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Why History is Important

I was always the kid growing up who hated history. It was always the most boring subject to me. I didn’t see the point in memorizing dates and random names for things that happened generations and generations ago. “It has nothing to do with me,” was what I thought.

But now, I’m starting to see more and more that it has everything to do with me. My family, the place I grew up, and the environment and people that surrounded me since childhood has had a profound impact on the way I think and go about the world. If we want to get into ethnicity and culture, there have been Chinese values that have been passed down for generations that have shaped the way my grandparents lived, which has shaped the way my parents lived, which transitively, shapes me in so many subconscious ways. If we want to get into nationality, the mere fact that I was born in America has overarching implications for the way I’ve lived my life, for what I’ve been taught, for what I’ve been acclimated to.

It’s important to understand some of these things, if you are to truly understand yourself.

After watching the PBS “Asian Americans” documentary series… I realize again just how important knowing context and history has become. Silly example: it was earth-shattering when I discovered that the classic “food pyramid” diagram that I had grown up with (which incidentally, was published by the USDA in 1992. I was born in 1994.) may not have been motivated solely by health research. If you Google around to uncover the history of it, you realize that having the base (6-11 servings) consist of bread, cereal, rice, and pasta was impacted more by lobbyists and the capitalistic motivations of corn and wheat agriculture business than by health agencies. Same with the “Got Milk?” slogan that was plastered everywhere in school cafeterias when I was growing up—health benefits of milk aside, you can bet that those posters of famous athletes with milk mustaches are just examples of advertising at its finest.

Less silly example: the model minority myth. Every culture and ethnicity in the world has hardworking and intelligent individuals. When you realize that Asian American immigrants (predominantly East Asian—Chinese, Japanese, Korean) were propped up as a “model minority” in the 1960s intentionally and specifically to denigrate African Americans in the United States… you begin to understand how pervasive and how damaging the “Asians are so smart, they succeed because they work hard” myth is to all people of color. (The implied converse being that black/brown/latino/other racial groups are less hardworking or more predisposed to drugs and violence, which therefore points the fault at the individual rather than at the system that perpetuates oppression). A cursory look at the present reality can only describe what is in existence. Understanding the history though, reveals the why? behind it. The context reveals a clearer—and sometimes more sinister—picture.

The term “model minority” was coined by UC Berkeley sociologist William Petersen in an article he wrote for The New York Times in 1966. That article and several more like it all seemed to attribute the success of Asian Americans to Confucian principles, work ethic, and family values. But what they failed to highlight was that the historical legislation of US immigration (most notably, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 and 1965) from Asian countries was put in place to selectively favor those from highly-educated backgrounds (doctors, engineers, and scientists). Prior to that, the Immigration Act of 1924 had banned all Asian immigrants entirely. Opponents against the Civil Rights movement used this influx of highly educated elite to divide and pit minority groups against each other, propping the latter up against African Americans in a “why can’t you do what they did” sort of condemnation. What the history shows though, is that one was a minority group that was literally brought here against their will on slave ships, and suffered generations of segregation and oppression, whereas one was a minority group that already favored the educated and “successful.”

That is why I believe it is vital for Asian Americans to understand their own history and to engage with the #BlackLivesMatter movement. It has everything to do with the history of the United States. It has everything to do with our identity. And in certain ways, it has even been twisted to subversively harm and oppress African Americans within the systems and structures set up since the founding of our country. I found this conversation between this Korean and black pastor to be enlightening. Pastor Léonce Crump from Atlanta, GA said this beautifully: “If we think we’ll dismantle 500 years of thought-out, documented, strategic, systemic and structural oppression… in three months of Tweeting, Facebooking, and marching… we are really kidding ourselves.” Asian Americans are here today. We are entrenched in history. We have a voice and a presence. But I think we first need to do the work to understand some of our history so that we can better see where we are today and why and how it is that we got here.

Question: what do you remember learning (or not learning) about Asian American history growing up?

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