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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Joy Sales ’13 talks Asian American Activism

Sales is teaching a short course on Asian-American activism this semester. Photo contributed

Three years after graduating from Grinnell, Joy Sales ’13 is back on campus to teach a short course on Asian-American activism, a key topic to her doctoral research at Northwestern University. The S&B’s Abraham Golden recently sat down with Sales to talk about her time at Grinnell and how her life has unfolded since graduation.

The S&B: What is your current position at Grinnell?

Joy Sales: I’m a Grinnell alum from 2013 and I’m currently sponsored by the Wilson Program and History Department to teach a class on Asian-American activism, which is a history class, and an American Studies class. It’s almost done. My position here is that I’m a visiting faculty.

The S&B: What was particularly influential about your four years at Grinnell?

JS: The really close mentorship that I got from my history professors. When I was here I was also a Mellon Mays undergraduate fellow, so that program helps students … from underrepresented groups go to graduate school and join the professoriate, because in higher education the faculty needs to be more diverse. The student body, not just at Grinnell, but other institutions, is diversifying faster than the faculty are. And that’s a problem, because, as many sociological studies have found, students who have teachers and professors who look like them learn better. Through that program, I got not just mentorship from my history advisor, who was [Professor] Sarah Purcell [History], but I also had mentorship from [Professor] Shanna Benjamin [English] who’s now a dean … and also mentorship from [Professor] Caleb Elfenbein [History and Religious Studies], he’s now director of the Center for the Humanities. … I also had a German advisor, because I also majored in German, so [Professor] Vance Byrd [German] is my other major advisor. I have to give a lot of shoutouts.

Sales is teaching a short course on Asian-American activism this semester. Photo contributed
Sales is teaching a short course on Asian-American activism this semester. Photo contributed

The S&B: What did you do once you got out of Grinnell?

JS: I went straight into graduate school and a PhD program, which is really rare nowadays. Grad school is not anything like undergrad. It’s work, like, that is your job, going to school. I wasn’t that surprised by the format. It’s seminar style. If you don’t talk, you’re screwed, so being at Grinnell prepared me for that.

The S&B: Why is Asian-American activism important?

JS: Whenever we talk about activism and race, we don’t talk about Asian-Americans. The question is always worded as “Are there Asian American activists?” when the question should be “What is Asian-American activism, how can I learn more about it?” People already assume that it doesn’t exist and people assume it doesn’t exist because of stereotypes which can be put under the umbrella of the model minority myth. … The model minority myth was first used on Jewish immigrants, but then it’s mostly been used on Asian-Americans and Asian immigrants, and it was basically created during the Cold War … when the U.S. government, including journalists who worked closely with the government, diplomats, Congressmen … were concerned about the U.S. image in the world. In that time the U.S. was like, “we’re not like the Soviet Union, we’re a democracy, everything here is equal.” But with the U.S. invading Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia, also with the civil rights movement and the black power movement really pointing out how racist the U.S. has been since its founding, the U.S. government was super anxious about its image in the world. So what did it do? Well, in many different circles they were like, “Okay, well here’s a minority in the U.S. that’s doing well.” But it wasn’t true. They were skewing statistics and data and saying that Chinese and Japanese-Americans were doing well. But what happened 20 years before the mid-1960s with Japanese Americans? … They were thrown in concentration camps … The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the only immigration act in U.S. history to exclude a group based on race.

The S&B: How is Asian-American activism viewed in the U.S. today?

JS: [The Chinese community’s] first form of activism was challenging Chinese exclusion. Japanese Americans — there are four cases of Japanese-Americans challenging internment. They were all Supreme Court cases, and three of them lost, one of them won. Those are just two of many examples of Asian-Americans contesting discrimination based on race that was backed up by U.S. state policy. But we don’t know about it because of the model minority myth.

The S&B: What does it mean to be a Wilson Alumni Scholar?

JS: I actually wasn’t very familiar with the Wilson Program when I was a student here. I do know that is sponsors alumni short courses, and that is what my course is. One of my former history professors Albert Lacson was trying to get an Asian-American history course here at Grinnell, and students wanted it. The reason I chose the topic of Asian-American activism was because we wouldn’t have this class without student activists. … So when I was asked to do this, I was like, “Hell yeah, let’s do this course.”

The S&B: What’s it like to be a professor at your recent alma mater?

JS: I know one Filipino student in my class because we had a mutual friend that was here when I was gone and told us about each other, but it doesn’t cause conflicts at all. I established early in the class on the very first day, “Call me Professor Sales, you can’t call me Joy.” Outside of class, if we’re in a casual environment, yeah, call me Joy, but in a classroom and around other professors, call me Professor Sales. And I haven’t had a problem with that at all.

The S&B: Any last thoughts?

JS: With my class, I hope that it inspires them to become activists. Or at least working in a sphere where they are aware of issues with immigration, civil rights, human rights, women’s rights, whatever sector of work my students go into, I hope they have a more critical understanding of how race and gender and immigration are all at play, and use what they learn to make change, because one of my philosophies is that education should be a tool of empowerment. It’s great to accumulate knowledge, but if you’re just an armchair academic activist, that’s not enough. You actually have to go out there and do something … You also have to fight against what you think is wrong. If you don’t have that personal conviction, then there’s no point.

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