Letter to the Editor: Asian American Studies still contentious after 20 years

Christine Nguyen

On Thursday afternoon, Asian American Studies Program students discovered that someone had torn down the 6-foot banner advertising AASP’s 20th anniversary event held in commemoration of the hunger strike that led to the program’s establishment. The next day, it was missing completely.

AASP reserved the space all week as per University policy, and when contacted, several Norris staff members could not locate the banner. The grommets holding the twine were torn from the canvas, while other banners made of less sturdy material remained intact.

Incidentally, the other materials up near The Arch were advertisements for other Asian and Asian-American student groups. The message is clear: Asian-Americans can have our ethnic dances and performances, but we don’t get to be political.

In the dominant discourses of race in America, Asian-Americans straddle the line between white and black, forced to choose between resistance or the fragile refuge of non-blackness. Only it’s not really a choice. For all of our talk about multiculturalism and diversity, conversations on race remain inflexibly binary. We’re only considered minorities when the topic of affirmative action rolls around, and then we’re shoved back into invisibility until the next time we can be trotted out as a political point against other ethnic groups.

That’s why it’s so jarring when Asian-American students challenge the narratives imposed upon them, when they denounce the insidious racism and white supremacy that pervades this campus, when they refuse the conditional privilege of honorary whiteness and instead join in solidarity with their other brothers and sisters and non-binary siblings of color. Perhaps this is why our glaring 6-foot symbol of Asian-American student resistance was torn down.

It’s worth noting this isn’t the first instance of vigilante censorship at this University. In December, when Students for Justice in Palestine put up a banner detailing the forced displacement of Palestinians by the state of Israel, it was stolen overnight. These instances are not unrelated. They speak to the continued silencing of counter-narratives that occur on this campus.

Asian-American students were not the only ones who participated in the hunger strike 20 years ago. They did so in coalition with other allies and communities of color. Likewise, as Asian-American students, our struggle is not only for Asian American Studies: It is for Native American Studies, for Queer Studies, for Disability Studies and for any initiatives that bolster and sustain marginalized voices.

Asian-American racial identities are extraordinarily complex, yet we have few opportunities in the University to talk about them meaningfully. The history and experiences of Americans taught in most Northwestern courses are not ours. We will no longer settle for sheepishly asking, “But what about Asian Americans?” during that one week in class designated for us to take off our collective blinders and acknowledge that race exists.

NU administrators have responded to the Asian American Studies Program with a combination of active disdain, apathetic disinterest and purely symbolic recognition. AASP invited upward of a dozen administrators to the 20th Anniversary event and only one attended. Well, admins, we are holding you accountable. I implore you, for once, to fight with us. Fight for the creation of an Asian American Studies major.

To my fellow students, I would like to relay an insight from one of my AASP professors. AASP only exists because of students who were willing to put their lives and bodies on the line for a cause they wholeheartedly believed in. NU administration resisted the establishment of AASP and never fully welcomed it. Even now, ethnic studies programs and departments are denied the resources they need to develop and are used merely as public relation tools in the dialogue surrounding diversity: meant to be seen, not heard.

But NU leaders seem to forget that students are the largest stakeholders in the University. We don’t pay a quarter of a million dollars to passively consume knowledge. We must consider how we, as students, can critically engage with and transform the structures of knowledge we participate in, to question the insidiousness of the structures that render 20 percent of the undergraduate population invisible.

On a campus with no place for us, we have to create our own.

Christine Nguyen, Medill ‘15 and former Daily staffer