A recent stir within the Asian-American student body arose when a picture featuring Geoffrey Lim (a 4/5 undergraduate student here at Stevens) and his relatives (his two sisters and his cousin) surfaced in a group chat with Geoffrey and his friends. To their surprise, the picture was discovered on the Stevens website alongside information for international students – surprising, since none of the four depicted in the photo were international students. According to Geoffrey, when the picture was taken during Accepted Students Day four years ago, without any knowledge that the picture would be used for the “Orientation” page. The administration have since been notified about their mistake and have since taken the photo down.
“I think it is pretty outrageous that Stevens does not even check who they take pictures of before putting it up on their website,” commented an undergraduate student referring to the recent blunder on the Stevens website. “Frankly, it’s quite racist that Stevens probably just assumed these students are international students because they’re Asian.”
When I heard about the picture, like most others, I found it amusing… and then upsetting. Why is it that people initially assume all Asians to be international? This did not sit well with me. I had to ask, was it a reasonable error? Why was this assumption made?
I asked him about what he thought about the situation. He told me “I showed them and the rest of my family and were laughing at it because it was wrong because we are not international students…we figure[d] it was just an honest mistake as they wanted a picture for the page or something and that was a picture they had on hand but couldn’t really do a background check on the individuals in the picture as it would be hard to track from just a name tag that is not entirely legible in the picture. So I agree that it was somewhat ignorant to make that assumption that we were international students but I also believe it was an honest mistake” It surprised me that he was relaxed about the situation compared to the first person I had talked to (who was not the “victim” in the situation). Perhaps then, an “honest mistake” isn’t a bad way to describe it. A large portion of our international student body is from Asia, and so are Geoffrey and his family.
Issues such as this one are not unusual at Stevens. A number of peers have come to me to express similar stories in which they have been assumed to be international students despite having had lived here their entire lives. One student was caught in an uncomfortable situation when he/she was applying for a summer job here at Stevens. “Basically I was trying to get all the paperwork done… one of the questions happened to be ‘are you an international student’ and obviously the answer was ‘no’ since I was born in NJ and she (the person helping me with the form) was sorta looking at the question from behind me and said ‘this is where you click yes.’ I’m really appreciative that she was helping me with the forms but the fact that she just assumed that I was an international student was a bit disappointing.” said one student. Another student also related to this experience: “Co op office also tells Asian named students to put ‘US citizen’ on their resume but not white named students.” In both situations, incorrect assumptions are made concerning students’ status; however, these assumptions were clearly made with the best interest of the students in mind.
On the other hand, there are also cases when assumptions are made about ability and habits, which serve no benefit to anyone. One Stevens student shared, “when I used to work at the campus bookstore, the manager just assumed I knew Chinese and told me to talk to the internationals” An Indian-American undergraduate stated, “when the pizza people see me taking pizza with meat on it, they’re shook.” Although it is uncomfortable to be assumed as international, I understand that the faculty were only being careful.
At first, I didn’t fully understand why I and other found these stories unsettling. Maybe, I thought, that being labeled as an international student carries a negative connotation. It’s a subtle kind of racism, because the only crime that Stevens committed, was that they didn’t seem to try to differentiate between someone from outside the country and someone who had grown up here in the US with Geoffrey’s situation. Foreigners, not just in the United States, but all over the world are not treated like common citizens due to cultural differences. It could be a detriment to be labeled as one, and many would like the full benefit of being seen as another citizen. However, I think that is only a part of the story.
The issue which this situation stems from is perhaps that it is troubling to be labeled as something you are not. I may love to cook, to kickbox, or to play an instrument, however due to an appearance I cannot change, a characteristic that is not a part of my identity may be ascribed to me leaving the other ones to be forgotten – characteristics that took nearly two decades to develop. It is unnerving to say the least, to be inaccurately portrayed.
While Asian Americans look Asian, we’ve only known life in America. When this- basically our entire lives- is put into question, we become defensive. Although many Chinese or Chinese American people can speak Chinese, not all of them can. But the first assumption people will make is that you can. Although many Indian or American Indian people don’t eat meat, not all of them are vegetarian. But the first assumption people will make is that you are. But everyone makes assumptions like this. Just like how people from Jersey are assumed to have a stereotypical Jersey accent, does everyone have one? It’s the first assumption that will be made. It can be frustrating to the some of us. But it never comes from a bad place. As humans we all generalize and categorize, we just need to correct the wrong ones and move on. I don’t believe in attacking those who are only out to help. However, although Intentions are important, I don’t want to overlook people who act on wrong assumptions. Assumptions may be fair, but they should always be questioned.