Dave et al. (2000)

Dave, Shilpa et al. “De-Privileging Positions: Indian Americans, South Asian Americans, and the Politics of Asian American Studies.” Journal of Asian American Studies 3.1 (2000): 67–100.

as I’ve discussed before, I have issues with my place in asian-american discussions because I, as a chinese-american, am typically the one who is centered in these discussions anyway.  even other east asian americans do not have as much of a voice in these discussions despite their increased visibility as east asians.

this article addresses some of that and discusses the center/margin binary, but rather than centering south asian studies, the authors propose entire paradigm shifts.  this article in particular focuses on paradigm shifts within asian american studies (AAS), but given that a lot of what I discuss also ties closely with what’s discussed in AAS, I feel like a lot of what’s said here is applicable to my interests.

the article opens with some discussion on why the authors feel the need to write this article in the first place (a critique of centers/margins as a conceptualization of studies, and also a critique of focusing too much on race/ethnic lines when in fact there are many intersectional lines that form communities), and also a brief discussion of the vast diversity of south asia that makes “south asia” in itself a contentious term.  but as with all panethnic terms, there’s still a need to use the term in these discussions despite its shortcomings.

Rethinking Paradigms in Asian American Studies

What does it mean to frame discussions about the field of Asian American studies using the discourse of margins and centers? The discussion of marginality and re-centering addresses historical elisions of understudied groups and the changing demographics of Asian American communities, but it continues to envision knowledge production and community representation as tied to particular vantage points that are locked into the positions of either canonical “centers” or overlooked “margins.” Rather than thinking only of representational shifts in the field, we argue that we need to think of paradigmatic shifts, new ways of doing research, alternative pedagogical strategies, and different possibilities for the field’s future.

The margins/centers model needs to problematized because as a strategy for intervention it necessarily has limitations. Revising this paradigm to correct for under-representation without critiquing its basic assumptions leads to the replication of the model, with new centers, and perhaps slightly altered margins. To envision AAS with South Asian American studies at its “center” entails a politics of recognition, a framework that inevitably leads to identity struggles and reinscribes group hierarchies. It also raises the specter of a field in which SAAS is in the spotlight, but Pilipino American and Southeast American groups continue to be relegated to the margins and, more generally, a situation in which different segments of the field continually engage in a contest of representation based on ethnic identity politics. The margins/centers framework also creates the potential problem of standpoint epistemology, taken to its extreme, that is, the notion that “the more disadvantaged group has the greater potential for knowledge construction.”[20] Ironically, many Asian American scholars, particularly in cultural studies, theorize the workings of marginality, border-crossing, and authenticity and understand, on a conceptual level, the dangers of tokenization and the fetishization of marginality. A preoccupation with marginalized groups can also lead to an essentialization of difference, a search for presumed uniqueness, and a need for “authentic” voices that can be spokespersons but still allow the borders to remain in place, problems that critics have associated with liberal multiculturalism. As scholars working and teaching in ethnic studies, it is crucial to link theoretical critiques to practice, not just in the classroom, but also in conference rooms, scholarly collaborations, and publishing endeavors. (pp. 76–77)

first off I’m puzzled as to why they’re separating filipin@-americans from other southeast asian-americans—I’m wondering if maybe they just want to highlight filipin@-americans’ longer history and higher prominence rather than suggest that there’s a division between the two categories.

that said, there’s some stuff I agree with and some stuff I disagree with in the above paragraphs.  I feel like yes, the asian-american panethnic marker can be and is exclusionary, and this in part is because we have certain groups that are highly centered (east asians) and certain groups that fall to the wayside and are marginalized.

why the prominence of east asians is a reality is complicated; this article suggests that part of the prominence of east asians, despite the historic presence of southeast asians (especially filipin@s) and south asians in the same early immigration periods as east asians, derives from (1) higher population numbers, combined with (2) historical presence, and also the fact that (3) AAS originates in California and is California-centric, suggesting that foundational theorizing of AAS was east asian, and that presence continues to permeate through AAS.

