The Intercollegiate Department of Asian American Studies recently hired M. Bilal Nasir, a specialist in South Asian American studies and Muslim studies, increasing South Asian representation in the department.
IDAAS — a 5C academic department that has 13 faculty members and offers majors and minors in Asian American studies — has yet to hire a tenure-track South Asian professor, but students believe Nasir’s hiring is a step in the right direction.
Nasir’s classes bring more South Asian representation to IDAAS’ class catalog and cover marginalized experiences and histories unique to the South Asian American community.
“Our Asian American studies department oftentimes centers East Asian folks, leaving South Asians, Pacific Islanders and, specifically, South Asian religious and cultural minorities to the wayside,” Sahana Mehta SC ’20, a past head mentor of the South Asian Mentoring Program and Asian American Resource Center intern, said.
Last spring, Mehta and other students put pressure on Pomona College’s administration to hire Nasir when he was being considered as a candidate for the Fred and Dorothy Chau Postdoctoral Fellowship, a two-year position at Pomona.
“A lot of us students met with Professor Nasir and went to his professor talk and had a great time meeting with him,” Mehta said. “We felt that he would be really supportive of our student organizing on campus.”
It was then that Mehta and 26 other Asian American student leaders and organizers penned a letter to Robert Gaines, Pomona’s vice president for academic affairs, and Tony Boston, senior associate dean of the college, in support of hiring Nasir.
“Professor Nasir would be able to meet the urgent need for a South Asian American Studies and Muslim American Studies specialist in the intercollegiate Asian American Studies department at the Claremont Colleges,” they wrote in the letter.
Linus Yamane, a Pitzer College economics professor and the founding chair of IDAAS, said expanding the curriculum beyond Japanese American and Chinese American experiences is “a constant effort” of the department reflected in its faculty searches.
“If you looked at the Asian American faculty back in 1988, they would have all been Japanese American,” Yamane said. He mentioned that the ethnic composition of Asian Americans in the United States has changed since the founding of IDAAS.
But hiring new IDAAS faculty is challenging, Yamane said.
“I was not hired into IDAAS when I was hired to teach at Pitzer, and that’s true of most of the faculty in IDAAS today,” he said. “We were hired by some other department in some other college, and it just so happens that our research is in Asian American studies.”
IDAAS has previously hired South Asian professors to temporary positions, Yamane said, but Nasir is currently the only South Asian professor in the department.
Students are already embracing Nasir’s direct entrance into IDAAS and his first class, “Islamophobia and its Discontents.”
For Ananya Venkatesh SC ’21, an Asian American studies minor, Nasir’s class offers a perspective she felt was missing from her past three IDAAS classes.
“This is the fourth IDAAS class I’ve taken, but there’s never been another South Asian professor in the department,” Venkatesh said. “I’ve learned important things in those other classes, but they weren’t as tailored to my interests in South Asian American studies. It was different than what I thought I would be doing as an Asian American studies minor.”
Nasir’s class is based off ethnographic research he’s done on the everyday lives of Muslim Americans and how they’ve responded to policing in their communities. His class also traces the history of Islamophobia from colonialism in the Muslim world to current anti-Muslim xenophobia in the United States.
“He’s made it a point to not only focus on Islamophobia within a South Asian context but to focus on Black Muslims. The topic of the class is so important and necessary for everyone to understand, so I’m so glad they hired him to the department,” Venkatesh said.
Next semester, Nasir will teach South Asian American Studies. Nasir also plans to decenter the mainstream understanding of South Asian Americans as Indian American or Hindu American.
“We’ll be looking at Muslims; we’ll be looking at solidarity with those who are not upper caste; we’ll be looking at queer politics, feminist politics, anti-imperial politics,” Nasir said. “For most South Asians in the Claremont Colleges or the United States more generally, this is not the history that they grew up with.”
He also discussed the interdisciplinary and multiracial solidarity approach of his class.
“For the students in the course, I’m hoping to impart this idea that confronting racism among South Asian Americans not only involves issues regarding South Asian America, but it has to involve solidarity with other Asian American communities, with African American or Black communities as well as Latinx communities and Indigenous communities,” Nasir said.