Agreed. Unfortunately, thanks to racism ruining it for everyone, at the moment the only reliable way to prevent that seems to be to never start it at all.

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