(Liveblogging…or trying to)

A committee within the Asian American Association of Harvard is attempting to set up an Asian-American studies track at the college, and this lecture is the first of a lecture series on Asian-American culture presented by Prof. Eric Tang (who teaches this really interesting-looking class called “Afro-Asian Encounters in the New World.”

Professor Tang: Visiting Professor from the University of Illinois
(General topic: the importance of Asian-American studies)
(All of this is paraphrased. Possibly poorly. First try at liveblogging! Italics are my own thoughts)

There is basically a fight for Asian-American studies here. Asian-American studies have been established at many other schools through protracted struggles, sometimes 5 or 6 years or even 20 years in the making. What usually happens is a group of students gets active, but they’re upperclassmen so as they graduate, their gains are lost. So whatever negotiations you undergo in the coming months, those of you who are underclassmen are really the bearers of the struggle.

What I would like to do tonight is talk about the history of Asian-American studies, and then I want to talk a little bit about what Asian-American studies is and what it is not.

Where does it come from? It comes from a certain moment in the political history of the United States: the ’60s. What was going on? The Civil Rights movement, Vietnam, hippies! A moment of turmoil and profound change where, inspired by the African-American civil rights movement, Asian-American baby-boomers (now in their 40s) developed a pan-ethnic racial consciousness. No longer did they just see themselves as Chinese/Chinese living in the US, etc., but they saw themselves as a pan-ethnic coalition. They used to take offense at being lumped together, but now use the lumping as a source of pride. Like Blacks, young Asian-Americans wanted to talk about their racial marginality and problems, so it drew Asian-Americans closer to other people of color. It was a race-pride identity that affirmed being Asian. Therefore, the Asian-American concept is a racial justice concept.

In that moment that Asian-Americans decided on this ethnicity, they realized that the curriculum at their colleges had nothing about Asian-Americans, so they began fighting for a curriculum that reflects the history and struggles of Asian-Americans. They wanted to make the universities more responsive to Asian communities that lived in proximity of them. The first obvious ones were San Francisco State and UC Berkeley. About 30% of San Francisco is Asian-America, highest per-capita AA population. They become the first two major campuses that bring Asian-American studies to the table, and the students led the intense protests which led to intense student strikes (Jeez, can you imagine the pre-meds doing this now?! I’m so worried about my generation, especially the AA slice of it…)

One of the myths about AA studies is that it is only concerned about the histories/accomplishments of Asians in the US, and so it is culturally chauvinist. But really, during these strikes, the students were part of a “Third World coalition”–not just a struggle for AA studies, but also for African-American, chicano, etc. These days, the different ethnic studies programs get played off of each other by the administration. It’s important to remember that the push for AA studies originally was part of a package deal with the other ones, and that over the years they drifted apart because everyone was scrambling so hard to put programs together that they lost sight of the unity. Let’s not lose sight of this broader goal down the light. It’s a pitfall to only fight for AA studies and ignore other race studies. Eventually, I hope we can have all of these different racial studies so that we can study race comparatively.

The other myth that I want to address is that it’s not about the accomplishments or the contributions. We are mislead to believe that this is what it’s about. Sure, Asian-Americans are rather successful minorities. All of you here are success stories because you’re here at Harvard, but you wouldn’t take an AA class to study yourself. So what it is about, then? it’s about understanding the way in which Asian-Americans have struggled for racial equality, gender equality, full citizenship, and labor rights in this country, and how those efforts have helped bring democracy for all. If we only study the great accomplishments AAs have made, then you miss how everyday folks have helped made the country better through their mundane struggles. It’s a study of race and of struggles to further democratize the country. Next time people ask you why we need AA-studies, isn’t it just about making others study your heritage–well, first of all, nothing is wrong with this, because that’s what the Western canon is all about–but you can tell them that it’s about how the presence of AAs as those who have been excluded, denied citizenship, and their fight for equality has helped bring democracy for all. We should talk about how the immigration debate should always mention Chinese-Americans, because they were the first demographic to do a lot of the stuff–deportation, forged documents, etc.–that is talked about today. It is a story about America at large, not just about Asians. Once you can understand that, you can feel courageous enough to step into any debate with administrators, you can prove that you can understand America better through studying AA history. It’s NOT about how many Asians want it. Even if there were only 5 Asians on campus, it would still be important–not that I can think of a single one.

