Monday, March 01, 2010

Racism at UCSD and the Essential Ethnic Desire

I am almost out of graduate school, and almost an alumni from my Ph.D. program, Ethnic Studies at University of California, San Diego. I say almost, because I'm just waiting on word from my committee to submit the final draft of my dissertation to the graduate school. As I've been waiting for their approval, I've been closely following what's been going on on campus there lately.

To say that things have been explosive at my school of UCSD lately would be an understatement. For a campus which I remember for being so large and yet so apathetic, what has been happening there lately has been mind-blowing, in both a positive and negative sense of the word.

While I enjoyed my time at UCSD as a graduate student, the school nonetheless had a reputation amongst both undergraduates and faculty for not being very diverse and not being a great place for people who weren't White or Asian. When I was more active in the department it was almost impossible to get African American students to come to the department and it was the same in terms of getting faculty to come and stay as well. The same went for other groups, such as Native American or Latino/a American, but given the central place that African Americans have in the pantheon of American race relations, or how we are supposed to understand things such as comity, progress or racism, the lack of African American students, faculty and programs there was always very glaring.

I'll be posting more about this below, but for now to update you on what's been going on at UCSD; a few weeks ago there were plans by a UCSD fraternity to have an off-campus party called a "Compton Cookout" which would mock male and female black "ghetto" stereotypes by having those attend dress up and act out those stereotypes. This was connected to a number of previous incidents were Black students on campus had been attacked or been marginalized, and generally made to feel unwelcome at UCSD. When the campus mobilized to condemn the Compton Cookout, a second "stereotype party" was announced, and a live show unofficially referred to as a "lynching" appeared on UCSD student TV, which called Black students the "n-word" and mocked them for being hurt by the Cookout party. In the past week there have been teach-ins and protests, some involving more than 3,000 people. The other night, at least two nooses were found around UCSD's main library, and the next day students occupied the Chancellor's office demanding some very concrete and substantive promises to not only address these immediate issues of racism, but also the structural effects that seem to make UCSD such an unfriendly campus for African Americans and other groups of color.

While I find so much of what's going on appalling, I do have to admit that its interesting to see what I saw as such as placid campus for so long, up in arms and suddenly angry and active. Within the Ethnic Studies department itself, there have been numerous statements that have been written and graduate students have been assisting in organizing different events. Every morning, even though I'm in Guam I get several dozen emails going back and forth about the latest news, the latest disgusting act and the latest set of demands.

One thing caught my eye yesterday when I was going through the emails. Most of the remarks and commentary that people have been making I completely agree with. More funds to support recruitment to underrepresented groups, more programs to help ensure students from that groups stay in school, no tolerance for those who use racial imagery or symbolism to intimidate other students. One thing that struck me though was that a group of graduate students in Ethnic Studies, brought up the point that given this crisis at UCSD, the department should change its curriculum to include more about the struggles and histories of those ethnic groups who feel so alienated at UCSD. With that some alluded to the need to include more ethnically specific or focused classes in the curriculum.

For those of you who don't know, one of the things that I liked so much about Ethnic Studies at UCSD was that it wasn't a traditional Ethnic Studies department. When I say traditional, I mean that it doesn't teach Ethnic Studies as a story of ethnic groups, or that it doesn't accept that we should teach about issues of race and ethnicity through ethnic groups. For example, in most Ethnic Studies programs you'll find classes, faculty and students divided into different tracks based on different ethnic groups. So for instance, you'd have African American Studies, Chicano or Latino/a Studies, Asian American Studies, and maybe even Pacific Islander studies. You can take different classes and mix and match things, but ultimately, Ethnic Studies from this perspective is theoretically about groups and how they have struggled and navigated various oppressive frameworks and what theoretical or critical tools/lenses they have created along the way.

UCSD's program, at the graduate level didn't have any classes like this. There was no Asian American Feminism class or Chicano History class. Instead of dealing with issues of race, ethnicity and power like this, by dividing it amongst different "food groups" as we often referred to them as, UCSD would structure itself around themes or conceptual sinthomes, from which the histories and interventions of many different groups could be brought together. So for instance, there would not be a class about Black Genocide, but rather a class about Genocide, which would then draw on literature from African American scholars, African scholars, Latin American scholars, Asian American scholars, and Native American and Indigenous scholars. Other examples of classes dealt with medicine and race, imprisonment and confinement, war, immigration.
In 2006, I attended a keynote speech given by Cherokee scholar Andrea Smith at USC, where she talked about her thoughts on what the ideal way to teach race and ethnicity would be. I'd heard her give the same talk a year before and since that day, I heard her give a similar talk twice later. She talked about teaching oppression not based on different ethnic groups, but rather through different pillars of oppression, or themes by which various groups are sometimes the ones being oppressed and are sometimes helping in the oppression of others. I remember at USC, hearing people talk about how innovative her talk was, and how it all made perfect sense. It seemed strange to me, because very little she said was new to me, since that was how I had understood UCSD's Ethnic Studies department to already be.

But, back to the department itself. As someone who came from an ethnic group which is largely invisible in the United States, Chamorros or Pacific Islanders, this sort of focus made me feel much more comfortable and much more welcome in the department. The playing field was basically level, there would be no classes which essentially favored one ethnic group over another, but rather we would focus on what sorts of things tie groups together and make them distinct from each other. Not being from a large and existingly visible ethnic food group this was ideal, I, along with other students would get to learn about processes of racialization and foundations of social theory, but wouldn't be required to learn of it from only those ethnic groups which have longer critical academic traditions or more faculty in the department.

