Bwog Report: Ethnic Studies

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Observations from an Ethnic Studies teach in Wednesday evening, courtesy of Bwog correspondent Karen Leung.


No introductory lectures, no Asian American studies classes, and only four courses in total to support Comparative Ethnic Studies, Asian American Studies, and Latino Studies: These were this term’s course offerings from the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race. It’s about the same at Barnard, which has four classes to support Africana Studies.

That sorry tally, among other issues, prompted Students Promoting Empowerment and Knowledge’s teach-in Wednesday night, headlined by people with roots in the 1996 student protests that brought Latino Studies and Asian American Studies to Columbia. Spec’s write-up misrepresented a few opinions voiced at the event, and an op-ed by student activists in today’s paper sets out their vision of the issue. Here’s my take.

Activists thrive on successful precedent, and the teach-in served that purpose in part by drawing connections between now and actions a decade ago. Ethnic studies, said panelist Marcel Agueros (once a protester, now an Astronomy postdoc), will be perennially valuable for how it pierces the double vision of diversity at Columbia: “the numerical diversity of which the university is very proud, and the intellectual diversity” (which doesn’t look as great on a recruitment brochure). In another parallel, panelist Sung E. Bai M.A. ’91, Ph.M. ’94, talked of how the activists depend on each other for support. Each group took risks and made concessions for the community—even though the Institute for Research in African American Studies (IRAAS) had been established in 1993, African American students endangered their academic careers for Latino and Asian American studies. Coalition efforts continue today through USCC and Making the Connection: Building a United Community of Color (charmingly abbreviated to MCBUCC).

Bai and Agueros also put a slightly different spin on their account of the ’96 protests. Now the stuff of activist legend, the story usually highlights the hunger strikes as the emergency which forced the University to create CSER. But Agueros said that the protesters only gained serious traction after Columbia received national media attention for arresting 22 of its own students. He smiled, saying, “Columbia’s biggest enemy most of the time is Columbia.”

What is Ethnic Studies, exactly? It’s challenging to define, which is perhaps why the Spec piece didn’t really try. Here’s what I learned:

  • According to the even program, “Ethnic Studies unpacks the making of race and historicizes this making.”
  • In a 2004 op-ed, Ethnic Studies professor and then-CSER director Gary Y. Okihiro wrote that it is “a multidisciplinary and systematic study of racializations… in essence, [it] focuses upon the locations and articulations of power as expressed in social formations.”
  • Nicholas De Genova, professor of Anthropology and Latino Studies, insisted that the discipline is not just “an amalgamation of particularities and particularisms” from the traditional methodologies of other social studies and sciences, but rather critiques those methodologies with an interdisciplinary approach to provide “a genuinely counter-American studies.”  
  • Sociology and Latino Studies Professor Nicole Marwell described it this way: “Ethnic Studies is a set of different answers to a particular question: can we use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house?”

CSER is an unstable home for Columbia’s inquiry into those questions, having recently hired a new director, developed curricular changes in undergraduate majors, and reached out to faculty in other departments to participate more actively. Spec quotes CSER director Claudio Lomnitz as writing, “Creating an Ethnic Studies department is not desirable.” But, as has been expressed by student leaders before, and as was reargued by the two faculty yesterday, the abysmal state of ES at Columbia is deeply connected to its status as a center rather than a department. The Center is, to a certain extent, a perpetual outsourcer: it is beholden to and must hire through other departments. Of all of CSER’s core faculty, Lomnitz is the only member with tenure—one thing among many that makes the Center pretty unattractive to prospective faculty.

De Genova also articulated another problem with ES advocacy: the need for an intellectual justification, assuring that ES exists as a distinct branch of knowledge and inquiry. A university which supports ES, he says, can “begin to reflect the simple proposition that the experience of people of color in the US actually matter,” and “has something to teach the entire university.”

The students, however, organized the event, and may be the most passionate. Ryan Fukumori, C’09 described his first encounter with Asian American Studies in a high school literature class. That course, a chance meeting with activist Yuri Kochiyama (who held Malcolm X in her arms as he died in 1965) and learning about the 1960s civil rights movement turned to an interest in Ethnic Studies after he abandoned biochemistry as a freshman. Christien Tompkins, C’08 began his talk by declaring, “In certain ways, I’ve been an Ethnic Studies major for as long as I can remember.”  He recalled his parents giving him a picture book about the civil rights movement as a kid, and asking questions in CC about race that his classmates complained distracted from the universal content of the course.

