Life-Saving: Why We Need More Ethnic Studies Programs

Photo via Fordham News

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The 2023-2024 academic year marks the first for Fordham’s newly established Asian American Studies (AAST) program, which features the AAST minor and interdisciplinary courses in anthropology, literature, media studies, modern languages, psychology, sociology, and theology. The launching of Fordham’s AAST program resulted from a two-year-long process of acquiring enough tenure-line professors from various humanities departments to constitute a program. 

Prior to the pandemic, Professor James Kim and Professor Stephen Hong Sohn were the only tenure-line professors specializing in Asian American Studies at Fordham. In a recent interview I conducted with Sohn, he notes that Kim had been advocating for the expansion of Asian American Studies “as early as 2007.” It is crucial to accredit Kim, currently on a research sabbatical, as the primary forerunner of the AAST program. 

According to Sohn, the catalyst for the AAST program’s creation was a call from students. 

A petition circulating the student body at the height of rampant anti-Asian hate crimes demanded the creation of an AAST program at Fordham. This petition demonstrated a hunger for the expansion of ethnic studies programs. To date, Fordham still lacks an indigenous studies program. 

The reality is jarring: it took half a century, a pandemic, an upsurge in racially motivated violence, and the fierce determination of founding directors Kim and Sohn to finally establish Asian American studies in one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world. 

Clearly, a substantial gap exists in our understanding of ethnic studies due to limited course offerings.

As a student in the inaugural Introduction to Asian American Studies class, I deeply relate to Professor Sohn’s characterization of ethnic studies courses as “life-saving.” Ethnic studies courses equip students with the means to better understand their identities and advance the causes of social justice. Such courses prove essential for students still discerning their career passions, as they offer insight into one’s social standing in the world. 

The interdisciplinary field of Asian American studies offers immeasurable value to all students, not just those of Asian descent. To earn the AAST minor, students are required to take at least one course in the African and African American studies department or the Latin American and Latinx studies program. 

Why build an interracial requirement into the program? Because thinking of racialization as isolated to one racial group as opposed to studying it as interconnected with others inadequately encapsulates its tangible effects. 

Historically, the racialization of Asian Americans has been used to pit us against Black and Brown Americans. Central to this division is the model minority myth, which acts to demean racial minorities in America. The myth, harmful for numerous reasons, perpetuates the notion that Asian Americans are a superior and more successful minority racial group than Black and brown Americans. This dangerous idea completely negates the interracial solidarity shared between the Black Panther Party and Asian American activists in the 1960s, as well as after the killing of Vincent Chin. The racially motivated incident, in which Ronald Ebens brutally beat Chin to death with a baseball bat, became one of the first Asian American civil rights cases brought to federal court thanks to the efforts of Lily Chin, Helen Zia, and Reverend Jesse Jackson. Furthermore, the model minority myth erases the incomparable history of Asian versus  Black and brown people in America. Racial discourse in America cannot occur properly without incorporating differing perspectives and stories. 

While many students of color in higher education face external pressure from family members or financial circumstances to choose more lucrative majors, I believe that ethnic studies courses are not only life-saving, but also life-giving. Ethnic studies provide a necessary social, cultural, and historical context for how we navigate America today. 

Often, social and historical context for the experiences of our immigrant parents and family members is nearly impossible to find in academic settings. Unresolved anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress seriously weigh on the lives of the children of immigrants. To dedicated scholars like Sohn, AAST courses were vital to help overcome some of the “psychological barriers” that he harbored as a child of immigrants in America. 

Structurally, it is challenging to make ethnic studies classes relevant to Fordham’s rigid core curriculum. Aside from the American Pluralism requirement, most students have limited space in their schedules for non-major courses, such as those with the AAST designation. 

Moving forward, the future of the AAST program will depend on the “curricular innovation of existing faculty members,” says Sohn, due to a lack of incoming tenure-line professors specialized in AAST. If individual professors create more courses with the AAST designation in their respective departments, students will be better able to incorporate ethnic studies courses into their curriculum. 

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This article was edited by Naba Syed and Sarah Davey.