Claiming Space and Acknowledging Positionality at American University

By Elaine Cho, Ph.D. (she, her, hers)

Welcome to Asian American Experiences: AMST/APDS 260

Standing in front of a classroom in Hurst Hall with tall windows and a heavy wooden door, I scan the room from left to right. The students are sitting quietly in chairs with desktops attached. The décor of the classroom is outdated. During the last week of August, the warm temperature on the first floor is tolerable. The vinyl blinds from who knows when hang from the tall windows but crooked and half strung up on the window adjacent to the projector screen. I am guessing someone before me tried to open the window, but they had no luck with the resistant blinds that tried to claim their space in this classroom for many years. For the first time in my teaching career, I am in a classroom full of Asian and Asian American students who will embark on claiming their space and raising the awareness of positionality alongside a handful of White students.

Unmasking one’s identity while wearing a mask

It is Fall 2021, almost 2 years into the COVID-19 pandemic, and we are meeting in a physical space with our masks properly placed on our faces.  I, a 1.5 generation, Asian American cisgender woman who grew up with Christian beliefs and Buddhist values in a predominately white, middle-class neighborhood in North Texas, stand behind a long table with a portable wooden podium placed on top of it.

The students listen intently for my words since they cannot see my mouth. It’s a challenge since most seeing people are used to looking at a person’s full face when they are engaged in a conversation. I watch for the slight movement of their eyebrows and formation of tiny lines between their eyes.  The majority Asian, Asian American, and mixed race Asian American students’ responses further reveal their racial identity, and they proudly state their ethnicity.

With my educational background in rhetoric and over 16 years of experience in teaching and learning in diverse student populations, I try my best to create a safe space for the students. I inform them that this classroom is a safe space to talk about the good, the bad, and ugly. I encourage them to follow the revised Las Vegas motto for the classroom space: “What is discussed in this classroom stays in this classroom with respect to the students and professor.” To break the ice or set the mood for the first day of classes, I ask each student to explain why they chose to register for this course. They seem relaxed and somewhat eager to share their responses to my questions. Some of the students express their curiosity to learn about Asian American experiences. As the semester progresses, they begin to share their experiences with racism and other forms of discrimination.

Racism, the elephant in the room

While reading about Asian American history in this course, which is seldom taught in K-12 and colleges, students learned that anti-Asian sentiment in the U.S. went as far back as the mid-1800s. When Vincent Chin was brutally murdered in 1982, activist Helen Zia argued that “ACJ [Asians Citizens for Justice] showed ways in which Asian Americans had been made scapegoats for the ills of the modern American economy, naming anti-Asian violence as a present-day phenomenon that should concern all people” (2000, p.75). In 2020, Asian Americans were made scapegoats again when the COVID-19 pandemic happened.

In this classroom, for some students, years of being verbally and/or physically attacked for being Asian and the stereotypes that haunted them begin to surface during class discussions. The students of Asian descent speak up. They begin to talk about their positionality and how people perceive them on and off campus. Their struggles with double-consciousness, “this sense of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others” (Du Bois, 1996), are real. They share their experiences with racism and other forms of discrimination while connecting them to the reading material. A few of them try not to look at the class but keep their eyes directed toward me as a coping mechanism to feel safe. I think to myself, “How many times have these students wanted to speak up but silenced their voices due to fear of retaliation, ostracization, or misunderstanding in an academic space?”

Claiming space in the classroom

As the semester progresses, they reveal more about themselves. We breakdown the model minority myth alongside Asian American history. The topic of racial relationships in connection with positionality comes up and leads us to an open dialogue. The intersectionality of their identities exposes the many layers of their humanity. In addition to racism, they discuss mental health, gender bias, queer identity, religious practices, cultural traditions, foodways, and generational trauma. Twice a week, it is their space to claim for 1 hour and 15 minutes. They feel safe and visible.