Now, Ethnic Studies is a mission. “Everything that’s important to me at this university was created through struggle,” Tompkins said: African American studies, his residence (the Intercultural Resource Center), the Office of Multicultural Affairs. ES advocates must constantly refute caricatures of their goal: it’s an exercise in political correctness, a celebration of minority cultures, or a concession to a few disaffected students of color. But really, it’s for everyone. During a question session, De Genova put it this way: “If we hope for anything that happens at this university to contribute to the dismantling of white supremacy, then if anything, Ethnic Studies is for the white students.”

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  1. Ethnic

    What can you learn in ethnic studies that you couldn't learn better in anthropology or area studies? This is just a power play for pork.

  2. Correction  

    CSER doesn't do African American Studies directly. IRAAS offered 9 courses this semester for African American Studies.

  3. De Genova  

    Obviously hates America. One wonders why he would choose to make it his home.

    • Dissenting American  

      re: "One wonders why [Nick De Genova] would choose to make it his home." uhm...because he's AMERICAN. And it IS his home...and as an American, he takes his obligation to critique this country and work towards a much better version of it very seriously.

      Such is the function of Ethnic Studies in the academy as well...ES being, of course, what this post is about, not Nick De Genova.

  4. Red Pill

    That's a fair question to ask. Too bad you already have a strong opinion against Ethnic Studies. In short, anthropology has a misguided methodology that isolates a community to superficially represent "culture." One cannot elaborately discuss and critique how capital systems, media culture, and institutions in the U.S. and the West has created power dynamics in the context of race, gender, and class. There are many more things wrong with your belief that ES can easily fall within the study of anthro but I'll save that for later or maybe somebody else can better clear it up for you.

    As for area studies, it was not founded for the sake of the discussion mentioned above in the article and in my comment in reference to anthro. Instead the mission of area studies, specifically with East Asian Studies, which is my major, was to study foreign localities to find the best solution for introducing capitalism to other nations, basically how to open trade. At least this was why EA Studies was founded. The mission of any organization or institution is incredibly important to the kind of work that is to be produced. Area studies doesn't cut it. Additionally, the clearest answer to why Area Studies could not even come close to encompassing ES is you're studying the wrong location and again isolating communities to only it's location. Furthermore, discussions of imperialism, which should have a larger presence in Area Studies is often either glossed over or missing entirely.

    I could go on but i'm sure somebody else will respond to your "question."

    • Wait  

      What? EALAC was founded to figure out how to export the evil, hegemonistic, capitalist system to China?

    • Considering  

      I'm still not really sure how ES differs drastically from existing departments based on methodologies or areas, Leung's response to commenter #1 was unnecessarily snarky. All I'm seeing is a political stance (albeit incredibly valuable) that would probably be better served by entering into the existing discourses rather than creating its own isolated discourse and department.

      And does Leung suggest that departments like anthropology have misperceived notions like "American culture" as monolithic? If so, I'm not sure which works of Americanist anthropology she's been reading...

    • Thanks

      I may disagree with your answer, but I appreciated hearing it. Thank you. First rational argument I've heard.

  5. Red Pill

    A study like ES needs to first be established and institutionalized, especially into a department if you want to discuss it in the context of Columbia, before attempting to open discourse amongst other departments. Institutions such as the Columbia have yet to recognize the importance of ES, which is why it seems as though CSER is slowly being dismantled through administrative decisions. And no, I am not Karen Leung, and that's pretty ignorant to immediately assume that I am. I don't even thing Karen Leung is an EALAC major as I am. If anything, a better solution to expand the outreach of the discourses covered by Ethnic Studies is to have professors under Ethnic Studies hold courses in other departments rather than vice-versa. This establishes wider discussion that "Considering" is curious about while sustaining and while cultivating the research that is continues consitently in the discipline, as that is what dedicated professors of a study do besides instructing classes.

  6. My  

    apologies to Karen Leung although, in reference to Red Pill's comment, I'm not sure why I would know/think about what Leung's major is.

    Red Pill doesn't really clear much up. I agree that if an ES department were to be established, it would be most beneficial for those ES professors to cross over into other departments. However, that still doesn't explain why "A study like ES needs to first be established and institutionalized, especially into a department." Why not develop a school of thought within existing departments/fields? Are we to view resistant movements as necessarily weaker/less effective/less valuable than institutionalized resistant departments?

    Considering the case of Said's movement to reform existing fields/departments rather than create entirely new ones, why are we to condone and fund an institution like ES?

    Again, my apologies to Leung.

  7. Bob U  

    This was a well-written, informative article. But I have some quibbles.

    "the double vision of diversity at Columbia: demographic diversity, of which the University is very proud, and intellectual diversity, which doesn't look as great on a recruitment brochure."

