Wolfe Institute Welcomes Dr. Lisa Lowe, New Hess Scholar-In-Residence 

Dr. Lisa Lowe is the 16th recipient to serve as BC's Hess Scholar-In-Residence./BC News

By Gabriela Flores 


   To open their week-long series with Brooklyn College’s new Hess Scholar-In-Residence Dr. Lisa Lowe, the Ethyle R. Wolfe Institute hosted Lowe and other panelists on Monday, Oct. 25 to discuss the global and local experiences of Asians and Asian Americans. Lowe, the Samuel Knight Professor of American Studies from Yale University, is the first Asian American to be a Hess Scholar, with her appointment coming in the midst of BC’s efforts to formalize an Asian American Studies program on campus.

  Hess Scholars are appointed each year to leaders and academics who have immense knowledge in their respective fields, enabling Brooklyn College students and others to learn from their studies, experiences, and perspectives. 

  From the racial violence that Asian immigrants faced in Southern Brooklyn between the 80s and 90s, to debriefing the food that tied one professor to her Uzbek heritage, speakers contextualized different segments of history. Though before delving into their discussion, the Wolfe Institute invited indigenous activist and long-life New Yorker George Stonefish to give a land acknowledgment. 

   Growing up, Stonefish shared how he felt like an “unknown quantity,” asking those around him about his indigenous identity and being met with answers that didn’t put his questions to rest. Nonetheless, despite being raised in the Upper East Side, his grandparents showed him the way of the Lenape, who were the original inhabitants of New York and other areas. One of the many teachings Stonefish’s loved ones imparted to him was the significance of prayer, a devotion that he says was taught by his indigenous ancestors to European explorers and colonists. However, what distinguishes Lenape and indigenous prayer from others is one important aspect: no prayer asks for anything from “the Creator.”

   “If you do what is right by maintaining respect for yourself, your nuclear family, your clan, your nation, your confederacy, and those people around you, you don’t need to ask for anything because it will come to you,” Stonefish said after reciting a prayer. 

   Following the land acknowledgment, Reverend Dr. Samuel Wong, a Brooklyn community leader who pastors a local church, contextualized the main event’s discussion of Asian and Asian American communities within the realm of his home borough. After immigrating to the Big Apple from Hong Kong with his wife in 1982, Wong eventually ended up in Sunset Park, the city’s third Chinatown, where many Chinese immigrants were moving into the neighborhood for work, travel convenience, cheap rental prices, and more. 

   As more immigrants joined the Sunset Park scene, Wong aimed to spread the gospel and form communal connections to all, no matter if they were Cantonese or Fujianese. He was empowered to continue his advocacy of vocalizing the needs of “those who do not yet have a voice.”

   “I want to share what I learned over the years as a community leader. My mission is to improve the quality of those I serve. Location may change. The people we serve may change. The language may change,” Dr. Wong said. “But the basic need remains the same: my goal is to bring the Good News to as many as possible, and my heart [is] for the Chinese-speaking immigrant.”

   Zeroing into Brooklyn’s Sheepshead Bay and Bensonhurst, historian and Swarthmore Professor Vivian Truong shared with participants the anti-Asian racial violence of the 1980s that continued into the following decade’s police violence. Truong, a Brooklynite herself, took participants back to the anti-Asian hate crimes that predate today’s surge of attacks against Asians and Asian-Americans during COVID-19. As more predominantly white communities integrated with more minorities, there was a growing hostility against incoming Asian residents. 

   One particular incident in 1987 Truong referenced was when Chinese and Korean residents were accused of attempting to do a “complete takeover” of Southern Brooklyn neighborhoods. Records also show that there were reports of physical assaults, vandalism, and boycotts of Chinese and Korean businesses. 

   “In many ways, there was an abandonment of these communities, and unsurprisingly racial violence continued to happen in southern Brooklyn,” said Truong. 

   At the turn of the decade, under former Mayor Giuliani, Truong described the 90s having “revanchist policing,” a concept that is rooted in white middle-class people thinking Asians and other minorities are stealing their work opportunities. One of the violent police encounters Truong noted in her presentation was that of sixteen-year-old Yong Xin Huang, who was playing with a toy BB gun in his friend’s backyard when he was shot and killed by police in 1995 after a neighbor reported him using a real gun. 

   “In conclusion, we know that violence against Asian Americans is not new, and neither are community organizing efforts in response,” Truong said, noting earlier different moments in New York’s local history where Asian and Asian American activists worked with Black and Latino Americans to address common struggles. “The examples in Southern Brooklyn show how policing is part of a spectrum of violence that Asian Americans have faced and in the 1980s and 1990s.” 

   Following Truong’s synopsis, Brooklyn-based Professor Zohra Saed shared an in-depth food history and her family’s experiences, delving into Central and Southeast Asian histories. 

  Hess Scholar Lowe continued, detailing her findings of the earlier histories of Asian immigration to the United States from the 19th century that resonate with Asian Americans today in Brooklyn. Lowe drew connections from Truong’s discussion of local anti-Asian targeting and global anti-Asian violence, such as the wars launched against the Philippines, Korea, and Vietnam by US forces. 

   “East Asians were only one of the many groups who have been racialized as non-white and then suspected to be wartime, racial enemies,” Lowe said, noting that Arab Muslims, South Asians, and Central Asians have also faced discrimination. “After 9/11 can be said to resemble this earlier treatment of Japanese Americans who were incarcerated in World War II.” 

   Lowe explained how this ongoing violence translates to today’s ongoing anti-Asian violence during the pandemic. 

  “(…)The stereotype of Asians as diseased isn’t new either. Long before Trump called COVID the ‘Chinese virus,’ there was a colonial history of Asians being constructed as diseased,” Lowe said, citing how China was called “the sick man of Asia” post-opium wars. 

   In closing, Lowe described her contributions of implementing Asian American Studies as a graduate, dating back to her days at the University of California San Diego in the 80s. Though now Asian American Studies are present on all University of California campuses and California State campuses, she was surprised when she moved to the Northeast and saw that efforts for its implementation were sparse. 

   “I was very heartened to hear from President Anderson this morning that Brooklyn College is taking steps to have a curriculum in Asian, American history, literature, and culture,” Lowe said.