Renee Tajima-Peña is a professor of Asian American studies at the University of California at Los Angeles and series producer of a new history of Asian Americans on PBS airing in 2020.
I was a sixth-grader in Altadena, Calif., in 1969 when my teacher called my mother and grandmother liars. As I delivered a report to the class about my family’s World War II imprisonment at the Heart Mountain, Wyo., concentration camp for U.S. citizens and noncitizens of Japanese descent, Mrs. Counts bellowed that my family had fabricated the whole thing — because nothing like that could ever happen in the United States.
That was the day I learned the awesome power, and danger, of who controls the truth.
I wasn’t alone. At the same time, at campuses on both coasts, Asian American students were striking alongside other students of color for ethnic studies. By the time I was a high schooler in Pasadena, I was leading a citywide student strike for ethnic studies and the hiring of teachers of color.
Even as teenagers, we were steeped in the politics of race. We understood the history of institutional racism toward Asian Americans: the Chinese Exclusion Act, segregated schools, labor exploitation, the century of wars in Asia. We were hungry to learn more.
So when I was accepted to Harvard in 1976, I declared my intended major: Asian American studies. There was only one problem: No such program existed at Harvard.
Today, 43 years later, there still is none.
During the past year, Harvard has championed diversity as it confronts Edward Blum’s lawsuit attacking affirmative action in admissions. (Final arguments are set for Wednesday.) Asian American students and alumni such as myself have taken up the banner of defending an inclusive admissions process.
We reject Blum’s argument that race is irrelevant in our society, knowing that is another kind of lie. We also know that Blum’s preferred admissions process would leave Harvard far less diverse, with fewer students from under-resourced segments of the Asian American community. But while Harvard gets the need for holistic admissions right, it is failing in ethnic studies. As recently as the fall semester of 2017, with around 1,300 Asian American students on campus, not one Asian American studies course was offered.
Harvard’s Asian American undergrad population has grown from the tiny 3.6 percent of my class to more than 22 percent today. Heralded as “a model minority,” Asian American college students nationwide, in reality, suffer from a hidden crisis of depression, substance abuse and suicidal thoughts. Many experience cultural invisibility — as poet Adrienne Rich described it, “a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing.”
Asian American studies faculty members have all witnessed that moment of wokeness, when a student realizes they are no longer a stranger in their own story. But Asian American studies matters not only because it is personal. It matters in crucial debates over policy, culture and the reckoning of who we are and where we are going.
As the nation’s fastest-growing racial or ethnic group, Asian Americans are at the nexus of two vectors of 21st-century America: the growing dominance of China and Asia, and the approaching “new American majority” of nonwhite peoples. Study of these issues is needed in our present moment of border walls, economic disparity and globalization. But, as Harvard students rallying for ethnic studies last Friday pointed out, serious scholarship cannot thrive without an institutional foundation. None exists at Harvard.
Last fall, then-Harvard President Drew Faust testified that the university seeks to foster a “diverse learning environment” where “intellectual transformation is deepened and conditions for social transformation are created.” We’re still waiting.
Erasure is a lie. In 1869, Andrew J. Russell shot his famous photograph at Promontory Point, Utah, of the joining of the two ends of the Transcontinental Railroad. More than 80 percent of the workers were Chinese Americans. But after years of brutal labor — a Sacramento newspaper reported that 20,000 pounds of bones of Chinese workers were transported out — these immigrants were excluded from the photograph. This May, I will join other Asian American scholars, artists and community leaders to commemorate the 150th anniversary by restaging the photo with the Chinese workers’ descendants.
My mother and grandmother’s imprisonment in Wyoming was based on the lie that our national security was at risk. It took the dogged work of researchers to show that Japanese Americans were incarcerated not because of national security but because of race. Today, exploring those kinds of truths is the cornerstone of ethnic studies programs across the country.
A number of those ethnic studies programs are now celebrating their 50th year. Will Harvard finally catch up, or will it continue to fail Asian Americans — and, indeed, all of us?