On June 3, Daily Bruin writer Kelly Yeo published an article titled, “Asian American activism on campus: an in-depth investigation,” in The Quad, a part of the Daily Bruin. What at first seemed like an exciting investigative report from a publication that rarely reports about our communities was actually a problematic personal narrative that failed to live up to its self reported “in-depth investigation” status.
There were many points we found inaccurate in Yeo’s report, such as the omission of South Asians from the term “AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander)” and her speculation that “long nights spent studying time-intensive science courses could be contributing to a lack of time or motivation in regards to political participation.” We won’t address all of them at this time, but here are 5 points we find most important to discuss immediately.
1. Yeo wrote this article with the intention of showing AAPIs as apolitical.
Yeo approached us through email in April to interview Pacific Ties staff members about AAPI activism, but managing staff made the decision not to provide her an opportunity to distort Pacific Ties’s mission. The managing team was aware of the hostile manner in which she conducted her interviews with sources from the Asian Pacific Coalition (APC) and Association of Chinese Americans (ACA). She asked loaded questions with the assumption that AAPI students were complacent within their organizations.
Yeo looked for information and quotes that confirmed her existing beliefs about AAPI student activism, instead of reporting from the ground up and challenging the assumptions she made about the community.
We suspect that Yeo drafted most of her article with “quotes to come,” which is a news reporting term referring to any quotes that a journalist hopes to get from a future interview.
We are also disappointed in the Daily Bruin editors responsible for considering the piece an “in-depth” report. Her claim that AAPIs at UCLA are apolitical is unfounded. Pacific Ties, the oldest AAPI* student-run newsmagazine in the nation, focuses on hyperlocal news coverage and analysis for the diverse AAPI communities on campus. We assign writers to cover as many campus events possible that include an intersectional perspective about AAPIs. Most of the events we cover are put on for and by politically conscious students. Recent Pacific Ties coverage include “Yellow Fever,” mixed identity, sexual assault awareness and media representation.
We ask that reporters do their research when they pursue a story. Do not erase the AAPI voice on campus and its hxstory. AAPIs have historically organized and continue to fight for social justice, ranging from labor issues to immigration. Back in February, Pacific Ties wrote an editorial about the Peter Liang conviction, condemning the officer’s actions in taking Akai Gurley’s life as an example of police brutality. Yeo and others who think that AAPIs are apolitical should look deeper to find these counternarratives.
We don’t claim to be experts on the countless number of cultures that make up the AAPI community, but we are willing to listen to them to capture their stories — as should Yeo.
Our duty as journalists requires us to gain knowledge in the particular community conditions that each community faces within the AAPI umbrella. Our publication aims to build rapport with the AAPI community on campus so we can provide accurate coverage of AAPI students’ lived experiences, especially when the mainstream media and the K-12 educational system have already brushed off and forgotten them. Pacific Ties aims to increase community engagement, provide resources, and construct a collective consciousness of what it means to be AAPI. Yeo should have made an genuine effort to engage with the AAPI community before attempting to write about the AAPI community with such confident assumptions.
2. Yeo distorts quotes from people and misconstrues what AAPI campus groups do.
Yeo’s use of personal opinion as an overarching framework is flawed, particularly in her intentional misrepresentation of UCLA’s Asian Pacific Coalition (APC). The article states that “APC, founded in 1971, was initially created in order to address underrepresentation of East Asians on campus, according to APC directors [Priscilla] Hoang and [Jeffrey] Hsu.” This statement is not true, nor has it ever been. APC, founded in 1975, formed to combat general AAPI issues as a whole, not only East Asian issues. It is a pan-Asian coalition, consisting of 24 student organizations that showcases UCLA’s AAPI diversity. APC is part of the Mother Organization (MO) Coalition, a partnership amongst nine student groups that emerged to address UCLA’s disparate minority admit and retention rates.
In APC’s interview, Hoang and Hsu acknowledged the formation of separate Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander MO’s (the Vietnamese Student Union, Pacific Islands’ Student Association, and Samahang Pilipinx, respectively) in recognition of the unique barriers these communities face, even though they fall under the AAPI umbrella.
Yeo misconstrues this remark, perhaps understanding the remainder of APC as exclusively East Asian after hearing about the three distinctive organizations. This deduction effectively dismisses all other groups in the coalition, erasing South Asians, people of mixed heritage, and non-AAPIs working on AAPI issues from the conversation.
She claims, “The reality is that many of UCLA’s AAPI cultural organizations today simply have lost touch with their politicized roots. From dance teams to organizing and acting in cultural nights, these groups have shifted their focus from having their voices heard on sociopolitical issues to becoming a means for AAPI students to socialize around a shared culture.”