I’m not sure, however, that I agree fully with their critique of a supposed fetishization of marginality.  basically this reads to me as a fancier, more academic way of talking about “oppression olympics”, which people invoke as a term to talk about exactly what’s mentioned here, a preoccupation—usually characterized as a shallow preoccupation—with marginality and disadvantage.

my opinion on that remains the same: I don’t invoke “oppression olympics”.  I think it’s an oppressive thing to invoke in the first place.  I prefer to acknowledge that different people are disadvantaged and advantaged in different ways, and the acknowledgement of different hierarchies is not a bad thing.  the emphasis and centering of voices that have traditionally been silenced is also not a bad thing imo; that’s one way to rectify the situation that led people to silence these voices in the first place.  the ultimate focus for me is to respect and represent the agency that people have in determining their own identities and framing their own sociocultural place.

however, maybe I’m coming from a centers/margins mindset here.  my previous paragraph does touch on this discussion of authenticity that the authors are critiquing, and it may be the case that what I believe is problematic as well.  in particular, I’m looking at the part that critiques that an approach like mine reinforces boundaries rather than creates paradigm shifts.  I don’t know.  I’m only partway through reading the article, so I’ll wait to see what the authors have to say.

Given our location in the U.S., many Asian American scholars who work simultaneously in one or more of these areas note the ways in which the assumption of certain fixed identities is used to carve up intellectual—and for some, political—work, based on American identity politics. The work of scholars engaged in a critical Asian American studies project is contradictory, as Gary Okihiro has pointed out; researchers focus on ethnicity, race, gender, and sexuality, and at the same time, attempt to question the reification of identities so as to develop broader analyses and build more inclusive coalitions.[25] As scholars, our commitment to AAS as a project linked to struggles for social change requires we utilize this moment to integrate the work of others interested in similar goals, whether or not they focus specifically on Asian Americans.[26] The desire to push the boundaries of the community models used in ethnic studies—a field that generally draws on the mappings of Asia that emerged from U.S. foreign policy and were long embedded in area studies[27]
—has propelled scholars over the last decade to interrogate the nature of the ethnic studies project.[28] Stephen Sumida observes in his meditation on the East of California perspective that the field would benefit by shifting not just from a “Californic paradigm” to a more inclusive and complex mapping of Asian America, but also from questions of “What does it mean to be ‘Asian’ in ‘America’? and questions of ‘identity’ to further questions and structural analyses of power.”29 (pp. 79–80)

We suggest, in response, that questions generated by SAAS might facilitate thematic and analytic shifts in the current debates about how to destabilize current mappings of Asian America. We suggest, by way of illustration, two possible analytic frameworks to replace the focus on discrete ethnic communities in the field, namely, transnationalism and postcoloniality. These perspectives intersect but are also distinct; they are important not simply due to their prominence in scholarly debates but because they reflect the complexities of Asian American experiences on the ground and also allow connections with work on other immigrant communities, for example, by emphasizing the impact of U.S. imperialism on Asian migration and the building of immigrant communities across national borders, not to mention the increasingly transnational experiences of Latino and Caribbean immigrants.[30] In the discussions that follow, we have strategically chosen not to turn only to examples focusing on South Asian American subjects or texts because we are interested in using SAAS to move beyond the model of a field of inquiry carved up along lines of ethnicity that correlate to the identity of the researchers.

a little bit of context: in previous paragraphs, the authors discussed how simple focus on ethnicity and race is insufficient; many South Asian groups, as well as others, don’t so much draw lines purely based on ethnicity and race, but also along axes such as religion, class, etc.  that much I do agree with—to simply look at race as a pan-identifier obscures the fact that we have divisions and problems along other axes and simplifies our experiences into an observer-imposed category that may not even be the most relevant or accurate one.

I do like this focus on deconstructing imperialism and discussing transnational movement.  in particular, I’m reminded of biyuti’s constant discussion of decolonizing, and although biyuti speaks primarily from a filipin@ perspective, I’ve found their posts and discussions to be IMMENSELY helpful to me, even though I’m not filipin@.  this is because, imo, we both, and both our communities, have felt the impact of white people fucking with us and fucking our shit up, and that’s a common ground that we can discuss and a common rock that we have to smash in examining self-determination and identity.

