Don Nakanishi, Exemplar of Asian American Studies

Don Nakanishi, Exemplar of Asian American Studies
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Don Nakanishi was a giant. The professor, who passed away recently, represented the best of ethnic studies. With a few others, he basically created Asian American Studies. For decades, he headed the UCLA Center in the field -- through his leadership, the institution made good on the name of "center."

Among the very first people of color admitted to an Ivy League school through affirmative action, Don, a Japanese American from modest circumstances, was shocked at Yale when the other freshmen in his dormitory bombed his room on Pearl Harbor Day. It may have been only water balloons, but that symbolic attack would remind him that he had not come from WASP privilege.

When he retired, he returned to his roots in East Los Angeles. He continued to be an advocate for Asian Americans, a demographic classification that has been practically defined by college courses about the category.

The legitimacy of Don's own career was a test of the legitimacy of ethnic studies. When he started, he was alone: Asian Americans were underrepresented, not overrepresented, among UCLA professors, all the more so outside of STEM (science, technology, engineer, and math) specialties. Nobody with a name bothered to study Asian Americans. But Don did.

The results were to be expected. He was forced to become the plaintiff in a legal challenge to his school's denial of tenure. It was a rare successful claim. Whatever the merits of awarding tenure to a professor, denying it is the equivalent of terminating him. Hardly anyone with a grievance of this nature prevails, perhaps reflecting the subjectivity of standards in academe. In Don's case, higher-ups on his campus had actually used racial slurs to refer him.

That was the hostility accorded to ethnic studies back then.

Thanks to Don, however, Asian American Studies came to be recognized as a worthwhile endeavor. He secured from UCLA the budget needed to make a difference.

Higher education administrators are not customarily celebrated. What made Don effective was his commitment to the community and his insistence on education that was useful. He was convivial, always engaged with the world.

Don talked positively about growing up in a multi-racial neighborhood. He said that he had to learn to be a Chicano before he could become an Asian American. The civil rights movement for the one group directly provoked the civil rights consciousness of the other group. Despite his stature as a scholar, he was first and foremost a teacher. So many remember him, as I do, as a mentor -- encouraging what others were discouraging.

In the projects in which he participated, and those he organized and supported, Don promoted ideas that could be applied. He ensured that intellectuals who wrote books could relate to the people who were their subjects. He edited, for example, a definitive volume about Asian Americans in higher education. Instead of stereotypes of the "model minority," he presented data to show the issues facing students who were assumed to be overachievers. He compiled an annual survey of Asian Americans who held government office, which documented how they overcame stereotypes of apathy (that had a germ of truth to them), and, by doing so, stated explicitly that it was possible for people perceived as "perpetual foreigners" to win a seat at the table.

Yet in the background, Don did something else that should not be underestimated. He insisted on work that would impress skeptics. Ethnic studies starts with multiple disadvantages (or what might seem to be such). It brings together multiple disciplines more traditionally divided by bureacurats into departments. It focuses attention on the margins, in an effort to improve the life prospects of minorities. It also includes (but is not limited to) individuals who come from backgrounds not identified as cerebral and studious, who are enthusiastic about advancing an agenda.

By applying peer review, and meeting its criteria, Don was able to change the rules that would have kept him out. Everything he published had methodological rigor and appropriate citations. It looked like what other social scientists would produce. That was crucial to acceptance.

Most of us who become faculty members contribute original research. We teach in a competent manner. Only extraordinary professors do what Don Nakanishi was able to do. He did more than train a newer generation; he inspired us.

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