Though the country’s first ethnic studies department was born at University of California–Berkeley in 1969 and the first ethnic studies Ph.D. program was established there in the 1980s, the discipline is still widely derided on that campus. People tend to think ethnic studies classes are full of disgruntled brown people ranting about “the system,” “oppression,” and “white/male/class privilege.” A common response to saying you are an ethnic studies major goes something like “Oh, so you don’t care about having a job.”
I, too, saw myself as someone who would never take an ethnic studies class, but for a different reason. I’m Asian American, born and raised in San Francisco, and every school I ever attended there was majority-Asian. This can skew your racial identity just a little. Not only did I never encounter racism, I felt like Asians were past that. We were one-third of the city’s population and had established ourselves deep in the city’s politics, cultural institutions, and society. There was no question we were Americans. We spoke flawless English. We wore American brands like Abercrombie & Fitch and Tommy Hilfiger and ate at McDonald’s and watched MTV. We had white friends. Racism was dead—hoorah!
I learned otherwise when I arrived at Berkeley. In my 700-student freshman U.S. history class, we learned about the civil rights movement and, briefly, the Asian American “Yellow Power” movement and the campaign for ethnic studies. I spent a summer on the East Coast as part of a civil rights internship and met other young Asians from across the country. After learning that Berkeley’s ethnic studies program was renowned and that most schools actually didn’t have Asian American studies programs, I figured I might as well take a class while I was there.
My first Asian American studies class was in a 400-seat auditorium, and every seat was filled, mostly with Asian students. (Berkeley’s student body is about 40 percent Asian.) I looked around. All the Asian archetypes on campus were there: the science and engineering nerds, the Asian frats and sororities, the pre-law/med/business school drones. I didn’t feel any particular kinship with them, and I learned later that many people take that class as a way to meet potential hookups.
I began learning about the history of my people in the United States. It was the first time I saw myself reflected in history books. My Chinese forefathers had been pioneers in the Gold Rush era who literally helped build the West, and probably worked on the railroads that spurred California’s development. My Filipino grandfather picked in the strawberry fields in Central California, where Cesar Chavez organized in the 1960s. My dad lived briefly in the International Hotel in San Francisco’s Manilatown, a low-cost hotel and cornerstone of the Filipino community that was torn down as part of urban renewal in 1981. I also learned the history of many friends whose families had arrived in the United States after the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act opened the doors to Asian immigrants.
Ethnic studies taught me that my perceptions of race, class, and gender were not as accurate as I thought. In fact, this country has a long, deeply entrenched racist history toward “minorities,” including Asians. (Ethnic studies also taught me minorities is word that diminishes people of color, separating them as other than—and smaller than—the majority.) It was in an Asian American studies class that I learned of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned practically all Chinese from entering the country for the next 60 years and was the first major law restricting immigration to the United States. It’s also the only federal law ever to deny immigration based solely on nationality. The law was passed during a period of vicious anti-Chinese sentiment that was centered in California and had stemmed from the Gold Rush. The justification was unfair labor competition, as Chinese were willing to be paid less and do jobs whites wouldn’t, like run laundries. This history—of my people, in my state—shocked me.
I was even more shocked when I heard my friends dismiss affirmative action: They worked hard, so why couldn’t blacks and Latinos work hard too? Why shouldn’t everyone be judged on merit alone? In ethnic studies I had learned about how Asians were touted as the model minority, creating stubborn divisions between us and them. (The “model minority” is also a myth, since a number of Asian subgroups are low-income and have low education rates—after all, there are as many differences among Asian Americans as between racial and ethnic groups.)
I came to understand the many struggles that Asian Americans share with African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans, as well as our differing experiences in this country. I read Malcolm X’s autobiography, Howard Zinn, Paulo Freire, Ronald Takaki, Octavia E. Butler, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, and Cherríe Moraga.
I started to connect dots. I learned about the Page Act of 1875, which essentially banned all Chinese women from entering the country out of a fear of letting in prostitutes. Given this history of sexualized Chinese women in America, is it not too far a leap to the Asian fetishes we see today?
The most important lesson I learned from ethnic studies was that you must be critical of everything—including ethnic studies. It’s just one lens through which to view the world, and it’s impossible to function in a (white) world if you hold too much resentment. But ethnic studies is a powerful lens, and one that I continue to look through and adapt as I move through life.
Ethnic studies may not have landed me a job, but it brought me to a better sense of myself, my heritage, and my responsibility as a woman of color working in the media. In these times, fraught with racial conflict but also in which people of color are achieving levels of success and visibility as never before, ethnic studies is more important than ever. People of color—but more importantly, white people—need to know the too-often-untold history of people of color in this country in order to make sense of what’s happening in ways beyond helpless sorrow, blind outrage, or simple boosterism. We need to know our real history if we want to make changes in our future.
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