Monday, June 20th, 2005
Asian American Studies Commencement Speech
Oh man. This was the toughest 10-minute speech I’ve ever had to write.
I saw a bumper sticker in Berkeley today–yeah it’s a bumper sticker kind of town–”If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember what you said.” The problem is getting to the truth in the first place. Sheesh.
Thank you to the 2005 graduates of UCLA’s Asian American Studies and best of luck!
To Dr. Min Zhou, Dr. Don Nakanishi, the Asian American Studies department faculty, the Asian American Center staff, Dr. Sue Ann Kim, Dr. Kay Song, Irene Soriano and the student graduation coordinating committee, and most of all, to the 2005 graduates of the UCLA Asian American Studies Department, please let me extend my heartfelt gratitude for being granted the honor to speak to you this afternoon. To you graduates, let me offer a hearty congratulations on your great achievement.
You are graduating into a dangerous world, a much more dangerous world than the one I graduated into 10 years ago.
During the time you have studied here, you have witnessed the unveiling of the U.S. as a warfare state. Indeed, the last three decades of wars—in Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Middle East, in domestic wars on graffiti, on drugs, on gangs, and on youth—seem but a prelude to this imperial moment.
In Afghanistan and Iraq, the kind of politics that conditioned the emergence of the hip-hop generation—namely the politics of containment and its twin, the politics of abandonment—are on view daily.
The logic of abandonment that left the Bronx and Watts to burn now leaves Kabul and Baghdad shattered. The logic of containment that has led to the incarceration, disenfranchisement, and dehumanizing of 2 million people in the U.S. takes on an ugly, globalized form in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.
War is the backdrop to even the most pressing local issues. The plague of joblessness, the resurgence of gang violence, the explosion of interracial and interreligious tensions, and the debt-driven real estate speculation that is driving massive racial displacement are all effects of war.
Every day we ask ourselves the question: how do we begin to turn back such catastrophic trends?
In a single, startling line of hope, Arundhati Roy has written, “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way.”
But what will that world look like? And will Asian Americans be there to help midwife her birth?
ASIAN AMERICAN STUDIES AND TRANSFORMATION
Twenty years ago, I took my first Asian American Studies course at UC Berkeley, a freshman composition class. On the first day, the teachers told us the theme would be “transformation”.
Now when you take an Asian American Studies class, things happen. Some people get very good grades. Other people get a lot of phone numbers. But everyone undergoes some sort of transformation.
You start thinking about the way you grew up, how you were socialized, who influenced you. You remember the first time you were made to feel different, and the way you reacted. You look at the dry cleaner, the bus driver, the waitress, the seamstress, your parents, your grandparents, your siblings and cousins, all a little differently.
Sometimes you develop a profound rage that you feel you have to unleash.
You walk into an Abercrombie & Fitch store and you can’t believe they’re selling t-shirts that say “Wong Brothers Laundry Service: Two Wongs Can Make It White”.
You watch a sports show and you can’t believe a basketball superstar is insulting another by making fun of his Asian accent.
You turn on your favorite hip-hop radio station, and you can’t believe the African American host is defending a racist song about the tsunami by saying Asians who don’t like the song probably think they’re superior to Blacks.
Sometimes you stay there in your anger. Your first rage is so powerful, it’s blinding.
Sometimes you think about it a little more, and you wonder about the sweatshop workers being forced to manufacture those racist t-shirts. You wonder what kind of masculinity requires an athlete to mock his opponent in racial terms. You wonder what happened to make that Black radio host want to be so hurtful.
Sometimes you then acquire a deep sadness, a disabling melancholy that you don’t feel you can overcome.
Asian American Studies is a different kind of intellectual experience. It always takes you somewhere, and it also never leaves you.
THE CRISIS AFTER MULTICULTURALISM
When I was at UC Berkeley during the 1980s, multiculturalism was our rallying cry.
At its best, rainbow multiculturalism unveiled race in the production of knowledge, culture, and power. And it proposed alternatives, such as affirmative action or independent community-centered arts. Jesse Jackson’s presidential bids and Spike Lee’s “She’s Gotta Have It”, the anti-apartheid movement and the redress and reparations movement, the push for diversity graduation requirements and Don Nakanishi’s successful tenure fight—they were all part of this moment.
Times have changed.
I was part of the first cohort of graduate students to enter the Masters Program here after the Los Angeles Rebellion in 1992. Those riots shook Asian American Studies to the core. The idea of Third World solidarity that had guided us from the founding of Ethnic Studies seemed to be in ashes. And in many ways, we are still sorting through the rubble.
After the rebellion, multiculturalism was absorbed into global capitalism, made easy for consumption. Its insurgency was contained.
Now dark skins—like Jet Li or the Wu-Tang Clan—provide global entertainment. Alberto Gonzales and Condoleeza Rice—not Yuri Kochiyama and Philip Vera Cruz—are presented as American icons of racial struggle and success. Universities and corporations increasingly see the value in diversity in a globalized world. And, post-affirmative action, it is Asian American bodies who largely provide that value.
For us, the Duboisian question is turned upside down, and is made to haunt us: How does it feel to be a solution?
TOWARD ANOTHER WORLD
Cast this way, we cannot avoid our responsibility. We can only dispatch ourselves with clearer purpose, principle, and integrity.
If we were to describe the world that we want, would it be a world in which professional athletes are tested for accent sensitivity the way they are tested for steroids? Would it be a world in which Abercrombie and Fitch only sells us yellow-power t-shirts?
I ask, because this world is certainly possible. But it’s not what we should settle for.
Hot 97 radio personality Miss Jones tore open unhealed wounds with her comments on Asians’ supposed perceptions of superiority over Blacks. But how do we heal those wounds? Where did those wounds come from?
We cannot begin to answer these kinds of questions if we allow ourselves to be caged by our first rage, or incapacitated by our first sadness. That rage and sadness can block us from understanding our truer roles, our unfulfilled responsibilities, our necessary allies, and the larger forces at work against us all.
They prevent all of us from healing. They blind all of us to the possibility of another world. We need to act from love.
So the transformation that we begin in Asian American Studies does not end once classes do.
As the great Glenn Omatsu reminds us, the fundamental practice of Asian American Studies is to build community. Building community goes beyond centering the self. It is about imagining what it takes to revere justice, to respect difference, to reduce hurt, to correct wrong, to nurture growth, and to discover joy. It is about activating and propagating these values within a conception of “we” that continually expands, and is always concerned with caring for the least of us first.
For us, the possibility of another world can begin with the project of recuperating a progressive Asian American identity, one that stands against the totalizing push of global capitalism and the new imperialism, the disintegration of an anti-racist movement, and the destruction of other oppressed communities, particularly African Americans and indigenous peoples.
That possibility, in fact, begins with you.
To you, the graduates of Asian American Studies, here in this dangerous moment, I regret to say—and I am also happy to say—that we place a lot of hope in you. I regret it because it means in some sense we have not fully done our job. I am happy because I know our faith is well-placed.
We look to you to lead the way forward toward a new Asian American left, a new progressive movement, and the shining new world waiting to be born.
Thank you for this opportunity, and once again, congratulations on your most important achievement.
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