The Road Ahead

Remembering Ronald Takaki and exploring Ethnic Studies

by annie kim noguchi

Each day, I read a quote I have posted above my desk: “How do we free ourselves from our past, if we do not even know this past?” Author of this quote, Professor Ron Takaki (1939-2009), is often called the “father of multicultural studies.” After the third world Liberation Front strikes in the 1960s, Professor Takaki was one of the first to offer courses on race, ethnicity, and community, eventually creating the first graduate-level program in Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley.

Asian American Studies Program Lecturer Harvey Dong describes Professor Takaki as “a unique academic, an activist educator who challenged the master narrative, and who was and continues to be a model for a university tenured professor.” Professor Ron Takaki passed away this June at the age of 70. His campus memorial three weeks ago was packed—standing room only for just a small portion of the students, colleagues, family, and community members whose lives he has touched. Ethnic Studies professors, students, and family described a fun-loving and gregarious activist, committed both to his work and his family. Most strikingly, all spoke of Professor Takaki’s commitment and contributions to Ethnic Studies, of his ground-breaking work as an academic, a teacher, and a public figure who contributed tirelessly to the field of multiculturalism.

As I sat at his memorial in the International House auditorium, I couldn’t help but think about how Professor Takaki’s work and passing have affected me. Another of his quotes helps to explain why Asian American Studies is so important to me: “The task for us is not only to comprehend the world, but also to change the world. In our very comprehending, we are in fact changing the world.”
Asian American Studies has helped me to situate my life and my history in the the current racial, political, and social topography. It’s provided me with the tools and the knowledge to bridge the divide between my where I came from and my family’s history, and my experience at Berkeley, training for whatever career awaits. In comprehending an alternate history and an alternative way of looking at the world, I am changing my world.

However, with Professor Takaki’s passing, I am also reminded that Asian American Studies continues to exist only with the scholarship of our professors and the engagement of our students. With the recent budget cuts and the loss of two tenured professors in the program, Ronald Takaki and Ling-Chi Wang, where is the future of the program? Many of the professors I spoke with in the Asian American Studies (AAS) Program agreed that AAS is “at a juncture,” as Professor Michael Omi put it. One direction he is a part of is a move towards community based studies. Professor Omi is the UC Berkeley campus representative for the UC AAPI Multi-Campus Research Program, established to draw on resources system-wide to disseminate knowledge about AAPIs to California legislators and community based
organizations. The University of California “has an obligation to apply its research expertise to the study of AAPI related policies.”

Lecturer Hatem Bazian also links community engagement with the AAS program. His class, Muslims in America: Community and Institutions, emerged after 9/11 and “Our Asian American Studies Program is more than simply a major. It’s our community of students, teachers, faculty, thinkers,
and activists working together to understand and change the world. It’s your story, it’s my story, and it’s our story.” is now part of the AAS Program. In addition to Asia having the largest segment of Muslims, many South and Southeast Asians were targeted for backlash after 9/11. As a result, bridges
were created between the Muslim and APA communities— the Asian Law Caucus came forward and asked the Muslim community what they needed, and the Japanese American Citizens League co-sponsored events with the Muslim community. Even on campus, the Nikkei Student Union and the Muslim Students Association facilitated an event together highlighting their shared experiences of discrimination and backlash. Professor Bazian suggests that it’s time that we all examine ourselves and determine where we can “bring new energies” to the program and the field.

Professor Khatharya Um also focuses on the growth of the program, describing its transformation over the last few decades. The arrival of Southeast Asian refugees added new dimensions to the APA community and a “new layer of complexity” with transnational ties even deeper and
more entangled. There has been a growth of scholarship of Southeast Asians and a “closer bridging of disciplines.” In the past, Asian Studies focused primarily on Asia, while Asian American Studies was primarily American-centric. However, now the field is becoming more transnational and diasporic, an identity which is being formalized in responses to student
need in a name change of the program from Asian American Studies to Asian American and Diasporic Studies. How do these professors’ views for the future fit into the reality of the AAS program’s success? Chair of the Asian
American Studies Program, Elaine Kim, points out that while the field is blossoming nationally, development at Berkeley has been slower in the last 20 years. Perhaps this is related to the fact that AAS faculty at Berkeley have been engaged elsewhere. According to Professor Kim, many of the faculty in
the AAS Program advise graduate students, and many faculty are also busy holding administrative positions. Again, this raises the question of replenishing our AAS faculty. However, while our faculty may be dwindling, lecturers Hatem Bazian’s and Harvey Dong’s class sizes are growing. Enrollment in Professor Dong’s AAS courses has increased, even though the university is cutting its size. Why then, is no search being conducted to hire new faculty for tenured positions? While it may not be a priority for the university, it is important that students are a “part of the conversation,” as Professor Omi suggests, and express their vision of AAS. Students must make their needs known, because no involvement and no demand on the university means we’re losing ground. “If you look back at history, the
guarantors are the students,” says Harvey Dong. “It’s up to students to study the issues, decide whether or not they agree, and then question and make changes.” Students are the “living testimonials,” says Professor Um. They need to be “out there, talking about why AAS is important.” And so the question of faculty and resources continues to arise. While the need to replenish faculty predates the budget cuts, the overall budget crisis has made it that much harder to hire new faculty. Professor Um puts it bluntly: we need to replenish our faculty, or we are “seriously in trouble.” And, as many professors have said, it’s up to the students to make their need for a robust AAS Program known. It’s up to the students to decide what they need and agitate for it. After all, it is our university and our education.

Our Asian American Studies Program is more than simply a major. It’s our community of students, teachers, faculty, thinkers, and activists working together to understand and change the world. It’s your story, it’s my story, and it’s our story. It’s important that as students, we think about how Asian American Studies applies to us, and what we want to see from the program. Whether a major or not, we are still students in this community. It’s time to become engaged, become involved, and become part of the discussion about the field of study that seeks to understand and disseminate knowledge that is so closely tied to our communities and ourselves. Whether your actions include becoming an AAS major, taking an AAS class, joining hardboiled or another community group, or simply continuing to educate yourself, it’s time for action, learning, and development. In the words of
the late Professor Ron Takaki: In our very comprehending, we are in fact changing the world.