Written by Haylee Kushi ’18
On Friday April 21st the Asian American Studies Task Force hosted the 2nd annual undergraduate ethnic studies colloquium at Yale in collaboration with the Black Student Alliance at Yale, the Association of Native Americans at Yale, and Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán. Around 30 students gathered in the Asian American Cultural Center to watch the keynote speech by visiting lecturer in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Zethu Matebeni (a researcher from the Huma Institute for Humanities in Africa). Dr. Matebeni, a scholar of both postcolonial studies and queer theory, provided a new way of looking at the power of student protests and demonstrations at the University of Cape Town, South Africa.
Following Matebeni’s lecture eight undergraduate students, from a diverse range of academic backgrounds including English, Physics, Political Science, African American Studies, and Ethnicity, Race, and Migration, presented at the colloquium organized in three panels: “Decolonizing Knowledge and Practice,” “Representations and Narratives,” and “Community Formations.”
On the first panel, “Decolonizing Knowledge and Practice,” three seniors shared work from their undergraduate theses addressing forms of resistance within oppressive institutions.: Layla Treuhaft-Ali (Hopper ‘17) explored the insistence by public schools in the rural south that black students receive an “industrial education.” Kodi Alvord (ES ‘17) showed the various ways that hospitals criminalize traditional healing in American Indian communities. The panel concluded with Lauren Chambers (TD ‘17) critiquing the white, male-dominated field of physics.
Presentations were followed by questions and early on a first-year student asked about the American medical professions’ simultaneous dismissal and extraction of indigenous traditional medicine mentioned in Alvord’s presentation. Alvord responded: “Western medicine is beginning to catch up to American Indian medicine in its realization of the importance of context and community.” This was but one of the many interactions that fostered a space of collaboration: the first-year student later said that the colloquium had given her a reason to be excited about one day writing her own senior thesis.
We study the injustices of institutions as we seek to join with hopes of bettering them, we look for nuance in the narrative arcs of our histories to understand how we arrived at our current realities, and we investigate what formed our communities in the first place, with the hope that we might strengthen them.
The second panel, “Representations and Narratives,” featured Andy DeGuglielmo (SM ‘18) and Sabina Lee (PC ‘17) providing sharp look at the way certain histories have been narrated. DeGuglielmo, a Political Science major, utilized competing theoretical assertions on the definitions of war and sovereignty to explain how the historical understanding of the “Indian Wars” mischaracterizes and erases how “Native Americans have sought justice for centuries.” Lee walked colloquium attendees through a close reading of Kim Thuy’s Ru (2009), a semi-autobiographical novel about a Vietnamese refugee’s journey and transition to life in Quebec, Canada. Lee encouraged the audience to have a nuanced understanding of the tension between gratitude and ingratitude or condemnation for refugees in the West. As part of Lee’s presentation she passed around her own lovingly and heavily annotated copy of Ru.
In the final panel, Edward Dong (JE ‘17), J.Y. Chua (SY ‘18), and Cathleen Calderón (ES ‘17) placed small community formations within larger political and social movements. Calderón discussed the Los Angeles community’s danza practice, a traditional dance that comes from Mesoamerica that celebrates Indigenous identity. During this talk Calderon pointed to the words of an interviewed dancer who asserted, “We will be Indian regardless of our Spanish surname…it helps us become proud.” In the next talk Dong analyzed a collection of letters between parents of queer Asian American activists. He critically urged us to understand the direction of intergenerational conversation by highlighting the conclusion of a letter, which read, “If any parent needs support to cope with his or her own experience, please write to us. We will be glad to help.” Chua wrapped up the colloquium with an oral history on the life of Madeleine Lim, a lesbian Singaporean activist, that demonstrated a need for deeper investigation of the “myth that queer migrants leave conservative hometowns for the accepting West.” Chua said that the model minority myth hinders the documentation of queer Asian American history, a field which has not caught up to cultural studies in terms of understanding intersectionality.
Although most of students were not Ethnicity, Race, and Migration majors, all of the presentations were in line with an ethnic studies imperative towards social justice. We study the injustices of institutions as we seek to join with hopes of bettering them, we look for nuance in the narrative arcs of our histories to understand how we arrived at our current realities, and we investigate what formed our communities in the first place, with the hope that we might strengthen them. Almost all of the panelists filled or exceeded their ten-minute time slots with explanations of their research, critical analysis, and reflections on the broad-reaching implications of their projects. A universal conclusion? There is always more work to be done, especially in ethnic studies.
Haylee Kushi is a member of the RITM Center’s Student Advisory Board and a Yale College junior majoring in Ethnicity, Race, and Migration.
The Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration advances work related to Ethnic Studies fields; to intersectional race, gender, and sexuality research; and to Native and diasporic communities in the United States and abroad.