Reflecting on Asian American studies through the teachings of Grace Lee Boggs and community

[Editor’s note: Once a year, a guest columnist will be part of Rhizomes to encourage scholars in education and Asian American Studies at California State University, Northridge, where the columnist set up an endowment to honor her mother, Asuncion Castro Abarquez, and her eldest sister, Rosalinda Abarquez Alcantara. Michelle Bac was chosen, after a vetting process done by CSUN’s literature and Asian Am faculty, as the recipient of 2017’s Abarquez-Alcantara Asian American Studies and Education Endowment Scholarship.]

By Michelle Bac

Truth be told, most students I have spoken to do not begin their undergraduate careers thinking to major in Asian American Studies, and I am no exception.

In my sophomore year, I dropped an exceptionally boring philosophy class and instead picked up Asian American Studies; Race and Critical Thinking on a mere whim. I was able to add the class because of the small roster and remember feeling captivated by Professor Fong from the very start. For the first time, I felt like a part of history, a classroom, and a movement. I started to feel my own presence as an Asian American woman. Never before had I been able to ask questions about my identity or understand why the word “Oriental” made me feel so uncomfortable. I immediately developed an insatiable hunger for ethnic studies and switched my major. The workload and amount of reading were prolific, but each word in every article and book lent me more understanding as to who I was, and who I am.

Looking back, my time in Asian American Studies is grounded in academia, but more importantly, the experiences and time spent with people in my department that influenced my identity.

On one such occasion, my peers and I got together for an Asian American Studies movie night to munch on sandwiches the department provided and watch “American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs.” The film follows the life and work of Chinese American philosopher, writer, and activist, Grace Lee Boggs, who made waves from the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, until the day she passed in 2015. She firmly believed in radical change and wrote that “movements are born of critical connections rather than critical mass” (The Next American Revolution, 17). Students and teachers are the most essential foundation to AAS, as they provide the spark and passion required for “critical connection” and community building. In my interactions with people in the Asian American Studies department, I felt a genuine bond that was missing in all of my other classes.

Despite intimidating and oftentimes highbrow appearances, the ideals and concepts in Asian American Studies research and education inherently lead back to the community and our shared humanity. Ethnic Studies is beneficial and necessary both theoretically and practically for students of color because other more “traditional” fields of education can be alienating to students. In public universities, students in popular majors have difficulties enrolling and feeling connected to their departments, especially at the California State University of Northridge. Within the Korean American community I was a part of, most of my friends had to push their schedules back one to two semesters because of a single required class that was perpetually full. Many of them also felt detached from campus life and saw their classes as just units to fulfill towards a degree. With the large class sizes and overwhelmingly white classes I had experienced as a Cinema and Television Arts major, I was drawn to Asian American Studies not only because there was actually room to enroll, but because I felt welcomed.

Asian American Studies is welcoming and appealing to many students like myself simply because the movement was made of students. Ethnic Studies originated from students of color wanting to challenge the educational system and see their identities reflected in higher education. Due to the sacrifices and efforts of young students during a 1968 boycott of San Francisco State College and amidst “an era of heightened civil rights activism, anti-Vietnam War protests, urban violence, and ethnic and feminist identity formation,” Asian American Studies was born and persists to this day (Fong 1). Since students sought to create radical change within the institution by establishing new programs and departments, the founding concepts of Ethnic Studies would have to “distinguish ethnic studies research from other traditional disciplines” and lay the groundwork for progress (Fong 2). Thus, the four founding concepts inherent in Asian Americans studies are a focus on community, re-interpretive and protective agendas, questioning objectivity and neutrality, and a focus on social change.

During one of my last senior Asian American Studies courses, Professor Buenavista informed the class that if we were only to take away one lesson from our undergraduate years, it should be those four founding concepts. Although quite simple, these four concepts allow Ethnic Studies to empower students of color and inspire their future actions for social justice. Although I was exposed to intercultural literature in high school, I clearly remember the stark absence of Asian Americans in my K-12 education and recall my first few courses absolutely blowing my mind. Learning about non-canon experiences and histories of people of color empowered me, giving me more confidence in a newly discovered identity as well as the strength to ask questions.

Furthermore, Asian American Studies ushered me into a community of mentors and friends. I was one of Grace Lee Bogg’s “young people whose self-concept ha[d] undergone a fundamental change” that must then “be given concrete opportunities to change their actual conditions of life” (“Education: the Great Obsession” 51). Indeed, concrete and wonderful opportunities arose from my community, and I attended academic conferences, became a student tutor in the department, and graduated with an Asian American Studies degree. An Ethnic Studies education positively impacted my retention in university, language and critical lens, and my concept of success, molding me into a self-actualized person.

I am one of the lucky Asian American students walking along the path paved by countless civil rights and social justice activists like Grace Lee Boggs. However, within the safety of CSUN’s structured Asian American Studies department that has yet to see major cutbacks, I admit to becoming complacent regarding activism and working for the community, but not apathetic.

While both students and professors can become entrenched into the educational system we benefit from, Ethnic Studies will always be founded on four concepts geared towards the community. Now more than ever, Asian American Studies must not be rendered obsolete by assertions of “reverse racism” (the notion that Whites experience the same amount of discrimination as people of color).  In order to focus on our immediate community, more rapport could be created between professors and their students in the form of roundtables with faculty. Additionally, student – led events can inspire future majors to become more involved, as people and our “critical connections” are the foundations of change.

Asian Americans in education, from students to professors to activists, must advocate the importance of Ethnic Studies principles more strongly, stay grounded, and work to remain motivated by whatever, or whoever may have brought them into the field.

* * *

Michelle Bac is an alumna of the California State University, Northridge. She is open to the possibilities of life and plans to pursue a Masters in Ceramic Art as her next goal. Works Cited

Boggs, Grace Lee. “Education: The Great Obsession.” Monthly Review: An Independent Socialist Magazine, vol. 63, no. 3, July 2011, pp. 38-55.

Boggs, Grace Lee, et al. The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century. 2nd ed., University of California Press, 2012.

Fong, Timothy. Introduction. Ethnic Studies Research: Approaches and Perspectives, by Fong,  Lanham, MD: Alta Mira Press, 2008, pp. 1-14.

Murase, Mike. “Ethnic Studies and Higher Education for Asian Americans.” Asian Pacific American Experiences: Past, Present, and Future, edited by Edith Chen and Eunai Shrake,  Kendall Hunt Publishing Company, 2012, pp. 124-152

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