Asian-American Curriculum Panel Tackles Academic Representation

by Tessa Hannigan

On Wednesday, November 29th, SAO (Swarthmore Asian Organization) hosted an Asian American Curriculum Panel in the Scheuer room, dinner (Viman Thai on MacDade Boulevard) provided. SAO members Josie Hung, Sonya Chen, Alex Jin, Yi Wei, Iris Wang, and Hyeyun Chae organized the evening.

As people filtered in conversations began, panelists mingled with students and the atmosphere became warm and welcoming.

This panel was the first of its kind at Swarthmore, but came “from an important and long legacy of different SAO bodies fighting for representation in curricula,” says Alex Jin, ‘19, Sociopolitical Chair and Treasurer of SAO. Archives show that SAO has been advocating for greater representation of Asian American Studies in the curriculum at Swarthmore for the past twenty  years. Present members of SAO are hoping that this panel not only offers students a chance to learn more about Asian American Studies and its context in contemporary higher education, but a chance to, in coming together, prove to the administration that students are deeply interested in and committed to the creation of an Asian American Studies program at Swarthmore.  



Josie Hung ‘19, current co-President of SAO, outlined the ongoing conversation between SAO and Swarthmore’s administration. The first argument they pose, she said, is "there is not enough interest" (SAO’s argument: where are the statistics to prove that?), "why don't you start your own class?" "why don't you take a class in tri-co or UPenn?" (SAO: why does the pressure and burden always have to be on the students from that identity background?), "what is the difference between Asian studies and Asian American studies?" "can't you just include it within the Asian studies department" (SAO: there has been pushback within the Asian studies department to even include "Taiko and the Asian American experience" into their department because "it focused too much on America), and the usual "we are working on it, you just don't see it" (SAO: but we have been pushing this for years, I don't see anything).

“As traditional education leaves out certain histories, administration (and other prominent folks such as faculty and heads of departments)- who are majority white and who directly come from this system - do not have the lived experience or even possibly the awareness to understand the importance of having these discourses,” said Hung.

Hung sees tonight’s panel discussion as an important way to contextualize this struggle within a larger context of systemic racism and the struggle for representation in curriculum, in academia and the very mechanisms that determine how history is remembered. These struggles are not specific to Swarthmore and not specific Asian American Studies. Students from BCC groups and beyond have been been advocating for years to make Black Studies into a department and major while SISA and beyond have been pushing for greater representation of Indigenous voices and histories in Swarthmore’s curriculum.

“I thought the event was a brilliant display of solidarity between different groups and showing up for one another,” says Jin. “Moving forward, I hope to show the same level of solidarity and ensure other members of SAO do the same so that we the IC-BCC collective can make substantial gains against the administration. After all, all our struggles are related in some way  or another.”

The similarities between these fights are crucial. But there is no doubt that each subject is dynamic and distinctive for separate reasons.

Hung points out that there are “reasons specific to the Asian American community that create certain limitations even within the community with how much support/demand is given to AsAm studies.”

This panel was able “to touch on concepts and issues specific to the Asian American community commonly not addressed in many academic spaces at Swat because, for the first time, the students had people experienced in the field to answer some of the important questions about identity that they had.”

After introductions by moderators Hung and Sonya Chen ‘18, former co-president of SAO, the panelists shared their initial thoughts on the importance and inclusion of Asian American Studies in college curriculums. Josephine Park, professor of English at University of Pennsylvania, began the conversation. “It is hard to overstate the significance of Asian American Studies today,” she said. She described the course she will teach in the spring, Asian American Literature, in three sections: exclusion, colonial incorporation, and denationalization. Understanding these histories is crucial because, she notes, it isn’t history: “This is the moment we are living in now.”

Adding to this, Professor Kalyan Nadiminti stated that “critique of american Empire must be at the center of any kind of ethnic studies.” A professor of history at Haverford College, Nadiminti teaches courses on Asian American labour and American empire through an interdisciplinary lens.

The third panelist was Dr. Fariha Khan, director of the Asian American Studies program at UPenn, having earned her degree in folklife and folklore. She began with a deep thank you to SAO for hosting the panel discussion and a deal of encouragement. The “birth of [UPenn’s Asian American Studies program] came from struggle,” from tireless student protests and the eventual employment of an outside committee to offer an analysis of the issue. The program recently celebrated its 20th anniversary and, though it was a great moment, it was “not without tension.” According to Khan, “it is a struggle to stay alive each year.”

The final panelist was Dr. David Eng, professor of English, Asian American Studies and Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at UPenn. He began by describing how color blindness has deracialized Asian Americans. “The model minority myth is absolutely dependent on Asians not spawning attention to themselves, not thinking of themselves as racialized... The contract through which Asian Americans are tied into the social fabric is a contract of colorblindness.” He said that because of this, racial recognition is not offered openly to Asian Americans but must be fought for, “the creation of ethnic programs is alway bottom up.”

Hung and Chen then offered the first question of the evening, starting at the core: “What really is Asian American Studies? And how does that fit into other disciplines, ethnic studies and the broader struggle for diversity and inclusion in the curriculum?”

In response, Khan asked if any of the audience had learned anything in high school about the history of Asian Americans in the US and if so, what did they learn? A gentle cacophony of the word “internment” trickled across the room.

