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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Thursday, February 29, 2024

Asian American studies deserves better

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The Tufts Asian Student Coalition called on the university to hire more faculty specializing in Asian American studies to fill an urgent gap in the race, colonialism and diaspora department. With Professor Courtney Sato going on leave, there will be no courses or full-time faculty in the Asian American studies concentration next fall, according to the coalition’s March 30 letter to the administration. I find this regrettable. I am not privy to the university’s finances, and expanding the department may not be financially tenable, but Tufts ought to reconsider this decision and try to meet student activists’ demands.

I am incredibly grateful for the education I’ve received thus far at Tufts. I was fortunate enough to take Intro to Asian American Studies last semester with Professor Sato and I am glad I cleared my schedule to do so. I still remember the first day of class when Professor Sato implored us to think about, in the words of scholar Gary Okihiro, when and where we enter the historical narrative. This class had a profound impact on me as a Taiwanese American and helped me understand my place in American history.

I’ve thought about that idea frequently since then. It’s apparent, even in my family, that some of us don’t know our own history because we never had the chance to learn about it in the classroom. Over winter break, my family and I were having dinner when my sister started talking about the Abercrombie & Fitch documentary, specifically,the shirt that had two caricatures of Asians at a laundromat with the caption “Two Wongs can Make it White.” My mother and I, who had not yet watched the documentary, gasped at how something so blatantly racist could have ever been made, but my sister and my brother were less shocked. My sister genuinely thought the wordplay was clever while my brother failed to understand the historical significance of the reference to laundry service and its connection to Asian Americans.

We laughed it off at the time, but when I think about it, it’s because I took Professor Sato’s class that I didn’t act the way my brother or sister did. Without the formal opportunity to take an Asian American studies class here at Tufts I wouldn’t know my own history — when and where I enter American history. In an age of rising hate against Asian Americans, classes like these are critical so everyone can see the mistakes of the past, understand why they’re wrong and make sure they are not repeated.

An understanding of Asian American history would reveal how ideas like the model minority myth were created through immigration laws that incentivized well educated people — among others — to migrate here from Asia or how Asian Americans are perceived as perpetual foreigners who remain loyal to their nation of origin long after moving to the U.S. These patterns have been a throughline in our history; so much so that rhetoric used by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to round up Japanese Americans during World War II — ostensibly to prevent foreign espionage — mirrors almost exactly the sentiments expressed by Rep. Lance Gooden, R-Tex., earlier this year when he questioned a Chinese American congresswoman’s loyalty and suggested she have her security clearance revoked. This pernicious, often unconscious bias can be found in the poking and prodding of every ‘where are you really from?’ or ‘you’re so exotic!’ lobbed at me and my Asian American compatriots.

Whether it be at our kitchen tables or the halls of Congress, these tropes will be repeated until we learn where they came from and why they are wrong. We must all put in the work to eliminate systemic racism from this country. By not making Asian American and other ethnic studies courses readily available, Tufts makes it harder for students to do just this. I grew up in a primarily white town, went to a primarily white high school and still attend a primarily white institution in a primarily white part of the country. I never had the opportunity to take an Asian American studies class in high school and only barely had the opportunity to do so here. 

I urge the administration to heed student activists’ calls to expand the ethnic studies course offerings. While this may be impossible at the moment due to the university’s limited financial resources, the administration should negotiate with students in good faith to come to an agreement to expand the race, colonialism and diaspora department when the financial resources are available. Tufts prides itself as a school that molds its students into “active citizens of the world,” but it’s high time we students call into question the validity of that statement and hold the administration accountable to it.