Do Black Lives Matter for Asian Studies?

Cover of Who Is the Asianist? The Politics of Representation in Asian Studies

By Will Bridges, Nitasha Tamar Sharma, and Marvin Sterling

We are pleased to share an excerpt from the introduction of Who Is the Asianist? The Politics of Representation in Asian Studies, forthcoming from the AAS Publications Asia Shorts series. Edited by Will Bridges, Nitasha Tamar Sharma, and Marvin Sterling, Who Is the Asianist? brings together contributions from more than a dozen authors to discuss questions of positionality, authority, and race in Asian Studies.

Pre-order the book now from our distribution partner, Columbia University Press, and join us on Thursday, October 6 at 1:00pm Eastern Time for an AAS Digital Dialogues virtual book launch to celebrate the publication of Who Is the Asianist?

Toward Unfragmented Epistemologies, or Do Black Lives Matter for Asian Studies?

This volume of essays is, among other things, a record of the transformative reverberations of the Black Lives Matter movement as they undulate throughout Asia. It is also an invitation to consider the transformations these reverberations might occasion for Asian Studies. In other words, this volume asks: Do Black lives matter to and for both Asia and Asian Studies? And if they do matter, in what way does the constitutive importance of Black life for Asia and Asian Studies make itself manifest?

Black Lives Matter, Laurie Collier Hillstrom writes, is a movement that began as a moment, namely the moment in which social justice activist-organizers Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi created and shared the hashtag “#BlackLivesMatter” on social media. The immediate inspiration for the hashtag’s creation was Alicia Garza’s 2013 Facebook post entitled, “Love Letter to Black Folks.” Prompted by the announcement of the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, Garza wrote, “We don’t deserve to be killed with impunity. We need to love ourselves and fight for a world where Black lives matter. We matter. Our lives matter.” Cullors shared Garza’s love letter on social media alongside the hashtag “#BlackLivesMatter.” In the wake of the death of Michael Brown at the hands of the Ferguson Police Department, and the subsequent Ferguson protests of 2014, #BlackLivesMatter became a digital rallying cry for the activist work of Garza, Cullors, Tometi, and members of what would ultimately become the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, a decentralized, global network of activists “whose mission is to eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes.”

The emergence of BLM is informed by a sentiment—namely, the sentiment that Black life is a beautiful, constitutive expression of our shared humanity and thus is just as deserving of protection from undue legal and extralegal modes of eradication as any other expression of humanity—with a deep intellectual and political history. In The Making of Black Lives Matter, philosopher Christopher J. Lebron writes that the political ethos of BLM amalgamates four tributaries of Black intellectual and activist history: the tactic of “shameful publicity” practiced by Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells; the “countercolonization of the white imagination” proffered by Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston; the “unconditional self-possession” embodied in the protests of Anna Julia Cooper and Audre Lorde; and what Lebron calls the “unfragmented compassion” of James Baldwin and Martin Luther King, Jr.

For the purpose of this volume (read: the purpose of articulating how Black lives matter to and for Asian Studies), BLM’s promotion of unfragmented compassion is particularly revelatory. Unfragmented compassion refers to a commitment to empathetic relationships defined by reciprocity and mutual regard. This commitment is coupled with a refusal to cede one’s rightful claim to self-respect and the pursuit of the good life. Such compassion is “unfragmented” insofar as it is extended to both the self and the other: unfragmented compassion entails good faith attempts to understand the humanity of one’s interlocutor alongside a non-negotiable vision of one’s own existential value. To the degree that the political ethos and tactics of the Black Lives Matter movement are informed by the civil rights movement—think here, for example, of the “Freedom Ride” to Ferguson, Missouri, organized by BLM in 2014 to protest police brutality—BLM political action often features the revivification of the unfragmented compassion of King, Baldwin, and other intellectual leaders of the civil rights era. To be sure, there is no one-to-one correspondence between the imaginative and actual infrastructures of BLM and the civil rights movement: BLM’s founding by Black queer women, its decentralized leadership structures, and its digital activism are all examples of the transformations ushered in with the changing of the guard from the civil rights movement to the BLM generation. There is a way in which, however, these shifts speak to a continuity between the movements: BLM represents the emergence of a movement better equipped to make good on the former’s promise of expanding, rather than fracturing, epistemologies.

This is one reason why Black lives matter to Asian Studies: Black Lives Matter serves as a model and reminder of Asian Studies’ need for what we might call unfragmented epistemologies. We are quickly approaching a grim anniversary: it has been almost two decades since Andrew Jones and Nikhil Pal Singh assessed Asian Studies as “characterized by a studied failure to consider the question of race in the constitution of . . . modernities . . . throughout Asia.” There has been relatively little reckoning with this state of affairs in the intervening years. This continuing “studied failure” is not a coincidence. Rather, it is an organic by-product of the historical formation of area studies in the American academy, in which the study of race is sequestered into ethnic studies; area studies functions as the equivalent of an intellectual safe haven for those who other their objects of study by other means. In turn, this historical formation emerges as a present in which, to borrow comparative literary scholar Shu-mei Shih’s articulation, Asian Studies rarely investigates its racial unconscious or the “open secret”—“that there is a dearth of African American or other non-Asian minority scholars in Asian studies”—underwritten by the unspoken racial logic through which Asian Studies organizes itself.

Shih writes that the emergence of a new Asian Studies, one which speaks consciously to the question of race in the constitution of modernities throughout Asia, requires a response to the “ethical demand” of recognizing “interlocking racial formation[s].” Such recognition would mean seeing race as an intellectual issue that Asian Studies “need[s] to bring over here and set . . . in active confrontation and dialogue, that is, in a relation” with the epistemological concerns typically privileged by the field. To say that Black lives matter for Asian Studies is not to ask Asian Studies to do Black Studies any favors. Instead, the creation of a relationship between Black Studies and Asian Studies provides—as the essays in this volume attest—the field of Asian Studies with an opportunity to make whole its fragmented epistemology, and in so doing, to come closer to the fulfillment of the promise of its intellectual endeavor.