The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A minor in Asian American studies at Duke is a major win for student activists

Placeholder while article actions load

About US is a forum to explore issues of race and identity in the United States. Sign up for the newsletter.

Shania Khoo was a freshman in high school in 2014 when Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, Mo. The killing of the Black teenager by a White police officer fueled a national resurgence in conversations about race. Khoo began advocating for an ethnic studies curriculum to bring these discussions into her classrooms in Cary, N.C., to educate herself and her peers about structural racism and social justice.

She continued that activism at Duke University, building on the work of past organizers in calling for the creation of an Asian American studies department on the Durham, N.C., campus. In February, after a two-decade effort, the university finally established a minor in Asian American studies.

“Ethnic studies gives me a lot of historical context that I carry with me … especially as an Asian person growing up in the American South,” said Khoo, who is Malaysian and was born in Singapore. “[But] Asian American studies has taken such a long time to come into existence at Duke. It is disappointing to students who come to Duke and organize so much for ethnic studies and don’t actually get to receive a degree or take the classes.”

Demands for ethnic studies programs are growing across both high school and college campuses. Students are seeking curriculum that they say accurately addresses race and history, at the same time that conservatives are calling for bans on the teaching of critical race theory — an intellectual movement that examines the way policies and laws perpetuate systemic racism — which they contend stokes division and discrimination against White people.

The College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University, the first department of its kind in the nation, says its curriculum “redefines the lives of people of color from their own perspectives,” as opposed to traditional social science departments that tend to focus on a Eurocentric perspective.

The movement for ethnic studies originated with strikes in 1968 by the Third World Liberation Front, a multiracial coalition of students including the Black Student Union, the Latin American Students Organization, the Filipino American Students Organization and El Renacimiento, a Mexican American student organization. Five months of strikes resulted in the establishment of the first ethnic studies department at SFSU.

Just as these student actions came in the wake of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the current push for ethnic studies curriculums follows a wave of protests in 2020 after the killing of George Floyd and other Black Americans at the hands of White law enforcement or vigilantes across the United States and a global pandemic that has disproportionately impacted people of color. Last year, a noticeable uptick in anti-Asian violence and shootings at three Atlanta-area spas that left eight people, including six women of Asian descent, dead, continued to elevate discussions on race.

In addition to years of student and teacher mobilization by groups such as the Ethnic Studies Now Coalition in California, these recent events motivated Gov. Gavin Newsom to sign Assembly Bill 101 in October 2021. The bill creates a new requirement that students complete a semester-long course in ethnic studies to earn a high school diploma, starting with the graduating class of 2030. State Assembly member Jose Medina, an author of the bill, said in a news release, “As civil unrest and racial tension have risen across the nation, ethnic studies provides hope for fostering understanding and unity.”

Similarly, in August 2020, Newsom approved A.B. 1460 to institute an ethnic studies requirement in Cal State University curriculum.

Research on ethnic studies programs already in existence suggest positive outcomes. In 2020, the San Francisco Unified School District voted unanimously to implement a pilot ethnic studies course in high schools. Eighth-graders with a grade-point average at or below 2.0 were automatically enrolled the next year in an ethnic studies course that included topics such as community resistance in Chinese and Hispanic neighborhoods in California and African American and Filipino American labor movements during the Great Depression and World War II.

In one study conducted as a collaborative effort between SFUSD and the Stanford Graduate School of Education, researchers found that the enrollment in an ethnic studies course substantially increased high school graduation, attendance and the probability of these students matriculating at a college.

“Ethnic studies is like a vitamin for academic success. It increases your engagement in the course material,” said Amy Sueyoshi, the dean of the College of Ethnic Studies at SFSU. “These courses give you a sense of belonging, in not just school, but also society. You can actually see yourself in history.”

While California has recently passed multiple bills in favor of teaching ethnic studies in classrooms, progress in establishing such curriculums elsewhere has been slower. The newly established minor at Duke University is one of a few degree-granting programs in Asian American studies in a Southern state. Other schools offering degrees include the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Florida and William & Mary in Virginia.

