Scrutinizing the AAPI Studies Major

Following the faculty vote approving the AAPI Studies program, Editor-in-Chief Kei Lim ’25 and Senior Managing Editor Noor Rahman ’25 dissect the critical shortcomings of the discipline and the exclusionary tendencies at Amherst that exacerbate them.

On Friday, the faculty voted to approve the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Studies program, a new interdisciplinary major that would center AAPI literature and history across disciplines and “lived experiences of immigrants and their descendants across the diaspora.” The major claims to represent all Asian populations — including East, Southeast, South, and Central Asians, in addition to Middle Eastern people and Pacific Islanders. However, its overly-broad subject matter perpetuates colonial constructs of race and minimizes the histories and experiences of non-East and Southeast Asians — a trend that already permeates Amherst’s campus.

What is the commonality between Filipinx Americans and Armenian Americans, between Palestinian Americans and Japanese Americans, that justifies them being united within the same discipline? Advocates for the AAPI studies program have failed to address what links these groups, besides the Asian continent.

Some of the core classes in the newly approved program are called “The Asian American Experience” and “Methods and Theories in Asian American History.” Embedded in these course titles is the colonial Eurocentric notion that the experiences of Arab Americans post-9/11 and 19th century Chinese railroad workers belong to a single history that can be conveniently compartmentalized under the title “Asian American.”

The construct of Asia, which is the sole determinant of inclusion in the AAPI Studies program, does not carry with it any language, religion, culture, or racial identity that would logically necessitate a unique academic discipline. In fact, the idea of Asia is a brainchild of the West, a way to distinguish the uncivilized eastern part of the Eurasian continent from the civilized western part. The reality of the Asian continent is that it is home to the majority of the human population. That the richness of Asia and, by extension, the so-called Asian American diaspora, is boxed into a single department because of a Eurocentric designation of “us and them” is both irrational and racist.

There is a second problem with AAPI studies that is even more insidious than the first one. While the discipline claims to represent pan-Asian American populations equally, many AAPI studies programs and departments at other institutions of higher education are largely dominated by East (and in some cases Southeast) Asian faculty and curricula. This is evident at the University of California at Los Angeles and at Williams College, among others.

To see evidence of this phenomenon, we need only look toward our own campus, the courses we offer, and the groups involved in pushing for the establishment of the AAPI studies program.

On our own campus, courses that purportedly study Asian America tend to favor East and Southeast Asian voices. English courses such as “Creative Writing in Asian America” and “Asian American and Pacific Poetry and Lyric” include texts primarily from East, Southeast, and Pacific writers. In the Fall 2023 semester, “Racial Consciousness and the Asian American Perspective” also centered East and Southeast Asian histories, issues, and perspectives. While the professor was upfront about the nature of the syllabus, we are forced to question why the course was labeled “Asian American,” suggesting a pan-Asian course of study when this was not the reality.

Proponents of the AAPI studies program have neither acknowledged this as a problem within the discipline nor have they outlined a plan to prevent the program at Amherst from falling into the same pattern. In fact, the East and Southeast Asian-centric activism that led to the vote on Friday suggests that the AAPI studies program is headed toward this outcome.

This problem is not restricted to AAPI studies; almost every instance of a so-called “Asian” anything on our campus is dominated by East and Southeast Asian voices (with the occasional token South Asian).

The Asian Cultural House (ACH), the Asian American Writers Association (AAWG), and the Asian Students Association are three campus groups that claim to represent all of Asia while its leadership and membership are nearly exclusively East and Southeast Asian.

The student group largely responsible for the establishment of the AAPI studies program itself, the Asian American and Pacific American Action Committee, has consisted mostly of East and Southeast Asian students. Last week, the Amherst Asian Alumni Network published a list of testimonials in favor of the AAPI studies major in The Student. Nearly all contributors were East or Southeast Asian.

The exclusion of all non-East and Southeast Asians from so-called Asian spaces creates an illusion of representation: Because the college claims to hold space for pan-Asian population in name, it overlooks the fact that, in practice, it has not provided for Central Asians, South Asians, or Middle Eastern students.

(Some may argue that the homogenous demographic makeup of these spaces is a result of self-selection and not exclusion. A 2022 Instagram post by the ACH soliciting applications for the following year displayed the flags of Thailand, China, South Korea, Philippines, Vietnam, and Japan — all located in East and Southeast Asia. The AAWG’s reading list includes almost exclusively East and Southeast Asian authors. Numerous other examples of tacit exclusion can be found upon closer investigation of these spaces.)

Given this trend, it is hard to believe any assertion that the new AAPI studies major will be anything except an instrument of further alienation and exclusion. More importantly, no such assertion has been made.

Ultimately, the decision to establish the AAPI studies program reeks of ivory tower virtue signaling — a college determined to continue to imagine itself as a progressive and inclusive institution, without critical analysis of what such progress ought to look like.