For many students, this focus was not appreciated. Coming from such a likidu department, meant having to take a class on immigration and learn about other ethnic groups, when you would most likely rather be learning about your own, or whichever group your research focused on. It meant rather than the department being a safe space for certain ethnic groups, that for all groups it would be an alienating space, where everyone was not supposed to be able to rely on an identity in order to determine their projects or their classes. The intent for this, was so that the department could avoid the implosions that other Ethnic Studies departments have gone through, where the ethnic divisions amongst faculty and students, eventually lead to rifts and antagonisms in the department. The genius of this approach is also, that the openness of race and ethnicity is meant to be foundational not exceptional.

Although most people are accustomed to seeing race as a fixed concept, as something which is biological, genealogical or phenotypical, in our department we were taught to conceive of it as something which does generally feel real, like a good foundation for any personal or political articulation, but is in truth something which has changed over time, and is always changing based on an infinite number of factors. And the key to understanding how race has been deployed or what as a concept it has done in order to differentiate, segregate, make deviant, make exceptional, make irredeemable and make expendable certain groups from others, is to see it not through already existing groups, but as processes. The department was first designed to focus on some of those primary processes by which we have historically understood race such as, slavery, genocide, immigration and then over time, more ways of understanding and exemplifying the problems have been added on.

I should note, that at the undergraduate level things are a little different. There are classes which focus on specific ethnic groups, as well as something which are more conceptual. But at the graduate level, there is nothing of the sort. So when I hear graduate students asking for UCSD to become more traditional in its approach to Ethnic Studies, it really irritates me. It irritates me because the beauty of the imperfect space that is Ethnic Studies at UCSD is the fact that it is not meant to give you an ethnic consciousness, or an ethnic identity. It is meant to give you a set of conceptual tools, which can be traced to different theorists or academics or activists, who may be identified with a certain set of socio-political intersections, but in truth have come to transcend that particular struggle or articulation alone. You can attempt to keep them in that spot, and there are plenty of other departments where that is the norm, but why should Ethnic Studies UCSD, be just like any other department?

One of the things that I would always notice in graduate school, was the ways in which so many of my fellow grad students still carried with them this intense undergraduate craving for some easy and safe identity. As an undergraduate, the mature, public self is meant to be nurtured and grown by learning and studying various things, and of course learning about your own identity and being taught your own history is something key for undergraduates of color in the United States. Not only will you leave college supposed to represent some degree or discipline, but you will always have to represent some ethnicity or identity as well, and so there is always this very pronounced desire to be given something to satisfy this need.

I can understand the desire to be given a consciousness along with your diploma for your time in college. As we see on so many campuses, its a necessary part of fighting things such as white supremacy, embedded or institutional racism or sexism. So many of those students do not simply consume these bits of their identity, but attempt to emulate struggles of the past, carry legacies into the future and fight against contemporary forms of oppression. At the University of Guam (if I can ever get a permanent position there), I am hoping to work with that desire in building Chamorro studies into major program and also help work with students to make more local and regional their classes and curriculum.

But, what I always found strange, was when students would come into Ethnic Studies at UCSD and still feel that same craving, that same essential ethnic desire. They would resist having to read stuff written by people who weren't from their community or ethnicity. They would hate not being able to take classes which weren't solely about academics or histories from their ethnicity, and they would lament that the department didn't have enough faculty members of their ethnicity.

I admit, that there were plenty of times at UCSD, where I detested reading works of Asian American, African American and Latino American authors. There were classes that I avoided like Gatos, because I knew that there would be no real connection possible to anything Pacific Islander or Guam in them. I admit, that there were alot of moments like this, but despite my own personal complaints, I nonetheless understood that there was still an importance to the way the department was set up, and that it would in fact make me a better scholar eventually by learning this way. Although, because of my particular research focus (everything Guam, anything Chamorro), I am still very much an ethnocentric scholar, and most of my knowledge and examples come from the Pacific, I still feel like I have very good grasp of issues of race and power in many different historical and contemporary contexts because of the way they were taught at UCSD. Right now, I'm working on applying for a position in Sociology at UOG, after not getting the position in History I applied for last year. Although I have the feeling that some people at UOG don't think I'd be good for any position there, sociology included since I don't have a proper disciplinary degree, but instead a crazy, radical activist, interdisciplinary degree. But in truth, I actually feel very confident that I can teach sociology in a very fresh, creative and innovative way because of my background. At UCSD, we were taught to see race and power in a society, not through a single group or a set of groups, but rather as a set of processes all of which worked in various way to produce that society.

On this job front, we'll see. I turn in my application in three weeks.

But as for Ethnic Studies at UCSD, I hope that it doesn't end up changing to become a more traditional department. It holds a very important legacy, both in terms of its theoretical underpinnings, but also as a place for professionalizing and grooming scholars. I think that the space it provides for disrupting that essential ethnic desire is an important one. There are already too many departments out there which cater to that desire, which offer to comfort it and make it feel safe, and so there should be a place where you will not only have your ideas and research challenged, but that very desire as well.


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