Not Only Asians Should Get to Learn About Chinatowns

Each year, GDS holds minimester, a three-day program where students engage in experiential learning outside of their typical academic schedules. This year, a new minimester option called “Chinatown, USA” became available, and I was immediately drawn to it. The description discusses how students would explore the ways that Chinatowns all over the country began and developed over time, and how they are “sites of both empowerment and oppression.”

The minimester even involves a visit to Manhattan’s Chinatown. Part of the reason I was excited about the Chinatowns minimester was because I would get to learn about the history of American Chinatowns with a diverse group of students who were also interested in the topic. 

When students found out about minimester placements on Oct. 25, I was thrilled to have gotten in. Later that day, I was surprised to hear that when one of my peers didn’t get into the Chinatowns course, the explanation she got from a minimester organizer was that the Chinatowns minimester had been limited to Asian or Asian-American students. When the minimester rosters became available on MyGDS, every student on there appeared to be Asian.

Excluding non-Asian students from this opportunity contradicts the point of minimester, to allow any student to explore a topic they are interested in or curious about. Why was I, a Korean American, getting priority over someone who might know as little about Chinese culture as I do?

When I reached out to Michelle McKeever, the main organizer of minimester, she confirmed that the Chinatowns minimester had become an affinity group and explained that the decision was based on both the plans for the course and the minimester’s popularity. English teacher Alice Wang, one of the leaders of the course, told me that it was partly designed to include conversations to reflect on Asian-American identity.

The decision doesn’t align with the true purpose of minimester and how inclusion and diversity are defined at GDS. For all my years at the high school when minimester has run (not 2021), it’s been an opportunity for me and my fellow classmates to engage in a culture or activity we hadn’t yet, and one we were curious about. My freshmen year, I did the New York art minimester, one that allowed me to visit art museums around the city and appreciate different styles and artists. This experience allowed me to grow my artistic interests and learn about art forms that were foreign to me.

McKeever said that she and the Chinatowns minimester teachers decided after the registration deadline to limit the course’s participants to Asian students. Therefore, the non-Asian students who were eager to participate in this minimester were not aware that acceptance into the minimester would be done that way. 

The decision to only include Asian students sets the precedent that future minimester options can be racially selective as well, and makes me wonder what would happen if other minimesters also became affinity spaces. Should the food and culture tracks be limited to students who identify with each respective heritage and geographical region?

The spot for the Asian American Affinity group, or AAA, at the affinity fair in October. Photo by Olivia Brown.

The main fault here is the fact that affinity spaces are being carried into different contexts that don’t have the same goals. AAA, GDS’ Asian-American affinity group, meets each month to discuss issues that pertain to Asian identity. I am a co-head of Fusion, the multiracial and multiethnic affinity group, and I consistently attend AAA and Young Women of Color. The purpose of affinity groups is to foster a safe space where students can freely express their identity, so it makes sense to exclude people who do not share the same identifiers from these spaces.

The purpose of minimester, on the other hand, is different. Whether what we are learning about relates to our identity and lived experiences or not, everyone is just there to learn. To reiterate, I love affinity groups at GDS, but things start to become an issue when the exclusionary aspect of these groups starts slipping into different contexts.

Although I am grateful to have gotten into the course I wanted, I think the selection process for the Chinatowns minimester should have been random (maybe with the exception of senior priority). I’m unaware of what’s in store for the minimester, and I am definitely interested in learning more about how an affinity space would be conducive to the hopes of the course.

Still, I do believe that the choice to limit a minimester to a racial group should be reevaluated for the future, so that minimester can stay true to its core value, letting students learn something new.

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