history



Rejection gave birth to the Asian American Association. During first-year orientation week in 1976, two Asian American women decided to attend a Minority Freshman Banquet sponsored by the university, but were barred from entering and were turned away.

Harvard did not recognize Asian Americans as a minority, despite the legacy of legal discrimination and social prejudice they share with other minority groups. Asian Americans were acknowledged as minorities by the federal government and by Harvard in enrollment reports it filed in order to receive federal affirmative-action funding. But the administration embraced the racist notion of Asian Americans as an assimilated, financially secure "model minority" and therefore not a true "minority."

Furious, Asian Americans and other minority students pointed out the inconsistency in Harvard's policy and demanded recognition of Asian Americans as minorities. Twelve different student groups submitted a letter to Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III later that month. In response to a petition filed by 27 students in October 1976, Epps decided to include Asian Americans in minority programs but rejected the claim that Asians are "oppressed."

According to a November 1976 article in The Harvard Crimson, Epps's reaction had "several ramifications. Many Asian-American students now find themselves in limbo, unable to identify with the white majority, but separated by definition from the minorities on campus," The Crimson reported.

This feeling of isolation culminated in the establishment of the Asian American Association, which Fred Ho '79, a sociology concentrator, and other students helped found and spearhead. AAA launched an extensive campaign against the administration in seeking minority status for Asian American students.

The organization grew out of the Coalition of Asian American Students, an early activist group formed during the Vietnam War to oppose the U.S. war effort. The coalition dissolved after the war ended, but served as a precedent for the founding of AAA in 1976.

The orientation-week incident was the catalyst for the new group. Through protests and discussions, Asian Americans gained increases in admissions and recruitment trips to the West Coast and publication of an Asian American recruitment pamphlet. Still, Harvard denied recognition of Asian Americans as minorities.

The Coalition of Asian American Students joined with the Black Students Association, La Organizacion, and other minority groups, and circulated a platform flier declaring that "Asian American minority recognition is an essential fight to expand the gains won by minority students and the democratic rights to self determination in their affairs."

After extensive confrontations and information campaigns and a sit-in in University Hall in which students vowed not to leave Epps' office until acceptance was accorded, the administration formally acknowledged Asian Americans as minorities at the end of 1976.

The goals of AAA were defined early on, though Ho stated that debate and differences raged about the direction of the new organization.

Some students supported AAA as an apolitical social group while others, Ho included, wanted the organization to take on an activist role with educational goals as well.

"The activist legacy of AAA is critically important; it has to get things done,"" Ho said, adding that the cultural and social aspects of Asian American life could not be considered without taking into account the political struggles of Asian Americans.

Assuming a heavily political stance, the early core members sponsored events such as Asian American parties and cultural programs in addition to fighting for recruitment and greater admission of Asian Americans, supporting divestment from South Africa and forming a community-service program in Boston's Chinatown.

"AAA really expanded after I left, due to the involvement of activist Asian women,"" Ho said, citing as a main concern the organization's disproportionate male-female ratio. Symptomatic of many oppressed groups, Ho said, Asian American women often had to deal with men's insecurities, even in a university environment.

In 1979, AAA president Steve Pon wrote "An Asian American Perspective,"" a radical essay outlining past discrimination against Asian Americans. "Who hasn't been asked if your father works in a restaurant or laundry, or how long have you been in this country, or even, 'You speakee English?'' Who hasn't been called a 'Chink' or a 'Jap,'' or sneaky or inscrutable? Who hasn't been asked to say something in Chinese, and when you explain you're Japanese, they reply, 'Well, it's all the same, isn't it?'' Or perhaps strangers come up to you and ask if you're Chinese or Japanese and when you tell them, they are proud that they could tell the difference, or they tell you they had Chinese food last night."

Pon viewed AAA as an educational organization dedicated to mutual support among members and to informing others about Asian American issues. "The reasons for having an AAA are as many and diverse as the people in it. … It is ours to mold, build and use as we wish. Come, help shape it with your own hands,"" Pon wrote.

Involved in AAA from 1976 to 1980, Renee E. Tajima '80 was a core member of AAA and helped lobby for minority recognition for Asian Americans at Harvard.

"I remember sitting in Epps's office demanding an admissions and recruitment program for Asians,"" she said. Tajima went on to become the founder and first staff member for the Asian American admissions and recruitment program, taking trips around the country to encourage Asian Americans from low-income families to apply.

The political activities of AAA pivoted on involvement with two movements. The first, the East Coast Asian Student Union (ECASU), which Tajima helped found, served as an intercollegiate support network and pushed for affirmative action, an issue which the historic Bakke case in the Supreme Court brought to the nation's attention. Through participation in marches in Washington, D.C. and campus education, AAA members sought support.

In 1977, AAA was a key part of an anti-apartheid coalition of more than 1,000 students who took over Holyoke Center. "We closed it down,"" Tajima said. "We took over the offices and educated people about apartheid."

The apparent rift between the "political" core members and those who sought a more social role for the organization persisted, according to Tajima. "The challenge was to find common ground,"" she said.

