- Asian American Studies Must Be Defended!
The seemingly unprecedented visibility of figures such as Amy Chua and Jeremy Lin in U.S. popular culture creates anxieties among Asian American studies scholars. Timothy Yu’s blog post “Has Asian American Studies Failed?,” for instance, asks if Asian American studies is getting left behind in a place of irrelevance as the discourse seems to move elsewhere, primarily to the web. Yu asks, “Why don’t we see Asian American scholars being quoted in the media or publishing books that reach a wide audience?” This question is not only premature but also misinformed about our multipronged and multifaceted work as scholars.
Measuring the efficacy of the discipline of Asian American studies in terms of failure and success assumes that a broad audience signifies we reap real fruit for our labor. Instead, we need to situate this anxious question about the relevance of the field squarely within the logics of racism and anti-intellectualism, in the fashionable discounting of Asian American narration in historical knowledge as well as the frequent bashing of the academy in popular culture. Moreover, this question can give in to the blinding allure of celebrity in achieving status as public intellectuals—which can look more glamorous than publishing sustained and substantial scholarship of more than five thousand words. Rather than focusing on measuring success and failure, we need to acknowledge the myriad fronts where Asian American studies already shapes and intervenes in public discourse. Rather than prioritize the arena of the web as the privileged site of discourse that we must enter, we need to appreciate the multiple arenas we should, and do, occupy in engaging the struggles surrounding knowledge production.
To focus on the arena of the web means we encounter the instruction to “dumb down.” It’s an instruction articulated too frequently by blog and other web publishers. Such a demand adheres to current anti-intellectual attacks on the enterprise of academic inquiry and ultimately demands us to butcher our work so as to pander to an audience that either does not care or demands sensationalist sound bites. Unlike participating in the academy, participating in the blogosphere can mean joining contests that inflame and misinform. The question of the failure of scholars to extend their work should also lay fault to those who do not read our work, such as legislators who fail at their responsibility to research, so as to understand more truly the history of the problems we face. How many legislators read law reviews, scholarly articles, and books? And if they don’t, why don’t we call them out?
It is unfair to frame the relevance of Asian American studies in terms of failure or success, or ivory tower versus public discourse, when Asian American social [End Page 342] scientists and humanists have a long history of political and social intervention. Sociologist Rhacel Salazar Parreñas (my sister) testified at the U.S. Civil Rights Commission during the Association for Asian American Studies annual meeting in April 2012. Alongside law enforcement, governmental, and nongovernmental organizations committed to the rescue of trafficked women, she presented a very different assertion based on empirical evidence from her latest book, Illicit Flirtations, which comes out of her field work as a hostess in Japan’s nightlife industry. Instead of affirming the U.S. classification of Filipina migrant workers to Japan as victims of trafficking, she argues that the United States instead performs a violation of their civil rights by preventing their migration and limiting their wage-earning opportunities. Asian American studies interventions in the discourses of trafficking are necessary and happening, despite the many obstacles fueled by moral panic and the long-running framework of rescue.
The historian Judy Wu shows us how the relevance of Asian American studies can manifest in the efforts of cities to understand their history. In Chicago and San Francisco, the life and work of Margaret Chung, an important Chinese American lesbian figure, will be commemorated in the form of a memorial at each place as a result of Wu’s public scholarship. Similarly, my colleague Xiaojian Zhao’s history of Chinese Americans directly aids in the work...