Published: May 16, 2022 By

This year’s Symposium “Intermountain Asia and DEI: Asian Studies in Colorado and Beyond” aimed to illuminate CAS’s 2021-2022 annual theme of Intermountain Asia by fostering discussion about justice, diversity, equity, and inequality in Asia/Asian diasporas as well as encouraging participants to talk about the importance of teaching and research about Asia in Colorado. The Symposium was organized into three roundtable sessions comprising scholars from institutions across the Front Range. John-Michael Rivera, Associate Dean for Arts and Humanities, provided introductory remarks, emphasizing the importance of international studies and ethnic studies for broadening students’ minds and providing inclusivity on campus. 

Roundtable 1, “Inter-Asian Connections and Links between Asia and Colorado,” began with Einor Cervone (Associate Curator of Asian Art, Denver Art Museum) discussing the Asian Art collection at DAM and how it has been reoriented to encourage engagement with Asia, rather than presenting Asia as a distant, historical subject. Clarence Lee (Asian Languages and Civilizations, CU Boulder) argued for Asian studies to focus less on difference, and more on the production of difference. Carol McGranahan (Anthropology, CU Boulder) discussed her efforts to get students to think about Asia in less essentialized terms and to consider the global connections that have shaped and continue to influence Asian societies, including colonialism and empire. Andrea Stanton (Religious Studies, University of Denver) talked about the unexpected connections she has found between Colorado and West Asia, including the long history of the Ahmadiyah Muslim community in the area. Audience members were eager to ask questions about defining the borders of Asia, how to balance a focus on US hegemonic power and imperialism with an interest in decentering the US, and ideas for emphasizing the importance of inter-Asian connections. 

Roundtable 2 was titled “Diversity, Inequality, and Marginalization within and among Asian Societies.” Lucy Chester (History, CU Boulder) began by discussing India—particularly Kashmir—as well as the exclusion of Muslims in Indian politics and society, the rise of religious nationalism, and ongoing legacies of imperialism. Next, Joon Kim (Ethnic Studies, Colorado State University) described the recent rise of imported labor in the Republic of Korea, focusing on the plight of migrant workers, labor abuses and protections, the increase in births from inter-ethnic marriages, and the emergence of multi-cultural education. Evelyn Shih (Asian Languages and Civilizations, CU Boulder) turned the roundtable’s attention to China, Taiwan, and the larger Sinophone (Sinitic-language communities), and she took up issues of colonialism, colorism, and the importance of translation for a broader understanding of the complexities of East Asian societies. Finally, Tenzin Tsepak (Center for Asian Studies, CU Boulder) discussed Tibet and the Himalayan region, and he described the recent struggle for the recognition of Tibetan as one of the official languages of India. In the question-and-answer time, the roundtable panelists discussed the place of international diversity within “local” (domestic) discussions of diversity, equity, and inclusion. The conversation was a lively one, and it included observations by an audience member who commented on the parallels between Asian social struggles and the Native American rights movement in the United States. 

Roundtable 3, “Asian Studies in Justice, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Work” challenged us to think about how students and faculty in Asian Studies fields already contribute to DEI work, and what more we can do in the context of teaching and service to the university to help DEI initiatives move from rhetoric to reality.  Aun Hasan Ali (Religious Studies, CU  Boulder) spoke first, reminding us that Asianists have a significant role to play in DEI initiatives that are often centered exclusively on diversity as defined by conditions in the US. By providing a broader perspective, Asianists decenter the white gaze and argue for inclusion of marginal voices that are often left out of mainstream DEI work. Mithi Mukherjee (History, CU Boulder) followed Dr. Ali’s comments by emphasizing how diversity is global issue, not just one within the US. As scholars who work on cultures outside the US (and perhaps come from them ourselves too), Dr. Mukherjee pointed out that we can speak up for how diversity is often a source of strength in Asian countries, not just a concept that, when it is discussed in the US, can trigger fear and disruption. Since Asian studies classes serve diverse students (who are often marginalized within the US before they get to us), and we are a diverse group of faculty, we have a natural opportunity to demonstrate the value of inclusivity through our teaching. The third speaker, Stephanie Santos (Gender, Women and Sexualities Studies, Metropolitan State University Denver) began her remarks by sharing perspectives gained from her fieldwork in the Philippines. Returning to a theme brought up by earlier speakers, Dr. Santos spoke about the importance of dismantling the idea things happening “over there” are separate from the important work activists can engage in within our own communities. One thing we must do is amplify the voices and efforts of those who are already doing important diversity and equity work. Instead of simply thinking about “including” marginalized groups into mainstream efforts, what happens when we deliberately center them? This productive, thought-provoking panel ended the symposium on an inspiring, challenging note for CAS’s future efforts. 

The symposium generated important and compelling discussions on issues such as social justice movement in Asia, decentering the US/West, the continuing impacts of colonialism and empire on Asia as well as within Asia, transnational solidarities, and much more. CAS looks forward to continuing these discussions next academic year (2022-2023) and beyond with events that touch on these themes.

Thanks to Keller Kimbrough and Katherine Alexander for assistance with this write-up!