It’s not every day that the Vassar community holds a backand-forth dialogue with an esteemed academic on identity and its relation to the greater human condition, but this past Friday, Nov. 30 was exactly that kind of occasion. Vassar Asian American Studies Working Group (VASAM) hosted Gary Okihiro, a scholar with many accolades to his name, to hold a workshop on Asian American Studies and a lecture on Third World studies. Okihiro engaged Vassar students and faculty on discussions of Asian and American identities and broader ethnic topics. His big-picture perspective on identity allowed VASAM members to critically self-reflect on an individual and organizational level. From the moment Okihiro began, his constructivist, dialogue-centered presentation style immediately caught everyone’s attention. Chatting in the ALANA center afterwards, VASAM member Sylvia Peng ’20 shared, “He engaged with us more as a dialogue or a conversation than a ‘lecture.’ He either stood in the middle or walked around, and we just asked him questions … You would expect someone who taught at Columbia and Yale and won many accolades for his work in the field to be a very rigid intellectual, but he was very much like a scholarly grandpa or uncle.
He was very casual, but said very poignant things. I think the way he presented himself, similar to Junot Diaz, reflected how to decolonize academia.”
The content of Okihiro’s discussions also proved enlightening, challenging some of the VASAM members’ preconceived notions about their advocacy for Asian American studies. VASAM member Tamika Whitenack ’21 explained that the result has exceeded their expectations, saying, “Our original intention was to bring this well-known Asian American studies historian or scholar to educate ourselves and to show what the field of Asian American studies is, how it’s been built and why it’s important.”
The primary motivation for spreading awareness of Asian American Studies, VASAM member Emma Chun ’21 affirmed, was self-representation: “My motivation for Asian American studies is still primarily for me because I want to see myself represented in Vassar’s curriculum…We wanted to carve out our own niche so that students can take Asian American studies courses as opposed to courses that are vaguely related to Asian-ness.”
Rather than being narrowly focused on Asian American studies, however, Okihiro’s talks connected Asian and American identities to comprehensive critical ethnic studies of all identities to investigate a universal human condition. His unexpectedly expansive approach suggested a different motivation than self-representation. This example prompted Chun to reflect on why she advocates for Asian American studies: “I think that pursuing Asian American studies for self-representation is limiting … If it’s representation of yourself, then that is limiting your advocacy for the field because if it’s just about you, it doesn’t directly concern others.”
In a similar vein, Chun tied Asian American studies to Okhiro’s points about comprehensive ethnic studies: “It becomes less that this group of people need to be included in academia or history and more about getting the whole picture of history … So it’s not about representation, it’s acknowledgement, which sounds like the same thing, but it’s not … It’s defining the concept of Asia and America and all sufferings as part of a larger human condition.”
On incorporating such comprehensive ethnic studies into Vassar, Whitenack added, “I feel like the way Vassar is set up does not lend itself to collaboration across groups, like how Africana studies, LatinX studies and Asian studies are split up. We have the ALANA center and [the identity organizations] get along well, but it’s very hard to actually have a coalition.
Coalitions are important because Third World studies came out of a global coalition movement.”
With abstract concepts such as acknowledgement of representation and the human condition, I asked how their newfound perspectives would translate into concrete changes in VASAM’s objectives or philosophies. Whitenack responded, “Our short-term goals are still the same. We still want more Asian American courses, and the most effective way to do that would be to hire a tenure professor who is dedicated to researching and teaching Asian American [studies], like the way that Molly McGlennen was hired to teach Native American studies.”
She continued, “I think a big goal for this semester has also just been building community and conversations with professors. We’ve definitely started reaching out to a lot of people, and we want to continue those conversations … Hopefully they can incorporate a little bit of Asian American studies into their classes.”
While VASAM’s short-term goals have not changed, their long-term vision certainly has.
Peng remarked, “[Okihiro] tells his students you can’t write about Asian Americans suffering without incorporating queer studies and feminist theory and all the intersections of identity and the human condition … We shouldn’t stop with Asian American studies. We should be moving further towards building a more comprehensive, critical academic institution.” VASAM’s progress toward this goal will probably take time, but Gary Okihiro’s assistance has inspired them to look beyond the horizon to an even more ambitious destination.