50 Years of Organizing for Ethnic Studies

Originally Posted on The Yale Herald - Medium via UWIRE

In the aftermath of the resignation of 13 ER&M faculty members, the Asian American Students Alliance hosted a conversation panel on April 6 to discuss the state of Ethnic Studies both on campus and nationally. The panel was titled “50 Years of Organizing for Ethnic Studies” in recognition of the organizing that yielded the creation of the first Ethnic Studies program at San Francisco State University in 1969. The speakers were Inderpal Grewal, Professor of ER&M and WGSS, Gary Okihiro, Visiting Professor of ER&M and American Studies, Quan Tran, Lecturer of ER&M and American Studies, Emily Almendarez, SM ’20, Gabriella Blatt, ES ’21, and Yuni Chang, MC ’18. Professor Daniel HoSang, Associate Professor of ER&M and American Studies, and Janis Jin, GH ’20, moderate.

Daniel HoSang: If we think back to Yale’s founding in the very beginning of the 18th century, Yale, like many other lead institutions was effectively segregated for its first 260 years, by race, gender, class, and religion. Whiteness was very much a prerequisite, an indicator about whether one was capable of participating in what’s often called the life of the mind.

In 1933, when the first eight residential colleges were opened, the University decided to name one after John Calhoun, a prominent white supremacist. As you walk across Old Campus today and see who makes up the first-year cohort, John Calhoun never imagined a Yale like this. And that’s because of the persistent ways that students, communities, [and] many people outside the University have summoned and mobilized an alternative vision for all of us. At the same time, I think there is some sense that Calhoun’s University still lingers. It lingers in the curriculum, it lingers in the structure of the University. It lingers in the University’s relationship to broader structures of power and authority.

So I want to turn to you now, Professor Grewal. Both of us started our academic careers at public institutions on the West Coast, and I wonder if you could talk about how that experience shapes your understanding both of how these programs can be organized, and what Yale’s investment [in Ethnic Studies] is.

Inderpal Grewal: I’ve been here for the last 10 years and it’s been eye-opening to see how the leading universities on the East Coast function and to understand the ways in which American elitism is produced. [There] was a really fluid connection between the [West Coast] community and the [public] University and that is certainly not the case for elite universities [on the East Coast] … We’ve come to understand that the knowledge, research, and teaching done in universities is really important for [the] movement as a whole, because colleges and universities are places of thinking and experimentation, of political speech, of the ability to speak freely. I think it’s important to reclaim Yale as a place where political work can be done and continues to be done.

How do we deal with the ways in which climate change is going to create millions and millions more climate migrants? How do you deal with the [fact that] the U.S. has been at war for a long time, in places that seem really far away?

I think about the problem of decolonization not only in terms of diversifying the faculty but in terms of decolonizing the University. What does it mean to decolonize that curriculum?

Emily Almendarez: I think that the curriculum could very much be broadened. It’s about broadening it, and about diversifying the student body. Global Affairs [has] an entire space designated for it, [but] ER&M — and Ethnic Studies as a whole — is having to plead for itself in institutions of higher learning.

My parents are Central-American and I come from the northern triangle, which is one of the areas that has the most displaced migrants, or the greatest rate, depending on systemic violence. But there is no Central American scholar, there is no scholar here on campus that can do [the region] justice when thinking about environmental justice. I was actually trying to double major in Environmental Studies and ER&M. I came to find that Environmental Studies isn’t interdisciplinary enough and it isn’t intersectional enough. So when I wanted to talk about climate refugees, […] that wasn’t a topic that’s addressed. […] Why is it that if someone wants to study a specific zone because they have a personal tie to it, it’s automatically labeled as “research” rather than something influential that’s broadening academic horizons?

[T]his is a demand and it’s palpable and it’s being ignored.

DH: People often think that the contributions of programs like ER&M are to serve a small subset of self-selected students who are trying to work through identity issues. […] One recurring theme is recruitment, and the contention that Yale simply always attracts the best and the brightest, and if it happens that [students] come from elite backgrounds and are overwhelmingly white, then that is [ostensibly] the effect of the intellectual marketplace. Alumni have insisted that’s not true, and we can see the impact of that work in a changed student body today. And so I want to turn to Gabriella now. Like many students here, you [were a] highly recruited student of color in part because of your eminent research record as a high school student. Yale took efforts to bring you here, to offer you support, but I want to know how you’ve experienced the University.