She makes no mention of all the other activism these identity-based student groups do. Many student organizations have multiple pillars of focus. An example is Vietnamese Student Union (VSU). In addition to culture nights and dance teams (which also are used for activism), VSU established Southeast Asian Campus Learning Education and Retention (SEA CLEAR) to provide services for the Southeast Asians community: mentorship pairs, workshops focusing on mental health and wellness, empowering internships, and much more. Similarly, Samahang Pilipinx (SP) has programs called Samahang Pilipinx Education and Retention (SPEAR) and Samahang Pilipinx Advancing Community Empowerment (SPACE) to increase Pilipinx graduation/retention and matriculation rates. SP also organizes community building activities such as annual marches advocating for “Justice for Pilipinx American Veterans,” and “Grassroots Wednesdays,” showing the various forms of activism that exists within their community.
3. Yeo has a skewed understanding of activism.
Social justice is not uniform across time and space, nor should it be. Everything can be political. Public marches and self-care is political. Inaction and adherence to the status quo is political. Social justice work fights for liberation from oppression and systems of inequality. It is also a continually changing process one should learn and grow from.
Yeo clearly does not understand this concept, evident in her juxtaposition of AAPI activism with other communities of color.
She claims that AAPI’s “take the path of least resistance” and that it “may be the best we can hope for” in contrast to “direct action.” Her conclusion is highly problematic because it privileges direct action over other forms of activism, suggesting that there is a “right” way to be political. This disregards the millions of people who work to combat oppression conditions that persist in everyday life.
AAPIs are politically involved across the spectrum, from “direct action” to “soft activism,” which does not have to be in competition with one another. The idea of direct action as more valuable than more subtle forms of resistance is both ableist and classist — not everyone has the ability to protest at a rally, or the privilege of delaying personal responsibilities to do so. In an interview with Pacific Ties, former director of APC and current Campus Retention Chairperson Jazz Kiang explained, “A purposeful decision or moment can be activism. A person who decides to become a peer counselor at the retention center is an activist because they’re doing something to benefit the community. For someone who is working two jobs so they can afford their tuition, that’s being an activist because they see their importance of being at an institution of higher learning. Being here is already a political statement.”
In addition, it is harmful to pit communities of color against each other. All people of color face discrimination that our non-POC counterparts do not face, with discrimination that is specific to certain communities of color. This is not to say that multiracial coalitions are always in harmony, but there must be solidarity between communities in order combat these issues.
And so what if an AAPI student group has a dance team and a culture show? Preserving, sharing, and finding solidarity through culture is political too.
Pacific Ties believes in documenting AAPI student organizations’ culture nights so the next generation of AAPI student activists know that we care about our communities. Yeo acknowledges that AAPI student-led culture nights are “a form of political action,” but she denies them as a form of legitimate activism.
Culture nights honor hxstory, depicting people’s lives and struggles through lenses of immigration and war. They also look at issues such as violence against women, the visibility and acceptance or lack thereof of LGBTQ+ individuals within specific cultures, the impact of religion and tradition on modern beliefs, etc. At this year’s Samahang Pilipino Culture Night, for example, a traditional dance about the creation myth immediately followed a scene in which the father, a character in the play, proclaims that “love is between a man and a woman.”
Culture nights examine these issues and offer a solution through healing. They are a safe space. Each story that is staged at a culture night has a resolution, promotes acceptance of different identities, and ends with a hopeful look toward the future.
The prominent message that we should accept ourselves and our cultural identity is political and a form of activism. When we accept our identities, we choose to confront oppressive power structures from both outside and within our own communities.
Combating systemic racism doesn’t have to come in the form of an obvious message or protest at culture nights because the celebration and validation of our cultures reminds us that the stereotypes about our cultures and communities are not true.
These cultural nights remind us that we deserve to be seen and heard. They remind us that the dominant narrative isn’t the only one that exists, and that we don’t have to fit ourselves in to feel accepted.
Culture nights are a form of nonviolent activism in which we invite people to learn about our customs — our food, music, and dances — as well as our experiences. But at the same time, we are also educating ourselves about what it means to be part of an AAPI community and how we can best represent our cultures in the years to come.
Students who join these cultural organizations do so to further understand their identity. Whether they join in hopes to learn more about their identity, hxstory, and culture, it is a space that gives them a chance to connect with other students who wish do the same.
