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The New School has one of the most international student bodies of American universities, including students from many Asian countries. Asian international students are celebrated among the graduates and alumnae/i, especially of Parsons School of Design, but while studying here they often find curricula that marginalize their traditions and ignore their particular challenges. Reeling in the face of the recent surge of anti-Asian abuse and violence, students of Asian heritage – domestic as well as international – have felt ill-prepared to make sense of it, and unsatisfied by the university’s support.
The sources and expressions of “anti-Asian hate” in the United States are complex, historically tangled, and part of both colonial histories and structures of racialization in the US. Given its legacies and commitments, The New School should be a better resource for its community, and could be a model for other universities.
Students from the People’s Republic of China, currently the largest community of international students at The New School (as well as in the US as a whole, where one in three international students before the pandemic hailed from China), have come to feel vulnerable in very particular ways. China-bashing talk of a “new cold war,” in terms of reviving past “red scares” and “yellow perils” in embrace of the fatalistic logic of the Thucydides Trap, makes their very presence suspect. What is observed during the COVID-19 pandemic is the culmination of historical and new conflicts between the US and China, and the problematic conflation of the critical components of US-China relations, including the nation, people, economy, and geopolitics. COVID-19 has linked these suspicions with the long-lived prejudices about Asia as a source of disease which have put all Asians and Asian Americans at risk. In analyzing and responding to these pressures, too, The New School should be carving a distinctive path. While the lore of The New School is resolutely Eurocentric, it has long been internationalist in ethos and community. Operating at the interstices of global as well as domestic exclusions it claims the particular mission of being a home for those experiencing exile of every kind. Marshaling its legacies and the gifts of all its members, The New School should be a sanctuary from and force against anti-Asian hate.
The violence of distinctive American structures of race greets students and immigrants to the United States from every part of the world, as they confront stereotypes, exclusions, and – for those invited to whiteness – privileges for which their past experiences offer little preparation. Asian students step into a history of multifaceted and overlapping attacks and exclusions, ranging from the 1875 Page Act to the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII to the attack on a Wisconsin gurdwara in 2012 and the recent murders of Korean and Chinese American women in Atlanta. This history is at last becoming familiar beyond affected communities, as are the insidious stereotypes of the “model minority” and “perpetual foreigner.” Yet there is further work to be done reckoning with the ways these marginalizations are nurtured by the long and iterative history of US entanglements across Asia, as well as an often gendered racialization as “Asian” intimately entwined with orientalism, white supremacist nativism, and anti-blackness.”
Within this set of overlapping exclusions, students from China today confront an additional trauma that could be described as a double betrayal. With the spread of COVID-19, Asians have been seen as “virus carriers” and subjected to verbal and physical assault whether they wear a mask in public or not. Former president Trump’s opportunistic association of China with the virus surfaced and stimulated existing xenophobia. Students and researchers were vilified as potential agents of military or economic espionage, automatically identifying them with the Chinese state and the projects of the Chinese Communist Party. Visas were curtailed and alleged national security concerns were cited to restrict even the most widely used communication channels such as WeChat with families and friends back in China. The Biden administration, putting US-China “competition” to work for its own agendas, has not put the welcome mat back out.
At the same time, these students have been buffeted by pressures from China. Playing blithely into sinophobic fears, the Chinese government has imposed extraterritorial surveillance and censorship mechanisms under the recently enacted Hong Kong National Security Law, urging overseas Chinese citizens to be patriotic advocates. Students studying abroad are monitored – but kept at arm’s length. Chinese media claim all new Chinese COVID-19 cases come from abroad, and have made the larger population suspicious of returning students. But those who remain abroad are lambasted too. A Lasa TV news anchor’s accusations against overseas Chinese students recently went viral: “Zuguo jianshe ni buzai, wanli toudu ni zuikuai” (“You are not here for homeland construction, yet are the fastest in spreading the contagion from thousands of miles away”). Similar critiques are made by “little pink” (xiao fenhong) and other young cyber-nationalist vigilantes of Chinese state ideology. Chinese students, once seen as valued bridges between the US and China, now find themselves suspect in both places.
American universities, already lacking in awareness of Asian American histories and challenges, are ill-equipped to recognize the double betrayal haunting their Chinese students, or the complicated narratives with which it resonates. The history of the more than 20 million Asian-Americans is largely unmentioned in US textbooks, and little known by American students. Even when included, Asian and Asian American histories are mentioned as afterthoughts, reinforcing the perception that people of Asian heritage are not really part of the American story. Curricular marginalization is exacerbated by the nakedly transactional way many universities describe international students, especially those from China: full fees-paying outsiders who make progressive agendas possible within. The fraught issues confronting students from China – projected in this miasma of ignorance also on other students of Asian heritage – are not acknowledged, and university communities that should be supportive instead underscore experiences of disposability and erasure.
The New School should be an exception to these trends. It has been both a hub for foreign-born students and scholars and the object of xenophobic suspicions since its founding. The faculty and students of the vaunted University in Exile were suspected of being agents for foreign powers, even as they faced the anti-Semitism of American university culture. The New School articulated a distinctive mission and a curriculum committed to grasping the complexities of global questions and experiences of cultural pluralism and exile – with more Asian presence than is generally remembered – but its focus has largely remained on the North Atlantic world. Propelled in part by the evolving international profile of Parsons School of Design, which merged with The New School in 1970, The New School by the 1990s aspired to be the locus of what president Jonathan F. Fanton called a global “Network for Collective Influence.” Still, The New School’s mythos is rooted in Europe, its understanding of the aims of education in the United States. Renewed efforts at “decolonizing” the curriculum are underway in every division.
The challenges that Chinese and other Asian and Asian American students face are multiple, complex and constantly ramifying, but most analysis and response remains superficial. In an era of resurgent nationalism and deglobalization and a belated global reckoning with the legacies of white supremacy and American-style racialization, The New School’s internationalist legacies and ever-deepening commitments to social justice position it to make important contributions both locally and globally. It should be the vanguard of understanding diversity, equity, and inclusion in a global, decolonizing way. Mobilizing its legacies and the gifts of all its members, The New School should be an intellectual and social haven from anti-Asian hate, and a sanctuary for students grappling with the trauma of double betrayal.
Mark Larrimore is the Program Director of Religious Studies in Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts at The New School.
Lei Ping is Assistant Professor of China Studies at The New School. She is also Coordinator of Chinese Studies and Korean Studies and Faculty Advisor at India China Institute.
This essay is part of a series centering Asian experiences at The New School, which has introduced H. T. Tsiang, and will explore the careers of Korean design students and the globalization of the New School’s curriculum proposed by provost Arjun Appadurai, among other topics.