There are about 30 major Asian-American studies programs. These include most of the UCs, most of the west-coast research schools like U of Washington, Oregon, USC. In the Midwest, there’s a lot less: UChicago, UWisconsin-Madison, Northwestern. In the Ivies: Columbia (kind of embedded within anemic ethnic-studies program. My view is that they started it but didn’t really make it grow), UPenn, Brown, Yale, and Cornell (embedded in the American studies program). At Harvard, there was a movement about 20 years ago that was categorically denied. In early 90s, this happened again and it again didn’t come to fruition. Now, AAA has re-entered into discussion with the administration and may get a concentration under East Asian Studies, which is ironic because AA and EAS used to butt heads–they’re not about the same thing at all. EAS has made an about-face because now they are more interested in diaspora, so there’s more synergy now. I talked to one of the guys who was here 25 years ago who says “doesn’t matter, just get it institutionalized.”


Q: How do you feel about the critique that there are not enough people teaching AA studies and Harvard can’t attract those scholars over other, more established departments?
A: Harvard should put out a job announcement for AA scholars who teach literature, sociology, anthropology, etc. and see whether they can attract people. It’s all speculation until you put out the application. To their credit, the history department did do that search, and the candidate ended up going to Columbia because she’s from New York. Just because of that one incident, however, doesn’t mean that Harvard can’t attract good scholars. I know lots of senior people who would love to come out here. That there’s not enough people studying it is just not true. This year, there’s a record number of young professors who are transitioning into tenure, so we’ll see a rapid influx over the next 5 years of senior professor, so really this is the best time.

Q: You mentioned that it would be important for non-AAs to study AA studies, but if it’s under the EAS how can we get over this obstacle that most people in EAS are Asians?
A: It’s about doing the right messaging. We need to show the concentration as important, not ghettoized. 1) We need good, solid outreach material that explains what AAS is. 2) We need to bring in concentrators by doing Alternative Spring Breaks in cities where there are interesting AA studies. Lastly, we need to cross-list AAS courses with as many departments as we possibly can.

Q: (My own!) Do you think direct action is possible within the AA community now or helpful, really, to the movement?
A: Each campus is different, I think. When I was at NYU, we were able to get it done without any real protest, but it was because Columbia students involved in a similar project actually took over the main administrative building there. Butler Hall has like 12 entrances, and they managed to seal all of them with ethnic studies people. The administration was at a loss and had them all arrested, which was the plan and got NYTimes talking about it. They took over other buildings. NYU was like there’s NO way we want this to happen, so they just capitulated.

(Are you saying we should incite riots at Tufts? =P)

I think that the Harvard situation is one where the administration realizes that this isn’t really a question about the intellectual credibility, where as with Columbia in my view the administration was actually against the idea of AAS as a field of intellectual inquiry, so there’s less convincing we need to do. Therefore, the action like the one I just described is not really as necessary here. That said, if the administration turns out to be this recalcitrant…you can never tell, people say that Harvard students are more conservative and less likely to action. They said the same thing about U of Texas, and there was a huge movement there. There’s no formula, but I think over time people get sick and tired of broken promises and they do things that the university would never expect them to do.

Right now, we just need to make them hold to their commitments and make more commitments. If, down the road, they break them, then we can consider more serious action. The students who did it were not militant for militant’s sake, they were doing it because it was the only choice left. They knew what they had to lose.

Q: So, I think you’re right, it’s not about intellectual legitimacy anymore, but it is about strategy. At Columbia, you had lots of manpower for these types of actions. That’s something that they did strategically and conceptually right, but that points to the question of AA studies as a solitary concept. If you’re going to get the ball rolling for a large push, I feel like the momentum is better saved as a collective push vs. singular actions. I feel like that’s the direction this campus is going: individual efforts. That’s the problem I’m seeing.
A: You’re right, it’s a huge issue. Here’s the dilemma: you want students who understand the importance of a race/ethnic studies department to band together across ethnicities, but the fact of the matter is that this type of unity doesn’t exist not just among the students, but even in the public sphere. We’re not a moment where our society is capable of these rich dialogues between communities of color. That doesn’t mean we can just hold off until the rest of the world gets their stuff together. We have to just keep moving even if the conditions on the ground are not optimal. If we can just get it institutionalized, then we’re opening up a space for that public dialogue in the public sphere.