At that time, Radcliffe women put together a slide show on the Asian American experience of women, a production which was a very emotional project for all involved because it helped unify students both within and outside of AAA. The slide show opened the eyes of the less political members and heightened the importance of teamwork and compromise for the core members, Tajima said.

Tajima, now an independent documentary filmmaker based in California, said AAA and other campus organizations helped prepare Asian Americans for leadership positions. "[AAA] really changed leadership of Asian Americans. If you look at the people running for elected office or who are involved in Asian American legal aid, a lot of them started on a campus organization,"" she said. "Even those who were not political people have become politicized in the process and are still involved which would not have happened without AAA."

Peter N. Kiang '80, a AAA member from its founding and now a professor of Asian American studies at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, drew up a proposal of or a Third World Center which was to become a base of resources controlled by minority student groups. Instead, Harvard responded by creating the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations, whose primary goal was to promote interracial relations.

Student groups felt that they were already adequately promoting interccultural relations, and really needed a source of funds, Kiang said. Harvard retained its "power of the purse" through the Foundation instead of giving it to the groups directly, he said. "It created a relationship of dependency because of the grants program."" The student organizations' independence in funding and autonomy was infringed upon because the Foundation made them apply for funding, according to Kiang.

All the student organizations boycotted the Harvard Foundation in 1980 to 1981, he said, but eventually had to give in due to lack of money and resources. "It's a sad commentary on students of color because they are seen as ambassadors of their culture."

However, AAA leaders emphasize that the Foundation is today a vital source of support and funding as well as an important liaison between student groups and the administration. In particular, today's student leaders praise Foundation Director Dr. S. Allen Counter for his efforts in strengthening and aiding their groups in inviting speakers and organizing other events.

During the early 1980s, AAA established several sub-committees. The admissions and recruitment committee was dedicated to increasing applications, acceptances and matriculation of Asian American students, especially those from urban and working-class backgrounds. But while AAA's constitution states that its purpose is to meet the "political, cultural, educational, and social needs of Asian-American students,"" even in the nascent phases of its existence, AAA recognized and struggled with the difficulties of representing and providing resources for an extremely diverse and rapidly expanding community.

Individual ethnic-specific groups were formed, notably the Chinese Students Association, Koreans of Harvard-Radcliffe (now the Korean Students Association), and the Japanese Cultural Society. In addition, a group for Asian American women was established. AAA maintained its commitment to supporting these groups as they formed.

The fight against stereotypes on campus continued in the 1980s. In the spring of 1980, the Hasty Pudding Theatricals show, "A Little Knife Music,"" employed a character named "Edgar Foo Yung,"" depicted as a stereotypical Asian American who is poisoned at the close of the play because of his romantic interest in a white female protagonist.

The racist and insensitive depiction of Asian Americans enraged student groups. In a February 1980 letter to the editor in The Crimson, Elizabeth T. Partridge '80 wrote that the character was a racist caricature "complete with the requisite trailing pigtail, pidgin English, and tiny stature. He bows and clasps his hands together, preeminently laughable in all his jerky, awkward mannerisms."

AAA consequently met with the Hasty Pudding to discuss the portrayal and demanded the removal of the character from the play. Though the Hasty Pudding conceded that students could potentially misconstrue what it said was all in good humor, it refused to change the play.

Led by Florence Houn '80, an early AAA leader who is now a doctor, AAA started a massive poster campaign, protesting in front of the Pudding Club during performances of the play. "A mere recognition of the problem without subsequent termination of the practice is a sterile intellectual exercise; it does not repair the inherent social damages of the play,"" AAA wrote in a letter to The Crimson in March 1980. Backed by the BSA, La Organizacion and La RAZA, AAA successfully persuaded the Pudding to include a letter of protest from AAA in the play program.

In the 1980s, the AAA struggle moved to Byerly Hall. A controversy over admissions erupted in the Ivy League, where it was suggested that Asian Americans should no longer be recruited because there were too many proportionate to their numbers in the population. Rumors of a quota ceiling for Asian Americans circulated, leading to confrontations between AAA and the administration.

Margaret Chin, co-president of AAA from 1983 to 1984, worked in the admissions office under the minority recruitment program. "For the first time people looked at SAT scores and found that while Asians had the highest SAT scores, the admit rates were the lowest,"" Chin said.

In a statistical report by the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid on minorities, the percentage of Asian American admits was consistently lower than that of other minorities. From 1980 to 1986, the percentage of Asian Americans accepted lingered around 15 percent, compared with 27.2 percent for blacks and 24.8 percent for Hispanics. AAA and other students attended meetings with then admissions officers L. Fred Jewett and William R. Fitzsimmons, asking for an explanation for the discrepancies.

The admissions office replied by stating that its objective was to look for "well-rounded" applicants. Chin said that only after much negotiation and disputes did AAA and the admissions office settle by shifting the focus of recruiting to low-income and underrepresented minority students.

The current members of the Asian American Association are extremely proud of the organization's history. Today's AAA embraces its legacy of pursuing social justice for the Asian American community and continues to be a forceful voice for Asian American and other causes on Harvard campus and beyond.


© 2017 Harvard-Radcliffe Asian American Association
Harvard-Radcliffe Asian American Association is a student-run organization at Harvard College.