Some Asian American students share their struggles, and others connect the reading material with their general comments. We discuss social mobility and how it affects the positionality of Asians in America alongside the model minority myth (Chou & Feagin, 2016) and the perpetual foreigner stereotype in relation to other races (Wu, 2002). A few students discuss the positionality of their identity as mixed race Asian Americans.  International Asian students share their experiences of racism in America and at AU. White students chime in and acknowledge the experiences of their Asian and Asian American classmates.

To encourage this type of engagement in my classroom, I encourage my students to be aware and respectful of each other’s experiences. I inform the students the dark history of Asian Americans is new to BIPOC and White students. Basically, we are in the same boat to learn even if part of the course content can be dark or daunting. At the end of class, I hand out Asian treats to sweeten the bitterness, knowing that more intense discussions will follow.

From the classroom to the real world

During the week before finals, a few White students apologize as acknowledgement of the racial injustices expressed in class.  Some students of Asian descent nod awkwardly, and a few of them kindly inform them that being in this space and hearing them is the first step to confronting racism, especially at American University (AU).

It is not an apology they are seeking; it is visibility and the right to claim their space in a world that has racially triangulated Asian Americans between Whites and Blacks since the mid-1800s (Kim, 1999).

Therefore, we all shared an experience together by acknowledging the experiences of Asians and Asian Americans who navigate the challenges of being unheard and invisible while they, along with their White classmates, begin to question and reflect on their positionality in the classroom as well as outside the classroom.

A Beginning to an End

Every now and then, I run into my former students either on campus or online. They express their sincere appreciation for the course and my teaching style, and some of them share the course has motivated them to speak up and to continue advocating for topics and issues related to AANHPI (Asian American, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander). Their words of appreciation and updates on their academic and career journeys inspire me to continue teaching Asian American Experiences as well as advocating for AANHPI at American University. After teaching my first semester of Asian American Experiences, I learned it was the beginning of my journey into advocacy at AU.

Furthermore, there are a few takeaways I would like to share with the AU community and beyond. First, students from different backgrounds are interested in learning about Asian American history and the diversity of AANHPI as long as the professor is willing to provide the information and guide the students to explore, examine, and analyze the information.  Second, it is crucial I continue to provide a safe space for learning so that students are able to express their thoughts without feeling alienated or attacked. Third, by having the freedom and space to express their thoughts, concerns, and opinions in a safe space, both the professor and students are able to enjoy the college experience while upholding American University’s mission “to advance knowledge, foster intellectual curiosity, build community, and empower lives of purpose, service, and leadership.” Therefore, as their professor, I would set the foundation first so that my students can build upon it and make it our classroom space.


American University. (2023). American University’s mission.

Chou, R. S., & Feagin, J. R. (2016). The myth of the model minority: Asian Americans facing racism (2nd ed.). Routledge.

Du Bois, W.E. B. (1996). The souls of Black folk. Gutenberg eBook. (Original work published in 1903).

Kim, C. J. (1999). The racial triangulation of Asian Americans. Politics & Society, 27(1), 105-138.

Wu, F. H. (2002).  Yellow: Race in America beyond black and white. Basic Books.

Zia, H. (2000). Asian American dreams: The emergence of an American people. Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Suggested Readings

Chang, G. H. (2019).  Ghosts of gold mountain: The epic story of the Chinese who built the transcontinental railroad. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Lee, E. (2015). Making of Asian America: A History. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.

Takaki, R. (1998). Strangers from a different shore: A history of Asian Americans. Back Bay Books.

Author Profile

Elaine Cho, Ph.D. is an Adjunct Professor at American University.  She teaches courses for the Department of Critical Race, Gender, & Culture Studies (CRGC) and Department of Literature.  Her courses are offered through the Asia, Pacific, and Diaspora Studies Program (APDS).  Dr. Cho’s research interests focus on Asian American communities and identities as well as rhetorical analysis of American literature and folklore. In addition to advocating for AANHPI rights, she enjoys bringing people together for cultural exchanges and social learning.