    Intellectual diversity is very important, but it is also a very broad notion. You can promote intellectual diversity by having a linguistics department, or a robotics department, or a center for psychoanalysis, or a center for physical anthropology, or a center for communication studies, or a center for continental philosophy, or a center for libertarian thought.

    So if you want to use intellectual diversity as a justification for having ES, you need to show why it adds more intellectual diversity than these other possibilities. And keep in mind that ES will have to add extra value on top of that provided by all the similar majors, which only 6% of Columbia undergrads actually do:

    * African Studies
    * African-American Studies
    * American Studies
    * Area Studies
    * Asian Studies
    * Central/Eastern European Studies
    * Chinese Studies
    * East Asian Studies
    * European Studies
    * French Studies
    * German Studies
    * Hispanic-American Studies
    * Italian Studies
    * Japanese Studies
    * Korean Studies
    * Latin American Studies
    * Near/Middle Eastern Studies
    * Polish Studies
    * Regional Studies
    * Russian/Slavic Area Studies
    * Slavic Studies
    * Spanish/Iberian Studies
    * Women's Studies

    "If we hope for anything that happens at this university to contribute to the dismantling of white supremacy, then if anything, Ethnic Studies is for the white students."

    First, the claim of extant 'white supremacy' is bizarre. East Asians are not Caucasians, and yet they seem pretty powerful in world politics, economics, and culture by any standard measure. Not only are East Asian countries among the world's most powerful states, but people of East Asia descent have gained power and status all over the world. Indians are also not Caucasians, and they also have an increasinglye significant role in shaping the world. On the other side, many Russians and Eastern Europeans are both white and poor.

    But regardless of that, the words 'white supremacy' has a strong connotation. It suggests not just the fact that many powerful people are white, but that there is some racially motivated supremacist movement that undergirds that power. Now, of course, there are many racists out there. I've encountered racism of Caucasians towards Asians, racism of people from the Middle East towards Caucasians, racism of black Africans towards Europeans, racism of East Asians towards black people, etc. etc. (Similarly, I've witnessed homophobia from Westerners, from Arabs, and from Africans). White people don't have a monopoly on racism, just as they don't have a monopoly on power. Moreover, lots of white people are NOT white supremacists. Beliefs about white supremacy go beyond racism, and so saying that someone is a white supremacist is making a very strong claim about that person. To make that claim about most Westerners is to bemire oneself in delusion. Most people reading this will know lots of white people and so will be able to make the banal observation that most of them are not white supremacists, nor even racist.

    Of course, more Westerners were racist in the past than they are now. But times do change. Attitudes change. Supposing that white supremacy continues as some sort of covert, insidious, near-invisible force that affects good-intentioned people subconsciously is just to descend into fanaticism. This sort of near-fanaticism seems a very dubious ground on which to found a department.

    • oh gawd  

      Read up on the facts before making such dubious claims. Your generalizations about East Asians and Indians are based on social perceptions, and manages to completely ignore the reality of class stratification and millions of people who live below international poverty lines in both areas of the world. Way to buy into the racialization (yes it's a process, these stereotypes and images don't just come out of nowhere) of Asians and forget the colonialism and oppression (British imperialism, hello?) that got them stuck at the bottom in the "first place", and therefore only having the capacity to "rise" and "gain power". This rise is also coming at the expense at the environment and the living standards of millions of poor and exploitation of laborers being dismissed as necessary for economic success.

      ES supporters don't hate white people, which I think is what you're suggesting. You have to understand that the construction of whiteness has been used to maintain empires, to subjugate people of color to colonial exploitation, repercussions of which we are still dealing with today.

      And I also like how you equate "Westerners" with "white"...because people of color don't exist in the West, or we do not represent this notion of the "west"? I'm sure that you're a well-"intentioned" guy, but you just made a racist argument which I'm sure that you didn't mean to be racist. "Good intentions" HAVE ALWAYS been used as apologetics for those who coercively assimilate, enslave, and even kill innocent people to teach their supposed inferiors about what needs to be done for their 'own good'.

      • Sprinkles  

        Hmmm, I guess that means that because I'm white, I can never do anything to benefit the world, because I'm doomed to be some horrible imperialist. Hey, it's a wonder why I got to college at all, seeing how I'm obviously born with a silver spoon in my mouth and no matter how hard I try to study ways in which inequality can be eliminated, I'll never succeed because I'm hopelessly white.

  8. Solomon Chao  

    Bob U: I'm gonna address your 1st point. I believe what Marcel's point is getting at is that the university is apt to flaunt its superficial 'diversity' of skin color while ignoring the educational concerns and academic demands of these tokenized viewbook ornaments.

