Dr Karín Aguilar-San Juan on Equitable Exchange, Bruce Lee and, the Future of Activism

On Jan. 31, a talk titled ‘Racism, Imperialism, and Ethical Return: The Power and Promise of Asian American Studies was held in Kohlberg Hall’s Scheuer Room as a part of the Genevieve Ching-wen Lee ’96 Memorial Lecture series. This series was established in 1995 and is intended to support the development of multi-disciplinary Asian American studies. The speaker was Swarthmore alum Dr. Karín Aguilar-San Juan ’84, who is currently a professor of American Studies at Macalester College. Dr. Aguilar-San Juan primarily focuses on Asian Americans, and her work includes ‘Little Saigons’ and ‘The State of Asian America.’ She is in the process of making a short film titled ‘Rice: A Filipino Love Story’. 

The Scheuer Room’s seating was completely filled and extra chairs had to be brought in from the adjoining room. Despite this, some attendees sat on the floor and tables in the back of the room. Students of all years and races attended the talk, and many sat with books and laptops at hand, poised to take notes. The movement in the room, with people continuing to enter and search for seats, only subsided when Dr. Aguilar-San Juan began her lecture with a minute of meditation. 

Following the mindfulness exercise, Dr. Aguilar-San Juan went on to address her introduction to the world of activism in Swarthmore, the role of solidarity building in activism, her process of defining her identity as an Asian-American, the role of pleasure in ethics, and Bruce Lee, among other topics. Relating the student activism movement in the 1960s to her present work on the role of rice in everyday life in the Philippines, Dr. Aguilar-San Juan discussed Asian American identity and activism through the ages, as well as its future. When discussing ethical return, an audience member’s iPhone was activated and Siri began giving directions to the college. Dr. Aguilar-San Juan jokingly continued her point by asking: “Where are we? Do we have direction?” She allowed the audience a few chuckles before defining ethical return as relations based on equitable exchange. This idea is crucial to her work and her emphasis on solidarity between different racial and ethnic groups. She went on to discuss the importance of ethical return in student activism. Dr. Aguilar-San Juan argued that unlike in the 1960s or her experiences with student activism in the 1980s at Swarthmore, “university will not be a stage of revolt” again; however, she still urged student activists to persevere and continue to strive for justice. She went on to emphasize the role of solidarity in activism, and particularly the historical significance of Afro-Asian solidarity, and highlighted the dangers of white saviorism in race-based activism.

Dr. Aguilar-San Juan also emphasized the role of art in activism by playing the entirety of ‘Yellow Pearl’ from ‘A Grain of Sand: Music for the Struggle by Asians in America’ and concluded her talk by playing ‘Us’ by rapper Ruby Ibarra, following a segment on how, in some interpretations, Bruce Lee is the ideal liberal arts learner. The talk was followed by a short Q&A session.

Serena Yang ’23 attended the talk and appreciated Dr. Aguilar-San Juan’s focus on Asian American Studies. 

“Studying Asian Americans through all of these specific sites of Asian American culture,” she recounted, referring to Dr. Aguilar-San Juan’s mention of Bruce Lee and Ruby Ibarra, “you kind of approach a centre of what is Asian American studies… The field is still being defined, and she’s asking us to join in on the process. We as a community are all part of this process of defining what Asian is, and what Asian activism is,” she said.  

   Dr. Aguilar-San Juan ignited conversation among the audience regarding the future and definition of Asian American studies as a field and a movement. 

Featured Image Courtesy of Isabelle Titcomb for The Phoenix

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