East Asian Studies Program Needs Reform

Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month is underway, and I’ve taken some time to reflect on what it means to be Asian-American at Oberlin. There have been some wonderful events on campus, such as the Japanese Student Association’s banquet and Asian Night Market, but academically, I realized there are not many places for Asian Americans to thrive. While there were many issues I identified in my conversations with different people, it all boiled down to one damning realization: the East Asian Studies department does not support all Asian-American students. 

While there are plenty of student organizations on campus, such as the Asian-American Alliance and the Asian Diaspora Coalition, affinity spaces for Asian-American students are still limited. Third World House, a safe space for students of color, is at risk of closing for next year, and the Multicultural Resource Center has been facing staffing shortages for years. Additionally, Asia House, the only identity-based housing option specifically for Asian students, is open to any student interested in Asian culture, even if they aren’t Asian themselves.

In light of the lack of designated spaces for Asian Americans on campus, and the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic, learning about Asian history and culture matters now more than ever for Asian Americans. However, many have felt unsupported in their endeavors.

Almost half of the professors in the East Asian Studies department are white, and there are many white students who are majoring or planning to major in East Asian Studies. I want to make it clear that I respect their scholarship, passion, and dedication. However, simply showing an interest in East Asian Studies is not the same as having a cultural connection to Asian-American culture and history. It seems like that has not been acknowledged by everyone, as actions from white students and professors have caused harm to Asian students. For instance, someone I spoke to praised the East Asian Studies department and professors, but felt frustrated by the number of times they had to censor themself because of white students taking up too much space in their class

College third-year Kaylyn Ready, an East Asian Studies and Dance major, shared a specific incident. She spoke about a time when a white professor used a slur in her class, and the reaction she and other students had afterward.

“The other Asian students in the class went, ‘What the hell just happened? What the hell?’” Ready said. “And then after I talked to a bunch of white students in that class, they went, ‘I didn’t even notice.’ I worked at an [Asian] grocery store and got harassed with that word that this teacher said with no tact. It hurt. And it still does hurt. If you are a white person taking up space in this department, you at least have to acknowledge that you are teaching something that is not yours. You may think it’s yours after all the time you spent in Japan and after all the Japanese people that have sung your praises in Japan, but … there are separate standards to being Asian in America.”

In addition, the East Asian Studies major at Oberlin is quite limited. According to the program website, “Oberlin’s Department of East Asian Studies stands out within a liberal arts context for its faculty expertise in all three major regional areas: China, Korea, and Japan.” That severely limits the vast number of Asian cultures one can learn about. South Asian Studies in particular is a program that is long overdue at Oberlin. 

Although he is not majoring in East Asian Studies, double-degree third-year Suvan Agarwal has had a positive experience with classes in the East Asian Studies department. However, he believes Oberlin could greatly benefit from a South Asian Studies program, and is disappointed by its exclusion. 

“The lack of South Asian Studies at Oberlin goes beyond inclusion and representation — it is an institutional weakness,” Agarwal wrote in an email to the Review. “South Asia is home to about a quarter of the world’s people and contains the fastest growing economies in the world. Nearly all of the best schools in America have strong South Asian Studies programs, and Oberlin is an exception by choosing to support only East Asian Studies. I think that in time … the school will be wishing they had developed such connections sooner.”

All this being said, I want to reiterate that I respect the time and dedication it takes to study East Asian culture. I think it’s important for everyone to take the time to engage with East Asian Studies while they’re at Oberlin. However, I want non-Asian students and professors to think critically about why they’re choosing to study East Asian culture, and how they will continuously support Asian students inside and outside the classroom. Do you see the need for South Asian Studies at Oberlin, or do you only perceive Asia as Japan, Korea, and China? Are you studying East Asian cultures because you are genuinely interested, or because of a sick fetish from your favorite anime or K-pop group? Will you speak out against anti-Asian racism and orientalism, or will you look the other way? Do you recognize the space you’re taking up, or do you talk over Asian Americans advocating for themselves? 

“You’re studying something that you will never understand, and that’s fine.” Ready said. “That’s what a lot of academia is. But it’s not just math. It’s not just science and physics. It is a culture. It is where people come from. It is what people feel proud of. It is where people connect and love and speak to their families. It is so much more than just a major. It is home. It is love.”