On Wednesday, Asian American Students in Action (AASiA) hosted a panel in Griffin 3 called “Asian American studies Panel: The Movement and the Moment.”
Dorothy Wang, associate professor of American studies and faculty affiliate in English at the College; C.N. Le, professor of sociology at UMass Amherst and director of the Five College Asian/Pacific/American studies program; Jenny Tang ’13, Beinecke Scholar and doctorate student in history of art and film and media studies at Yale and Angela Wu, assistant director of arts and cultural programming at the Davis Center, sat on the panel.
The panelists were introduced by Suiyi Tang ’19, Asian American studies coordinator and first-year representative on AASiA, and Sarah Wu ’16.
The goal of the movement is to create a full-time tenure-track line for an Asian Americanist and to fill that position by the 2016-17 year. AASiA also hopes to see an Asian American Studies concentration established in the near future.
Suiyi Tang and Sarah Wu asked the panelists to provide some background on their experiences with Asian American studies and then asked them a series of questions.
Angela Wu explained that she conducted undergraduate work at Mt. Holyoke, but identified more with the Asian American studies movement after graduating from college. She fought for an Asian American studies program while at Mt. Holyoke as well.
“I think I [identified] more with the importance of Asian American studies as I graduated from college and left it and realized how important it was,” Wu said. “The Asian American studies classes that I took at Mt. Holoyke really influenced my life and the work that I do even now working at Williams.”
Wu was a student activist while at Mt. Holokye. “The courses that I took at Mt. Holoyke were crucial to both my identity formation as well as the approach that I have to my work.”
Wang told the audience that she completed her undergraduate studies at Duke University and was not involved in political movements while studying there. She said that she stumbled into thinking about Asian American studies while working in journalism. She explained that the movement emerged out of activism, but now there is a huge body of work about it, and it is becoming a developed field. Her specialty is Asian American poetry.
Jenny Tang ran a campaign for an Asian American studies department her senior year at the College and staged a rally at homecoming for the movement. She thinks that the idea and future of identify politics is not at all foreclosed and hopes that by being on this panel she is showing people that she is neither the first nor the last to fight for this.
“The idea and future of identity politics, far from being over or undetermined, is not foreclosed at all,” Jenny Tang said. “The utopian goal of such endeavors, and we’ll call it for lack of a better name, student activism, is to be the last. Last because we want it to be successful. Last so that those who follow have an easier time than we did. I must admit that Williams has often arrived late to the political party. Solidarity is very much needed in order to make the haul.”
Le talked about his childhood as the only Asian American in his neighborhood. He started to gravitate towards the movement while studying at University of California (UC) Irvine. He was on the pre-medicine track, then pre-law and eventually decided to pursue sociology.
Le participated in a series of protests at UC Irvine and eventually an Asian American studies program was established there. This also happened at UMass Amherst. “It seems to be a recurring thing and hopefully that’s something that I’ll see here eventually at Williams as well,” Le said.
Sarah Wu asked the panelists if they could comment on the classes that changed their lives and made them want to focus on Asian American studies.
Angela Wu spoke about how her activism work came about because of her experience with her her identity. She took two classes that stretched her mind in terms of thinking, intellectually and academically, about what Asian American studies could offer. She realized that there was probably a different way of thinking about the things she had thought about her whole life.
“Being in that in-between place is how I think about both the experience of being an Asian American as well as the knowledge that comes with being an Asian American,” Wu said. “We complicate narratives.”
Jenny Tang stated that it was not a single course in Asian American studies that pushed her, but a new and exciting approach. “It was a new way of thinking that really pushed me. I think in my work I think across racial boundaries and I don’t consider Asian American studies something sequestered and only applicable to Asian people,” Jenny Tang said.
Wang mentioned that she grew up in North Carolina and was therefore implicated with African American culture and issues of race at the time. “Asian American history is deeply implicated with African American culture,” Wang said. “I got to witness what happened to black people and that actually, in some deep way, radicalized me.”
Le said that he thought about his experiences as an Asian American, immigrant and person of color and how that fit into the idea of being a minority. He went on to take some of the classes that existed at the time and found it rewarding to be part of the community and to find people who shared the same experiences.
Wu and Le formed a connection when Wu mentioned to Le that she had read his personal website and found the term “model minority” for the first time. “Your website was one of those pivotal ‘a-ha’ moments for me in my life,” Wu said.
Wang brought up the struggle of being an Asian American woman faculty member at the College and how the stereotypes that already exist are reinforced and can make it difficult for her to speak her mind. “Asian American women and Asian American men are perceived in certain ways,” Wang said. “Every group has its stereotype and its something that we have to work with.”
Suiyi Tang then turned the subject to the movement as a whole.
Jenny Tang stated that she joined the movement during her senior year. She said that after she led her protest, people brought up how it made them uncomfortable.
She added that when she got to Yale, it gave her more perspective, because there were graduate students there as a buffer. “It’s almost like you’re too close,” Tang said. in reference to life as a student activist at the College.
Angela Wu stated that she once engaged in a protest at Mt. Holyoke that took over an admissions building and also participated in an independent study to learn about the birth of ethnic studies in America, which eventually led to the establishment of a program that is analogous to Claiming Williams Day at the College.
Wang emphasized the importance of students in the movement, stating that there are not enough faculty members willing to help with this. “There aren’t enough faculty who would be saying that we need to have this,” Wang said.
Wang also stated that this crowd looks bigger in comparison to previous crowds for panels like this. “How can there be an Africana [studies] department and Latina studies program and nothing for Asian American studies?”
Le described the Asian American studies program at UMass Amherst. It includes one introductory class, two courses in Asian studies, two courses that count as Asian American studies, two courses that fall under the concentration category of a student’s choosing and a senior seminar.
He said that the Five College Consortium program is structured more conventionally to focus on Asian American studies. It has three thematic areas: artistic expressions, connections with Asia and connections with U.S. society and other racial groups. Students must take five courses and a final capstone senior seminar.
Wang emphasized that the College will need more faculty to recify the problem, but the College has been stating that there is not enough money and has shown priority in hiring in different departments, such as computer science and statistics. “My sense is that if there is enough push, I really think that something could happen,” Wang said.
Suiyi Tang is also the manager of the Asian American studies petition, which currently has over 560 signatories made up of students at the College and allies from several other colleges and universities across the nation.
On the webpage for the petition, it says, “The Model Minority myth, Orientalism and Yellow Peril have no place at Williams College, but the reality of the matter is that they will continue to exist unless all students are offered the opportunity to study rich, varied and often painful histories of Asian America.”