Learn about the history of anti-Asian racism. Understanding sources of racism and the realities faced by Asian Americans is crucial to promoting empathy and community. There are countless books by Asian American authors that can help illuminate the Asian American experience in the U.S. Such as:
The Making of Asian America: A History by Erika Lee
William Gow, a lecturer on Asian American studies at Stanford, calls The Making of Asian America one of “the foundational histories of Asian Americans in the United States.” In this volume, historian Erika Lee tracks waves of Asian immigration to the United States, beginning with Chinese laborers in 1850s California and ending with Hmong refugees in 1980s Minnesota. In between, she looks at all the Asian immigrants who came to the US during the period when the Chinese Exclusion Act made Asians the first group of people explicitly banned from immigrating to the country; they hence became the first undocumented immigrants.
Throughout, Lee’s larger argument tracks the way Asian Americans cycle between getting labeled “good immigrants” and “bad immigrants,” depending on the mood of the political moment. The Making of Asian America, says Gow, “provides needed context for understanding that anti-Asian racism is not something new but rather has been deeply embedded in the history of the United States.”
Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans by Jean Pfaelzer
Starting in 1848 and continuing into the 20th century, in towns across the American West, Chinese Americans were violently rounded up, driven out of town, or killed in a deliberate campaign of ethnic cleansing. In Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans, Jean Pfaelzer, a professor of American studies at the University of Delaware, chronicles this campaign — and the way the persecuted Chinese Americans fought back, in what would become one of the largest displays of mass civil disobedience to date in the United States.
Driven Out comes recommended both by William Gow and by Janelle Wong, a professor of Asian American studies at the University of Maryland. “Too often, media reports today fail to connect the history of anti-Asian violence with a longer, more systemic history of anti-Asian violence in the US,” says Gow. “This work provides context that will help readers make these important connections.”
Serve the People: Making Asian America in the Long Sixties by Karen L. Ishizuka
Before the social uproar of the 1960s, white America unfailingly clumped all Asian Americans loosely together in one large group commonly referred to as “Orientals.” In Serve the People, Karen L. Ishizuka, a documentary film producer and museum curator, tells the story of the 1960s social movements that saw activists from Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino communities coming together to forge a common political identity as Asian Americans.
“In discussing anti-Asian violence, it is important to remember that Asian Americans have never been passive victims,” says Gow. “Ishizuka’s text covers this important history and provides a counterweight to narratives of Asian Americans as silent victims.”
Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown by Nayan Shah
Early Chinese immigrants to the US in the 19th century were repeatedly demonized as filthy disease carriers by the public health authorities of the era.
To understand this period better, UCLA Asian American studies professor Grace Hong recommends the 2001 study Contagious Divides. In it, USC American studies professor Nayan Shah tracks the ways Chinese Americans were scapegoated, and how Chinese American activists responded by helping to build the public health bureaucracies that would undergird 20th-century America.
The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority by Ellen D. Wu
Part of why mainstream America finds it so easy to ignore anti-Asian racism is the idea that Asian Americans are a “model minority”: They may not be considered white, but they’re still considered well-assimilated and upwardly mobile. To understand where this idea comes from, and why it’s harmful, Janelle Wong recommends The Color of Success, the first book-length study of the myth of the model minority. Here, historian Ellen D. Wu tracks the origins of the myth, and the way it continues to shape the way Americans think about race and what it means to be an American.
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