Time for Higher Ed to Recognize Racialized Realities of International Students of Color

by Dr. HyeJin Tina Yeo / Nov 5, 2020

In my doctoral education, I have exhaustively studied the issues of race and racism in U.S. higher education. Having a deeper understanding of the concept of race, its relating history, and issues of racial inequity in this country totally changed my world view.

Initially, I truly believed that America is the land of opportunity; that is, everyone has equal opportunity, so if you work hard, you will succeed. I also realized such a truncated view of equality and meritocracy came from a lack of engagement in racial/ethnic diversity in my home country, Korea, and even in the United States. As an international graduate student of color, my social interaction was limited to the campus environment.

At the institution where I earned a master's degree, I had not met any faculty of color or students of color in my classes. But it was different at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I still remember an interesting and thought-provoking scene in the first class of my doctoral education with an African American professor and a class filled primarily with African American/Hispanic/Asian/Native American students.

Since then, researching and taking action regarding racial inequity in higher education became my passion. Reflecting on my inner processes of learning race, I lament the awareness level and vulnerabilities of Asian and Asian international students in racial discourse. There is a need to emphasize the role of colleges and universities in teaching the meanings of race and racism in the U.S context, especially for Asian and Asian international students.

COVID-19 is exposing the systemic racism embedded in every corner of U.S. society, such as health care, education, law enforcement, and industry. It is also revealing that history repeats itself regarding the perceptions and treatment of Asians in the United States, displaying how the concept of race changes based on historical, geopolitical, and sociocultural contexts, and how race and racism impact our everyday lives.

Historically, Asians are perpetual foreigners. In the 1850s, Asians were regarded as "yellow barbarians/a menace" to threaten the social order when the Chinese and Japanese populations increased (Wollenberg, 1995). In 1942, Japanese internment camps were established in reaction to Japan's bombing of Pearl Harbor, thus not protecting the citizenships of Japanese Americans.

Since the 1960s, the model minority is another way to frame Asians. These contrasting stereotypes of Asian Americans rooted from social and political construction to Asian Americans ensuring their perpetual foreigner status in the United States is termed as "outsider racialization" by a legal scholar named Angelo Ancheta (Pak, Maramba, & Hernandez, 2014).

This year, the COVID-19 pandemic infiltrated the world, including the U.S.  Asian Americans are suffering from the stigmatizing rhetoric related to the political tensions between China and the United States and the association of COVID-19 with China. Asian and Asian Americans are regarded by some as a threat to the health, morality, and prosperity of Whites. According to the Stop AAPI Hate Center, there was a 225% increase in anti-Asian hate incidents since March 2020. The organization received nearly 1,500 reports of anti-Asian hate incidents, which are increasing as the U.S. economy and schools reopen, and as interactions in public places occur more frequently. For example, Asian American and Asian international students report much frequent encounters of racial microaggressions in fall 2020 on the U.S. campus. Tom Zeng, sophomore year at Queens College, City University of New York, reported,

"It is a really difficult time for Chinese students like me being here. We need to worry about staying safe from COVID-19 like everyone else, but are also constantly on our toes because you never know if someone might say or do something hurtful just because you look Chinese."

Tom is not the first international student who has felt unsafe due to a hostile social climate. Often, Asian international students are marginalized and ignored due to language differences, cultural differences, religion, distinct biological/phenotypical characteristics, and perceived "foreignness" in the U.S. higher education setting (DiAngelo, 2006; Yao, Mwangi, & Brown, 2019; Yeo, Harwood, Mendenhall, & Browne Huntt, 2019).

Meanwhile, students from Western- and English-speaking countries perceived minimal to no discrimination; White international students were more likely to be perceived as "natives" (White) in the United States. By comparison, in the same context, international students of color were regarded as "others" (foreigners; Lee & Rice, 2007). Indeed, the U.S. racist framings of Asians project onto Asian international students of color. However, the international student population is often perceived as a monolithic entity or global commodity within U.S. educational settings. Therefore, international students' racial experiences are invisible in racial diversity and racial discourses on campus communities.

