No to Asian American Studies

An isolated concentration would perpetuate imbalance

Harvard’s Asian American Association (AAA) has had a long and unsuccessful track record with advocating for the creation of an Asian American Studies concentration. The quest has, according to a Crimson news article in December, spanned twenty years and many hundreds of petition signatures. But before we respond with the politically appropriate gasp of moral indignation, let’s ask why success has not been forthcoming.

A look at the history of Asian American studies reveals the contemporary—in fact, revolutionary—nature of the field. The program originated in academic settings in the late 1960s and early 1970s in a very radical manner. In 1968, the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF) at San Francisco State staged a very large, vocal, and militant strike; similar demands followed at the University of California at Berkeley.

At both institutions, coalitions of students, lecturers, and activists ran Asian American studies with autonomy, overseeing all aspects of the program. from curriculum to faculty hiring, independently of broader university institutions. These populist origins of the Asian American studies movement meant that the guiding principle regarding curricula was that of “relevance”—of issues that addressed the needs and concerns of the represented communities at hand, thus providing a forum for group pride and preservation.

The origins and execution of Asian American Studies movements have been the target of much criticism. It has been argued that the basis of Asian American studies—that of practical relevance to communities—is problematic as a guiding principle because it arises from a form of cultural nationalism . Thus, the valiant efforts of Asian American Studies to provide a counter-discourse against dominant Eurocentric interpretations of American history are ultimately inconsistent with its intentions—by prioritizing a particular group’s preservation and ethnic identity via primarily nationalistic justifications, Asian America risks becoming a centralized, hegemonic voice itself.

This risk comes very much to the forefront when we consider which groups in particular Asian America presumably represents. Different Asian ethnicities are unequally represented on campus, with a disproportionate number of Chinese, for example, rather than Cambodians or Laotians, relative to the national demographic breakdown. In fact, just a quick look at Harvard’s East Asian Studies concentration reveals that only four Asian cultures are covered—China, Korea, Japan and Vietnam. No subcontinent, Southeast Asia, or Oceania.

In fact, Harvard’s East Asian Studies program is a case study for demonstrating the inseparability of academia from underlying political power plays. East Asian studies was founded at the height of American-Asian animosity, with the undergraduate concentration approved in the early 1970s at the height of China’s Cultural Revolution, during and after Cold War military animosity with Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. Some Eastern academic programs at the time were in fact governmentally sponsored as a matter of national defense. During these early years of East Asian studies, graduate students expressed much discontent; one criticism was that the department expressly refused teaching fellows permission to teach a class on Chinese communism. According to Richard P. Bernstein, a teaching fellow at the time, the department also minimized the aggressive nature of America’s military and economic interventions in Asia.

The connection of Asian American academia and politics today is perhaps not as obvious as during the Cold War era, but academic discourse is never free from political motivations. Political power begins, it is often argued, from the composition of discourse itself. And if discourse and voice is the democratic route towards empowerment, then the silence of certain demographic groups is troubling. A select few Asian ethnicities are fortunate enough to comprise a substantial proportion of the campus population—these ethnicities can more easily draw upon sheer numerical leverage in order to make their presence and voices heard. Asians collectively comprise a fifth of campus. But what of other, less represented groups? Mexican Americans make up 3.7 percent of the undergraduate population, while comprising 7.4 percent of the United States. Native Americans comprise an even smaller proportion of the student body. For purely numerical reasons, these groups have a much harder time mobilizing their collective voices.

One of the goals of an academic institution is to give students a better understanding of the components of our society and of the interactions therein. An agenda pushing for an isolationist Asian American studies program would undermine this goal. The most academically and politically balanced solution to this problem is in line with the suggestion of Crimson staff—that is, to create an entirely new discipline of ethnic studies that examines groups not just in isolation, but also in relation to each other.

Thus, the Asian American Association would do best to seek alliances with other ethnic organizations on campus—South Asian Association, for instance, which has also pushed for a South Asian Studies Initiative, and Harvard-Radcliffe RAZA, an organization of Chicano students that has discussed the possibility of a Latino studies program. The Black Students Association also has much insight from which to draw, given the strength of Harvard’s African and African-American Studies Department. In 2002, an attempted coalition between these groups fell apart because of tensions between ethnic-specific goals and the goal of ethnic studies in general. Given the failure of individual groups in the last two decades to make headway by themselves, it would be wise to learn from past experiences. Mutual distrust and suspicion only serve to undermine ultimately complementary and inclusive objectives.

N. Kathy Lin ’08 is a social studies concentrator in Winthrop House. Her column appears regularly.


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