Claremont McKenna College, Asian American Activism, and College Diversity


Claremont McKenna College

“My daughter goes to some school called Claremont McKennia…”

My parents often chuckle as they reminisce about how embarrassing it was for them to tell people where I went to college, how uncomfortable our Asian family and friends felt when they wanted to praise me but had never heard of my college. In fact, my parents had refused to let me go there at first because they had never heard of it. It didn’t matter when I showed them rankings that placed CMC up at the top of many lists, and it wasn’t until one of their own peers, who happened to be a professor at Pomona College, told them “Your daughter wants to go to Claremont McKenna? That’s a really good school!” that they let me go.

When I started school at CMC, it didn’t take long for my parents to become full on advocates of not just CMC but the Claremont Colleges as a whole. They saw the sort of education and experience I was getting, and they loved it. They started to become Claremont “activists” in the Asian and Asian American communities, telling people how great the Claremonts are and why all of their children should strive to go there. In fact, my mom went around high-fiving people when my brother was accepted into Harvey Mudd College, and they about chewed their nails off as they waited for him to decide between UC Berkeley and Harvey Mudd College and breathed a sigh of relief when he ultimately picked HMC.

I loved my time at CMC so much, I’m obnoxious about it. People around me are literally tired and downright annoyed of my always talking about how awesome it was to go to school there, how much personal attention I got from professors, how much I learned, blah blah blah. So of course, when CMC started to hit national news with accusations of institutional racism, people who had to suffer through my stories about how awesome my college was were quick to share the news with me.

When I started to read all the articles on what happened and saw that although the accusations of institutional racism and marginalization of minorities were broad, many key and active people on all sides of the controversy had surnames like Varughese, Huang, Minami, and Tsai. Asian Americans were the CMC administration being attacked, they were the student activists accusing the school of institutional racism, they were the student activists chastising those activists of inappropriate behavior, they were student government, concerned parents, etc. etc. The amount of Asian Americans involved in this controversy sure upturns any stereotypes that Asians don’t like to rock the boat. These CMC community members of Asian descent were practically playing tug-of-war with the boat.

It’s also important to note that the student movement actually appears to be a 5-College movement, not just for CMC. If you’re not familiar with the Claremont Colleges, they’re basically five undergraduate liberal arts schools plus a separate graduate school that have been built right next to each other and work together as a community to share resources. If you’re a student at one school, you can seamlessly take classes at any of the other schools, including the graduate school.

CMC Student Body Letter

CMC has had a long standing reputation of being one of the (if not the most) conservative schools in the nation. That’s not what attracted me to the school. It was the can-do culture, small school environment with university resources, and no-Greek-life policy that made it my dream school.

When I moved to the campus back in 1995, one of the first things I noticed was that Whites were the majority. That doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. According to the diversity chart in an LA Times article about CMC, the break down of the school population today is:

White 42.3%
Asian Pacific Islander 16.9%
Latino 13.6%
Black 4.3%
Two or More 6.1%
International 16.6%

What I remember from when I was there 20 years ago, it was about 60% white, and it seems from these numbers that the populations that grew the most are the Latino and international students. There was this white male classmate of mine at the time who came from Minnesota, and he was like “Wow, it’s so diverse here!” and I was like “Wow, it’s so NOT diverse here!” I was used to a majority ethnic minority student body.

Anyways, as a student of East Asian descent, I did in fact experience “marginalization” but from various sources not just “the man” or “institutional racism”.

For example, it was on CMC campus that I first experienced Asian American activism. There was a movement for Asian American studies at the time, which was successful and historic, and of which I was not a part of because I was stupid and didn’t understand what was going on. Thinking back on it today, I wish I had joined that movement, and it’s one of my regrets that I didn’t participate.

However, in my defense, sort of, although many of the activists were my friends and colleagues (I was an active leader in student organizations like Chinese Student Association), I actually felt “marginalized” by some of the activists because there were some who would shame me for not participating more in the activism instead of educating me as to why I should participate, which made me not want to participate (I should have been more mature about it). Also, I got some grief for perpetuating the stereotype that all Asians know martial arts because I was such a vocal fan of martial arts and performed at many school events (see my article on How to Be a Bad Asian).

Aside from feeling left out of the Asian American activism, one time students from our Claremont rival school Pitzer College came over to our dining hall and passed out threatening notes saying something like “We’re watching you”. Pitzer is the uber liberal counterpart to CMC’s conservative culture, and the two schools have had some heated conflict over the years. I was a CMC student who tended to vote Democrat/liberal and was socially progressive, but the Pitzer liberal activists handed me one of those threatening notes, too, painting me with a broad brush of their stereotypes of CMC students.

My feelings of displacement weren’t just caused by student activists, of course. Despite my overall awesome experience at CMC, there were some moments where I was marginalized by the school and by the student culture there. White students openly jeered “ching chong chang” at me at some cultural performances or made fun of me when I ran regular Asian cinema events in the school’s student lounges (this was before anyone knew who Jet Li or Jackie Chan were). It was annoying, but not debilitating, because it was clear to me they were the stupid immature ones, not me. I kept showing my movies and doing my cultural performances.

