Ethnic Studies Graduation Keynote Speech

I was very honored this past week to give the keynote speech for the department I graduated from with an MA in 2011 and was teaching in from 2014 to 2017. Here is that speech, I am posting it, because I feel some of the topics I touch on are important to think about across academia as a whole.


Thank you for having me here today. So I was asked to come talk because sadly I'm leaving for a postdoc in Budapest, but I want to start off by telling you a little about how I got here...

My senior year of my undergrad I took Dr. Eric Ishiwata's Contemporary US Race Politics class out of the Political Science department. I was excited for the course as I had heard about what an amazing teacher Eric is. On the first day of classes, my first class was 20th Century Fiction, which was a great class but the teacher treated us like we were in elementary school. I left annoyed that I was taking a class where I, an adult who had already fought in a war, was being treated like a child. I then stepped into Eric's class where he not only treated us like adults but also didn't hold back any punches, told us his expectations, and it was clear he wasn't going to take any shit from any of us. This charged me, and after the class I went up to introduce myself to one of the people who would become one of the biggest influences in my life. I'm sure at the time he thought I was just another ass kissing student who bombards the teacher on the first day, but throughout the course of the semester I proved that I was committed to the lessons that was being taught, lessons about understanding and fighting oppression, how our everyday lived realities are both political as well as tied up in histories of racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia, and lessons about creating a critical attitude of the structures of power that create our identities, our culture, and our country. Eric then invited me to apply for the newly formed Ethnic Studies graduate program, where I would become apart of the first cohort to graduate with an MA in Ethnic Studies. 

The cohort and the professors opened my eyes and my heart not only to a new literature of thought, but more importantly to a new way of thinking and understanding. I was able to understand the different ways I have been complicit in systems of oppression, how I am privileged, how to listen, and also how to fight with my words. This was also one of the first academic communities I felt apart of, as we would all hangout in the middle of Aylesworth C 3rd floor. While I like our new space, and Aylesworth was not a great building, the community space that we built in Aylesworth has yet to be matched. 

I was fortunate enough to continue on to Hawaii, still following in Eric's footsteps as I went and got my PhD in Political Science. While writing my dissertation, Irene asked if I would be able to come back to the department to teach some classes around my work on militarism and war, as well as fill in for some other courses. It felt like my dream was coming true, as I was able to return home to the community I loved most. I was able to come home and as Eric puts it, I am able to try and be infectious with my thought! I am very grateful for the opportunity to return and teach classes in this department. I am honored by the faculty that I have been able to work next to, and I am always inspired by the students who are engaged in Ethnic Studies. 

I truly love this community, but I am also worried about it. So I want to say some words of advise for not only the outgoing students, but also the current students and faculty that will be continuing on in this community. 

Since Ethnic Studies inception at San Francisco State in the 60's it has been about fighting the powers that work to oppress, subjugate, and divide us. It has been about creating communities of resistance, and reclaiming space that has been colonized and controlled for the gains of the few on the backs of the many. It has been about relearning our histories to include the history of those who have been oppressed for 500 years in this country and around the world. It has been about creating tools to fight oppression.

But since the Civil Rights movement, and since the birth of Ethnic Studies, there has been a constant backlash at the gains made by the marginalized. This backlash has comes not just from racist hate groups and from Republican dog whistle politics like the Southern Strategy, but it has also come from liberal institutions including the academy. A shift to neoliberal policies works to undermine the gains made by the Civil Rights movement and Ethnic Studies. As the academy becomes more and more corporate we all start to be treated merely as numbers. I want you to know, you are not a number! By caring more about class sizes, enrollment numbers, and money coming into the college we undermine everything Ethnic Studies stands for, as it is the stories and community which is what we should be about. We must resist! We must not become a regular department! We must be loud and proud! We must not be afraid! And we must keep fighting! 

If we are not that critical voice that hangs signs in our window that says Black Lives Matter, who will be? If we are not the professors who come to stand behind our Muslim community when acts of hate are committed against them, then who will be? If we are not the department that comes and stands behind immigrant and refugee communities, then who will be? If we give in and conform, then we are doing exactly what they want, sitting down and shutting up. 

Whether you are staying here or going elsewhere, you should never give in, you should never stop fighting. The academy is changing, the world is changing, we must change to, but that doesn't mean we need to conform to what they want. As Audre Lorde reminds us, "The masters tools will never dismantle the masters house." So we must find new ways to fight, without giving in, and without going against the history that makes Ethnic Studies so beautiful, strong, and important. 

You all who are graduating and leaving are now moving to the front lines of the fight! Keep up the good work, stay critical, and stay strong! It can be difficult, you will feel alone at times, and you may get burnt out... I know cause I've been there, but know we are still here for you, and hopefully we will continue to train reinforcements to come help in the fight!