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Rhetoric from the Field: Cultural Rhetorics Notation Hosts Asian and Asian American Rhetorics Panel

panelists in zoom windows

During Winter Quarter, the new Notation in Cultural Rhetorics was proud to host a second event to kick off its inaugural year. In February, three renowned scholars visited Stanford PWR via Zoom to participate in a panel titled Dimensions of Asian and Asian American Rhetorics: Professor Haivan Hoang (U. Massachusetts, Amherst), Professor Rory Ong (Washington State University), and Professor Jennifer Sano-Franchini (Virginia Tech). 

Following the conversation started at Autumn Quarter’s Mexican American Rhetorics panel, this second event provided further opportunity to explore how, as PWR Faculty Director Adam Banks put it in his opening remarks, “what we do with language and discourse helps us to build a society that is just, that is big enough for all of us.” The study and practice of rhetoric is never only about “persuasion,” Banks reminded the audience of students, faculty, and staff from Stanford and beyond. It’s about “how we build community,” in this case a scholarly community that cares about the layered complexities of Asian and Asian American rhetoric, especially as it plays out in a moment that has witnessed a disturbing rise in anti-AAPI hate. 

Professor Hoang got the conversation started with a presentation titled, “What Does Asian American Rhetoric Feel Like?” Recounting degrading common experiences such as being asked to name how one identifies ethnically (“So what are you?”), Hoang began her talk by articulating how naming, in Asian and Asian American contexts, is often a response to a rhetorical exigence imposed by others, but the process also becomes internalized. Born in California, Hoang’s family arrived in the US in 1975 from Vietnam following the fall of Saigon. She attended UC Berkeley, where she encountered the Asian American Movement, as well as the Third World Liberation Front, contexts in which the idea of “self-determination” for marginalized groups became key.

In her work, Hoang seeks to promote Asian American rhetoric “on our own terms,” and as an art using “speech, writing, and other symbolic forms to move others” beyond the limitations of any given nation state or ethnic group. She described how her first book Writing against Racial Injury: The Politics of Asian American Student Rhetoric (2015), documents ethnographic work on the California student organization the Vietnamese American Coalition as a “speech/literacy community,” as well as a Vietnamese American student’s “rhetorical memory” of the use of a derogatory slur by Senator John McCain while on the presidential campaign trail in 2000. Finally, turning to the question she posed in her title regarding the affective experience of Asian American Rhetoric, Hoang cited the legacy of the work of Sarah Ahmed regarding racialized affect, specifically the experiences of intergenerational loss, melancholia, dissociation, and misrecognition. According to Hoang, we abundantly “need to be mindful of racialized affects” and how they impact lived experience. 

Professor Ong spoke next, exploring a “collage of old and new material” in a presentation titled “Toward a Transpacific Asian American Rhetoric.” Remarking on the widely scattered “expanse of the diaspora,” as well as its “multigenerational nature” for many groups, Ong explained that the very idea of the “transpacific” as a critical category “is not just a contact zone but a methodology”; i.e., it is a strategy of critique that reads across the asymmetrical power gradients in spaces of cultural friction Mary Louise Pratt described as “contact zones." In Ong’s practice, the study of transpacific Asian American rhetoric deliberately engages a “crossroads” of peoples, economies, and for that matter militaries as they span the Pacific. As Ong pointed out, the idea of the “transpacific” emerged during the “transwar” period from both Japanese occupation in the basin and later US military supremacy in the region ("transwar" is a term for the period from the 1920s to the 1960s favored by scholars who seek to recenter the Asian experience of WWII in terms other than pre/post-war). Yet historically, the place where we can begin to observe “transpacific entanglement” lies in exclusionary laws dating to the nineteenth century in the US, which created a restrictive and lasting “bureaucratic discourse.” These laws stand in stark contrast to the “discourse of inclusivity” offered toward European immigrants as part of an expanding definition of whiteness. According to Ong, to understand Asian American rhetoric, it thus becomes necessary to observe the development of white supremacist rhetoric in the late-nineteenth century, and to track how this hateful rhetoric facilitated the rise of a persistent “xenophobic, exoticizing rhetoric.”

