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?


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.


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?


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.

posted by @ 1:35 pm | 21 Comments

21 Responses to “Asian American Studies Commencement Speech”

  1. Oliver says:

    I hope somebody taped this. Sure beats my commencement speakers from both my undergrad and grad ceremonies.

    I still think you should have done the “wear sunscreen speech.” That one always kills I hear.

  2. Dan Charnas says:

    Excellent speech, JC.

    I haven’t heard the “sunscreen speech,” but if I had a nickel for everytime I’ve heard the “stay out of the sun entirely” speech, I’d be a wealthy man.

  3. Tram says:

    what a clever and wise way of reframing the asian am thing. i hope my lil sis heard this speech.

  4. Danyel says:


  5. ispork says:

    i was one of the undergrads graduating and i just wanted to say thanks for the memorable speech. AAS at UCLA is such an amazing program that does inspire students to make a difference in their communities and it’s great to know that it was the mission from the get go. i’m actually hoping to enter the AAS master’s program next year… but we’ll see.

  6. Joan says:

    Bill Cosby spoke at my grad and I remember exactly one, slightly lame, joke. Amazing speech Jeff. And thank you for sharing it.

  7. Anonymous says:

    definitely better than the global warming one at uc riverside’s graduation

  8. Anonymous says:

    Nothing but a bunch of left-wing cliches. I notice he referred to the LA riot as LA “rebellion”. Interesting, given that Asian Americans suffered the most during the incident. Being an Asian himself, his misguided sympathy towards the perpetrators smacks of Stockholm Syndrome.

  9. Anonymous says:

    As the comment above me shows, there are very divergent points of view within the “Asian-Am community.”

    Therein lies the problem with the label “Asian-American studies.”

    The speaker talks about the sense of community and uses the word “we.”

    In my opinion – this is the most flawed assumption people make.

    I’m not agreeing with the poster above (I think he’s both right and wrong) but it’s representative of single biggest fallacy in Asian-Am studies.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Ditto with the poster above me. “Asian-American” is a major blanket term that disregards the incredible volume of diverse cultures and people who have little in common except originating from the continent of Asia.

    What is an “Asian-Am community” exactly?

  11. Anonymous says:

    beautiful speech, thank you for sharing it!

  12. Anonymous says:

    Although “Asian American” can be a blanket term, it has deep political roots that forge and break new ground in hopes of redefining itself as inclusive not exclusive of different cultures within Asian America. Yes, Asians were somewhat given the term but we also helped to create it, and we can also help to redefine it. I think that is what Jeff captured: our role in redefining the way race is played out. I think it was an inspiring speech that captured a lot of issues. Thanks Jeff! Can’t stop, won’t stop. I did like the spokesperson, Anthony Romero, head of ACLU, who spoke at the UCSB Humanities ceremony.

  13. l. renaissance says:

    thank you for writing this jeff. if i was there i would’ve cried. this speech really touched my heart.

  14. Pye says:


    I was moved by that speech.

    Reading it validated how I’ve felt about being Asian-American. The rage. And the sadness. It also gave me a sense of empowerment.

    I remember you spoke about Giant Robot at an Asian American film class I was taking at UC Irvine in 2000, I believe.

  15. Franksabunch says:

    Amen to that. The first step away from complacency is merely standing up. The rest will come… (Nice to see another local boy make good, btw.)

  16. John Nguyen says:

    Now, if only UC Irvine had an APIG this year, which unfortunately it did not. It’s a cold, cruel world out there, and even I question why I am being an activist when instead I can just chill and not care. These words reinforce my convictions. Thanks!

  17. Ironmike says:

    A deeply emotional and thought provoking speech. To answer some of the critics above; The enviornment that we live in, a society founded by western europeans,we are grouped together as Asian Americans. Sadly to many non-Asian Americans, our specific culture is irrelevent. However, any negative action would diminish us all.

  18. Timothy says:

    This speech really sums up how I feel about Asian American Studies. Being at Berkeley in a place where Asian Am was so prevalent changed the way I view life…for the better.


  19. Anonymous says:

    “left wing cliches”? Only someone who doesn’t know jack shit about the “left wing” would say that. Most of Jeff’s comments are NEVER mentioned in conventional AA circles, let alone approaching the level of cliche.

  20. Ben says:

    Hey Jeff,

    I just wanted to let you know that that was a great speech. Especially, poignant and excellent with your analysis of the times. I really appreciated your time and presence at the commencement. It was by far, the best speech I heard during that weekend. Thanks a lot.


  21. mike li says:

    jeff, awesome speech! i’m glad i went before you, otherwise i would have looked silly. also, congrats on all the success with the book. regarding prior comments…

    – stockholm syndrome would be an appropriate term only if you hold blacks and latinos exclusively responsible for what happened on april 29, and that would be naive. you have to consider the (in)actions of other powerbrokers to truly understand sa-i-gu.

    – as for flawed assumptions, don’t assume that Jeff is foolish enough to believe that 100% of API’s agree. it’s a speech to a certain group of people. his words will resonate with some but not everybody. that’s life, and jeff understands that.

    for the record, having participated in ucla asian am department meetings, i can assure you that there is no fallacy of “oneness” or “sameness” within asian am. there exist many lively discussions within asian am circles, and not everyone agrees with each other.

    API’s are incredibly diverse–culture, religion, economics, et. al. we will rarely–if ever–be in 100% agreement. for better or for worse, we are treated similarly by the government, legal institutions and society of america; if we are to enact positive change, we need to get past our differences and work together.

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