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Why Asian American Studies Matters Now

Article about Dr. George Lipsitz's lecture in early September 2012

Posted: December 17, 2012
George Lipsitz lecture at the Avaya Auditorium on September 6, 2012

George Lipsitz lecture at the Avaya Auditorium on September 6, 2012

Why Asian American Studies Matters Now
By Irene Garza

On September 6, the Center for Asian American Studies organized a talk by renowned scholar and activist George Lipsitz.  Delivering a campus-wide lecture titled, “Why Asian American Studies Matters Now”, Professor Lipsitz argued that the University of Texas is part of a network of institutions with a valuable role in shaping society’s future, and who and what are being taught in UT’s classrooms are critically important to the nation, to which he added, “I hope others share my sense of urgency over the importance of Asian American Studies in those classrooms.”

Lipsitz began the lecture by relaying his experiences thirty years ago as a young professor at the University of Houston at Clearlake, where in addition to working with undergraduate students, he taught the same courses to inmates at the Correctional Detention Center at Ramsay near Angleton, TX. Despite their proximity, Lipsitz recounted his frustration over the inability of students from these two different backgrounds to speak to one another, noting, “it taught me something about the value of a diverse and critically cosmopolitan conversation and the costs we pay for the many different forms of segregation in society.” For Lipsitz, these divisions are replicated in academia where rhetorical and methodological borders separate different knowledge forms between disciplines. Yet he argued, this is precisely why Asian American Studies plays a transgressive role, interrogating and challenging the humanities and social sciences—disciplines whose epistemological frameworks originate in typologies of racial and cultural difference, constructed from Europe’s encounters with non-Europeans. Noting that “Asian American studies as an intellectual project has had to see what the disciplines enable and what they inhibit”, the field allows for sensitive analyses limning tensions between margin and center, insider and outsider using the experiences of Asian-Americans as historically excluded national subjects.

That Asian American studies, like other ethnic studies programs, evolved from the social change movements of the 1960s is critical to its project of challenging institutional practices of racism, discrimination, and oppression. In his analysis, Lipsitz provided a general overview of changes within the university system that discredit ethnic studies programs, or the perception that these fields are “a self-esteem program for marginalized undergrads”, suggesting instead that Asian American Studies provides insightful and sensitive critiques of power.  As an example, Lipsitz related the work of legal scholars Erik K. Yamamoto and Susan Serrano, who cited Korematsu v. United States (1944), a Supreme Court case challenging the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II to draw parallels with the post-September 11th detention of thousands of Arab-Americans. In so doing, Lipsitz argued, they drew on the “situated knowledge” of Asian-American historical and cultural experiences of marginalization in the U.S. As Lipsitz underscored, this situated knowledge contributes in vital ways to contemporary conversations about the debt crisis, war on terror, national disasters, and mistreatment of people of color. In examples ranging from the discriminatory housing policies against Asian American families in San Diego, CA to the racist mocking of Asian American students by a fellow college student at UCLA last year, or the recent mass shooting of a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, Lipsitz argued that Asian American studies meaningfully challenges such activities, by broadening perspectives on relationships between identity and power, social opportunity and exclusion. According to Lipsitz, to the extent that Asian American studies animates discussions regarding politically disenfranchised communities, bridging conversations in much the same ways he had hoped to do with his students thirty years ago, it offers a capacious intellectual terrain that challenges the status quo both in the academy and local communities.

Dr. Lipsitz concluded his talk with a short video entitled, “Strong Threads”, a documentary chronicling the work of the Laotian Organizing Project, an affiliate of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network in Richmond, CA empowering Laotian families confronting environmental health hazards in their homes and neighborhoods.

Click here to watch the video recording of the lecture.

Irene Garza is a doctoral candidate in the Department of American Studies at UT Austin. She taught Introduction to Asian American Studies in Fall 2009.

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