Three years ago, when I stepped onto campus bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, I believed that I was at one of the best universities in the world, that I could take classes with experts in every field. The spring of my sophomore year, I took one of the two Asian-American studies classes offered, Quan Tran’s GRD ’15 “Asian Diasporas from 1800.” For our final project, I recorded an oral history in which my grandfather described building a new university in the mountains after being relocated because of a U.S. and Soviet dual nuclear threat to bomb Beijing. It was the first time I realized that American history was a living subject that affected my immigrant family. Unfortunately, after such a formative experience, there were few other classes that I could take in the field. The sad truth is that despite Yale’s reputation as one of the most prestigious private research universities in the world, our ethnic studies program is weak.
Three years ago, during my first semester, I joined Next Yale, a movement that aimed to address the structural and interpersonal racism faced by students of color. Even after three years, many of the changes that they demanded have still not been met by the University. Some have been implemented: There are now mental health professionals of shared identities assigned to each cultural center, and the cultural centers’ budgets were all doubled in 2017. However, the University’s improvements to the ethnic studies program have been disappointingly lackluster.
The Program of Ethnicity, Race and Migration still has not been granted departmental status. Although it offers the fastest growing major in Yale College, Ethnicity, Race and Migration does not have the resources to support students like other departments do. It has fewer professors and, as a program rather than a department, lacks the power of hiring faculty that departments have. The mass flight of faculty members of color from Yale in 2015 — which included professors Karen Nakamura, Vanessa Agard-Jones and Jafari Allen — occurred because there were issues surrounding tenure promotion and overwork. Yale attempted to address this issue by implementing a Presidential Visiting Professors program, which chooses professors of color to teach for only one year. However, the new ethnicity, race and migration ladder faculty hires — Daniel HoSang and Ana Ramos-Zayas ’90 — have their main appointments in American Studies, not Ethnicity, Race and Migration. The 2017–18 Faculty of Arts and Sciences has only eight people of color out of its 32 new ladder faculty hires in the humanities and social sciences, and only in the American Studies, African American Studies and economics departments.
There are many proponents of ethnic studies working within the University to create change. But the task of creating an ethnic studies department at Yale is especially difficult, both because it is a private institution and because Yale has often sided with the oppressor over the oppressed.
I fear that my classmates and University administrators will misunderstand what ethnic studies is about and who ethnic studies is for. An economics professor once told me ethnic studies was an identity politics of “superficial obsessions with finding role models who look like you.” But multiculturalism and feel-good appreciation of diversity is not the supposed point of ethnic studies. Ethnic studies is the only field that teaches students to understand race, gender, sexuality, class and nation and how they construct what is considered political. This understanding is crucial to understanding why different groups of people are in the United States and how they came to be here.
Ethnic studies, an umbrella field that includes Latin American studies, African American studies, Asian American studies and Native American studies, is dangerous to systems of power because it teaches true American history. It teaches us how Mexican-American migrant laborers in the 1800s were construed as “good immigrants” in contrast to Chinese American laborers as “bad immigrants,” because Mexican laborers returned to Mexico after the harvest. It teaches us that Cambodian and Laotian refugees, currently being targeted in deportation campaigns by President Donald Trump, were only pushed to the United States because of wholly unnecessary American bombing in Southeast Asia. It gives all students the tools to understand their roles in American history and the current racial climate in America and at Yale. What is at stake in the fight for ethnic studies is American democracy.
The movement to decolonize our University is far from over. I call on my classmates to renew their commitment to ethnic studies. Flood ethnic studies classes — just as 600 students once shopped ENGL 293 “Race and Gender in American Literature.” Attend job talks given by visiting scholars of color to show interest in their potential hiring as ladder faculty. Continue to demand that University administrators establish departmental status for the Program of Ethnicity, Race and Migration and an ethnic studies requirement.
Demonstrate that Yale has no right to call itself “one of the best universities in the world” when it is still lacking profoundly in its ethnic studies resources.
Rita Wang is a senior in Morse College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.