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Knowledge of Asian American Histories Strengthens Fight Against Racist Violence

Scholar Catherine Ceniza Choy discusses the histories — and futures — of Asian Americans.

A young boy rallies with others to protest anti-Asian hate crimes, at Foley Square in New York City, on April 4, 2021.

In Asian American Histories of the United States, Catherine Ceniza Choy examines the themes of erasure, violence and resistance among the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population. Choy, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of several books on gender, race and identity, offers readers a deeply researched, highly readable account of the many histories of Asian Americans representing over 20 national backgrounds.

Choy’s book begins with the alarming rise in anti-Asian violence fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic, and marked by repeated racialized taunts by none other than a former sitting U.S. president. It explores Asian American histories through the lenses of migration, labor, culture, education, entertainment, politics and public health. These histories include the experiences of Japanese, Chinese, Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Koreans, Vietnamese, Filipinos, Nepalis, Hmong, and others, representing over 22 million Asian Americans today.

Looking 150 years back in time to explore their struggles as they strive to assimilate and contribute to American society, Choy asks, “How can we begin to change what we don’t know? How can we affirm Asian Americans as human beings if we don’t even know their names?”

Choy spoke with Truthout about Asian American histories, present struggles, and her vision of a multiracial future.

Jon Letman: Throughout your book, you describe how Asian Americans have faced and overcome exclusion and erasure. Is this phenomenon unique to Asian Americans? If so, how?

Catherine Ceniza Choy: Other racialized and marginalized groups have experienced forms of erasure and that is why when [the term] Asian Americans came to be in the late 1960s, they were influenced by and in solidarity with other groups who were also experiencing exclusion. I think there are some similarities. That said, there’s also a distinctiveness when we say exclusion in Asian American history. One specific example of this is through immigration. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act led to the justification of exclusionary policies against other Asian American groups. I think it is quite unique in the sense that Asian Americans are stereotyped as perpetual foreigners.

How did the advent and adoption of the term “Asian American” change perceptions by Americans of Asian descent of themselves?

The term comes out of the late 1960s and Asian American solidarity with the Third World Liberation Front, Black Power, and other social movements of this time. It was a very meaningful term because it spoke to a political sensibility claiming an American identity, but also confronting racism and discrimination. Being able to name themselves was very meaningful — to critique the violence and erasure of marginalization in the American experience. It was empowering to name ourselves and in doing so have our voices heard. Today, many of us may take this term for granted. We tend to think of Asian American as a general reference to people of Asian ancestry — something that one checks off on a box. This pan-ethnic umbrella term can belie the incredible heterogeneity and diversity of Asian American communities.

How do you think the term Asian American influences understanding by people who are not of Asian ancestry?

Asian American histories are important for everyone and not solely Asian Americans. There’s this phenomenon in one of the chapters on mixed-race lives about interracial intimacies through marriage and friendships. The interaction is there so it’s important for everyone to know. This struggle for presence and understanding, empathy and knowledge in our schools and in our broader American culture and experience persists.

Referring to what you call America’s national amnesia, you write, “we have become a nation of not knowing.” How is this shaping America’s current state?

In the past two years, Asian Americans have been traumatized by the deadly COVID-19 pandemic as well as the current surge in anti-Asian hate and violence. Medical and racial scapegoating of Asian Americans and their bodies as disease carriers is not new. And yet, this was a method for some Americans to deal with the deadliness of COVID-19 — trying to protect themselves because they felt that Asian Americans were carrying this disease, but also as a kind of emotional psychological uplift for themselves.

If we were a nation that knew about Asian American history, we would learn that racist medical scapegoating doesn’t cure disease and actually has a reverse effect. If you have a population who are afraid to go outside because they’re going to be targets of violence, that’s a public health issue. If you are targeting Asian American health workers such as Filipino nurses, you are targeting people who are trying to save lives during a pandemic. This is what is at stake in being a nation not knowing Asian American histories.

What meaningful steps can we take to remedy this?

One thing we can do — in addition to listening to and supporting Asian Americans, especially community-led organizations — is get bystander training so that when we see this hate and harassment in public spaces, we know what to do. In addition — I’m arguing this in the book — history matters, our education matters. Learning Asian American history is an important and effective way to combat anti-Asian hate and violence. It becomes this resource, a wellspring of empathy. If you know someone’s story, you are likely to see them as a human being and will think twice about telling them to go back to where they came from or blaming them for a medical crisis, spitting on them, or harassing them online.

Can you talk more about the tragedy and irony of Filipino nurses suffering a disproportionately high toll during the pandemic and explain the historical reasons for the large number of Filipino nurses in the American health care system?

