Legacy of activism: Asian American Studies courses offered Fall 2020

Top, wall art from a 2006 Critical Ethnic Studies Coalition demonstration. Bottom, a showcase of the student-run Asian American Studies class Fugitivity in the Academy from December, 2019. Courtesy of VASAM Working Group.

Do my eyes deceive me? I look again. In the weird Ask Banner font that makes everything look like a screenplay reads “AMST/ASIA 185 Intro to Asian American Studies.” My first instinct is to call Nicole. “Yoooo,” I tell her, “they are offering an intro class for ASAM.” Sitting by the desk in my home on Long Island, I begin to tear up a bit. I feel silly, but so happy. 

Laying on my bed in New Jersey, I get off FaceTime with Syl and my chest swells. I’ll be done with college in two weeks. Pre-registration is now a part of my past, but still I click through the course catalog to the AMST/ASIA 185 class. I already know about the offering—Sylvia and I had read over the postdoc job listing, skimmed through candidate CVs and attended interview luncheons—but still, part of me expected it to fall through. Maybe I’ve grown accustomed to Vassar disappointing us. Seeing “Asian American Studies” plastered across an official Vassar site led to feelings I’m unaccustomed to: I hold them close, prod at them gently. 

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When we were first-years, neither one of us knew Asian American (ASAM) studies existed. We saw no courses offered on the subject at Vassar. It hadn’t even crossed our minds that our histories as Asian Americans were worthy of academic study. When VASAM—the Vassar Asian American Studies Working Group—was first established in November of 2017 by students from the Asian Students’ Alliance executive board and the two of us, we based our advocacy upon seeing ourselves represented in our courses and one of our professor’s convictions that the ASAM studies was worth fighting for. In the months to come, we combed through Vassar’s archives, met with professors and spoke with alums who had previously pushed for ASAM studies. All of this information foretold the many obstacles to be encountered. 

Through this process, we became absorbed in a history that lay beyond anything we could’ve imagined at the onset. Stories of student activism, collective voice, institutional disregard and broken promises surfaced all around us. We learned that Asian American studies (or more broadly, Critical Ethnic Studies) had its roots in the late-1960s Third World Liberation Front (TWLF) movement, in which a coalition of radical students of color organized the longest student strike in U.S. history. In 1979, alongside the strikes of other students of color, the TWLF’s demands reached Vassar when Asian American students called for the introduction of an Asian American Studies program. In 1991, the Vassar Asian Students’ Alliance planned a protest day to advocate for ASAM studies, citing unfulfilled demands from 12 years prior. A letter released that year to the student body stated that “many Asian students are frustrated with the lack of concern on the part of administrators.” ASAM courses were offered sporadically following that movement, but professors who taught in the field were often contingent. Students advocated for Vassar to grant ASAM studies professors tenure. In 2006, the Dean of the Faculty ceded to the student-led Ethnic Studies Coalition’s demands for Vassar to “devote two tenure-track lines to each of Latino/a, Native American, and Asian American studies—six positions phased in over ten years.” The proposal “seem[ed] to [him] a reasonable and effective way to address these issues, consistent with some plans that had already been in the works.” 

In 2016, two tenure-track Asian American Studies faculty members should have been teaching at Vassar. The two of us were first-years back then, just entering a new institution, feeling out our potential academic pathways. Perhaps it is unsurprising for us to report that those two professors were never hired—there were a smattering of Asian American courses offered, but professors came and went, often leaving us with zero ASAM classes when they went on sabbatical. Instead, we spent our college career from sophomore year on replicating our predecessors’ work. We launched social and visual media campaigns, put out campus-wide petitions and surveys and sat through countless meetings with administrators, curricula committees, faculty members, trustees and department chairs. Upon realizing how drawn-out a process it was to strengthen course offerings under Vassar’s bureaucracy, we taught ourselves Asian American Studies. We organized panel presentations with Vassar Critical Ethnic Studies professors and workshops with ASAM Studies faculty from other institutions. In the fall of 2019 when once again no Asian American Studies courses were offered, we created a weekly student-run, anti-institutional, un-credited class in Rocky 312, our fugitive space. Students exhibited their art, photography, critical theory, poetry, essays and presentations at an end-of-semester showcase. 

