Why we need Asian American studies

guest column

“Where are you from? No, where are you really from?”

“You’re Asian so you must be good at math.”

“I just find Asian girls so attractive.”

“Indian people are so hairy.”

“Your English is so good, you don’t even have an accent!”

For many Asian/Asian Americans at Duke, comments like these are a part of everyday life. Unfortunately, these “jokes” and other subtle and blatant forms of discrimination, erasure and violence are often ignored. Until this year, Asian/Asian American students had no spaces, other than the ones that we’ve created, to process or learn explicitly about Asian American issues. After students made demands last semester, we now have a physical space: the Asian American Pacific Islander Bridge for Action, Solidarity, and Education (AAPI BASE) within the CMA, but there is only a single staff worker to address the needs of a full quarter of the student body.

Where are the spaces to discuss the ways that Asian/Americans are involved in art, history, sociology and other non-STEM subjects? Where are the spaces to process dealing with immigration policy as a first generation immigrant? Where are the spaces to dissect what it means to be a second generation immigrant, to be forced into the role of adult to help our parents translate and communicate, to be ridiculed for our lunches that “smell” or “look funny”? Where are the spaces to talk about being third, fourth, or greater generation and deal with the constant assumption that all Asian Americans are recent immigrants, as if some of our families have not been in the country longer than Marco Rubio or Bernie Sanders, as if we will never fully be American simply because of the way we look?

Why can we never see people who look like us in our textbooks or on TV? Where are the spaces for us to be able to examine who we are in all of our complexity and nuance, to discuss the experience of being Asian in America?

Beyond the Indian restaurants, pho shops, and token gestures of appreciation for annual cultural celebrations, Asian Americans are and have been a part of the very fabric of the country for centuries. Let’s talk about the Chinese/Americans who built the railroads and the Japanese/Americans who were ripped away from their homes (including Yukio Nakayama, Duke ‘41). Let’s talk about the Hmong/Americans who fought for the U.S. in the Vietnam War and the Filipino/Americans who fought in World War II, and the Asian Americans who were a part of the Civil Rights Movement standing as brown and yellow power alongside black power. Despite the ways in which Asian American struggles have been deliberately erased from U.S. history, we have been building political power for decades.

The term "Asian American" was born out of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement that brought together various Asian ethnic groups to form a collective racial identity in the United States. During that same period of time, students came together to demand the formation of Asian American Studies as an academic field to talk about our histories, identities and experiences in the United States as Asian Americans. Today, more than 60 universities in the US have Asian American Studies (AAS) programs and courses to study the experience of being South, Southeast, West, and East Asian, and Pacific Islander in the U.S. And yet, as a university that hosts a student population that is 30 percent Asian or Asian American and claims to be one of the most prestigious institutions in the nation, Duke has no infrastructure for the bare minimum—a list of courses related to AAS.

Duke students have been pushing for Asian American Studies since 2002. In 2013, efforts were renewed after the racist Asia-Prime party. Despite verbal assurances of support for the hiring of AAS faculty and a certificate, there has been no tangible progress for AAS since 2013. In Fall 2015, at a community forum led by a group of black students, at a time when black students at Mizzou, Yale and other schools across the country were demanding justice, student representatives from ASA, AAA and Diya reiterated the post-Asia Prime demands, noting this lack of progress on any of the previous demands.

A body of scholarship taking the form of an AAS track at Duke would mean combating the issues of invisibility and erasure of Asian American communities. Asian Americans are the largest growing population in the US, and with that comes a vast range of cultural and social issues such as immigration, adjustment and assimilation, and racial oppression. AAS would provide an academic avenue for examining the intersectionality within the Asian American experience with regards to class struggle, sexual and gender diversity, mental health, as well as how those experiences fit into the larger history of race in America. (Though related, AAS is a separate area of academia from the AMES department.) AAS would coexist and interact with the scholarship that has been and is being done in African & African American Studies and Latinx Studies. We believe this program would not only benefit Asian Americans, but is fundamental to a greater understanding of American identity, history and culture. Especially at a university in the South, the creation of AAS at Duke would give the university a chance to be a leader and innovator in a growing academic field.

The Asian American Studies Working Group is working towards creating spaces where we can discuss these questions and other questions of our own. On Thursday, we’ll be hosting an event called Envisioning Asian American Studies at Duke in McClendon 5 from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. The event will showcase student research on Asian American topics and present a roundtable discussion with students, faculty, and administration.

In addition, we have created a petition to demonstrate the widespread support for AAS—we have over 500 signatures over just two days. Whether you’re a first-year, a senior, a grad student, faculty, staff, represent an organization, or are a non-Duke supporter, we would love to have your support. 


Share and discuss “Why we need Asian American studies” on social media.