Conference celebrates Yale’s leadership in ethnic studies

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Professor Ned Blackhawk introduces a panel on Native studies.

Yale celebrated its legacy of ethnic studies in a Nov. 3-4 conference sponsored by the Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration (RITM) and the Asian American Cultural Center. The conference honored the late Don Nakanishi ’71, a Yale graduate who was a pioneer in the fields of ethnic and Asian-American studies and an inspiration for generations of young scholars.

Janelle Wong ’01 Ph.D., professor of American studies and director of the American Studies Program at the University of Maryland, offered the keynote address the evening of Nov. 3. Her remarks, titled “Race and Politics from Don Nakanishi to Donald Trump,” considered what we learn about race and politics by “looking at them through an Asian-American lens.”

Wong noted strong support for Hillary Rodham Clinton among Asian Americans in both the 2008 and 2016 elections. She also observed that while immigration from Mexico has garnered significant attention in this year’s campaign, the largest groups of immigrants to the United States are actually from China and India, not Mexico. The American public, moreover, is more open to immigration from Asia than from other parts of the world, she said. Discussing Asian Americans’ support for the Democratic Party, Wong stated that they, like black and Hispanic voters, seem to prefer a larger government that provides more services.

“Looking at Asian Americans helps us understand hidden political agendas,” Wong concluded. She added that her students take for granted that they can take courses in ethnic studies — something she credited Don Nakanishi for making possible.

Speaking at the conference on Nov. 4, Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway described the evolutions in ethnic studies he has observed since his time in graduate school at Yale, and his excitement that the conference and the Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration are providing a space to elevate ethnic studies and related topics on campus.

Following remarks by Holloway and RITM Center director Stephen Pitti, panelists participated in discussions on Asian American, Latinx, and Native American studies. Participants explored topics ranging from the Vietnamese boat people and refugee studies to the personal narratives of young Latinx “dreamers” to accounts of indigenous persons in early Colonial American archives. Kelly Fayard, Yale College assistant dean and director of the Native American Cultural Center, discussed her identity as both an anthropologist and a member of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians in Alabama, which she studies.

The final panel considered the life and legacy of Don Nakanishi and included comments from his wife, Marsha Hirano-Nakanishi, and their son, Thomas ’05. Thomas Nakanishi discussed the Nakanishi Prize, which has been awarded to 22 graduating Yale seniors who have provided exemplary leadership in enhancing race or ethnic relations during their undergraduate careers. Marsha Hirano-Nakanishi noted that “At Yale Don learned to love research and history. But mostly he loved people. And he would have loved this conference.”

Attendees included Yale alumni from the 1970s to 2015, representing Yale College, the Graduate School, and the Schools of Architecture and Forestry & Environmental Studies. Also present were faculty from across the university, graduate students from at least six Faculty of Arts and Sciences departments and seven schools, a large number of undergraduate students, and faculty, students, and staff from more than a dozen other universities.

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