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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
According to some Asian American Studies professors, it might be time to worry.
“In the 21st century, people often times want to believe that the United States has surmounted or gotten beyond the problem of race,” said Daryl Maeda, associate professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “That is the thing that makes it really important for us to study race today—to somehow counter this idea that we have become a color blind society.”
To Maeda, Asian American Studies have always been important, but because the subject of race in the United States is being so willfully ignored, it is now more important than ever to inform Asian American and Caucasian students about the topics.
What are Asian American Studies?
When Josephine Lee, associate professor of English and Asian American Studies arrived at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, an Asian American Studies program was non-existent at the school. It was 1994, after she had spent five years teaching at Smith College.
Lee received her Ph.D. in English from Princeton University in the late 1980s. She said that people of her generation became more interested in Asian American Studies during this time, which led to its growth in the 1990s. Lee helped found the University of Minnesota’s Asian American Studies program in 2003 and served as its first director.
Even though it is offered only as a minor at the University of Minnesota, the degree has led graduates into careers in law, social work, business, teaching, government service, journalism and more.
In addition, it has inspired students to pursue graduate school in disciplines such as psychology, studies in race, gender and ethnicity, history, and English. The curriculum has inspired students to pursue interests they didn’t even know they had.
“Non-Asian students come to Asian American Studies classes thinking they want to learn more about the other but end up learning more about different facets of themselves,” Lee said.
Lee also proudly serves as president of the Association for Asian American Studies, an organization founded in 1979 to advance professional standards in excellence in teaching and research in the field of Asian American Studies. The association supports teachers, students, researchers and anyone interested in the field through encouragement of assembly and scholarly exchange.
Lee is particularly interested in the current growth of Asian American Studies as an interdisciplinary field. Interdisciplinary encompasses the combining of two or more academic fields into one single discipline. She said it is exciting because people of different backgrounds, trainings and methodologies are putting their heads together about topics concerning the Asian American experience.
“It brings thinkers from a variety of different perspectives, and pushes the boundaries of how we think beyond traditional disciplines and areas of knowledge,” she said.
Assistant professor Erin Khue Ninh at University of California at Santa Barbara calls their school’s interdisciplinary program a “meeting of minds,” which generates rich conversations. UC-Santa Barbara is home to the first academic department dedicated to the study of Asian Americans at a major research university. It is the first department in the United States to offer a Bachelor of Arts degree in Asian American Studies. The school’s full-time faculty offers a broader departmental curriculum than other schools offering the major, Ninh said
“We all focus on Asian America, but some of us are literature scholars, sociologists, anthropologists and legal scholars,” said Ninh, who teaches everything from Sexual Violence in Wartime to American Mysteries.
According to the Association for Asian American Studies, there are 32 colleges and universities that offer Asian American Studies programs in the United States. Twenty colleges and universities offer the program within other departments. Eighteen campuses just feature Asian American Studies courses.
Unfortunately, no schools in Colorado offer an Asian American Studies major or minor. CU-Boulder offers an Ethnic Studies degree with Asian American emphasis. University of Colorado Denver offers an Ethnic Studies minor, and offers classes with an Asian American focus.
Faye Caronan, Assistant Professor of Asian American Studies at CU-Denver said, “Before joining the faculty at CU-Denver, I taught Intro to Asian American Studies and Ethinc Studies in Comparative Perspective at the University of California Riverside.”
“My intro class there was huge. I lectured to 200 students, a majority of whom were Asian American. Teaching Asian American studies here took some adjustment. My classes are discussion classes of about 30 students of all different ethnic backgrounds. It’s great because I get to interact more with students and pace my classes accordingly.”
She said that although students are unable to major or even minor in Asian American Studies, they are looking to create a broader Ethnic Studies major.
“If there were enough student interest, I’d be really happy to work towards an Asian American Studies minor after the Ethnic Studies major is established.”
Why are the programs more important than ever before?
Professor Daryl Maeda teaches Comparative Ethnic Studies as well as Asian American Studies. He said he runs into a predicament in almost every class he teaches- students thinking Asians are not discriminated against in the U.S. Students tend to label Asians as “well-educated, hardworking and smart,” thus evoking the model minority myth without using the word. They seek to label all Asian Americans as the same and divide them from all people of color, Maeda said
He thinks it is important to show both Asians and non-Asians the falseness in their thinking.