Like Hoang, Ong also thinks of his parents, in particular his father, an actor who—even though he had served in the US military during World War II—played a Japanese soldier as an extra in several post-WWII American films (including Guadalcanal Diary and The Purple Heart). For Ong, the “model minority” myth remains of special interest. This is not only because it may be the most persistent and problematic racialized trope in Asian American rhetoric, but also because it gained popularity in the 1960s against the background of African American activism and politics during the Civil Rights Movement (and was sometimes cultivated as a contrasting myth to carve out division between minority groups). Currently, Ong is beginning a project he describes as a “transpacific, decolonial genealogy of the model minority moniker.”

The final speaker of February’s panel was Jennifer Sano-Franchini, whose presentation was called “Re/Visioning Post-Secondary Writing Programs through Asian American Rhetoric, or, How Everyone (Including Non-Asians) Can Benefit from Reading and Engaging with Asian American Rhetoric.” Sano-Franchini focused on a special topics graduate course she taught on Asian American Rhetoric and Representation in 2019, in which she positioned Asian American rhetoric squarely within the field of rhetoric and composition in terms such as “voice, invention, authorship, embodiment, and culture.” A number of students in this course were not Asian American, which, for Sano-Franchini, provided an occasion to reflect on how Asian American rhetoric is often presented as an “othered,” special “ethnic topic” rather than a part of dominant discourse. This is frequently the case even though Asian and Asian American students often make up the largest minority group on campus. Unfortunately, “numerical representation does not equal support,” and can even play out as what Sano-Franchini described as a climate of “yellow peril,” that is to say a general, prejudiced climate in which there is a perception of “too many” Asian and Asian American students on campuses. This phenomenon also ignores disparities within Asian communities, regarding factors such as gender, class, specific ethnic groups, and even disciplines (i.e., the stereotype of Asian and Asian American students supposedly preferring STEM to Humanities fields). On campus, Sano-Franchini argued, “curriculum conditions” dictate perceptions and conditions within the community itself, which remains “underserved.” 

A key question for Sano-Franchini thus becomes “what does Asian American rhetoric do?,” a formulation she borrows from Luming Mao and Morris Young’s classic collection Representations: Doing Asian American Rhetoric (2008) (also instrumental for Sano-Franchini is Mao and Young’s description of Asian American rhetoric as “a rhetoric of becoming”). Her answer is multiple, with the study of Asian American rhetoric both documenting Asian American rhetorical activity and enriching our understanding on American identity broadly. There is a risk inherent to this work, the “provisional acceptance” of Asian American rhetoric and its participants “into oppressive structures,” which “demonstrates a need for reflexivity on our theories, assumptions, and the colonizing reach of research.” After her experience in this 2019 graduate course, Sano-Franchini collaborated with several students to co-author a piece titled “Sounding Out in a Predominately White Institution: Circulating Asian American Sound for Institutional Change,” which was published in Kairosin August 2021. A frequent collaborator with students, Sano-Franchini also collaborated with six undergraduates to work on a project documenting Asian American experience in the history of Virginia Tech. Her future work looks to investigate Asian American language as it relates to sound, as well as Asian and Asian American rhetoric in the South and across Appalachia. 

As Banks reiterated after the talk, the panel abundantly showed “what rhetoric as an interdisciplinary area of study can do for the university.” Like the earlier Mexican American Rhetorics event, a vibrant conversation followed the panel. PWR Lecturer Eldon Pei asked the speakers to talk about Asian American rhetorical entanglements as they apply to rhetorical trends in African American culture in our present moment; Professor Hoang replied that rhetorical intersections like these provide opportunities to think of “moments of contact” as “dialogue.” Also in attendance was one of the speakers from the previous Mexican American Rhetorics event, Professor Jamie Mejía from Texas State University, who drew explicit connections with the earlier panel. Mejía pointed out a common thread of “how often the notion of history was running through what each of you [the speakers] said.” In his view, many students possess “a shallow understanding of the histories of people of color,” which is a serious problem because without a knowledge of histories “rhetorical studies aren’t possible.” Indeed, this rich panel and discussion confirmed that regarding the question of what the study and practice of Asian and Asian American rhetoric “does,” the answer is clear: that AAAR, as a “rhetoric of becoming,” does quite a lot not only for our understanding of the groups it specifically documents and enriches, but for cultural rhetorics broadly.  

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