Harvard’s Bad Counsel

Harvard University

By Guest Contributor: erin Khuê Ninh, Associate Professor of Asian American Studies, UCSB 

Harvard dispensed some royally bad counsel recently. The university’s Counseling and Mental Health Services posted a tip sheet (archived here on Wayback Machine) for Asian American students that was meant to advise on how to “cope” with anti-Asian racism, xenophobia, and the recent targeted Atlanta murders. It read to many, however, as a hate crime itself. I disagree with that assessment, though. I think it is something differently bad, and importantly different: an inside job. 

The sheet reads, in main, as follows:

A screenshot of a flyer released by Harvard University’s Counseling and Mental Health Services that provides tips for “Managing and Coping” reactions to anti-Asian racism. It offers three tips that read in part: 1) Find pride in your community; 2) Seek out support; and 3) Process your feelings. A full image transcript is included at the bottom of this post.

This was put on blast point-by-point by undergrad Matteo Wong, in the fine form of an avenging angel. Biting press coverage followed, and that advice sheet was quickly replaced by an apology. But the question that Wong led with — and which echoed through the ensuing Twitter backlash — is worth returning to:

“WHAT? Please tell me who wrote” a mental health resources page that would start off with “You may wish that you weren’t Asian”?

In Wong’s thread, most responses were of the mind that the unknown author(s) must be non-Asian to have waved stereotypes about so freely, and to have thought so little of the people for whom they are supposedly providing care. About midway down Wong’s thread, however, it emerged that the authors may instead have been two Asian women — a possibility that shocked a few, but mostly failed to register at all.1A note that CMHS has been mum on the identities of the authors since taking down the tip sheet, and I think that is the right decision. My point here is not to target any staffers individually but to understand how such advice seemed reasonable and sensible to this student-service unit of Harvard University, one definitely headed, at any rate, by an Asian American.

To those in my circle who do Asian American studies for a living, though, the emotional rhetoric and ideological investments of this racialization were instantly familiar. This call was coming from inside the house.

“You may wish that you weren’t Asian” has the sympathetic timbre of someone very familiar with that feeling — someone whose own recourses in response to anti-Asian violence have been thin. Ethnic and racial pride is not their default; it has to be manufactured, like sheets of bright plastic to pull over internalized shame. But watching Raya and the Last Dragon is not how a people survive much of anything.

“Your ancestors” are the trigger words of a mythical, immigrant ur-narrative. They’re not exoticizing; they’re familial. If it is jarring to come across them on a clinical website, imagine hearing them in a counseling session. Picture the therapist who reminds you that you are lucky: that in your lucky American life, the solution to pain or violation is to realize how trivial everything you experience is. That only the ancestors can lay claim to real pain or violation. That you should get back to studying. People on Wong’s thread spotted this as gaslighting, but it does not compute that the clinician behind those talking points would be an outsider; those are the talking points of a model minority.

Picture the therapist who reminds you that you are lucky: that in your lucky American life, the solution to pain or violation is to realize how trivial everything you experience is. That only the ancestors can lay claim to real pain or violation. That you should get back to studying.

“When you experience racism, you can feel angry but also want to minimize or deny your feelings,” reads the tip sheet. A careful reader may realize she is not actually being advised against minimizing her feelings, and that in the gist of the next few sentences, this tip is about validating a course of non-action. Tip sheets are prescriptive, and so this one both assumes that its reader will have of course been cowed in the face of any encounter and urges that any negative feelings be expended where they can be safely contained: in journaling, or maybe in deep-breathing exercises. This is self-care as self-containment. It is like being advised to journal about the pollutants in one’s drinking water.

So, it’s not hard to make out who Harvard expects its Asian American students to be: the best and brightest creatures of the status quo. 

Their statement continues by saying:

A screenshot of a flyer released by Harvard University’s Counseling and Mental Health Services that provides tips for “Managing and Coping” reactions to anti-Asian racism. Under a heading that reads “Managing and Coping” is a central statement (transcribed immediately below this image), as well as several tips presented in sections labeled “Safety” and “Predictability”. Most of the text for these tips is too small and too pixelated to read clearly.

Going through racial trauma, may shake your view of the world. Your initial assumption may be that the world is safe, and you are in control. Your experience may shatter these assumptions. To heal, you may have to rebuild your sense of safety, predictability, and control.

