May 3, 2011

(API* Heritage 2011) Post #3: Vapors of Community in Asian American Studies

Asian America, I like to say, is on the fringe of a margin in American public consciousness and life. The big open secret is that it is hardly in the consciousness of most Asian Americans, which in a way, is very different from all other major communities of color in the United States.

African Americans - despite the systematic dismantling of the leadership and heart of the community over the decades - still have a shared history of slavery, the fight for freedom, and the many struggles for equality and self-determination. Even though they do not comport cleanly with the narrative put forward by American mainstream, at least these histories and stories are in some imperfect way part of the American consciousness, and most definitely part of the African American experience. There is power and strength in that.

For Native Americans, even if all members of the tribes do not believe in the militancy of some groups like AIM, nor do they all have the same experience, there is knowledge and deep understanding about their position as peoples struggling and charting their paths in and around modern America. Latinos have a range of experiences that have to compete with the master narrative of the long and more complicated one that the Mexican American community has, but uniform and non-particular anti-immigrant sentiment has given at least some common history of struggle to these communities.

Think about it: activism, history, anything that binds individuals their actions and their accomplishments for self and community together into some kind of narrative is not part of the shared knowledge or "orientation" to the community that most Asian Americans have. We hang onto the vapors of a movement that seems eons old. And in a coalition community that has changed in so many ways since the early 70s, I wonder if it would even be possible to create something coherent and useful as a "movement" moving forward.

It is a lot of work to be conscious and try to quilt together any kind of meaningful narrative for APAs. In a lot of ways, we are more a community without much of a history than one with a long, deep history as is often posited by the canonical discourse of APA Studies and others who need that narrative to exist for them to have jobs and some meaning to their choice of work.

One could argue that Asian America as it could exist has only lived in our imaginations, and in the rare arts and organizing spaces over the past 10-15 years, including informal arts spaces, deliberate cultural work, and college campuses. It's not too far to say that Asian America is often better formed and represented in the student movements to create the programs than in the eventual programs themselves.

Why? Because the folks who can lead these programs have often had to trim down their understanding and scope of engagement with communities in a very specific way to get through the academic obstacle course and be credentialed enough to stand up and be counted for a position leading a fringe program that most departments don't believe in. Add to that the myopia that is almost inherent in academia and is perhaps more present still in Asian American Studies, AND the fact that many of these folks are not practitioners or when they were as students or young community workers there was little in common with now, and you end up with very limited understanding of what is needed and representative now.

Students pushing for APA studies eventually feel that they don't have a connection to what happens once a program is created and the program is not engaged enough with the students to understand what they were hoping for. The programs are not only cut off from the communities that had once demanded ethnic studies, but they are actually often cut off from the activist students at the same campus who have inherited the framework from their organizational ancestors and feel confused, hurt, shut out from their vision of an inclusive and representative program where they could finally see themselves in the curriculum.

What a sad state of affairs.

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