“On April 12, 1995 students camped by the Rock, the symbolic center of campus, and refused to eat. One student, Charles Chun, went 12 days consuming only water and fruit juice and lost 20 pounds. Other students carried on the strike with relay-style fasting. For 23 days, students fasted and protested, before deciding to pursue other means of change. While the hunger strike did not bring immediate action, it had lasting effects far beyond the Northwestern campus.”
This excerpt from a piece by Sylvia Reagan from Asian Americans Advancing Justice describes the day when Asian American students and their allies at Northwestern University placed their lives on the line in order to voice their need for Asian American studies. Northwestern’s Asian American Advisory Board organized protests and hunger strikes in their fight for a better education. To most, this historical event will seem discordant with their image of Asian Americans and our political history; Asian Americans are compliant, complacent and willing to keep our heads down in order to obtain academic success.
However, there is an entire history proving otherwise. A history that we, students at Brandeis University, currently have no access to.
Out of 3,699 enrollments, 476 (or 12.8 percent) of those in the fall of 2014 were Asian, according to the Brandeis website. CollegeData.com reports 15.5 percent of the Brandeis student population as Asian, and from the vibrant Asian and Asian American communities here at Brandeis University, it is more than clear that we exist on this campus and find engagement in both student life and academics. We are here, an undeniable part of a Brandeis curriculum and mission that emphasizes citizenship, diversity and the pursuit of knowledge.
Why aren’t we learning about ourselves and our own collective past?
Asian Americans have a rich history of resistance; we only need to look at a few examples. In “Strangers from a Different Shore” by Ron Takaki, we learn of the Japanese strike of 1909, where Japanese laborers protested against the differential-wage system based on ethnicity. Their demands were, essentially, equal pay for equal work.
The Asian American movement itself, born in the 1960s and indivisible from the larger struggle for African American civil rights, is rich with activism and extraordinary figures like Richard Aoki and Yuri Kochiyama. Both did work with the Black Panther Party and were involved in numerous social justice campaigns, including protests against the Vietnam War, the detainment of political prisoners and the fight for reparations for World War II internees. Then in the 1980s, Asian Americans mobilized and took to the streets in the wake of the murder of Vincent Chin, a hate crime that was never granted justice.
In the 1980s to the 1990s, countless groups of Asian American students came together on their campuses to call for Asian American studies programs. Student activists such as those at Northwestern University championed for these programs and the rights, needs and interests of the Asian American student body. These are only a few pinpricks in the vast expanse of history that Asian Americans have in America; our political activism only covers a fraction of the wide and vibrant expanse of the Asian American identity, the barriers our community faces and facets of our academic thought.
So once again, I ask that if the university, as stated in its mission statement, dedicates itself to “enriching the lives of students and preparing them for a full participation in a changing society, capable of promoting their own welfare,” why aren’t we learning about ourselves and our own collective past?
Education is more than a degree. Education can be a source of resistance and empowerment, inspiration and enrichment. But it can also manifest as suppression and an erasure of history and experience. As educator and philosopher Paulo Freire states, “Any curriculum which ignores racism, sexism, the exploitation of workers and other forms of oppression at the same time supports the status quo.”
To ignore the call for Asian American studies is to create a flawed and oppressive curriculum. To deny Brandeis students the opportunity to pursue knowledge critical to the identity and advancement of Asian Americans is to contradict Brandeis’ mission.
In the words of Kochiyama, “Unless we know ourselves and our history, and other people and their history, there is really no way that we can really have [the] positive kind of interaction where there is real understanding.”
We cannot pursue a more socially just future as students, as individuals, without an understanding of the injustices of our past. We cannot allow the denial and erasure of our past to continue.
Ultimately, we cannot subscribe to complacency any longer and our past, our history, shows that we are more than capable of rising up to make our voices heard.
In our call for an Asian American Studies program at Brandeis, a group of students have formed the Brandeis Asian American Task Force (BAATF). BAATF is a grassroots student organization created to advocate for the needs and betterment of the Asian American community here at Brandeis University. The purpose of BAATF is to gather and mobilize students around finding solutions to issues specific to the Asian American community at Brandeis. For more information on the BAATF agenda and how to get involved, reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Sign the petition for Asian American Studies found on our Facebook page: Facebook.com/BAATF.