“They say that Asians are the good minority, and Blacks and Latinos are the bad minority,” Maeda said. “If only you would follow the example of these nice little Asians- not causing trouble, not protesting, not demonstrating, not demanding their rights- then you’ll be just fine.”
Asian Americans have a long history of standing up for their rights and strong political activism that has been ignored or overlooked, Maeda said.
“Asian American students need to stop seeing themselves as a docile, compliant people, but instead thinking of themselves as strong people that are willing to make trouble when trouble needs to be made,” he said.
Asian Unity is a student group at CU founded to stimulate communication between Asians of different ethnic backgrounds and other students. Through providing academic support and monthly events, they work to educate the campus about traditions from diverse Asian cultures. Their goals include to eliminate the stereotype of the “model minority,” create alliances between Asians and non-Asians and empower Asian Americans on campus.
To Allen Nguyen, a junior business major active in Asian Unity, Asian American Studies are important for cultural understanding.
“The community that only knows some Asian people often doesn’t know their history, the suffering Asian Americans have gone through,” he said.
Nguyen said Non-Asians and Asians alike are guilty of racial stereotyping, which is why Asian Unity accepts all people and everyone can benefit from Asian American Studies classes.
“It is tough being in AU because people have this stigma that it is for Asians only,” he said. “Americanized Asians tend to stay away. It can be discouraging, but we can only help people that want to be helped.”
Professor Lee said that even though racial stereotyping and violence is very much alive today, some Americans think race is a problem of the past.
“Especially now, since there’s a lot of talk about the post racial moment,” she said. “Now that we have an African American president, and we’re all very multicultural.”
Asian American Studies help individuals think about issues of race and ethnicity in complicated and multifaceted ways. Consequently, it arms students with tools to understand and act against racism.
“In Ethnic Studies and Asian American Studies, we try to bear the workings of race— that race continues to exist all around us. It’s not solely the product of color, but society itself continues to treat people unequally on the basis of race,” Maeda said. “People think the way for society to move forward is to stop talking about racism, but if you stop talking about racism, you just allow the problem to continue.”
Maeda said that Asians are never the majority in his classes, typically 30 to 40 percent of his students. Nonetheless, the Asian American population is growing. And it is important to him to have classes where Asian Americans and other students of color feel comfortable and are confident that their perspectives are valued.
Furthermore, Asian American Studies classes are valuable because of the global connections that are now becoming more immediately apparent to people. Awareness that Asia and the United States are “intimately joined” in some ways is becoming more and more apparent. Looking at Asian American Studies offers perspectives on big issues like immigration, labor and race, Lee said.
“The United States is more and more enmeshed in the transpacific world. The boundaries between the United States and Asian are porous. People are crossing the ocean with regularity, culture and information,” Maeda said.
Identities and Understanding
“Here are college graduates and they’ve never taken any Asian American studies course or been exposed to any of this. Some go through high school with little or any mention of Asian Americans,” she said.
According to Caronan, she had little exposure to Asian American history prior to college despite growing up in a Los Angeles suburb with a large Asian American population.
“I took an Asian American literature class that led me into pursuing an Asian American Studies minor at Cornell University.”
“I was also interested in Asian history. I was taking Chinese language and culture classes, minoring in East Asian Studies. And I realized that there seemed to be a disconnect between Asian and Asian American Studies,” she said. There is a misunderstanding what it means to be Asian-American.
Travis Kiatoukaysi, a sophomore at CU-Boulder and an officer for Asian Unity, said Asian American Studies appeal to him because they facilitate “cultural preservation.”
“They help explain why we do the things we do,” he said.
Asian American studies are not only important to discover one’s roots and identity, but also to make sense of the world—to answer questions of why people do the things they do in their everyday lives and where their traditions come from.
“We don’t just inherit traditions and cultures; we use them to create who we will be,” Ninh said. ”
Schools with Asian American Studies Programs
Schools with Asian American Studies Programs within Departments