In January, I began writing curriculum for the upcoming five-hour PBS docuseries, Asian Americans. I have long been interested in the lack of visibility and representation of Asian Americans in the media, in politics, and in school curricula and was thrilled to have the opportunity to immerse myself deeply in this excellent series documenting the history of Asian Americans in the United States from the 1850s to the present. My work on the series became eerily timely as it coincided with the spread of the coronavirus and the subsequent rise in anti-Asian discrimination. I couldn’t help thinking about my students and how I might use my knowledge of history to better help them cope.
As incidents started popping up all over the country, ranging from verbal harassment to outright violence, I was reminded of the long history of anti-Asian sentiment in the United States—a history too often overlooked and misunderstood. And yet, understanding our history is critical to understanding how we find ourselves in this moment and in what ways we can combat this racism as it arises.
Talking with some of our Asian American students who, understandably, were deeply upset by this increase in hate and discrimination, I was struck by how much more we have to learn about this history. They are fortunate to have grown up in the Bay Area, at a time when Asian Americans have gained considerable ground in terms of representation and power. While still subject to stereotype—the model minority myth being the primary one—they often do not experience the same kind of racism as many other people of color, particularly in California, where nearly a third of all Asian Americans live. Nevertheless, another stereotype, that of the perpetual foreigner, persists in the American psyche and is directly related to the current perception of Asian Americans as either carriers of the coronavirus or somehow responsible for its existence. This echoes the “Yellow Peril” rhetoric of the 1850s and the deeply rooted perception of Asian Americans as a dangerous “other.” This perception, which informed such racist and discriminatory policies as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Japanese Internment of WWII, has now resurfaced once again.
As Asian American activist groups began to respond to this current manifestation of racism, I focused on new ways I could stand up for my community, against ignorant or hateful acts targeting Asian Americans. I’ve attended dozens of town hall meetings, webinars, and trainings in the last two months to learn more, to add my voice, to volunteer, and to revel in being in community with so many others intent on confronting this past and present history. I want to bring back all that I’ve been learning to the Nueva community because we profoundly care about justice and inclusion and are eager to engage with our world. Our school is home to a vibrant, diverse, and proud Asian American community that we need to celebrate, support, and acknowledge during this particularly significant Asian Pacific American History Month. Finally, at our core, Nueva is dedicated to possibility, creative potential, and the power of human empathy. What better time than now to imagine who we want to be in the midst of this crisis and who we want to become as we confront the challenges that lie before us?
To that end, I want to start with introducing this history to our students and larger community. Join me in watching the PBS docuseries Asian Americans, premiering this Monday and Tuesday, May 11 and 12. We’ll be hosting a follow-up discussion on Wednesday, May 13, for those who would like to join us to discuss the themes and lessons that emerge within the series. In addition, we will be continuing the conversation with a roundtable entitled Asian American History—How the Past Informs the Present, to better understand and situate the current manifestation of anti-Asian sentiment in this country. The roundtable will take place on Wednesday, May 20, from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.. These two events are the beginning, I hope, of a much larger conversation.
Coming together as a community is critical in combating any kind of discrimination, particularly when it arises from fear and ignorance. I hope such events engender heartfelt, complex, and compassionate conversations and am eager to learn more from you all as we move forward through these turbulent times.