These young people have grown up in the midst of Black Lives Matter and a global refugee crisis. They have come of age in a world where we Americans have countless deaths and family separations to answer for. They have been drilled since preschool in hiding quietly under desks from men with guns. Whether or not it’s true that they previously viewed the world as safe, it is hardly safe for them to resume that assumption. Yet resuming is precisely what CMHS counsels: Reduce “exposure” to the news, as knowledge of the outside world “can increase fears.” Instead, keep your eyes on the prize: “Stay organized in your own life, such as a to-do list or short term/feasible goals/expectations.” In the face of a pandemic-fueled racial crisis of meaning, don’t forget your GPA.

Thing is, this is the directive that model-minority life has always followed: Whether threats come from inside your house or out, the solution is to keep your nose to the grindstone because getting into Harvard will guarantee your future. Because becoming a doctor or lawyer will redeem it all. This is the social contract.

What my hardworking, rule-abiding friends are newly feeling, then, is not just anger and fear but betrayal. They have been lied to. Good behavior does not grant safe passage through America’s racial reckonings. It is hunting season, and we are neither invisible nor bullet-proof after all.

What my hardworking, rule-abiding friends are newly feeling, then, is not just anger and fear but betrayal. They have been lied to. Good behavior does not grant safe passage through America’s racial reckonings. It is hunting season, and we are neither invisible nor bullet-proof after all.

So it is woefully inadequate, this model-minority advice to stay the course. Feeling alone? “Seek out support,” CMHS says. Find people with whom you can hunker together.

But I offer to every Asian currently reeling from hard new American truths that mental health may lie ahead rather than behind you. Feeling alone? Try this:

Join forces. Organize. Mobilize. Find people who have been advancing justice, stopping hate, keeping the wolves at bay for years, and figure out where you belong. Where you can do the most good. There is no antidote to despair like empowerment.

Find your bearings. This is a moment that history made. Read. Learn, not just about Vincent Chin but about Latasha Harlins. About how the Asian American movement was created, and what for. Here’s a hint:

female : feminist :: Asian : Asian American

There are no naturally-occurring Asian Americans, because to call oneself that and mean it is to stand for something. It is to show up for a more just society, and to know that all our causes are connected. Social justice is an identity worth being proud of.

Process your model-minority formation. The model minority, too, is not a demographic but an identity: people who answered the recruiting call of the racial hierarchy. It’s in the advertising copy that the model minority position is highly convenient, highly praised — and in the fine print that it’s devastatingly disposable. Welcome to your red pill vs. blue pill moment. Here is where you choose.

Update (5/20/21): This post was updated with improved image-quality screenshots.


erin Khuê Ninh is Associate Professor of Asian American Studies at UC Santa Barbara. Her research centers on the model minority as racialization and subject formation (not myth). Throughlines in her writing and teaching are the subtleties of power, harm, and subject formation, whether in the contexts of terror and war, of family and immigration, or of gendering and rape culture.

Learn more about Reappropriate’s guest writing program and submit your work here.


Image transcript for first image

Managing and Coping

If you feel that you are in imminent danger, please contact local authorities or 911. Your safety is the #1 priority.

  • HUPD (Urgent): 617-495-1212 or HUPD (Longwood): 617-432-1212
  • https://calc.fas.harvard.edu/news/resources-asian-and-aapi-students-experiencing-covid-19-related harassment

Research from historically marginalized groups has shown that these 3 tools are the most helpful in coping with racial discrimination.

Find pride in your community. When you experience racism, you can feel shame. You may wish that you weren’t Asian, but remember that your ancestors likely went through similar or even worse incidents. They survived by recognizing the beauty and strength of their community. So, seek out or create literature, art, films, shows, music that highlight your community in a positive light. Example: “The Wuhan I Know” (https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2020/04/04/823825436/the-wuhan-i-know-a-comic-about-the-city-behind-the-coronavirus-headlines)

Seek out support. When you experience racism, you can feel alone and isolated. It is easy to feel like the “other,” but you are not alone, and you don’t have to face it on your own. Reach out to family, friends, and other Asian/Asian-American communities who can relate to your struggles. Example: Harvard-Radcliffe Asian American Association, or Asian American Commission (http://www.aacommission.org/covid-19-resources/)

Process your feelings. When you experience racism, you can feel angry but also want to minimize or deny your feelings. You may also feel regret for not answering or doing something in return. But remember that during the event, your priority was your safety, and you did what you thought was best at the moment. Try not to judge your reactions. When you have returned to a safe environment, express your grief, anger, frustration, or any other feelings. Write it in a journal or call a friend. You need the time to heal from this trauma. Permit yourself to take care of you. If the emotions become to (sic) overwhelming, try these exercises.

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