The AAPI Program Must Carry Its Radical Past

Senior Managing Editor Stacey Zhang ’26 writes about Asian American studies’ radical political past, and how this can inform the discipline‘s future.

When my high school history class was tasked with researching 1960s America, I was lost. Having grown up apolitical in China, I had yet to develop any sense of familiarity and belonging in American culture and history, nor did the Long Sixties’ counterculture among strangers in a foreign land appeal to me.

I browsed through newspaper archives until something suddenly caught my eye: “Gidra,” a radical, anti-war, anti-imperialist Asian American community newspaper.

On one page of the first issue, the title “Yellow Power!” was scribed in bolded fonts. Decorated by the drawing of a katana-clutching man in an attack stance, the article calls for a rejection of “the past and present conditions of powerlessness” of Asian Americans, and a united and politically-engaged “yellow power” fighting for self-determination like other marginalized groups in the United States. Other articles in the newspaper present arguments for solidarity with Filipino student movements, Black Power speeches, and anti-war call-to-actions. Another article even discusses the nascent discipline of Asian American studies. “Gidra” was symptomatic of a larger Asian American movement that immersed itself in the spirits of radical political struggle in the 1960s.

My interest in the newspaper certainly wasn't based on some recognition of people with similar phenotypes to me in my secondary education. Rather, it was the imagery of widespread Asian American radicalism that I didn't know was possible. Compared to Black and Latinx communities in the U.S., Asian Americans consistently appear apolitical and acquiescent.  

In my rapidly-evolving political consciousness, I found a sense of longing for large-scale coalition-building across movements in the U.S. and abroad shown in “Gidra,” extending far beyond liberal identity politics that continue to demarcate boundaries rather than connect us.

Can the AAPI studies program bring the political awakening I found in the lines of “Gidra”? I feel hopeful. However, if the AAPI studies program desires to make a meaningful impact on students beyond making them “feel seen,” it must root itself in the legacy of Asian American civic engagement and political struggle. It must seek to go beyond describing our position of marginalization and exoticization and push us into actions. Subtle layers of pain and joy in the Asian American experience must be complemented with analysis of the interconnectedness of oppressive structures.

The establishment of the AAPI program marks a victory for community activism and the effects it can have, but the substance of what the program achieves lies in being deliberate about the fields of expertise in faculty search and the tones of community building work.

Walking around Amherst campus around Lunar New Year, relishing the festivities, I wished that the delicate red lamps and freshly-boiled dumplings were replaced by protest posters and Palestine solidarity infographics, signed with Asian American student group logos. I wish there were teach-ins about the 2022 White Paper Movement in China or the sustained picket lines in New York Chinatown against the mega-jail-supporting Museum of Chinese in America. Perhaps the AAPI program can help to change that.

In the article about “Yellow Power,” the author Larry Kubota quotes Fredrick Douglass, who states that “The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”

Indeed. Ethnic studies grew out of political activism, and let it never forget its radical political past.