Click on each panelist's name or thumbnail to learn about them and to read their statement.
QUESTION: What do you think of Asian American fraternities, sororities and other Asian American-only membership organizations?
MITRA: It's a phenomenon that didn't exist when I was in college, in the mid- to late-'90s. At that time, fraternities and sororities were dismissed as a very exclusive, white scene, except for the Black and Latino fraternities, which were seen as separate minority clubs. They didn't have the same image.
One interesting aspect of these new fraternities and sororities is that often they're not just divided by Asian but by South Asian, East Asian, or even by country. I'm not surprised because the trend for the last few years has been anti-assimilation groups asserting their identities and taking institutions that might have been all-white and making them their own.
It's clear that a lot of students arrive at college looking for cultural identity and if the ethnic fraternities and sororities provide that, then more power to them. On the other hand, there are certainly limitations. Do you go to college to hang out only with your own kind? If you're going to a historically Black college, I could see the argument. But at the University of Maryland, it's something that a lot of these young women have grappled with.
In terms of subgroups within subgroups, I'm a member of both the South Asian Journalists Association (SAJA) and the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA). I think there was a trend around the early to mid-'90s of South Asians not seeing themselves included in the definition of Asian American. In our case we felt it wasn't just inclusion, but the representation of South Asians and coverage of South Asia was lacking. For example, in 1991, India opened up its borders to the world essentially, which led to the outsourcing in the software sector that you hear about so much in the news now. But in '91 there were very few newspapers who actually did stories on this. Groups like SAJA play a vital role in waking up the mainstream media and saying this is what's going on in a region of the world you probably don't know anything about.
So we came into being because of that issue and now our role has shifted to working to ensure that we are represented in other groups and educating fellow Asians about the other parts of Asian America. Also, South Asians have an obsession with what I call the "over there" - we have immigrants who joined SAJA because they're hungry for news of South Asia and they don't seem to care too much about South Asian American matters. So we have many, many struggles in our organization, of educating the Asian community at large, but also telling our own community that this is the place where you live, it's time to force the media to cover South Asian Americans as much as you want them to cover Indian elections or something like that.
QUANG: I don't know anything about fraternities and sororities, but I do run an Asian American workshop and membership organization and frequently people ask if you have to be an Asian American to belong. And the answer is no. We are open in that sense. It's educational for people to realize that Asian American literature is for everyone. Questions like these about membership groups come up a lot in conversations about Asian Americans. I can't imagine somebody calling up the NAACP and saying do you think that you should exist?
Membership organizations are important because there's power in numbers, and there's strength and history built from experience and genuine support for the community. In the case of the organizations Mitra mentioned, we're also talking about a professional networking opportunity, not to mention similar organizations in the corporate sector, like affiliation groups and banks. If you take away all of those benefits, the community would be a lot poorer without them. The Writers Workshop is a great example of something that moved alongside history and politics in the field of art. When we started publishing 13 years ago, Asian American writers were on the margins. Publishers just did not believe there was a market for these stories. So as a non-profit we began to identify and organize writers and, in short, created a culturally literate environment within which they could work unhindered. Then we created a much larger outreach effort and connected them with audiences. If you think about most recent successes of Asian American literature, you see how an organization can really make a difference. Then if you take what I said and graft it onto other things, such as Asian American studies, it's undeniable what membership organizations are able to do in a short period of time.
SHERYL: On a much smaller scale, when I was at the University of Colorado, we started one of the first mixed race groups, and the question that we always received was who was included? Who was allowed to join? How do you define what is mixed race? These were always questions that we had to deal with, so we decided that people could join based on their interests. What did they want to learn? What were their own personal questions? Why did they even want to be a part of it? I think the issue people have with membership-only organizations based on race, is the fear of being excluded. A lot of people tend to focus on this more than the idea of just carving out a space for these communities.
HELEN: To me, the more organizations, and the more ways people come together to express their voices, the better. It's about empowerment, really - people finding a way to bring voices together to make a larger impact.
There's a misconception that these identity-based groups are about navel gazing, balkanizing or forming our own tribes, that's false. I personally see nothing wrong with affinity groups as a way of coming together, of learning about whatever people want to reaffirm. When those voices come together, they can create a visibility and power that didnšt exist and create a larger context. So there's real empowerment and real contributions that come out of these organizations.
MITRA: Let me add one quick note about something that might be fueling interest in these sororities and fraternities. For those of us who live in large cities, we're often spoiled because we actually have access to Asian Americans or in my case, we belong to news organizations where I can look around and see a few people who look like me. But for a lot of these people, they might have been the only Indian or the only Chinese person in their school. So to land in a college that suddenly has a sizeable number of people like them, to hang out with fellow Asians or whatever - this might be the first time they're ever able to explore their identities in a way that isn't linked necessarily to the family structure. For the professional organizations, we found that it's similar - people will arrive in a city and perhaps be the only South Asian working in a newsroom and need support and that's when they're reaching out to us. So it's not necessarily exclusionary as perceived. They are reaching out for something that they're not getting elsewhere.
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