Why we must learn Asian American history

From the Foreign Miner Tax, Japanese incarceration camp to the recent anti-Asian shootings in Atlanta, a writer recalls the anti-Asian history in America and explains the importance of having such historical knowledge and context to address the current anti-Asian hate crisis.

This article contains depictions of violence which may be disturbing to readers. Reader’s discretion is advised.

History repeats, if not worsens.

The day after the Atlanta shooting was a bizarre cycle of grief (sometimes as I was cooking or reading), numbness (that I tried to nap off but to no avail), and my brain oddly looping an annoying anime TikTok song. 

I’ve been stressed over anti-Asian racism before, especially at the beginning of the pandemic. I remember reading about a young Korean woman being attacked in New York City and feeling a chill run down my spine because I, too, am a young Korean woman. 

But this feels different. This time, six Asian women were killed by a white man who shouted that he’d kill all the Asians before shooting. And four of the six women were Korean. They were the age of 이모s/aunties, the age of my mom’s friends. And still, the news is hesitating to call it a hate crime and the killer himself admitted to murdering the women while denying that he was racist. 

People embrace by a makeshift memorial outside the Gold Spa following the deadly shootings in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S. March 20, 2021. Photo credit: REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

As someone who has studied Asian American history, all these events are even more suffocating because it means that nothing has changed since the first Asians came to North America. Because although we have made advancements in politics and representation, it doesn’t change the fact that Asian women are still fetishized and that some people see Asian faces like mine and think danger and virus, rather than human and friend. 

And yet some are saying that anti-Asian racism is not American. While the sentiment is nice, it’s wrong and leads to a false understanding of America. Because the matter of fact is, America is a country built on the genocide of Native Americans, slavery, and prioritizing the interests of the rich white man. And this is further enforced by looking at the history of Asians in America. 

Dehumanizing Asians as novelty and labor

Asians were always seen as novelty and foreigners in America.  In 1834, Afong Moy from Guangdong was brought to New York City by two white traders to be exhibited as part of a marketing strategy for Chinese goods. In 1904 the most popular exhibit at the St. Louis World Fair was the Philipine Reservation, or a “living exhibit”, a human zoo with over 1,000 Filipinos for Americans to pat themselves on the back for conquest and racial civilization. 

Even when Asians immigrated and started working, they ran into roadblocks specifically built to stop them. In 1850 Chinese contract workers in California dealt with the Foreign Miner Tax, which was in actuality only for the Chinese although there were also European foreign workers. In 1875 the first restrictive federal immigration act was to stop immigration of “unfree laborers and immoral women” but effectively targeted the Chinese population, especially the women. 

And in 1869, during America’s great feat of the Transcontinental Railroad, Chinese workers weren’t allowed in the picture celebrating the end of their work.

Inauguration of Transcontinental Railroad; Chinese workers weren’t allowed in the image. Photo credit: Underwood Archives, Getty Images

But we trudged onwards. Many of us came here for a chance at a new life and we found ways to make home here. But the United States government wouldn’t have it. 

The perpetual foreigner 

In 1882, the Chinese exclusion act came into effect and became the basis for US immigration law. This would remain until 1943. 

And at every turn when we tried to claim ownership, we were shot down. Even in 1923 when Bhagat Singh Thind argued against the United States for his naturalization and effectively proved that race was a social construct. Even when Sei Fujii graduated with honors from USC law and ultimately denied both citizenship and a law license because he was Asian. He eventually was granted citizenship in 1952 at the age of 73 when the law preventing citizenship was deemed unconstitutional and was posthumously granted a California law license in 2015, 63 years after his death.

Sei Fujii. Photo Credit: Pacific Citizen.

But during that period of time, he was also sent to a Japanese incarceration camp along with thousands of other Japanese Americans whose loyalty to the country was questioned. 

The Asians we did see on screen were stereotypes and caricatures. The dragon lady and butterfly lady stereotypes became established as simultaneously, feeding into the fetishization and sexualization of Asian women. And even when Asian roles auditioned for Asian roles, they were turned down. Take, for example, Anna May Wong who applied for a role in The Good Earth, a film set in China. The titular character instead went to a German actress who then won an Oscar for her performance in yellow face.

But worse than representation are cases of murder. 

Read more: Learning from the Japanese American incarceration camps

The result of words and stereotypes

It should have been a celebratory night for Vincent Chin and his friends. But during his bachelor’s party, two white men, Robert Ebens, a Chrysler plant supervisor, and his stepson Richard Nitz called him racial slurs, taking out their frustration of the rise of Japanese vehicles onto him. 

The night ended with the two men chasing Chin and beating him to death. 

The death of Vincent Chin was a galvanizing event for the Asian American community. But unfortunately, Chin never got justice as his killers got off with essentially a slap on the wrist. 

Protestors for Vincent Chin’s murder. Photo credit: Asian American Advancing Justice.

And this wasn’t the last incident like this. One particular murder from the recent years still haunts me as it was at my brother’s university, the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign. 

I thought the Midwest was perhaps better, but during my senior year of college in 2017, there was suddenly news about a Chinese student, Yingying Zhang, being abducted. The Midwestern Asian American community held our breath as we waited to hear if Zhang was found and if she was okay. 

Instead, we learned that she was sexually assaulted and killed. 

Which brings us to today: 6 Asian women killed. 

Knowledge is power 

It’s been exhausting toggling between doom scrolling on social media, trying to do work, and feeling either too much or too little. It’s easy to feel helpless and stuck but somehow, through the confusing fog that has been my brain the past few days, looking at history has cleared my mind. Like the old saying goes, knowledge is power, even if it’s disheartening knowledge. 

By understanding that none of this is new, there’s a sharpened sense of urgency and clarity about what’s really going on. Asian American history is only one part of the complicated intertwining phenomenon of American history. America stands at the intersection of its immigrants, Native inhabitants, and their stories, triumphs, grief, and rage. And if we don’t take an honest look at American history and its enduring affair with white supremacy, we won’t understand the real issues of this country or how the BIPOC community must work together. 

We’re in this together. Don’t fall into the trap of pitting the Asian community against the Black community; all it takes to disprove this is look at history and figures like Yuri Kochiyama and Grace Lee Boggs. These two historical figures as well as others knew that there is a common enemy to face: white supremacy, which prioritizes the white murderer and calls him a “boy who was having a bad day.” 

Speak up on the history of Asian Americans. Talk about the fact that it was a hate crime to Asian women and examine the intersection of identities. Read up on Asians who are often left out of Hollywood: Southeast and South Asians, poor Asians. And remember that Stop Asian Hate means all Asians, including mixed race Asians and adoptees. 

Take the space and time you need. It’s been a long road of us being on this continent and there have been plenty of wins and losses along the way. Learn who came before us, learn about our fellow communities, and push forward for a better future. 

Featured image photo credit: Asian Americans Advancing Justice

Read more:

After COVID-19, Asian Americans cannot afford to be invisible again

Navigating through the rise in anti-Asian racism

Making Asian American media

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