    By lumping together the disciplines under Ethnic Studies with your laundry list of anything sounding remotely non-�universal� (many of which are not actually real disciplines here but only language offerings), you�re basically making the same mistake and skipping over Karen�s treatment of the question �what is Ethnic Studies?�

    Red Pill has also distinguished Ethnic Studies from Area Studies [which includes East Asian Studies, Latin American Studies, and Middle Eastern studies] which came out of a specific historical trajectory: namely, they were founded as Cold War projects and thus their central epistemological concern was containment of said regions and maintainence of the U.S. dominance and unipolarity.

    So once again, what is Ethnic Studies, (and what is it not?)?

    Ethnic Studies is intellectually critical of the multicultural notion that there are separate and discrete bounded thing-like cultures that can be classified into a rigid taxonomy and whose various �corpses� can be poked at by culture specialists [anthropologists and other social science and humanities professionals] and thus the subjectivities of those �peoples� may be explained to �us�.
    Ethnic Studies is not the study of the peculiar cultural quirks and traditions of various ethnic groups. Rather, as it was quoted in Karen�s article, it is a �systematic study of racializations.� I�m gonna end with a quote by Omi and Winant, from Racial Formations in the United States, that explains racialization more comprehensively:

    We employ the term racialization to signify the extension of racial meaning to a previously racially unclassified relationship, social practice or group. Racialization is an ideological process, an historically specific one. Racial ideology is constructed from pre-existing conceptual (or, if one prefers, "discursive") elements and emerges from the struggles of competing political projects and ideas seeking to articulate similar elements differently. An account of racialization processes that avoids the pitfalls of US ethnic history remains to be written.

    Particularly during the nineteenth century, the category of "white" was subject to challenges brought about by the influx of diverse groups who were not of the same Anglo-Saxon stock as the founding immigrants. In the nineteenth century, political and ideological struggles emerged over the classification of Southern Europeans, the Irish and the Jews, among other "non-white" categories. Nativism was only effectively curbed by the institutionalization of a racial order that drew the color line around, rather than within, Europe.

    By stopping short of racializing immigrants from Europe after the Civil War, and by subsequently allowing their assimilation, the American racial order was reconsolidated in the wake of the tremendous challenge placed before it by the abolition of racial slavery. With the end of Reconstruction in 1877, an effective program for limiting the emergent class struggles of the later nineteenth century was forged: the definition of the working class in racial terms -- as "white." This was not accomplished by any legislative decree or capitalist maneuvering to divide the working class, but rather by white workers themselves. Many of them were recent immigrants, who organized on racial lines as much as on traditionally defined class lines. The Irish on the West Coast, for example, engaged in vicious anti-Chinese race-baiting and committed many pogrom-type assaults on Chinese in the course of consolidating the trade union movement in California. (64-5)

  9. But

    But having said that, is there really thing else that ethnic studies could produce as a discipline? I mean how could you award a Doctor of Philosophy in this subject? Where is the production of meaning?

    • PhD's  

      Berkeley, Yale, and Harvard have PhD programs in various forms of Ethnic Studies. You could inquire there.

    • having asked that..  

      If you're gonna have us justify ES as a legit enterprise, how about we turn the tables first? [And also ignore the existence of established Ethnic Studies departments in various universities in the States.]

      EALAC and MEALAC are departments. How could you award a Doctor of Philosophy in this subject? Where is the production of meaning?

  10. just saying  

    Columbia would be better served with practical undergraduate majors in


    before another feel-good, impractical, unusable course of study.

    • Dialogue  

      You should speak with Ethnic Studies majors and scholars (or at least read this thread carefully) to understand why your assertions about ES are incorrect. Also, ES doesn't have to compete with Communications, Business, or Journalism. We can demand all these things at the same time.

    • "feel-good"?  

      If anything, Ethnic Studies, in dealing with histories of racial oppression and U.S. imperialism is not even remotely close to a "feel-good" education. The only kind of optimism that can be found in Ethnic Studies is the on-the-ground history of people's grassroots movement-based struggles against such injustices.

    • WOW  

      Do you know the meaning of/find any value in the liberal arts? Do you have any intellectual worth or drive at all?