Asian American studies is one field of ethnic studies. While ethnic studies curriculum is structured differently across colleges, it most often consists of four main disciplines: African and African American studies, Native American and Indigenous studies, Latino studies and Asian American studies.

At Duke, there is no ethnic studies department. However, demands for Asian American studies can be traced back to April 2002, when students and supporting faculty submitted the first proposal for such a department to the university. The same year, Duke students formed the Asian American Studies Task Force. In 2016, that group was relaunched as the Asian American Studies Working Group with the goal of establishing a full department with a major and minor degree-granting program, more tenure-track Asian American professors and more classes on Asian American topics.

Esther Kim Lee, a professor at Duke and the director of the Asian American and Diaspora Studies program, came to campus in January 2018 to interview for her current position. Students were still on winter break, so Lee was told that the campus would be very quiet. Yet when she was giving a talk as part of her interview process, a group of Asian American students unexpectedly walked into the lecture hall and sat in the front row.

“They all came and sat and listened to the talk, and they asked questions, and I was later told that they came to show their support for someone who could teach Asian American studies,” said Lee. “To this day, I don’t really know who they were. They had a tremendous influence, so I’m really grateful.”

A few months later, in May 2018, the university officially launched the Asian American and Diaspora Studies program.

However, the program would not gain degree-granting status until four years later in February 2022.

According to the Duke Asian American and Diaspora Studies program website, the new minor in Asian American studies consists of interdisciplinary courses across the humanities and social sciences, with electives on topics such as Chinese migrant labor and immigration to the United States, techno-orientalism, and globalization in Asia and Asian America.

Khoo is a senior and is ineligible for the newly established minor, but she is set to graduate this month with a degree in critical race and ethnic studies. This is a program she designed herself in the absence of a formal degree-granting department in ethnic studies, for which student activists are still advocating.

Khoo has spent her college years organizing with the Asian American Studies Working Group at Duke. After the Atlanta-area spa shootings in March 2021, the group released a set of demands that included reiterated calls for ethnic studies and cultural centers on campus. Similar demands were made at other schools in the state, including Davidson College and the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, a two-year public residential high school also located in Durham.

At Davidson College, the push for ethnic studies was revived in the fall of 2018 after two students were linked to neo-Nazi Twitter accounts, shaking the campus. Students responded by initiating a petition for a Jewish studies department, a renewal of demands led by the Black Student Coalition and the creation of the Asian American Initiative to establish a program in Asian American studies.

Yashita Kandhari, a senior at Davidson College studying sociology and gender and sexuality studies, was one of the five original members who drafted demands for the Asian American Initiative.

The group printed out its demands and pasted them to the pillars of the main academic buildings and the statues and sculptures on campus at night, a tactic also employed by similar groups like the Who’s Teaching Us campaign at Stanford University. However, Davidson College administration removed most of the fliers the next day.

“People were mad at us because they said we’re defacing the campus space, even though we were careful about even the tape that we used,” said Kandhari. “But it got their attention, which was a good thing. Everyone noticed.”

Since then, Davidson College has hired visiting professors in Asian American studies, but Kandhari says there is still work to be done. As student organizers graduate, many find themselves struggling to pass on institutional memory and the baton of activism to younger students.

Khoo at Duke feels similarly about the challenges of transferring knowledge and skills to younger students. “Pre-pandemic, there were so many people at Duke who knew how to build a protest or build a campaign. But since people have graduated in the past two years, that knowledge was never passed down because transitions just didn’t happen during the pandemic,” Khoo said. “Lots of students now have never even seen a protest on campus. There’s a knowledge that is lost that people are still recovering from.”

To Lee, this movement feels representative of a new wave of Asian American studies that is arriving at a critical historical moment, especially as the demographics of the Southern United States continue to change. The Asian American population nationwide has grown by 36 percent over the past decade, making it the fastest-growing of the United States’ four main racial and ethnic groups. In Georgia, record turnout from Asian Americans helped President Biden turn the state blue for the first time in three decades.

“I would love for Asian American studies to be a part of every Duke student’s curriculum,” said Lee. “It’s not just for Asian American students. It’s for everyone.”


A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Duke University was only the third school in the South to offer a degree in Asian American studies. The story has been corrected.