Gabriella Blatt: One of the things that attracted me to Yale initially was the amount of brochures that came in that made note of diversity pipeline programs. That meant a lot to me as someone who wanted to do research. […] However, every day I question the validity about the diversity pipeline programs when I see that the professor that wrote my recommendation letter was denied tenure because he was told that his research was not suited for the academy, despite his work revolutionizing his field. […] In my Yale acceptance letter, Yale told me I would be able to make an impact anywhere in the world. However, I question if they wanted me to make that impact in my classroom or somewhere on a brochure.

DH: Thank you. Professor Okihiro, maybe to take that very provocative closing Gabriela left us with […] Could you talk to us a little bit about what the history might have for us to think with and from today?

Gary Okihiro: Here in Dwight Chapel, I can hear the sound of waves. And the waves emanate not from the Atlantic but from the Pacific. I’d like to go back farther than 50 years. Here, at Yale College, in 1800 the Dwight family took Opukaha’ia in as an example of missions to convert Hawai’ians, the Native peoples who had been forming societies, histories, cultures, religions, poetry — to teach them civilization. Is Yale still a part of that mission of colonization?

Our field of study is not for a small benighted group of people within the United States. When students in 1968 struck for Third World Liberation, they struck for the peoples of the Third World. It was a global struggle, they knew. And that global struggle involved not just people of color — it involved a cause. And that cause was anti-colonialism, that dominated the world, and anti-racism, the ideology that supported the material relations of dependency.

That was the cause for which this field was founded: it was part of a global struggle that eventually overturned some 400 years of world history. We are not talking about a tiny subject matter for a tiny group of the United States. We are talking about the human condition, and the liberation of all of us, all of us, as oppressed peoples.

Imagine that.

And yet Yale, which aspires to be a global institution understanding world history, ignores this discourse.

In 1900, in London, at the seat of the British Empire, the scholar W.E.B. DuBois declared that the problem of the 20th century was the problem of the color line. And DuBois wasn’t simply talking about color; he was talking about how the white world has colonized through imperialism the rest of the world. He was talking about anti-colonialism and anti-racism, and that was the foundation of study. But beyond that, if we think of ourselves as studying the human condition, we understand the forces of oppression to be multiple, not just around the axis of race, but also importantly around gender, sexuality, class, and nation, what was articulated in the 1960s and 1970s as the interlocking systems of oppression. That’s what we study, because we are determined to understand those forces of oppression in order to liberate ourselves from those forces. That is the aim of this field of study.

It’s beautiful, isn’t it? … Yeah.

DH: I hope you can see why, in spite of the challenges that we faced as ER&M faculty, this is also such an energizing moment with colleagues like this and knowing the intellectual and political commitments that are at stake in our program, students like this alumni that we feel connected to the enormous stakes we feel at this moment.

IG: Last year, I had the privilege of teaching the first South Asians in America course, with an emphasis on gender and sexuality. So as political movements change and evolve during this moment, where trans issues are really critical, how we think of those in relation to race and ethnicity is always an important issue. […]

I have one story of what people can do when they study our fields. [O]ne of my students, Rhiana Gunn-Wright, who was a joint AFAM/WGSS major, is one of the co-writers of the Green New Deal, so it’s incredible to see what people can do if they think about race, class, gender together, and think about how to improve the world […] The Westphalian system of the nation-state is not adequate to the challenges that we face. So worlds have always been plural; they have been mobile; they have always struggled. And in some ways we need to think about both the past in that way and the future in that way. Our struggle has to be ongoing. We have to think about pluralities; we have to think democratically; we have to think about […] animals and the non-human world too. How do we enable all of our flourishing — not just [the flourishing of] a few of us?

EA: I think that generally it’s important to attribute respect and dignity to those fields, as well as to the faculty that help produce that knowledge. But I think that in that power diffusion, it’s also important to understand that these Third World countries are producers of knowledge themselves — not just areas of study, not just digestible consumables.

It’s about taking a step back and understanding that institutions like these aren’t the only producers of knowledge and solutions. I think that it’s about having iterative conversations between those that have been allotted this opportunity to take up these spaces, but also about understanding that it doesn’t end in the classroom, the same way that this fight doesn’t end with the departmentalization of ER&M. That conversation, that drive for a solution, for the betterment of our world and our planet, doesn’t stop as soon as that course or that conversation ends.


50 Years of Organizing for Ethnic Studies was originally published in The Yale Herald on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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