When I received an email on March 21 from the Assistant Director of Student Services and Commencement Coordinator at Harvard Kennedy School about registering for the University-wide Affinity Graduation Ceremonies, I opened it with a sense of cautious optimism.
Over the past few years, members of the Asian/Pacific Islander/Desi American (APIDA) community at Harvard have been unable to escape the litany of anti-Asian hate incidents that predated, but were exacerbated by, the Covid-19 pandemic. In the wake of the Atlanta-area spa shootings in March 2021 that left eight people dead (including six women of Asian descent), a group of HKS students organized a candlelight vigil to provide a space for reflection, education, and solidarity. There seemed to be growing acknowledgement of both the microaggressions and larger systemic obstacles that members of the APIDA community faced on a daily basis. In this context, a Harvard APIDA affinity graduation ceremony would serve as a respite of joy and connection before graduates left the Harvard bubble.
I scanned the email for the full list of ceremonies: Black Graduation; Latinx Graduation; Next Gen (First Generation Low Income+) Graduation; Lavender (LGBTQ+) Graduation; and Native American and Indigenous Graduation. In total, five affinity graduation ceremonies were listed, but one specifically for APIDA students was not among them.
That’s odd, I thought as I reread the list. The administration was usually competent at ensuring that emails addressed to the entire student body were vetted by a number of people for typos and factual inaccuracies before they were sent. I estimated that it would take two to three business days for a follow-up email to be sent with an updated total of six affinity celebrations and a short apology.
That follow-up email never arrived.
It slowly dawned on me that the omission of a Harvard APIDA affinity graduation ceremony in the March 21 email was not accidental — it was intentional. There would not be an APIDA affinity graduation ceremony, and I therefore didn’t need to create a hold in my calendar for one.
Over the following weeks, I experienced a wave of different emotions. Anger was the first. Sadness quickly followed. Eventually, the overwhelming feeling that lingered was resignation. After all, the omission of the graduation ceremony fit into a larger American narrative that those in the APIDA community are model minorities who need few, if any, institutional services and resources.
The model minority myth projects the idea that those within the APIDA community are uniquely capable among people of color of pulling themselves out of poverty without relying on costly social services from the government. This myth serves two purposes: It drives a wedge between APIDA and other BIPOC communities by pitting groups of color against one another, and it offers a convenient justification for largely ignoring the real social and economic needs of a diverse and heterogeneous population.
In my hometown of New York City, for example, a 2015 report from the Asian American Federation found that while APIDAs make up close to 15 percent of the city’s population, only 1.4 percent of city-based agency contracts were awarded to Asian American social services providers over the past 13 years. This resource disparity persisted despite the fact that 20.8 percent of APIDAs in New York City lived below the city’s official poverty threshold of $36,262, according to a 2019 city report. The racial disparities behind the allocation of social services in America’s largest city is a prominent example of how the model minority myth is put into practice.
Myths are very difficult to dispel, particularly when they exist to reinforce the existing structures of power, privilege, and resource allocation in our society. What, then, can be done to address racial inequities on the Harvard campus? Drawing public attention helps, such as what Harvard College student Matteo N. Wong ’22 did last year on Twitter when the school gaslit APIDA students on its Anti-Asian Racism Resources webpage with an online post that read in part, “You may wish that you weren’t Asian, but remember that your ancestors likely went through similar or even worse incidents.” After Matteo’s story was picked up by national press outlets, the offending post was removed from the school’s webpage.
In the spirit of One Harvard, a diverse coalition of student groups and organizations from across the graduate schools is petitioning the administration to dedicate an on-campus venue, staff, and financial resources to a graduation ceremony for APIDA-identifying graduates in 2022 and in subsequent years. To date, over 25 student groups and more than four hundred community members have signed the petition.
The unfortunate reality of American society today is that many APIDA graduates will face unconscious biases, microaggressions, and structural barriers to advancement in their lives due to their racial and ethnic identity. By working together to advocate for the needs of APIDA students, we can ensure these do not occur during this year’s Commencement festivities.
Will Huang is a second-year Master in Public Policy student at the Harvard Kennedy School and the Co-Chair of the HKS Asian American and Pacific Islander Caucus.