The Future of Ethnic Studies
When Ethnic Studies is at risk, democracy is also at risk. In this essay, Gary Okihiro outlines the history of ethnic studies as a discipline and how it must continue to sharpen its capacity for articulation and analysis of social difference so that it avoids slipping into mere identity politics and multiculturalism.
Having watched the evolving discourse of ethnic studies for over a decade, what has become important to me is the need for an ever larger context in which to locate and position myself. More recently I have become unhappy or uncomfortable with the left-brained approach and have felt the growing desire to be more embodied (rather than being a disembodied intellectual) in my knowing and being. I have also grown tired of the current and trendy language of analysis (whether Foucauldian, Lacanian, Marxist, etc) which is mostly inaccessible to the folks outside of academe.
Ethnic Studies began as a community-based movement (hence the charge of "cultural nationalism"). By the time I was doing graduate work, postmodern discourse has taken hold. This was also the 80s when Reagan conservatism kicked in and the nation was declared "at risk" by conservatives like Allan Bloom and E D. Hirsch who called for a return to conservative multiculturalism. The "old guard" of Ethnic Studies scholars was replaced by young pomo savvy scholars who became more interested in the professionalization of Ethnic Studies (read: attempt to prove that ES is a legitimate, rigorous intellectual discipline). I know of several Fil Am academics who sacrificed their relationship with the Fil Am community in order to concentrate on the tenure-track process of publish or perish. Some peers tell me that they could no longer afford to spend time working with their communities because of the demands of tenure. It was a tough choice that had to be made.
There are still scholars who do community-based dissertation research and then get published by a university press and get rewarded with tenure. But these scholarly books are usually written in the dense and obtuse language of academese and they don't reach an audience beyond the scholar circles. However, those who labor to read through this language do get rewarded with new theoretical paradigms and fresh ideas with which to conceptualize their work on the ground.
I have always been on the fence, a marginal scholar (others have called me) and sometimes I have been generously called an "organic intellectual." Whatever the label, my heart and my desire has always been to stay connected to the pulse of my communities. My books never went the route of peer reviews and university presses. Some of my peer reviewed journal publications were later included in important anthologies but still I am aware that there are other Fil Am scholars who do not touch my work. It is as if by ignoring it, they refuse to legitimize it as an academic discourse. (This is only a game, of course, and when played by somebody else's rules, no one wins).
There are a few scholars though (Peminist-identified scholars) who have found my work on decolonization to be valuable and they have since expanded and extended the discourse farther and deeper into the shared project of community-building through education. I thank them here now: Allyson Tintiangco-Cubales, Patricia Halagao Espiritu, Joanie May Cordova, Dan Begonia, and others who reference the work that I've done.
I feel uncomfortable writing about this but I feel that it's time that I overcome my timidity. After all, I feel the wind beneath my wings - the community that has encircled me. It is this community that challenges me to talk and write louder than before. Mila Coger recently challenged me: Leny, it is our time now, let's make the Babaylan known. You have to come and speak...
My latest reflections about indigenization is a deepening of the decolonization process. In this work, I forayed outside of academic disciplinary boundaries because the new language of embodiment that I wanted to speak and write in was found in the works of Martin Prechtel, Derrick Jensen, Thomas Berry, and Linda Hogan and others like them whose voices and ideas were not tamed by the demands of academic norms.
Okihiro's essay asks that ES scholars not lose their political edge and must continue to sharpen their knowledge of social formations to better safeguard democracy. The US is in the midst of imperial wars abroad and denial of civil liberties at home and ES scholars must be vigilant in their analysis and critique. So true.
The route I have taken, the doors or vistas that have opened to me via indigenous studies, tells me that it is by extending our historical perspective beyond 500 years of modernity that we come to a better understanding of globalization and its projects. To me, this means learning how to develop a mythic view of time and space, a cosmic view even - that allows for a perspective that is compelling in its urgency given that we now stand at the edge of the abyss of economic and environmental collapse or what others call a civilizational collapse.
To me, the boundary of Ethnic Studies as a discipline is porous and transparent. Its project may be primarily local and political (U.S.) and simultaneously global but what integrates and connects the two can be facilitated by developing a cosmic and mythic view. As long as I, as a scholar, maintain the tension between the local/political and the cosmic/mythic, what happens in the in-between is an adventure of the body-mind-spirit. This is what I aspire to: to learn how to dance this tension with grace, passion, equanimity, and the ability to wield a sharp sword when called for. For this, I need courage all the way to the bone marrow.