  11. nyumber 18

    Yeah but I don't think anything with "Studies" should be a PhD. Not saying it isn't a valid area of research just that it shouldn't have a seperate department. It's all a eay to bilk us into paying for more tenured profs

    • historicizing depts  

      You seem to be naturalizing the existence of certain departments as if they do not come out of a specific history. The fact that today, it seems agiven that a preeminent institution should have say a department of English literature, or a department of anthropology, a department of sociology, that economics and political science should be separate depts, actually reveals the historical development and consolidation of such disciplines into 'established' departments. Therefore, I do not see why "Studies" departments cannot exist because they do not constitute a "distinct" (i.e. artificially partitioned) methodology. I would say that a Department of Philosophy is one of the most historically particular and deeply founded upon a conception of a Western philosophical tradition. And besides as stated before area "studies" departments already exist at columbia. Hell, even the writing center is a department now.

      The demand for departmental status is both an intellectual demand and yes, a demand for enough resources for a robust program because scholarly work that grapples with such questions is currently being extinguished given the current academic structure.

  12. way to extrapolate  

    de genova is 'white'

    stop making assumptions and take an ES class.

  13. the only real majors

    the only real liberal arts majors:

    Hard Sciences

    Everything else is bullshit

    • wait, wait  

      do we have someone claiming philosophy is a real major? or English, ffs?

      for that matter, EVERYONE outside the hard sciences in CC & BC is doing "feel-good, impractical, unusable" crap. we should shut down ALL humanities departments! burn Hamilton and give the space to SEAS for a new science center, now!

  14. Hamilton

    Well, Hamilton is a sty. I say yeah, let's turn it to ash and piss out the embers.

  15. MhIT  

    Let's be called MhIT, Morningside Heights Institute of Technology. Zvi Galil can come back in September as President. We bulldoze the whole campus and rebuild everything in the image of Mudd. Instead of Alma Mater, we have Archimedes (with the face of a young David Helfand) using a lever to lift the world. Instead of the Columbia Lion, our mascot is the SEAS mining guy.

    Lit-Hum and CC are replaced by a two-year long Gateway, still run by Jack McGourty (now Provost). Replace University Writing with "Writing Technical Manuals". Replace Art Hum with "How to Photoshop your resume pictures". Replace Music Hum with "How to download mp3s without being caught by the RIAA". Replace the foreign language requirement with a programming language requirement. Only allow people to take humanities classes by cross-registering at Fordham.

  16. oh stop

    your argument is a perfect example of the kind of superficial claims that get made when you dont have an understanding of 1) processes of racialization that made you white and gave you privileges in our society because of it - things that no, you did not create, but yes are responsible for changing and 2) the reaction of lots of "well intentioned" (to bring back your original phrase) white people who dont understand the histories of people of color (or the real histories of white people) in the United States and around the world and, upon hearing them, make immediate reactionary and defensive statements.

    I am a white student engaged in ethnic studies. Are there times when I think "damn, we've done a lot of fucked up stuff"? yeah. are there times when I have to critically examine the ways that I live my life and wonder about how I am reinscribing these systems or oppressing others? all the time. BUT because I am engaged in this kind of scholarly AND personal work, it is not something that I blame myself for or are hated by others for or think that it traps me in this guilt "I can never do right cause I'm white" mode. Ethnic Studies provides me the tools to think about how I can work against inequality and racial injustice EFFECTIVELY, which means a fundamental shift in the way that I (we, as white people) feel "safe" within our own privileges. It also requires you to look beyond these ways that we "study how inequality can be eliminated" at this university - which normally involves far removed experts and not the people who experience it themselves.

    So, basically, I feel like if you actually took an ethnic studies class and knew what the discipline is about or even for a moment thought about why you are being so ridiculously defensive and feeling put upon by people calling out racism, it would probably help you out.

    • Sprinkles  

      I've taken plenty of classes about racism. I know very well that because I was born white in America, I have certain societal advantages - "white privelege." I think it's wrong that it should be this way. However, I came to a university to learn. All that happens in these classes is an endless barrage of "white people can never understand." Hello, I'm sitting here, I've acknowledged we live in a racist society - now can we at least try to theorize how to fix it? I am not the one who thinks I can't do anything right because I'm white. I want to do SOMETHING. But when the entire crux of the class is talking about how white people are hopeless when it comes to race relations, my opinions are automatically discounted. No one benefits. Class becomes nothing but one long session of talking about what's wrong, rather than how we can make it right.

  17. that was replying

    to #28....sorry the reply thingy didnt work.

  18. do you  

    really think that a critical study of racializations could become a prime concern in, say, the english department? there are a few asian american and african american lit courses offered a year, for example, but these areas of study are clearly relatively marginal. there's no way in hell you could convince the english department that it would be in its best interests to hire many more asian, latino/a and african americanists. but in an ethnic studies department, the study of social formations would be central.

  19. #43  

    sorry, that was in reply to #11

  20. Poo

    More Angry Studies classes. NOW!

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