Asian American History Is American History

Friday, May 6, 2022
Harvard University’s Project Implicit offers several different tests to help us identify our implicit biases. One of the many tests examines our innate assumptions about Asian Americans and European Americans through categorizing images of faces and places as either American or foreign. For far too many outside of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) communities, the test reveals an association between Asian American faces and foreignness. Implicit bias leads them to categorize Asian Americans as not belonging – as the “other.”

In 2022, it is still all too common for a person of Asian descent to be asked, “Where are you really from?” or to be told, “Your English is excellent!” This is othering, and it can be deeply hurtful.

I know far too little about Asian American and Pacific Islander cultures and histories, but what I do understand is that those histories ARE American history. Some of you know this because you live in these cultures and histories. For those who do not, failure to understand risks the erasure of Asian American and Pacific Islander people, to the detriment of us all. As a person who believes in belongingness, I have an obligation to do better, to learn more. As a Black person with my own lived experiences of racism and exclusion, it is incumbent upon me to better understand the experiences of racism and exclusion faced by people of Asian and Pacific Island descents, and to work to heal rifts between our communities. It is also important to remember that people with one of the many AANHPI identities are not a monolith, but rather a rich diversity and variety of people! Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have ancestors from many different countries with different cultures. They are varied in culture, language, religion and skin tone. There is no one AANHPI culture. For those of us outside of these cultures, part of our learning should include understanding and celebrating the rich variety of peoples of AANHPI descent and the many ways that they have each contributed to American history.

I often speak of the original sins of American settler colonialism, the genocide of Indigenous peoples and the enslavement of African-descended people. But as this country continued its journey, its sins against people of Asian and Pacific Islander descents hit with similar force and damage and continue to cause intergenerational harm.

There are too many harms to fully enumerate here, but among them are many firsts: The first significant law restricting immigration into the United States targeted Chinese laborers immigrating to the United States. Those laws expanded over time to discriminate against many coming from Asia and the Pacific Islands, including the creation of an “Asiatic Barred Zone” which included the entire Indian subcontinent. Some people, like Filipino Americans, had their status change without their consent at the whims of American colonialism.

Our country’s racist drug war was also initially directed at Chinese people, criminalizing the smoking of opium (popular with Chinese immigrants) but not the use of laudanum (also opium, but popular with white people).

President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 led to the incarceration of thousands of Japanese Americans who were forced into prison camps during World War II. People lost their autonomy, their livelihood, their lives – all because of racism.

I only recently learned how much redlining (an illegal and racially discriminatory practice impacting the ability of people to live, access loans, and buy property in the neighborhoods they choose) affected Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders – I had a deeper understanding of its impact on Black people. Right here in Seattle, the creation of what is now known as the Chinatown-International District is a direct result of redlining aimed at limiting where people of various Asian descents could settle and live. 

Whether through bars, borders or banks, exclusionary efforts not only resulted from othering, they perpetuated it. The celebration of AANHPI Heritage Month is a story of perseverance. It is also a story of excellence.

Excluding the stories of people of Asian descents from our shared American history also deprives us of knowing and attributing their many accomplishments and contributions. Patsy Mink comes to mind. In 1964, Mink became the first Asian American woman and the second woman from Hawaii to serve in Congress. She fought valiantly for the rights of Asian Americans and women. She co-authored and sponsored the Title IX Amendment of the Higher Education Act, which was passed in 1972 and prohibited gender discrimination in education programs in public schools as well as at colleges and universities. If you enjoyed the women’s N.C.A.A. March Madness tournament this year, in large part you have Patsy Mink to thank.

I think also of the powerful voice and activism of Mia Mingus, a writer, educator and trainer for transformative justice and disability justice. She is a queer, physically disabled Korean transracial and transnational adoptee. She works for community, interdependence and a home for all of us, not just some of us. In this work for transformative justice, she has said, “Every day is another chance to practice living out the values that matter most to us, to be our best selves, to be the legacy we want to leave.” 

There are so many more from AANHPI communities who have made our country, our state, and our cities and towns better by their presence. We do well to know about them and about so many more people like them.

This Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month and forever onward, I encourage all of us to take the time to learn more. Below are some resources to help you do so.

There is another devastating impact of failing to understand the belongingness of people of Asian and Pacific Islander descents in this country. It arises from the deep-seated bias that labels these people as foreign and other makes it easy for them to be demonized by other cultures. Most recently, COVID-19 brought with it a pandemic of hate and violence directed at people of Asian and Pacific Islander descents throughout this country, including the normalizing of hateful speech about them in popular discourse. We should collectively be deeply ashamed and outraged. At a time when we most need to pull together for the well-being of everyone, society writ large has chosen to “other,” to the detriment of all of us. Last year, several organizations dedicated to serving Asian and Pacific Islanders in Washington shared with us their concerns about the rise in anti-Asian violence. To learn more about how to support these organizations, please read here.

When we say that we all belong, that means everyone. That means people of Asian and Pacific Islander descents belong. Indigenous people belong. Black people belong. Latinx people belong. Immigrants from all countries belong. White people of all backgrounds belong. You belong regardless of your gender, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, religious beliefs and disability status – regardless of who you are and how many intersecting identities you may have! You are part of American history. This Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, let us focus our attention on righting the wrongs of exclusion and othering of Asian American and Pacific Island people. Let us speak out against anti-Asian hate and correct the historical record at every opportunity.

Despite the failures of the past to acknowledge people of Asian and Pacific Islander descents in America as fully American, and despite laws and cultural norms which have served to exclude them, we have the opportunity every day to do better.
Michele Storms is the Executive Director of the ACLU of Washington.


Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month: Resources to Learn More

Washington-based organizations

Talks and documentaries


Web resources