Bwog Report: Ethnic Studies
Written by Bwog Staff
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.”