These are precisely the kinds of arguments that were made in 1941 to justify the internment, so it's rather shocking to hear them repeated in 2011. Moreover, they're precisely the lines of reasoning that have been thoroughly debunked by Asian American historians. Only Japanese Americans, and not German or Italian Americans, were subjected to mass internment based solely on ancestry. The FBI, far from seeing Japanese Americans as dangerous, found no evidence of espionage or disloyalty in the population. (Don't take my word for it; just glance at Ronald Takaki or Sucheng Chan, or any standard history of Asian Americans.)
A week later, the NYT printed two letters responding to the article, both from Japanese Americans. Although both eloquently rebutted the review's falsehoods, the Times' choice of letters suggests a merely personal response from Japanese Americans, leaving aside the larger question: How could a reporter writing for the New York Times in 2011 be so utterly ignorant of the basic facts of Asian American history?
"Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior." The article sings the praises of a harsh "Chinese" mode of parenting, including ridicule, shaming, and relentless perfectionism, and proclaims it superior to permissive "Western" parenting. A firestorm of controversy ensues, with the author of the article denounced as a monster and an abuser, and the term "tiger mother" enters the language as shorthand for extreme Asian parenting.
You can read my own take on the "tiger mother" controversy elsewhere, but for the moment the point I want to make is this: The debate that went on in the media was almost entirely between the "tiger mother" herself and her white critics. Although almost every Asian American I knew had an opinion, and many of them shared them publicly, their voices went practically unheard. Perhaps most baffling was that the author herself, American-born and Ivy League-educated, seemed utterly ignorant of the idea that such as thing as Asian American identity existed. Her argument was based entirely on the idea that she (and her mixed-race daughters) were purely "Chinese" and not American. She seemed not at all aware that the struggles with cultural identity, assimilation, and resistance that underpinned her parenting struggles were exactly what we talk about when we talk about "being Asian American."
Two depictions of Asian Americans in the pages of two of our country's leading newspapers. In both cases, what's misleading in the pieces could easily have been avoided if the authors had ever taken Asian American Studies 101. Or if even the most basic elements of Asian American studies had filtered out into mainstream American consciousness. But they haven't.
Which is why I ask: Has Asian American studies failed?
The question may seem a bit perverse. By many measures, Asian American studies has enjoyed notable success within the academy over the past several decades. The field boasts its own professional organization, the Association for Asian American Studies, with its own journal and annual conference. Over 30 colleges and universities across the country now have Asian American Studies programs, and many more schools now offer coursework in the field. Asian Americanist graduate students and faculty can be found across the social sciences and humanities, and the wealth of books and articles in the field continues to grow. It's a vibrant field of intellectual inquiry.
Yet despite all these successes, it would seem that Asian American studies has a long way to go in reshaping the larger public discourse on Asians in America. We can't expect every college graduate to have taken a course in Asian American studies. But would it be so much to ask that some of the basic insights of the field--its rewriting of the historical record on Japanese American internment, its assertion that Asian Americans are not simply foreigners or aliens, but have an experience and history of their own--be more common knowledge? Why don't we see Asian American scholars being quoted in the media or publishing books that reach a wide audience?
Perhaps what I'm describing is simply part of the perceived (and perhaps growing) divide between academic and popular writing. Certain people I know have written quite extensively about the history of this divide, and it's not surprising that as Asian American studies has matured as an academic discipline, scholarship in the field has become more specialized. The question is: how, if at all, is that scholarship reaching readers outside the field?
The job of popularizing the insights of Asian American studies, when it's been undertaken, has generally fallen to journalists. The work of Helen Zia is exemplary in this regard; her Asian American Dreams is one of the few works of popular nonfiction that I can think of that attempts to cover some of the same ground that work in Asian American studies does. More recently, bloggers like Jeff Yang and angry asian man have served as a rapid-response team for Asian American media images.
What we don't see, though, is any kind of direct conduit for the lessons of Asian American studies, as taught and practiced in the academy, to reach a wider audience. The two examples I've cited above, and innumerable others, suggest to me that such a channel is needed--that we need to find new ways for what we do in Asian American studies to have an impact in the wider public sphere.
How might we do that? A few ideas:
- Popularize. Asian American studies is interesting. It talks about hot-button issues like race, gender, sexuality, the media. It's politically engaged and upends conventional thought about America and American history. We ought to be finding ways, from journalism to popular nonfiction writing, to communicate the discoveries of our field to a wider public. (Note that I do not mean that our scholarly work needs to be conducted in "popular" language--that's another debate--but rather that we can and should translate some of that work for popular audiences.)
- Look outward. Asian American studies has its origins in activism and in service to the Asian American community. We might say it has historically looked inward, toward the Asian American community, because that is its natural audience. Is it also now time for us to look outward, toward "mainstream" audiences? Not to tell those audiences what they want to hear, or to abandon our history of Asian American activism, but to look at what is lacking in public discourse about Asian Americans and try to fill that gap.
- Advocacy. When a controversy blows up in the media about Asian Americans, quick response is needed--and academics are rarely positioned to respond quickly. We can't depend on the media to call up a professor of Asian American studies when comment is needed on anti-Asian racism or a misrepresentation of history. Can we form our own "rapid response teams" of Asian Americanists who can jump on a controversial issue quickly and intervene in public discussion? (In some fields, activist professional organizations have taken on this role; it might be worth asking whether AAAS, or some subgroup within it, could be more aggressive in speaking out on public issues.)
- Public intellectuals? Asian American studies has not, for better or worse, produced professors who can also command attention in popular media--think Henry Louis Gates, Jr. or Cornel West in African American studies. I'm not saying we need to go out and create Asian American academic celebrities, but might there be something to be said for Asian Americanists thinking of themselves more as public intellectuals, who have something to contribute to public discourse on the widest level?