The reason so many Filipino nurses are in U.S. hospitals and health care institutions is because the U.S. colonized the Philippines from 1898 to 1946. One of the legacies was establishing Americanized education in the Philippines which included Americanized nursing training. It also resulted in English language fluency among Filipino students including nursing students. After World War II, the United States started experiencing nursing shortages which increased in the 1960s and 1970s because of the passage and implementation of Medicare and Medicaid which made medical services more accessible to the American population. Filipino nurses are here because the U.S. actively recruited them to alleviate these critical nursing shortages, especially in inner city public hospitals and rural areas. There has been a six-decade-long history of Filipino nurses working on the frontlines of American hospitals and elder care institutions. There are multiple generations of Filipino immigrant nurses and Filipino American nurses in this country who are literally saving our lives.

A woman stands on a wooded path, wearing a pink blouse with a red-orange jacket
Catherine Ceniza Choy

You wrote of misrepresentations and omissions of Black-Asian American alliances and solidarity that date back at least to Frederick Douglass’s support for Chinese immigration and the relationship between Malcolm X and Japanese American Yuri Kochiyama. What is the motivation of those who obscure these ties or circulate a narrative of Asian and Black enmity and do you think that trend is changing?

I think the reason why people do this, is the pitting of Black and Asian communities against one another. We see this with the popularization of the “model minority” stereotype in the late 60s and early 1970s. We see this with the Los Angeles riots in the 1990s which connected with Koreatown and the destruction of Korean American property after the Rodney King decision. Asian Americans are used as a racial wedge to blame Blacks or Asians themselves for racial problems. It obscures the complexity of these problems. It obscures histories of white supremacism. It’s deeply harmful because it creates animosity rather than seeing these groups with different kinds of histories.

It’s still happening today. We see this in the discussions people have about the surge in anti-Asian hate and violence since 2020, how it also continues to be framed as a problem of Black on Asian violence. As I point out in the book, I’m not trying to over-romanticize these groups and their relationships. I do want to acknowledge there are conflicts, but it’s problematic to say that this is solely or mainly “Black on Asian violence” because it obscures this longer history of the racialization of Asian Americans as disease carriers. There have been changes over time but we have to grapple with that kind of systemic racism and the discourse of “Black on Asian violence” is not helping that discussion.

Throughout the book you wrote about historical laws established to limit, restrict or discourage immigration and integration of Asians into American society. Despite this, you describe multiethnic/multiracial families — Chinese-Irish, Punjabi-Mexican, Filipino-Mexican, and others. This points to what you call “our multi-racial future.” Can you expand on this?

One thing we know about our future is that it’s multiracial. We see this in [the] 2020 census data. There’s been an exponential increase in people identifying as mixed race or multiracial once they had the opportunity to do so — being able to check more than one box.

History plays an important role because we could learn so much about how we want to live in our multiracial present and future by looking at our multiracial past. This phenomenon of mixed-race lives and families and communities is not new. We can see some of the mundane joys of our multiracial past and the way people lived, how they married, the foods they shared, and public spaces that brought them together, how religious temples like the Sikh gurdwara in Stockton [California] in the early 20th century was not solely about Sikh Americans going, but also other Punjabis and South Asian Americans who were not necessarily Sikh but also their Mexican American wives and mixed race children would go there as a place of community and belonging. I think we can see the beauty of that in our past and how we can imagine that in the future. We can also see how there are histories of white supremacy that have tried to erase or prevent this kind of multiracial existence through the passage of anti-miscegenation laws as just one example that tried to prevent interracial sex and marriage. We can learn from this about how we want to be as we move forward.

You write about discriminatory laws like the Page Act of 1875 which “prohibited the transport of … women brought for immoral purposes to the United States” which you argue contributed to the objectification and stereotyping of Asian American women. You contrast this with a section about strong female leaders, such as Hawaii’s Congresswoman Patsy Mink, Sen. Mazie Hirono, Rep. Grace Meng, Sen. Tammy Duckworth, and others. What was on your mind when you wrote this?

There were a couple [of] things. One was the tragedy of the 2021 Atlanta spa shootings and murder of eight people, six of whom were Asian American women. That shooting was not an isolated incident, rather it comes out of this multilayered history, through laws such as the Page Act of 1875, through popular culture, and the repeated portrayal of Asian and Asian American women as objects of desire rather than as complex multidimensional human beings. Three themes in the book bring these very diverse histories together. The first two are violence and erasure. Violence could come from that example of the Atlanta spa shootings and erasure comes from the history of the Page Act which isn’t taught or well-integrated. The third theme of the book is resistance. The Page Act was named after congressman Horace Page. I wanted to juxtapose that with Asian American women who have become Congress members and how some of their major contributions have been to advocate for Asian American education and history in our schools, and against anti-Asian hate and violence, and to advocate for women and girls. This resistance comes in this form of public service contributions as well as the many other forms I talk about in the book. The Page Act is an important part of our past, but these Asian American congresswomen are an important part of our present and future.

Note: This Q&A has been edited for concision.

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