What role does history play in our identity? And what happens when your history is deliberately erased from view?
These are questions many communities of color living in the U.S. have been asking ourselves, particularly as we are seeing systemic injustices go unresolved, a lack of reckoning leading to distorted visions of why things happen, who is to blame and what can be done about it.
As an Asian American growing up in the 1980s and 90s, I saw a deliberate exclusion of our history from what we learned in school. I remember a speaker at an assembly asking the audience to name one Asian American hero. No one could name anyone. This erasure and invisibility continues today. In a recent online survey of American adults, participants were asked to name a well-known Asian American. The most common answer was “don’t know” (42 percent). This exclusion of our history and our very presence, mirrors the legal exclusion of my people from this country, with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
The recent Stop Asian Hate movement is said to be an Asian American “awakening” to fight against the hatred and violence committed against innocent people on the street every day, often elders. But as Asian Americans we know that we have always faced violence and hatred in this country; we all have stories. And, we have resisted with force, ingenuity, solidarity and persistence. But history books don’t tell those stories.
Other races’ awakening to the crimes and aggressions committed against Asian Americans have provided a credential from “mainstream” society that gives us permission to care about our own safety. It confounds me why I feel I have to wait for this level of validation to care for myself and my own community. But portraying Asian Americans solely as victims does a disservice to the many examples of Asian American resistance, solidarity, organizing and community development that this country has benefited from. These stories, large and small, can inspire current generations of people to change their actions, to effect change within our systems, and catalyze a better future for next generations of Asian American and Pacific Islander communities.
For example: In 1898 the Supreme Court case of Wong Kim Ark tested and confirmed established birthright citizenship even during the Chinese exclusion era. Larry Itliong, who led the Filipino Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, allied with Cesar Chavez’s Latino National Farm Workers Association to establish the first farm workers union in American history. In 1982, Chinese women galvanized thousands of immigrant garment workers in an organized strike that marched through Manhattan’s Chinatown. Their activism changed U.S labor history.
There are small instances of resistance too, which are relatable to anyone who has grown up Asian American, even without knowing these histories. It’s bringing in home-cooked meals to the lunchroom, despite strange looks and wrinkled noses. It’s choosing classes on Asian American studies or your family’s language, even though you don’t get the exact credits you need for your major. It’s finding “your squad” of people who share the same cultural experiences as you. And it’s listening to, and getting inspired by the immigration stories of our parents, grandparents and ancestors.
This idea of resistance as heritage took the central theme of a campaign we launched with a new network of over 100 groups this May, during AAPI Heritage Month. We wanted to highlight the transformative work, past and present, that these groups have been leading. At the same time, we hope to build following, interest and traffic to their sites and events so that they can build their bases to gear up for policy and advocacy arenas to come.
Through our work, we are hoping to use a bright highlighter on these key moments in our history. Because papering over these examples of Asian American resistance and solidarity works neatly within a white supremacist framework that pits Asian Americans against other people of color in this country. The attacks on Asian Americans have often been highlighted by the media as a problem with African Americans perpetrators. But in fact, according to indexed data from Stop AAPI Hate, this profile only makes up about 10% of attacks. Demonization of the Black community is a trope that is taken up all too easily by both white and Asian American communities.
The idea of “AAPI” conflates very different histories and erases specific challenges that Pacific Islanders face, in terms of health disparities, income and erasure as a result of U.S. imperialism and colonization. The term AAPI can be a strategic label to coalesce multiple interests and resources toward shared liberation. But there is still more work to be done on solidarity within Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, as well as across racial, religious and other affinity groups. There are complex power dynamics present among different groups, and underscores an ongoing need to evolve language as a tool for freedom and expression.
I was recently fortunate enough to participate in a co-learning event via our involvement with the Asian American Leaders Table, and we heard from leaders from Native Organizers Alliance, Movement for Black Lives, United we Dream and Empowering Pacific Islander Communities (EPIC). Among the many pieces of wisdom that were shared during this meeting, we heard from Tavae Samuelu, executive director of EPIC. She said, “Empire and imperialism cannot be the thing that connects us. Freedom has to be the thing that we share.”
With a rise in hate crimes and as a spectre of fear falls over more and more segments of Asian American populations who formerly thought “we were safe,” it may be instinctual to apply more attention and energy into that survival instinct, and to seek solidarity with those who have also experienced fear. But to go even further, we must also seek allyship and forge partnerships with people who can imagine and align ourselves toward a co-liberated future.
To learn more about how Solidarity Stories can launch co-learning for transformative change, go to www.SolidarityStories.org.
To find an AAPI organization to support and learn more about how Resistance is our Heritage, go to www.AAPIsRising.org.