Further, and probably more seriously, I did experience some “institutional racism” at CMC. I was once brought in to a meeting with the Dean of Faculty at the time to discuss student attrition rates at the school, since I happened to be writing a paper on it and my professor thought I might provide some insight as well as a student perspective on the issue. The culture of always including students as part of the decision-making process is one of the awesome aspects of CMC and many other small liberal arts colleges.

As we discussed the issue of attrition and why students stay and leave, the Dean wondered out loud, with a meaningful look my way, why we even needed minority student associations. He was of Italian descent, and he asked out loud, “I mean, why don’t we start an Italian Students Association if we’re going to have all these student groups.” The insinuation he was making was that minority student associations were a waste of school resources, and he didn’t understand what the point of having them was.

Clearly, he was being very ignorant of what it means to be a marginalized minority student at CMC; he didn’t understand the value of creating such organizations to support those students who would automatically feel left out of the dominant culture based on their disparate life experiences and identities. Unfortunately, I wasn’t much help in enlightening him. I felt uncomfortable at his words, but didn’t quite know why or how to explain why those student groups were important. Now, 20 years later, I’m so prepared to school anyone on the issue, but back when I was a wide-eyed 17-year-old and a rather stupid one at that, I could only store the awkward experience away for later analysis.

This was the only time I personally experienced any sort of “institutional racism” at the school, as the Dean of Faculty demonstrated his lack of sensitivity to minority experience, and such ignorance may be shared by others in positions of power at the school. Aside from that, I’d heard rumors of other times when faculty, administration, or staff were less than sensitive to the needs of minority students. I’m not surprised by the stories of marginalization that some of the current students are sharing, and they are right to bring them to light. Maybe things have gotten worse since I was there? I don’t know.

In my own experience as a CMC student, 99% of the time, I felt like a rock star at the school. I have countless stories of how CMC has institutionally treated me like a precious golden egg to be nurtured and developed. The statistics professor who erased her whole afternoon schedule so she could give me a private one-to-one lesson on a concept I was having trouble with. My thesis advisor who called me in to his office to coach me on how to improve my sophomoric writing style. The visiting UC Berkeley professor who wrote essays in response to my essays. The government professor who took me to afternoon tea so we could discuss in detail the “D” I got on my first midterm. The Dean of Students who personally helped me move into another dorm when I told him I felt the dorm I had been placed in wasn’t a good match for me. All the nominations to honors societies and invitations to work at the research institutes on campus were so numerous, I actually had to turn some down. And I wasn’t even a star student or anything. I was pretty average, but I felt faculty and staff treated me like I was the undiscovered talent of the century. I’m starting to become obnoxious, aren’t I?

I’m such a shameless cheerleader for CMC.

It’s definitely been a long time since I was last there, but I have a feeling that this is what’s going down at the school and in the 5-college community in general: there are probably some serious changes that do need to happen to make the school and its culture more sensitive to minorities and marginalized identities, to be more diverse and more inclusive. The student activists probably do have a good point that needs to be pushed forward.

From what I’ve read and seen about the movement at CMC, it seems the administration was at fault for 1) not moving fast enough on responding to student concerns and 2) not making the students who have brought up the concerns feel like they were part of the process of resolving the problems perceived.

However, “movements” have a way of mutating in different directions, becoming the pluralistic beast natural to a democratic society, and some of the students seem to have gone about it in the wrong way, like those APIA activists who chastised me for liking martial arts and tried to shame me for not joining in demonstrations, like those Pitzer students who handed me a threatening note because they automatically assumed I was conservative since I was a CMC student. At the rally in the video posted by CMC’s student publication The Forum, it seems there was a lot of acting out on emotion, but at the same time, maybe it was this sort of “lashing out” that was needed in order to get the administration moving.

The whole time watching the video, I really felt like they needed some kind of third party moderator to make the time more productive. Maybe a job for the Alumni Association perhaps?

My education at CMC was the best, bar none. That’s not just my personal opinion, it’s my professional opinion as an educator and doctoral degree holder in that field. I look back at my education at CMC and I think, “This is the education I wish every one of my students could have. This is the education every child on this planet deserves as a birthright.” This could not have been possible at this school for a female, middle-class, ethnic minority Asian American student like me if it were plagued by crippling institutional racism.

The situation happening at CMC and the Claremont Colleges looks to me like democracy playing out all its noble and ugly sides, and in the end, it will without a doubt add to the valuable education and growth of everyone involved. After all, Claremont McKenna College is a place of “Leaders in the Making”, and nothing makes leaders like conflict and its resolution.

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About tinabot

Tinabot is a writer, teacher, and ninja. She and her students write and publish their work. Her debut teen kung fu romance novel The Legend of Phoenix Mountain is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
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