Identity, Class Politics, and the Burgis

During the heyday (1970s) of radical leftist organizing within the San Francisco Asian American community and when the Asian American Studies department at SF State was still actively involved in community organizing and politics. Pictured is the I-Hotel which was slated for destruction, thus destroying the last elements of Manila Town (adjacent to Chinatown).

Originally posted on my blog The Mustard Seed.

My lifelong friend (since 1st grade ya’ll!) and activists and organizer in the Filipino American community, Carlo, recently posted a piece on his blog on Asian American Studies (specifically at San Francisco State University) and its relation to the community, the power structure, and with its original origins in the Third World Liberation Front strike in 1968.

He wrote:

When I was an undergrad, I read this article in one of my sociology courses, which talked about how over time Asian American Studies programs in general shifted from a radical, working class, anti-imperialist perspective to a liberal/conservative, middle class outlook. Whereas AAS before looked at race and class and how those were connected to a global economic power structure, AAS eventually began to place identity at the center of its analysis. I wanted to post some bits from that piece here but I can’t seem to find it anywhere.

He further wrote on the outlook of Asian American Studies Department within the College of Ethnic Studies and how many students, coming out of this department, go away with the idea that to further racial justice one needs to move up in the socio-economic ladder:

For a moment, I really believed all of that myself. But because of those two or three professors in AAS that had a class/internationalist outlook, because of the sociology and ethnic studies courses I took, and more importantly because of the organizing work that I’ve been involved in I know that outlook MAKES NO SENSE. It MAKES NO SENSE if we’re earnest in being “about the community”, about being for the rights and welfare of everyone. Having individuals become successful within the current socioeconomic power structure does nothing to address the fundamental problems of poverty, homelessness, landlessness, human rights, and all that. So long as we live in a system that’s driven by profit, climbing that ladder will always mean stepping on others to get to the top.

In my view, Asian American Studies as a discipline that merely focuses on identity and that seeks to get individuals in positions of privilege and power isn’t going to do anything to help our community.

This post, and conversations I’ve had with him, got me thinking on a couple of scholars who’ve written on this very subject, the intersection of class and race, within Asian American Studies: one from a more overall “Asian American” context, Mark Chiang, and one from a Filipino American context, Dylan Rodriguez.

In the book The Cultural Capital of Asian American Studies: Autonomy and Representation in the University Chiang:

argues that among the key features of the modern research university are the structures of autonomy that produce a relation of representation between the academy and the world–a relation that we might refer to as simply the ideology of “research.”  This institutional structure becomes evident in the history of Asian American studies at San Francisco State College, since the necessary condition for incorporating the program in the university was eliminating community control in order to establish a representative relation to the community.  The most radical aspect of Asian American studies at SF State…was that it based the governance of the program on the principle of “community autonomy.” What was not sufficiently recognized that community autonomy was directly opposed to the principle of the research univeristy, which is faculty autonomy (8-9).

Originally based on community autonomy and the uplift of the Asian American community (by attacking the systems of power and capital in the San Francisco Bay Area) the Asian American Studies department began to move toward faculty autonomy with faculty being seen as representing the community.

This mixture of identity politics with burgis (Tagalog word for bourgeois) values within a system of capitalism that Carlo and Chiang are writing about is touched upon quite eloquently and succinctly by Rodriguez in his book Suspended Apocalypse: White Supremacy, Genocide, and the Filipino Condition.

In one scene the author writes how a group of antiracist student activists partook in a nonviolent takeover of Barrows Hall in the year 2000.  The student takeover:

was an expression of insurgent democratic desire, productively audacious in its claiming of the university as “ours,” over and against the white supremacist fortification that U.C. Berkeley had become in the aftermath of the white nationalist and neo-conservative multiculturalist anti-affirmative action Proposition 209 debacle (17-18).

As this protest and occupation was going on the main Filipino American collegiate groups of UC Berkeley were practicing for their upcoming Pilipino Cultural Night (PCN) completely uninterested in the political drama unfolding in front of their very eyes.  The reason why Rodriguez points this out is because he wants to juxtapose the radical grass-roots organizing with the burgis attitudes and asspirations of the Filipino American organizations at UC Berkeley and the burgis attitudes and direction of most collegiate community PCNs.

The historical contexts and social significance of Pilipino Cultural Night have been well addressed (though at times somewhat uncritically celebrated) by numerous writers…Enacting a hallowed if contrived Filipino American performance commodity, the process of making the PCN prepares a stage spectacle that channels the creative energies and political pretensions of upwardly mobile Filipino American professionals whose premises of ethnic unity rest on their capacity to articulate a telos of membership within the modernist narratives of American national building…the protracted political labor of the PCN invariably sustains a trouble relation to the racist and white supremacist institutionalities of U.S. universities and colleges, thus amounting to a vexed collective endeavor that makes use of the institutional forms of hegemonic multiculturalism while generally withdrawing from the present-tense critique of white supremacy, within and beyond the discrete sites of higher education (12-13).

Whereas the original PCN was started by the radical, class-oriented, anti-racist, and socialist organization, Pilipino American Collegiate Endeavor, back in the 1970s, PCN had morphed (just as Asian American Studies had morphed) into:

Personal independence and bourgeois ethnic pride, intertwined and complex preoccupations of Filipino Americanist desire, had begotten a choreography that, in this moment, trivialized a danger so present that the aesthetic of the rehearsal was drowned in an arrogant defiance of presumptive American entitlements (14).

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