Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
“Know History, Know Self. No History, No Self” is a phrase coined by José Rizal, a national hero of the Philippines. I had not heard of Rizal or my people’s history until my Filipino American History and Biography class through the Asian American Studies program last semester. As a Filipina American student, there are times when I feel so disconnected from history taught in the current curriculum. I am lost in a sea of my Asian American identity, and no one has taught me how to swim — until my experience with the Asian American Studies program.
In 2000, this university established its Asian American Studies program after years of student and faculty activism dating back to 1970. This semester, the Asian American Studies program, or AAST, offers nine courses with only three core faculty members. The program is not a department due to a lack of faculty and resources. As of 2019, the Asian American student population is 15.3 percent, or roughly 6,200 students.
For the largest racial minority on campus, there’s no reason the current Asian American studies minor program shouldn’t be expanded into a major. But the numbers are not the only justifiable reason. It is just as important to have Asian American Studies major like it is to have an African American Studies major or Jewish Studies major regardless of the student population.
Earlier this year, the Asian American Student Union task force created a petition to prove there is strong support among students for a new major. And the 125 signatures prove just that. The student support for this program is clear, and so is the need for it.
Much, if not all, of history taught in elementary, middle and high school is white-centered and paints the U.S. as the savior to Asian Americans, disregarding Asian American agency and the U.S.’s role in imperialism and colonialism. Asian American history is not just about the immigration story or how they fit into the American history timeline. This framework centers on the white experience and history as the main character and Asian Americans as the supporting or side characters. It silences the voices and experiences of Asian Americans and further alienates them as the perpetual foreigner, meaning Asian Americans will always be seen as “the other” in a white dominated society.
Asian Americans are a part of Asian American history. American politics and systems affect Asian American communities just as much as other communities. In teaching Asian American history, we learn why current systems and institutions are in place to encourage stereotypes like the model minority myth or normalize fetishization. As a result, we become agents to counter stereotypes and microaggressions in our everyday lives and in the fields of work we enter.
The white perspective is not merely enough to give the full picture of American history. For example, curriculum that focuses on the Transcontinental Railroad, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and Japanese internment camps is not an accurate picture of Asian American history and experience. A fuller history would include the history of anti-Asian discrimination and mob violence, Larry Itliong’s role in organizing the Delano grape strike, Yuri Kochiyama’s activism for civil rights, or understanding the contexts and consequences of foreign U.S. actions and how they influence why people fled their home countries.
Last March, students organized a vigil for the March 2021 Atlanta shooting where the shooter targeted Asian Americans. The university did not issue a statement regarding the anti-Asian attack until students organized the vigil. During the vigil, President Darryll Pines spoke of “TerrapinSTRONG” and the term’s functions to represent the diverse and inclusive campus community. However, true strength in diversity and inclusivity can be found in funding and expanding programs like Asian American Studies.
A well resourced, staffed, and funded Asian American Studies major would also allow Asian Americans to connect to their identity, one that has been silenced in systems like education. After taking their first Asian American Studies class at the university, many students had a wake-up call for what being Asian American meant to them. If just one class can be eye-opening, imagine what a whole major could do for all students, both Asian American and not, at this university?
Implementing an Asian American Studies major at this university has the potential to broaden students’ mindsets about a new facet of history, connect Asian Americans to their culture and simply make this university a better place to learn. The students care — now we wait to see if the university is willing to care as well.
Lei Danielle Escobal is a sophomore American studies and sociology major. She can be reached at at firstname.lastname@example.org.