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Ethnic Studies: Asserting Complexity


Debates about comparative race and ethnic studies are fraught with simplification and misunderstanding, and the editorial, "Ethnic Studies: No Separate Department," (Staff Editorial, June 5, 1996) demonstrates the failure of one writer to adequately address the issues surrounding an extremely complex topic.

The Crimson editorial accuses the Academic Affairs Committee (AAC) of the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations of "flirt[ing] with the notion of moral relativism, or the belief that it is invalid to criticize the mores of any one culture no matter how wrong they may seem," and of employing "lazy intellectual arguments" to avoid the fact that universal truths exist. This conflation of "moral relativism" with the conceptualization of knowledge as composed of multiple perspectives illustrates a profound misunderstanding of comparative race and ethnic studies as a rigorous intellectual pursuit.

Ethnic studies appeared amidst struggles surrounding the definition and re-definition of multiculturalism in this country, and scholars of the field still acknowledge, proudly, the openly political nature of their discipline, for, to them and to many minority students, racism is endemic to American society and so deeply ingrained in academia and other areas of life that radical paradigm shifts are necessary to even begin to overcome the legacy of discrimination that haunts this country. Although the The Crimson Staff may claim, and rightly so, that the experiences of African Americans are very different from those of Asian Americans, Latino Americans and Native Americans, one cannot dismiss historical patterns of racism that have affected the lives of those minorities who have suffered in ways that do not fit dominant paradigms of racial interaction.

In recent years, the field of comparative race and ethnic studies has transformed in response to newly emergent social, political and intellectual concerns and theories. Several of these theories emphasize the fluid nature of culture and the ambiguity of any definitive categorization or description of culture itself. Although once rooted, perhaps, in a celebration of essentialized identities, in attempts to preserve what the Crimson editorial calls "the disparate cultures that comprise this country," scholars of comparative race and ethnic studies have recognized the impossibility of regarding culture as static and of defining identity as a stable entity.

Thus, when The Crimson staff envisions a "synergistic whole that is greater than the sum of its ethnic components," an interaction is proposed that ideally would occur among individuals with different perspectives and not among reified representatives of monolithic, separate and static entities of culture or ethnicity. There are "common human goals" towards which we can work, but our multiple and diverse aims should not be reduced to one common desire in the name of simplicity and at the expense of both rigorous intellectual engagement and of social justice.

--Julie C. Kim '97


Academic Affairs Committee

The Harvard Foundation

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