- Has Asian American Studies Failed?
In late December 2011, I uploaded a post to my blog titled “Has Asian American Studies Failed?”1 The immediate impetus for my post was an article in the New York Times that contained some shockingly ignorant statements about the internment of Japanese Americans. But it turned into a longer piece that took in the “Tiger Mom” controversy and other media depictions (or distortions) of Asian Americans. A common theme in these misrepresentations of Asian Americans was that most of them could have been avoided if the authors had possessed even the most basic understanding of what’s taught every day in introductory Asian American studies courses. The question I found myself asking was, why, after more than four decades of Asian American studies, wasn’t there a wider public understanding of the most elementary lessons of our field? Had we fallen short in our goal of shifting the racial discourse around Asians in the United States?
Initially, I didn’t think of the post as much more than a cranky rant by a frustrated Asian Americanist. But the topic, it seemed, touched a nerve. The post attracted dozens of comments on my blog and on Facebook and was widely reposted by other Asian Americanists. It was mentioned in a plenary session at the 2012 AAAS conference. It even caught the attention of prominent blogger Angry Asian Man, whose inclusion of the post in his “Read These Blogs” roundup garnered thousands of page views for the piece.
If I were to sum up the desire behind the post in a single phrase, it would be the desire for a more public role for Asian American studies. Our field has achieved remarkable successes as an academic institution: we have our own professional organization with its own journal and annual conference, Asian American studies programs can be found in colleges across the country (though their existence is always precarious), and a younger generation of scholars is renewing the field [End Page 327] and pushing it in vibrant directions. Yet all this scholarly activity seems to have had a limited impact on the broader public discourse around race in America.
In a follow-up post,2 I tried to distinguish my argument from the frequently heard claim that Asian American studies needs to return to its “activist roots.” I think every Asian Americanist has participated in some version of the latter debate at some point. But I think it’s possible to honor our field’s activist roots by refusing the kind of thinking that sets up a sharp divide between scholarship and activism, between what we do in the classroom and in our offices every day and the “real work” of politics. What I’m arguing for instead is taking the scholarship and teaching we are already doing—in a space that generations of activists have fought to establish—and projecting it more actively into the public sphere, where it has the potential to transform public discourse on race.
Part of the reason I think the “activist roots” impulse is no longer adequate is that the context of Asian American studies and Asian American community is now quite different. Younger Asian Americans are now as likely to respond to national, media-driven controversies as they are to conditions within their own local communities. As I mentioned in my blog post, the notorious “Asians in the Library” video posted by UCLA student Alexandra Wallace was one example of such a controversy. I’d been inclined to ignore the uproar over the video, but when my students invited me to a discussion they’d organized, I realized that the controversy provided them with a window into their own struggles with racism, from their hometowns to campus. At the same time, it was their first exposure to some of the stereotypes and contexts that lay behind those experiences—and it was a moment where the insights of Asian American studies could help them understand that their own experiences of racism were not isolated ones. Asian Americanists need to be more engaged with such events, and more proactive in responding. If we aren’t out there with bloggers...