“It is time to be angry as to the complete negligence of this curriculum,”  Khan said. Asian American history and literature are not separate from the rest of history, and “it is not a special course or project but embedded in and part of a larger story, a larger fabric.”

Eng offered that naming Asian Americans in the midst of race relations of the US, placing them in history and situating them in narratives of health and of war is complicated. The rise of Trump and charged discussions about black and white has deepened the victim-perpetrator discourse that pervades our understanding of race relations.

“When you throw in Asian Americans, that dynamic disappears,” says Eng. Globally, the problem of human rights was reframed after the Holocaust and the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “In the Holocaust, Jews were victims and Nazis were the perpetrators.” Eng continues, “There is zero consensus on who the victims and the perpetrators were in the aftermath of the atomic bombings and the Cold War. That, in  nutshell, is the question of where do Asians and Asian Americans fit?”

Park notes another aspect of Asian American identity that is unique compared to most other ethnic identities. Identity, she says, is an issue of “shared boundedness” - shared position, land, language, and class. Asian Americans do not share any one of these things universally, the thing that “binds [them] together,” she said, “is the history of anti-Asian racism. We have been subject to the same policies, subject to the same demonization.”

“In one way,” she said, “this make for a weak formation, we have simply been lumped together. And in another way, it makes for a very strong one.”

Asian American Studies was initially born, in part, as a response to anti-Asian racism and because of this, is has been criticized for not being theoretical enough. “I don’t think anti-racism can ever be ‘not theoretical enough’” Park stated, “few things are more powerful and need to be addressed more.”

Hung posed the next question: “What is the pushback you face? From students from admin, in general and personally?”

Park had the first answer, a short, definite one. “At Penn, our administration doesn’t know the difference between Asian Studies and Asian American Studies. It’s not easy to talk to our deans.”

Khan followed up by offering that she feels frustrated when Asian American students don’t take the Asian American studies courses. “These courses are not about identity politics but about understanding the racial history of the US.”

Eng offered a broad lens perspective. “There are a lot of you in the audience,” he said, “and just four of us up here. That shows you the history of exclusion.” Part of the reason for this, he said, is the stereotype of the model minority. “Part of your social contract,” he said, “is to be nice. If you are outspoken and loud as an Asian American and especially an Asian American woman, the pushback, the shock, can be extreme both with students and with colleagues.”

As this conversation deepened it wound its way to a discussion of the creation of Asian American Studies programs. According to Eng, the model minority contract can make it hard for Asian American students to be heard through protest and more aggressive forms of advocacy. However, he hit on a core issue when he said he truly believes that “It’s not that students aren't there, it’s that courses aren't there.” He’s spoken to students who want courses on Asian American non-fiction writing, fiction writing, health care, psychology, literature. “We literally don’t have the staff to do this.” And he wishes they did.

Nadiminti added that he found himself with quantitatively small classes but with with students who were angry about the lack of Asian American studies in the broader curriculum. “We mobilized that anger and generated discussions about what else we could do,” he said. The students played a key role. “They brainstormed other activities, alternative forms of knowledge generation. The interest was there.”

On this note, the panel opened to questions from the audience:

The first question that came took on a personal note. “How does one navigate difference between first and second generation within one family, how do we articulate to our parents that the Asian American identity is different from the Asian identity?”

The panelists urged individuals to know that though there is difference, “[their] parents are acutely aware of anti-Asian discrimination.” That they, too, grew up within boundaries and if they say you need to “work twice as hard as everyone else” it is because they did. Park offered that “this is an old person thing to say, but, be aware of how much they know, there are similarities across generations.”

The subsequent questions student brought forward were in depth and most stemmed from a personal exploration or struggle around the intersection of Asian American identity with queerness, class, biraciality, and the question of complicity in whiteness. The panelists offered advice, personal experiences and compassion.

This Q&A ended up serving a purpose Hung had not expected. As she said, it became an opportunity for students to discuss “issues specific to the Asian American community commonly not addressed in many academic spaces at Swat because, for the first time, the students had people experienced in the field to answer some of the important questions about identity that they had.”

The last question of the night hit on trailblazing: “how do you avoid burnout?”

Eng keeps an angry Asian doll by his desk. He says that “any time you are doing anti-subordinate, anti-racist work you risk burnout. The trick is to know your limits, know when to step in, and know when to step out and take a pause.”

“Its particularly hard of women to say no,” Khan added. “Sometimes you have to simply say ‘I cannot do that’. It’s hard when you are on the fast track to a career and you are already minoritized within this specific frame of being ‘the Asian woman that’s expected to be subservient and say yes and be quiet.’ It is important to recognise that and just say no. And don’t apologize for it. Never apologize for it.”

She ended by encouraging the audience to remember that each person is in control of the social capital that feels attached to each individual’s identity. “You are the one who decides how much cultural capital you need to be a certain identity at any moment.”

With this, the panelists offered a sincere thank you and students reciprocated with applause. As Thai food was served, folks began to mingle. Hung invited students to add their contact information to sign up sheets as well as write thoughts, questions, struggles or a piece of their story on papers placed at the center of each table.

Most of the crowd stayed for dinner and mingling. Celebrating his 20th Birthday, Jin noted that the turnout itself was “the best birthday present [he] could have hoped for.”