In my dissertation, I found that Asian international students tended to ascribe their experiences of racism to cultural differences or English proficiency. I also found that Asian international students have little or distorted understandings of racism based on merit-based academic capitalism (Slaughter & Rhoades, 2004) and institutional culture that minimizes racial ideology or norms (Harper, 2012). It's because racism experienced within contexts of institutional settings, such as education and universities, is sometimes difficult to detect due to complexities and inertia rooted in history and culture. Thus, it is urgent that colleges and universities in the U.S. recognize the racialized experiences and realities of international students of color.

Beyond COVID-19, anti-Asian violence is also occurring because of the institutional racism and racial framings rooted in history and culture. Challenging the use of politically neutral forms of multiculturalism and cultural diversity, I argue that colleges and universities should perceive international students as racialized student populations and provide opportunities to understand the complexities of race and racial inequity. We need to teach how the history of racism can repeat and that racist practices can easily spread worldwide. In addition, it’s crucial for all students to actively engage in the Black Lives Matter movement and anti-Asian violence so that they have a critical knowledge of race and racism.

The growing international attention and support for the Black Lives Matter movement has led to an awareness of the overlooked racism and racial stereotypes happening in other countries (e.g., Koreans' supports for BLM and the reminder of racismCOVID-19 discrimination against Africans in China), as well as the systemic racial inequities against U.S. international students. Recognizing these injustices is critical in U.S. higher education, where discussing race and racism is often a difficult matter. As such, securing unlimited space for international students for teaching and learning about race and racism can facilitate meaningful changes at the local and global level.

International students could become proactive agents to do away with Western-culture superiority and Whiteness and bridge linguistic, cultural, and racial/ethnic differences through critical education. I truly hope the U.S. higher education institutions take advantage of the internationalization of higher education as a leap of educational innovation for diversity, equity, and inclusion.


DiAngelo, R. J. (2006). The production of Whiteness in education: Asian international students in a college classroom. Teachers College Record, 108, 1983-2000. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9620.2006.00771.x

Harper, S. R. (2012). Race without racism: How higher education researchers minimize racist institutional norms. The Review of Higher Education, 36(1), 9-29.

Lee, J. J., & Rice, C. (2007). Welcome to America? International student perceptions of discrimination. Higher Education, 53, 381–409.

Pak, Y.K., Maramba, D.C., & Hernandez, X. J. (2014). Asian Americans in higher education: Charting New Realities. Wiley Periodicals.

Slaughter, S. & Rhoades, G. (2004). Academic capitalism and the new economy.  Johns Hopkins University Press.

Wollenberg, C. (1995). "Yellow Peril" in the schools (I and II). In Nakanishi D. & Yamano, T. (Eds.), The Asian American education experience: A sourcebook for teachers and students (1st edition). Routledge.

Yao, C. W., George Mwangi, C. A., & Malaney Brown, V. K. (2019). Exploring the intersection of transnationalism and critical race theory: a critical race analysis of international student experiences in the United States. Race Ethnicity and Education, 22(1), 38-58.

Yeo, H. J., Mendenhall, R., Harwood, S., & Huntt, M. (2019). Asian international student and Asian American student: Mistaken identity and racial microaggressions. Journal of International Students, 9(1), 44-70. doi:10.32674/jis.v9i1.278

Web sources

Yu, Y., Ting-Fang. C., Li, L., & Liu, C. (2020, September 2). Trump and COVID forces Chinese students to rethink the U.S. Nikkei Asian Review.

Human Rights Watch. (2020, May 5). China: COVID-19 discrimination against Africans.

Lee, D. (2020, June 11). Black Lives Matter: for Koreans, an uncomfortable reminder that racial discrimination is still legal. The Coronavirus Pandemic.