Our three years of activism have made us realize that our erasure is no natural state. It is the product of a fraught and centuries-long racialized history which has discouraged our environments (academic and otherwise) from investing in political and intellectual power for people of color. This history surfaces at Vassar when professors of color leave our predominantly white institutions for positions elsewhere, and when upon the graduation of vocal student activists, the institution ceases its performative support for Critical Ethnic Studies. 

Because of Vassar’s neglect, we endured being chided by our peers, professors and administrators for overreacting, for being self-indulgent and demanding too much. What exactly do you want to learn about? Isn’t that the same as Asian studies? Are you sure there’s enough student interest? Is this a sufficiently rigorous discipline?  Of course we were intimately aware of the systemic violence behind our own existences, but how were we to fit it within Vassar’s academic imagination? Institutional inclusion relied on our ability to perform our own marginality and suffering.We turned our most intimate pain inside out as a tactical move and reduced our existence to a diversity token prized by the college to prove to everyone that we need ASAM studies, that our Asian American, student of color and broader Vassar community needs it. Tripping over our words, our tongues split, we labored to convey that Asian American studies is more than just us and our individual experiences. No more would our histories remain in the footnotes, margins and indexes of this nation’s narrative. We demanded a discipline that reckons with the legacies of war, empire, migration, diaspora, transnational relations and mundane life through the lens of the marginalized instead of the geopolitical perspective that founded the Asian studies and other regional studies. Yet the fear that ASAM studies was a self-centered venture still bubbled up as we made our demands. We swallowed our own doubt over and over again, stared down our absence and felt as small and illegitimate as we ever have. But we endured. 

In those difficult times, we held on tight to our community. We taught, supported, fed and cared for one another. Hunched over steaming bowls, we savored the hot-pot cooked with the one clean pot in Raymond’s kitchen. At 10 p.m. on weekday nights, we theorized and ranted to each other, tucked away in our dorms and apartments. Friday afternoons we sat cross-legged in the grass, reading radical Asian American activists’ work in our student-led class, feeling joyous and invigorated. Our community, the people who understand our feelings of isolation on a corporeal level, moved us towards healing and collective power. They generated the energy it took for us to secure ASAM course offerings. 

Above, the student-run class on Environmental Justice and Asian America taught by Tamika Whitenack. Courtesy of VASAM Working Group.

Today, we beam as we picture Asian American first-years filling out their pre-reg forms. They’ll file in to AMST/ASIA 185 on the first day and all the foundational ASAM material will be there for them, organized neatly into a 12-week sequence. They won’t have the scrounge for knowledge like we did. Still, we celebrate cautiously. This intro course is no end point in our struggle. Without tenure-track faculty lines, Vassar could easily tear down what we created, forcing a future generation of Asian American students to build it back up. We remember that Vassar, an institution established upon the exclusion of people of color, did not give us these classes; we fought for them. 

The urgency and timeliness of Critical Ethnic Studies has not wavered. Earlier this year, Vassar’s systemic and historical racism once again reared its head when news broke of the indigenous remains and collection of racist images held in Vassar’s possession. Now, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, racially driven violence has left our siblings’ faces bashed in, reminding us that invisibility so readily morphs into hypervisibility at the convenience of white supremacy. Our de-politicized “model minority” status was always provisional, and our existence was always political. It still is. 

To those who will continue the fight for Critical Ethnic Studies: 

Remember that the struggle is rooted in anti-institutional movements. We exist not to be accepted by academia, but to transform it, to function both within and without it. Vassar will try to call you “niche,” flatten you, reduce you to a diversity quota. Know that you are anything but. Do not let your identity restrict your being; instead, make it your power.

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