Asian American Studies (AAS) 206 is undoubtedly a popular course at the University of Washington (UW). During the winter quarter, enrollment can reach as high as 200 students and seats usually fill up quickly.
But while Asians make up about one-fourth of the student body at UW, they account for over 90 percent of those taking AAS 206 and similar courses. A cursory glance at the class in summer shows one or two non-Asian students out of about 25. This figure is made more compelling when put up against the lower percentages of black and Latino students in other Ethnic Studies courses like African American Studies or Chicano Studies, respectively.
No one quite knows why AAS courses attract few non-Asians and even fewer white students and there are probably several factors involved but one thing both students and faculty agree on is that these courses are beneficial to everyone.
“It’s great for Asian Americans but everyone should take it,” says Alan Kim, a sophomore studying informatics. “Otherwise, the information just stays within our circle and nothing will be understood.”
Kim, who signed up for the class only because he had to drop another, is surprised at how much he likes AAS 206 because all the thoughts he has had throughout his life as an Asian American “are confirmed and discussed here.”
This sentiment was exactly the motivation for those who fought to bring Ethnic Studies to a eurocentric academic system that they felt distorted the true history of people of color in the United States. It was a struggle not only to tell the past as it really happened but also for the future generations’ right to self determination.
It was a fight that resulted in the longest and second longest student strikes in the nation’s history. Both protests, first at San Francisco State University and then at U.C. Berkely, were led by the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF), a coalition of Asian, Black, Latino, and Native American students—anyone familiar with Seattle’s own activism history can see the resemblance to the Gang of Four.
Picketing, blockades, rallies, and sit-ins by the TWLF were met with heavy resistance from the police, state patrol and riot squads. The National Guard was called in to maintain martial law. Hundreds of students were disciplined, arrested, and assaulted. In the end, the TWLF persevered and was able to gain faculty support to establish the first of many Ethnic Studies departments.
“This all started because we needed to control our own destiny,” says Dr. Connie So, Ph.D., a senior lecturer in UW’s AAS department who has been teaching since 1991, when AAS was still a program rather than a department.
Dr. So says that, while AAS came out as a result of activism and protests, the goal is, like all of academia, to educate and train people to be scholars in the field. She says even though most of the students in AAS courses are Asian American, a lot more people are joining because they have more AA friends or are just more generally interested in it.
“It’s a good way to meet other AAs and to learn about issues that are important to them,” Dr. So explains.
She says that AAS also helps students understand prejudice and dispel the caricatures and stereotypes we often hear, using a recent controversial PEW research study as an example.
Michelle Moises, an anthropology senior, agrees.
“For those with an immigrant past, this space gives you answers that maybe you weren’t even searching for,” she says, recalling how she now understands why people in the Philippines prefer lighter skin because of their colonial past.
“As for white Americans,” she continues. “It can help explain the communities of color that are around them.”
Moises suggests promoting these classes at different student group events around campus or, she says with a smile, even making it a diversity requirement.
As much as Dr. So would like to see a more diverse classroom, she is perfectly happy with educating the Asian American students who come.
“We have so much learning and unlearning to do,” she says. “It has to start with yourself. If you don’t care about what people say about you and your community, how can you expect other people to?”