“I never knew this happened.”
That was the general sentiment of everyone who attend the MCC’s latest lecture. On March 3, students and professors alike packed the rows of the Multicultural Center to hear a talk by award-winning professor Erika Lee, author of the new book, The Making of Asian America.
Most of Asian-American history is not taught in schools, aside from maybe a lesson or two about Japanese internment or the Chinese men who built the railroads. But beyond that, the history of Asian Americans is mostly unknown, untold and slowly being lost. Erika Lee, a history professor the University of Minnesota, has spent her career uncovering the history of Asian American immigrants, experiences not that different from experiences felt by many immigrants today.
Early Asian immigrants faced discrimination. They were hated for stealing jobs, despised during the World War II era and restricted from their rights and immigration due to laws set in place.
Even one of the most loved children’s authors felt no love for Asian children. Lee showed a cartoon by Dr. Seuss, depicting legions of identical Japanese men holding TNT, “waiting for a signal from home,” suggesting that all Japanese men still held allegiance to Japan during World War II, even though many had lived in the country for generations.
One slide during the presentation showed an article from World War II titled, “How to Tell Your Friends from Japs,” published by none other than Time magazine. Attempting to help people tell the difference between the friendly Chinese versus the dangerous Japanese, filled with helpful hints like, “Chinese are not as hairy as Japanese” and “Chinese avoid horn-rimmed spectacles.”
According to Dr. Lee, when she asked Time permission to publish the article for her book, she was denied because it did not fit within the magazine’s “brand.” Naturally, she left it up for as long as possible.
Even today, despite the model minority brand, many Asians still face heavy levels of racism and discrimination. Anyone in need of proof can just check the comment section of Erika Lee’s articles and reviews, filled with bigotry, misinformation and language that often pits Asians against other ethnicities.
And that is how Asians are so often left out of the conversations that affect them. Despite recently becoming the largest immigrant group, they are left out of immigration reform conversations. During discussions of discrimination and oppression, media rarely addresses Asians because of the model minority myth.
The lecture resonated with many, evident in the following Q&A which was filled with questions not only about Asian-American history but the status of Asian Americans today. People asked Erika Lee’s stance on the recent incidents with Peter Liang, the recent model minority enforcing article by Nicolas Kristof on the Asian advantage, and the intersection of Asians and the Black Lives Matter movement.
One question that hit quite close to home came from Black Studies Professor Mia White who asked whether race factored into the events and reactions to the horrific tragedy of May 23, 2014. Did people assume he was less of a threat because he was Asian? Did his ethnicity make it easier to fit his story into a common stereotypical narrative of the meek Asian boy who wants to be loved by a white girl? What followed was a discussion about the depiction of Asians, and how it often shifts to fit the narrative people want to believe.
So where does that leave us now? How can we reclaim the Asian-American story that has been so tangental in the history books? Is there just one Asian America? Can we shift the narrative about Asian Americans? Will Asian Americans ever been included in the conversations they are so often left out of? Those are the questions left upon us by the event. And it is up to our generation to answer them.