One of the first things I did in 2018 was to step down officially as convenor of the AASRN.
It’s a role I’ve had ever since the research network was formally established in 2006. Before that, I was functioning more or less as the convenor when the network was an informal group that came together after the original Asian Australian Identities conference in Canberra in 1999.
That’s about 18 years at the helm. That’s a long time.
In that time, I’ve moved through six different jobs, four universities, shifted states, had two kids, and trudged through countless angstful episodes about career direction and professional identity.
I wanted to write this post because the official note I wrote for the AASRN website, while appropriately succinct, fails to capture what I wanted (needed?) to say about having been the convenor for all that time. I suspect there’ll be a few posts that walk around this area but, for now, here’s just one set of thoughts on being convenor of a cross-sector intellectual network that strove to establish a new research field. The inherent tension between academic and activist imperatives is one of the strongest and most constructive challenges for this kind of project.
The post below was written after the AAI 6 conference in late October 2017. I had already made the decision to step down. Prior to the conference, I had started quietly sounding out a few colleagues as potential successors for various roles, but the news was not ready for announcement. The final session of AAI 6 was convened by Nikkei Australia and was titled “What does AASRN mean to me?”. Inadvertently, these wonderful colleagues had created a performative festschrift of sorts for me as the AASRN convenor. One after another, delegates spoke in the words of their peers to give answers to the posed question. Strong threads emerged about finding an intellectual home, feeling welcomed into an interdisciplinary academic and activist community, no longer feeling alone, and relishing the mix of creators, community workers, and researchers. For me, it was evidence that my primary aims for the network had been reached. This affirmed for me that it was a perfect time to hand the network over to others for whom the vision clearly chimed, and who had aims of their own for its potential.
If you want to change the world, you’ll need to find some people to help you do it.
If you, like me, don’t believe in the revolution, you’ll have to cultivate patience, build momentum and community around the cause, and realise that it could take more years than you’ll be around.
My research network just had its 6th biennial conference last week. I gave a talk about the development of the group and its activist and scholarly roots. I was a founder of the network, which started forming in 1999, and have been its formal convenor for well over a decade. As well as being convenor, I am a researcher in Asian Australian Studies and have been since 1994 when I started my Master of Arts.
That’s a long time to be in an area, and yet it constantly feels like there’s so much work still to do.
Some things have never changed. Number one on this list is how often people like to say accusingly, “You realise ‘Asia’ is really big and diverse, right?”, as if that would never occur to me or others who work in Asian Australian Studies.
I feel like we need an FAQ of Asian Australian Studies. It would certainly include a form of this response to that ‘Asia’ question: “the category of Asian Australianness is an identity category that enables political solidarity rather than an essentialist mode of identification” (Jacqueline Lo, 2006). Identifying as Asian Australian doesn’t mean we all have a conglomerated Asianness with cohesive cultural markers. As Lo states, it’s for the purposes of political solidarity – it’s a scholarly and activist naming that flags groups or individuals who are engaged with anti-racist work. It involves, but is not limited to, countering bigoted stereotypes and statements. This is done in a wide range of ways, including through evidence-based research, building critical awareness and political capacity within our communities, and supporting new and emerging creative organisations and individuals.
Identifying as ‘Asian Australian’ is not saying ‘we’re all the same’. It’s recognising we’re subject to particular kinds of discriminations and assumptions, and that the ways we are represented have specific histories with their roots in colonialism and Orientalism. It’s flagging that we want to do something about the situation within an activist community. It means we still argue about the limitations and constructiveness of the terms, and how it might help or hinder how we want to shift the way things are.
The network is not the only kid on the block. It does some of the work in this area but can’t – and doesn’t pretend to – do it all. What we’ve chosen to do with the AASRN may not suit what you think needs to be done and that’s fine. There’s room for plenty of groups who want to agitate for change. Go and start something that isn’t already there!
After decades in the area and engaging with these issues, what I wish for most is:
- Respectful, reflective debate. We’ve all seen how impoverished discussions can be, online and elsewhere. If we’re really invested in cultural change and social justice work, we need to recognise that it is slow and requires the opening up of conversation and exchange. If we could be done with the sniping and name-calling that shuts down hope of connecting, that’d be great. What would also be great is, if you consider yourself a person who wants equality for all in our society, consider what kinds of strings you may attach to that ‘equality’. For example, do you think that only a positive face must be shown about our communities? How are you judging what’s being said and by whom (and we all judge – don’t fool yourself)? How do you deal with people who disagree, particularly those who you consider to be allies?
- Activist generosity. Sure, it’s not what you would choose to do but it doesn’t mean it should be dismissed or belittled. You don’t have to be close or regular fellow-travellers for a particular cause to recognise that broader structures need to change, inequalities exist, and we need to work together to address and overcome them. There’s room for other groups that work differently. As has been said by various people in various ways: throwing shade on others’ work doesn’t make yours shine any brighter. All that said, it’s also very good to be adult enough to discuss issues among groups and own our shortfalls. There are always better ways of doing things.
- Recognition of others’ work. No-one does this kind of thing alone, or is ever really ‘the first’. Acknowledge those who came before you and fought for the space that allows you to speak now. There is always a history to the social justice struggles of which you are only a part – your work is always more effective if you know and respect that history.