American Studies Association 2019: Third World Studies, Not Ethnic Studies: A Conversation with Gary Okihiro

This last weekend, I was in Honolulu for the 2019 annual meeting of the American Studies Association. The roundtable panel that I organized was titled ‘Third World Studies, Not Ethnic Studies: A Conversation with Gary Okihiro.’ Its place in the program was on Friday, November 8, 2:00pm to 3:45pm, Hawai’i Convention Center, Mtg Rm 319 B. The subtitle in the program was ‘Re-Building Global Solidarity from Asian American Studies and Native Studies,’ but the general will of our roundtable members, including me, was for it to be changed to ‘A Conversation with Gary Okihiro.’ And so it was.

The roundtable revolved around the provocation made by Okihiro in Third World Studies: Theorizing Liberation that the educational objectives of the Third World Liberation Front in the late 1960s were stillborn and replaced with an ‘ethnic studies’ hegemony that focused on communities of color, not on the conditions of material domination in the infrastructures of what Okihiro terms the ‘social formation.’ Chairing the panel was the historian Ji-Yeon Yuh from Northwestern University. Karen Ishizuka (Japanese American National Museum) elaborated on street gangs as pre-political preparation for the more radical movements of the 1960s, Doug Kiel (Northwestern University) engaged Okihiro’s engagements with what the indigenous scholar George Manuel calls the ‘Fourth World,’ Daryl Maeda (University of Colorado-Boulder) talked about the institutional challenges of Third World Studies as opposed to ethnic studies, and yours truly addressed the methodological contributions of talking about the social formation as opposed to the myopic social scientific gaze on communities.

We had a very lively discussion that broke down concepts of the ‘academy,’ the ‘university,’ the ‘community,’ and the ‘streets.’ But perhaps the consensus was that the best part was that Angel Trazo, a graduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles, drew our panel. Here is her tweet:

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Visiting Assistant Professor, Asian American Studies Program, Northwestern University

I am pleased to formally announce on this blog that I have accepted a position at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL as Visiting Assistant Professor in the Asian American Studies Program. I will start there in September, teaching five courses over the year on a quarter system; my contract there is for two years.

I am very excited about this new program at Northwestern because its story mirrors many similar themes in the history of Asian American studies as a discipline. Like many other ethnic studies departments, Asian American studies at Northwestern began with a student strike – including a hunger strike – contesting the university’s commitment to a colorblind liberalism with a radical call to serve communities of color. By 1999, a program was put together, and just last year in 2015, it began offering an undergraduate major in Asian American studies.

My introduction to Asian American studies as a discipline can also be traced back to the influence of one of this program’s core faculty, Carolyn Chen, who is now at the University of California, Berkeley. I met Carolyn through the Asian Pacific Islander and Religion Research Initiative (APARRI) conference that was held at Claremont School of Theology in 2009; it was she who encouraged me to gain broader exposure to Asian American studies by attending the Association of Asian American Studies’ (AAAS) annual meetings. Because of this, I am thankful to have had a brilliant visit to Evanston during the 2015 AAAS meeting when we stayed one block away from Northwestern at the Hilton Orrington, during which I discovered that Evanston is home to all of the familiar Asian American cuisines that have been part of my diet on the West Coast.

I suspect that it is also because of Carolyn that Northwestern’s conception of Asian American studies – far from being antagonistic to religion (as it is in other parts of the discipline, particularly those that take to a very particular bent of materialist analysis) – understands that religion and even conservative ideologies circulate through Asian American communities as much as secularities, liberal democratic philosophies, and radicalisms. Indeed, Carolyn pioneered the course at Northwestern on Asian American religion, a class that I will also teach, with the encouragement of my new colleagues, who have been very kind to me as I make this transition to their academic home.

For me, Asian American studies is fundamentally about the study of the ideologies that constitute Asian America regardless of whether I subscribe to them or not; as I understand it, this is what it means to be committed to the community as an activist scholar committed to racial justice. As the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire once said of community education: ‘A real humanist can be identified more by his trust in the people, which engages him in their struggle, than by a thousand actions in their favor without that trust.’ As one of my new colleagues, historian Ji-Yeon Yuh, reminded me in one of our earlier conversations, Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed was banned during the 1970s dictatorship in the Republic of Korea, which means that it was photocopied and secretly circulated and therefore seriously treasured as a text of liberation during the minjung movement, a theological activism that has come also to influence Asian American theological politics. Put this way, I do not really understand how it is intellectually plausible to sunder materialist and theological analyses in Asian America, and my new colleagues seem quite open to me thinking this way.

I am thus very excited about my upcoming appointment at Northwestern. As I see the course list that I discussed with my colleague Shalini Shankar and with which I’ll be working closely with Ji-Yeon over the next year, it is reflective of what I understand to be the modus operandi of Northwestern’s Asian American Studies Program. In the Fall Quarter, I’ll be teaching a course on Comparative Minority Conservatisms, examining the way that conservative ideologies have circulated through communities of color, especially in light of the 2016 federal elections in the United States. In the Winter Quarter, I’ll be teaching Asian American history (a survey course that introduces themes in Asian American studies) and Chinese American Experience (a course that looks at themes in Chinese American studies, which is the focus of my research in Asian American studies). In the Spring Quarter, I’ll teach Asian American religion (which was Carolyn’s course, although I think I will give it my own spin as well) and Asian American social movements (which will give students a sense of the rich tradition of Asian American radicalism). This course list should show my commitment to teaching through a variety of ideologies circulating through Asian American communities, what those ideologies may have to do with religion and secularity in Asian America, and how understanding these ideologies helps with the cause of racial justice.

I’m very excited about going to Northwestern, and I hope to be blogging from there as well, so I will keep you posted about how things unfold there with both my teaching and how my research on occupy movements and theology in Asia and Asian America my research on occupy movements and theology in Asia and Asian America unfolds.