By Ernie Wong, FASLA
Asian hate crimes have grown an alarming 150 percent over the past year. While other forms of crime are declining, this phenomenon is leading to real fear and anger in Asian communities throughout the country.
Landscape architecture is a part of the broader society, so the field is also directly impacted. From overseas students in landscape architecture education programs to the Asian communities that design firms serve, landscape architects are entrenched in dealing with society’s woes, especially when they occur in the public realm.
The demographics of our own profession have also shifted over the years, with a steady increase of Asians in the workforce and a conscious effort by many firms to embrace diversity, equity, and inclusion as part of their company values. In our own diverse firm, Asians constitutes about one-third of our total employees, with the majority of our leadership fitting into this category.
The murders in Atlanta shook us to the core and was deeply personal to many of us. Even while many of our staff know that I advocate on behalf of all communities of color, gender, religion and beliefs, I felt to the need to reach out with some reassurance of safety and care. It also was a time to again reflect on our own personal experiences and thoughts about race and this country, while allowing our staff to reveal any bias they had encountered. Interestingly but expected, nobody came forward.
There has always been a level of resentment against Asians throughout our history in America. Whether overt or subversive, the sentiment has always put a label on Asians as weak and submissive, or the “model minority,” a term that infuriates us. The term “Asian American” loops all of these extremely diverse communities into a single pool, absent of our nationalities, languages, religions, traditions, and experiences. The complexities and nuances are ignored, and our histories are made insignificant.
The history of Asians in America is largely unknown to most Americans, let alone the hundreds of Asian students flocking to the U.S. for a prestigious education. According to ASLA’s data, in 2017, at accredited landscape architecture programs in the U.S., the enrollment of international students over a five-year period grew 52 percent, and a majority of these students were from Asia. Those are significant numbers and a boon for the universities that can profit from these students.
What’s missing is the orientation and cultural diversity training that can help overseas students integrate into American culture. Suddenly, these students are thrust into a world defined by race and ethnicity, religion and gender identity. Unless they have a high fluency in the English language, engagement — and the initiation of such — remains the onus of the student. Thus, we find the clustering and isolation of overseas students struggling to understand “diversity.” Unfortunately, the characterization of race and culture in most media outlets only adds to the stereotyping, leaving their imaginations jaded.
When you add the experiences of expatriates throughout Asia who receive preferential treatment, those images further re-inforce the social hierarchy of white colonialism and Asian subordination and inferiority. Given the hypersexualization and fetishization of Asian women and the desexualization of Asian men — who are characterized as being passive, effeminate, and weak — the incident in Atlanta could’ve occurred anywhere.
We are all struggling with diversity, equity, and inclusion in this country. The discussion is starting, but the results are distant. As fellow landscape architects, I am calling on you to be more sensitive to Asian experiences.
I’m calling on you to help destroy Asian stereotypes and the MYTH of the “model minority,” which is simply a lie to pit other people of color against Asians. I’m calling on you to disperse the fear that we have of each other — fear that some group will take another group’s jobs, or one type of people will harm another type of person. I’m calling on you to stand in solidarity with the #StopAsianHate movement.
Most of all, I’m calling on you to see the world as bigger than ourselves and continue to engage with people who are different than you.
Ernie Wong, FASLA, is a founding principal of site design group, ltd. (site) based in Chicago, Illinois. He is an Asian American male born and raised on the Southside of Chicago and continues to resolve his own identity issues.