Ethnic studies, when placed in a global context, can provide specific instances of the effects of transnational economic ties and involvement in home country politics on particular ethnic groups, belying the assumption that “the community” is a discrete, holistic entity untouched by global economic and cultural forces and pointing to important contradictions. For instance, political, economic, religious, and social ties to South Asia produce what Salman Rushdie has described as an “imaginary homeland” that often reifies and essentializes national origins.[31] Furthermore, transnationalism does not, as many scholars have pointed out, imply a weakening of local ties; on the contrary, the impact of global migration and restructuring is deeply mediated by “the local”—the particular processes of constructing community and nation, identity and alterity, a sense of place and of location in grids of power.[32] Such a focus on transnationalism in South Asian, and Southeast Asian, American communities would problematize diasporic approaches that emphasize imagined linkages at the expense of local experiences in the U.S., and allow us to understand the implications of these imaginings for the possibilities, and obstacles, they create for coalition-building with other racial minorities.[33] This work would only be strengthened by more truly interdisciplinary perspectives; collaborations between Asian American studies scholars in the humanities and the social sciences are imperative for a more nuanced and contextualized reading of transnational formations. (p. 81, emphasis mine)


part of what’s been preoccupying me lately is in fact the imaginary homeland, this construction of home and identity that can often be essentialized.  speaking specifically from a chinese-american perspective, it’s difficult to know what “authenticity” is in conceptualizing home and china, particularly because my interpretations of china will ALWAYS be filtered through a western, orientalist lens that stereotypes china and misrepresents what china is.

and as for the local and the construction of community, I feel like that part also ties in with what I’ve been trying to do with online community-building—I’ve found a number of asian-americans who feel similarly as I do and who have formed a community of sorts, and our communities are still DEEPLY mediated with how we experience our lives in the US and how we connect to our imagined homelands.

I don’t feel like I’m articulating things properly here, except that I’m really feeling that bolded part.

there’s some discussion of postcolonial studies and literature that I skimmed over, but this line in particular stuck out to me:

The novel [Nampally Road] illustrates how one’s location is always a function of history, social contest, and desire for community.

history, social contest, and desire for community

I like that a lot

white people keep forgetting history but we don’t forget how important that is

anyway, the next part talks about south asians’ involvement in asian american studies, which is namely that south asians often feel alienated from asian american studies.  the authors critique the “critical mass” sort of justification for discussing south asian topics in asian american studies: namely, people only ever think to include these perspectives when there’s enough of a presence in courses to “warrant” inclusion of these topics, but this concept in itself is flawed as hell.  the authors argue that you SHOULD be including south asian perspectives even if you have 0 south asian students, and I 100% agree.  rejection of critical mass and majority justifications is critical in other areas of discussion as well; you can’t talk about queer theory without talking about people of color, even if your audience has no people of color, for example.

A truly critical pedagogy trains students not to reproduce the “what?” but to ask “why?”[40] Therefore, it seems paradoxical to offer prescriptions of ideal pedagogical approaches when what we, as South Asian American scholars and educators, advocate is precisely a resistance to prescriptions, i. e., an interrogative posture toward and skepticism of formal or informal canons—either of bodies of knowledge or methodological practices. We are not discounting the essential function of bodies of knowledge that constitute the “building blocks” of a field—the Thind and Ozawa citizenship cases, the San Francisco State student strike of 1968, or Frank Chin et al.’s publication of Aiiieeeee!, for example; however, what we are suggesting is that students be made aware of the manner in which such information came to acquire building-block status, in other words, for students to be cognizant of the constructed nature of knowledge and to understand why certain bodies of knowledge occupy positions of prominence within a certain discipline. (p. 86, emphasis mine)


we can’t simply parrot back things as prominent

we need to discuss WHY

but the why needs to not only be about why something is prominent

it needs to also be about why we VIEW something as prominent and what forces shaped something into becoming canonical in the first place!

