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Sunday, October 26, 2008

Why do people insult Ethnic Studies?

40 years ago, San Francisco State University was home to the longest student led strike in American history, and this created the school (now college) of Ethnic Studies, and is the only such "College" in the entire United States.

I respect that, regardless of the insane violence, police clashes, and everything else. SFSU is home to something really special.

Even for me, I thought I would go into a career of being an English teacher for the public high schools, but my new love came to Asian American Studies. I knew I had a great background way before college because of my deep connections to the Japanese American community (Japantown) in San Francisco, and the respect of the members of the community who believe my late grandmother is the hero of the community for being one of the major leaders of the Japanese American redress movement.

The 40th anniversary is a proud moment for SFSU, and it's not just history. The classes offered today provide a wide opportunity to learn about ethnic cultures (other than white/European American), and especially amazing is you can learn about one specific ethnicity in three different courses including history, psychology, and literature. Even more is that the interdisciplinary courses discover things like the film industry, how it relates to today's modern U.S. government, and even mixed heritage studies. And whether or not you realize it, some popular local celebrities were also part of our family, including Malou Nubla who attended Professor Dan Gonzales' class and also was head of PACE (Pilipino American Collegiate Endeavor), and comedian Rex Nevarrette who respects the college for giving him a career in comedy.

And I'm proud to be part of this wonderful group, not just a B.A. degree holder in Asian American Studies, but also I'm close to earning my M.A. in the same topic too.

Yet... out of all this great news and pride, comes the sour part to all of this. I recently posted a comment on the SFGate comment boards noting my appreciation for the College and its programs, but soon later got pelted by others saying that Ethnic Studies is an insult. Including one literally pointing out that I won't have any kind of career (stating that I will be working at some fast food joint).

It almost seems that Ethnic Studies in college today has to be defended every single day in this country.

So here's my arguments/defense towards those insults:
  • Yes, I do have a career. I work part-time as an Administrative Assistant while I work on my Master's degree. My knowledge in ethnic studies earns a high degree of respect in my field because of the uniqueness and very diverse population of people we work with.
  • James Hirabayashi was the first dean of the school of Ethnic Studies at SFSU, and he stated that as students and graduates of the Ethnic Studies program, it becomes our responsibilities to use the knowledge we received and apply that to our communities. So therefore, there is a career for people like me!
  • Elementary through high school teaches the Eurocentric point of view, and people rarely learn about the other views of so called "American history." Ethnic Studies gives that other view of history. Ethnic Studies also tells about the history that the Eurocentric view would never talk about, for example the International Hotel controversy in San Francisco's Manilatown, and why San Francisco's Chinatown looks "Oriental" when rebuilt after the huge fire after the 1906 earthquake.
  • Without Ethnic Studies, ethnic communities in the SF Bay Area would lack the leadership and proper knowledge about the history of the ethnic group(s) they represent. The Japantown community has leaders who are well versed in the topic of Japanese American culture, with many who have taken ethnic studies or have teached Asian American Studies to other students.
  • Without Ethnic Studies, who will teach their children (or future children) about their ethnic background(s)? I don't have a child, but if he/she asked me about their ethnic heritage, I would tell them the whole story about my Japanese and Chinese heritage, thanks to the folks of Ethnic Studies.
  • A particular example of passing on Ethnic Studies to the young is a program known as PEP. Volunteer students from SFSU teaches young Pilipino students in High School about their culture through a very unique teaching style that is being recognized nationally as a way to teach ethnic studies to people who are not of college age.
  • Research about ethnic groups (other than whites) is absolutely necessary today. The birth of Asian American Studies has spurred a lot of research in just the last forty years, investigating issues from Chinese Americans involved with Christianity, and how ethnic beauty pageants can be controversial.
  • Without an Asian American Studies background, I would have not been able to lead and defend Japantown in 2006 when major properties were put up for sale, equaling about 1/3 (one-third) of the entire community. Without my vast knowledge about Japanese Americans, I could not have started a petition drive that received over 16,000 signatures, and write empassioned messages to other ethnic communities asking for their help. For example: I contacted a bunch of my Pilipino American friends and explained to them that losing Japantown is just like losing the I-Hotel, and Japanese Americans were there when the I-Hotel was under attack by riot cops trying to evict the tenants.
  • Ethnic Studies is not a waste of a college's/university's money. It demonstrates that educational institutions needs to teach about other views of American history. One example: Eurocentric American history might just seldom mention about the Japanese American Internment Camps and a brief history about how they won redress. Asian American Studies focusing on Japanese American Studies gives their take to the whole camp and redress experiences through many readings and since it's specific to Japanese American history, can really focus on what makes this topic so important. Try asking detailed questions to a Eurocentric American history teacher... they might say "go see an Ethnic Studies professor for help" (then, they'd get fired for lack of knowledge).
There's my main points to this. If you still feel that Ethnic Studies is a waste of college resources and an insult to Universities, then come see me, and I'll drag your butt to people I know who will whip you into shape. I used a similar defense during the time when Japantown's festivals were recently threatened and noted that those people who wrote those mean spirited letters should come see me, and I'd let them meet the people in-person, the hard working volunteers that gets paid nothing other than seeing their community thrive and be proud. Some of them have been active in the Japantown community for over 40 years, now that's real respect and pride right there.

There's a reason why I quote Professor Dan Begonia on the bottom of my blog, I respect that guy for giving me the power to be a proud Asian American, and to continue on the tradition of promoting Ethnic Studies by leading our ethnic communities to a bright future.

(Photograph from left to right: Jon, Melissa, and myself. The three of us are part of the Master's program in Asian American Studies at SFSU.)


I am so wise said...

Ethnic studies get a lot of flak because many people find them a redundancy (just take the history and art classes offered in the field), have noticed that they rarely exist for white people (I engage in Yugoslav Studies, which despite being the site of 3 wars that involved the United States in the last 15 years, a front in GWOT, and chronic powder keg, is rarely represented), and the perception ethnic studies people then to drop more inappropriately used $10 dollar words and produce less useful knowledge than other departments.

Also stuff like this “American history might just seldom mention about the Japanese American Internment Camps and a brief history about how they won redress” is just silly given that the Japanese internment is a staple feature in most school lectures on the Second World War while the round up Italian- Americans and German-Americans or the surveillance by US intelligence of the Croatian community is ignored. This really fuels the perception of ethnic and cultural studies as a bastion of leftist idiocy.

Akit said...

I am so wise:

Right on the ball about Italian, German, and Croatian Americans being ignored.