Doing better and getting it right

Guest Post by Min Hyoung Song

In Oak Creek, Wisconsin, on August 5, 2012, Wade Michael Page entered the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin during Sunday service and opened fired, killing six and wounding several others. He then turned his gun on himself. Page was a veteran of the army and was being tracked by the Southern Poverty Law Center for his involvement with neo-Nazi groups, including membership in a rock band named End Apathy. The local police initially described this crime as an act of domestic terrorism, but quickly backed away from this term to insist that no motivation could yet be determined.

Tragedies such as these, when they directly affect Asian American communities, give urgent occasion to those of us who work in Asian American studies to consider the purposes our research, teaching, and outreach serve. I believe fervently that academic work should not be about the accumulation of knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Rather, such work is primarily valuable when situated within a social context that it responds to. We can try to make sense of this context from multiple, systemic, and creative perspectives. And, just a little less frequently, we can also seek to contribute to this context’s continual dynamism in deliberate and ethical ways.

This last aspiration resonates in a special way in Asian American studies. Its founding was focused on a specific racially marginalized population that, in being so object-centered, necessarily challenged prevailing disciplinary norms. Over the more than thirty years of institutional growth that this field has experienced, the participants in this growth have sought to remain anchored to this founding principle. And while our successes have been many, including an expansive network of programs, course offerings, and scholarly works that illuminate nearly every corner of Asian American experiences, they have also been confined to the institutions that have fostered the development of this field as an academic endeavor.

So what kind of difference can we make when an Asian American community like the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin is targeted for such brutal violence? How do we as scholars best intervene in a social context that has acted as a kind of condition of possibility for this kind of violence, from the widespread attitudes toward firearms that allowed Wade to purchase his weapons legally to the anti-Muslim, and anti-foreign, sentiments that have metastasized in the United States since 9/11? Are there limits to our collective endeavors as academics that we must humbly accept? The latest issue of the Journal of Asian American Studies  address these questions in a number of diverse ways, from its core articles to a new forum that seeks to think about what Asian American Studies can do better and what it might be getting right.

Min Hyoung Song is an associate professor of English at Boston College and editor of the Journal of Asian American Studies.