This in itself is an act of resistance. Students reclaim their own identity by learning from one another’s shared experiences and stories collectively. As the feminist phrase states, “the personal is political,” meaning that reflecting on one’s own experiences and understanding how it intersects with the broader structures of oppression is a form of raising consciousness. This collectively-enabled consciousness enables theses communities and organizations to work and find solutions and heal from these issues.
4. Yeo erases the work of student activists.
Yeo argues that affirmative action was the only factor in raising AAPI enrollment rates and disregards the role of groups like APC. She says,
“As they readily admit, APC’s efforts had little to do with the demographic shift. The changing demographics of California, the increase in admissions standards, and ultimately, the abolishment of affirmative action through California Proposition 209 helped create the admissions environment that has lead to Asian and Pacific Islanders being the largest demographic category on campus at 33.5 percent, compared to nationally hovering around 5 percent and 13.5 percent in California, if Pacific Islanders are excluded.”
First, the data Yeo presents about AAPI student admissions post-Proposition 209 need to be disaggregated. Unlike what Yeo suggested, AAPI underrepresentation in higher education is still an issue, especially in Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander communities. But it is not noticeable when AAPI students are counted as a monolithic racial category. We need to consider how specific AAPI communities face inequities in education.
Second, APC has played an important role in the demographic shift. While APC does not dispute the importance of affirmative action, and has historically supported affirmative action throughout the years, campus-level activism should not be undermined. The MOs have achieved incredible success in carving out spaces for students neglected by the university, namely through programmatic efforts and the Community Programs Office (CPO)’s successful access and retention programs. The access and retention programs provide targeted outreach and retention services to disadvantaged communities at UCLA and beyond. They continue to maintain their legacy of minority student achievement, especially after the passage of California’s Prop 209. The prohibition on affirmative action makes these programs even more important for minority access to higher education by providing students with crucial resources to challenge institutional obstacles.
APC continually affirms its accomplishments in setting up the foundations of AAPI student success. Collaborative efforts amongst the MO’s have resulted in the creation of the Student Activities Center and Community Programs Office, the restructuring of the John Wooden Center, and most recently, the passage of the Social Justice Referendum that will fund culturally competent resources targeting marginalized students. APC’s efforts in institutionalizing student-led and student-initiated programs is critical to the increase in minority student enrollment from underserved communities. This is telltale from the wildly successful YIELD events at UCLA.
APC’s role as organizers for student resources is critical to rises in AAPI enrollment, and its successes should be properly noted. Although the organization’s original concerns regarding AAPI enrollment has evolved and changed over time, this does not, nor should it negate the decades of AAPI activism aiding UCLA in its efforts for social justice.
Yeo’s denial of APC’s role in AAPI enrollment is only the tip of the iceberg. Yeo actively ignores many AAPI groups in both her research and analyses. She neglects organizations like Pacific Islands’ Student Association (PISA), Mixed Student Union (MSU), Indus, and many others. Despite her definition of the term “Asian American” and confessed pitfalls in South Asian inclusiveness at the beginning of her investigation, Yeo does not challenge her shortfalls, and skirts the issue. Yet, she seeks to answer the question, “why are AAPI’s so apolitical?” with no real intention of pursuing a comprehensive review.
5. Yeo’s article is part of the problem, not the solution.
Yeo’s article perpetuates the idea of AAPI apathy by downplaying and erasing the work of AAPI student groups.
Yeo’s irresponsible and biased “investigation” does not properly represent the state of AAPI activism at UCLA and the rich history of AAPI activism as a whole. Her lazy reporting results in a limited understanding of the very issues she wants to explore, and does not accurately represent the many narratives that exist. Broad, overarching statements that erase the complexity of student activism fail to adequately serve as a framework for her argument.
Yeo cannot gain a thorough acumen of AAPI activism from a handful of interviews, nor should she conflate UCLA’s AAPI activism with AAPI activism as a whole. Misinterpretation of politically loaded issues that accompany conversations of AAPI apathy is a crucial weakness that renders her research useless.
Although it is important for Yeo to reflect on her personal experiences at UCLA, she cannot conflate them as factual claims and use them as a foundation for research. Yeo’s gross generalizations rob her readers of a comprehensive understanding of AAPI activism.
Congratulations, Kelly. You played yourself.
Note: The Asian Pacific Coalition contributed to the editorial.
If you are an AAPI student group and would like to use Pacific Ties as a space to publish a response to Yeo’s article, please email [email protected].
*Although Pacific Ties uses the term APIDA (Asian Pacific Islander Desi American) to describe our communities, we decided to refer to our communities as AAPI to be consistent with Yeo’s article. Both terms refer to the same communities.