examining that is the first step in, as sonja says, fucking the canon

you can’t fuck the canon if you don’t know why the canon’s fucked to begin with

For instance, Shankar and Srikanth suggest that the reverence with which the 1968 student strike is frequently presented as the “genesis” of the Asian American movement inhibits inquiry into how and why this event became invested with canonical quality.[41] It might be pedagogically more sound to present the strike within a context of analytical questions that position the “micro-narrative” of the student strike within the “macro- narrative”[42] of the social, political, and historical forces of the time—for instance, the civil rights movement, the Immigration Act of 1965 and the decades of restrictive laws leading up to it, urban and rural patterns of Asian immigrant settlement, or the demographic macro-narrative to which Michael Omi refers in his observation that “the term [Asian American] came into vogue at precisely the historical moment when new Asian groups were entering the U. S. who would render the term problematic.”[43] An interrogative stance toward, rather than an unquestioning acceptance of, the student strike as the springboard for the development of the field can generate discussions that widen the ramifications of the event and draw in players and regions hitherto left out of the discussion. Thus, rather than presenting as “given” that the strikers were largely urban Chinese and Japanese American students in California, one might ask, “Why were other Asian ethnic groups, such as South Asians, seemingly invisible? What were the contemporaneous experiences of Asian Americans in regions outside California?” Posing such questions does not detract from the historical value of the strike, but it does encourage students to see it within the context of other socio- cultural and politically significant forces. For South Asian American students, such a pedagogy can be truly affirming of their presence and value as Asians in this country. Rather than seeing themselves as having had no impact on the formation of Asian America, they begin to understand, for example, how and why the Sikh farmers who were well established in California were unable to participate in the movement. In this context, an instructor could introduce and analyze the reasons for the active participation in 1999 of South Asian American students at the University of Texas, Austin and in 1996 at Columbia University in demanding the creation of an AAS program there. (p. 87)

just gonna leave this here as a great illustration of the above

the next sections discuss some pedagogical changes that can be made and discuss some inherent privilege that gets tied up with the way courses are presented, and I think similar things could be said with how we educate people on history:

The sequence in which the spotlight rests on the various sub-groups can also affect students’ construction of Asian American studies. How does Asian America unfold if we begin a course with a focus on the United States’ 1898 colonization of the Philippines and the subsequent influx of Pilipino/a immigrants to the U. S.?[44] Or perhaps with the Pilipino sailors who jumped ship off the coast of Louisiana in 1763.[45] What if a course began with a discussion of late eighteenth-century Indian sailors on the docks of Salem, Massachusetts or Indian indentured laborers in Philadelphia and both groups’ inter-racial marriages with African American women?[46] What if a discussion of Chinese and Japanese Americans took place only in the second half of the semester? How would such a pedagogical approach influence students’ perceptions of Asian America? What if such an “atypical” sequencing were the approach taken by a Japanese American instructor and not a Pilipino/a or South Asian American instructor? And what if this approach took place in a classroom in which there were few or no Pilipino/a or South Asian American students? The pedagogical implications of these questions are wide: they affect at a fundamental level the perceptions of the next generation of Asian American students about how the Asian American polity is constituted and by whom.[47] (pp. 88–89)

^^^this basically, and I’m definitely going to follow through with the footnotes

and the rest of the article talks about possibly research directions, including discussions of south asian/black relations and also west indian racial identity (as in, desis in the caribbean).

so, overall, other than that hiccup in the beginning where I felt as if the authors were talking about academic oppression olympics, I do agree a lot with this article.  there’s a LOT of room for nuance and intersectionality in this paradigm shift of asian american studies, and I so do appreciate that.  examining not just race/ethnicity, but also class, gender, religion, sexuality, immigration, history, transnational identity, etc. etc. etc. is just the BASICS of what we need to do in order to examine what “asian american” means.  that and the questioning and understanding of not just WHAT, not just WHY the what happened, but also WHY we even consider the why important—THAT’S my critical take-away message from this article, because once we figure out the why of the why, then it becomes easier to restructure the way we conceptualize things in a way that’s inclusive and accommodating of different histories and identities that have traditionally been marginalized.

basically, this article was pretty great.  I’ve been having a lot of misgivings about my position in asian american discussions, but this article actually helps with those a LOT.  even though I may be the one centered, I can still do work to restructure the narrative in a way that’s actually accurate and inclusive.

wow.  good choice to read this article.  would recommend.