Updated: May 28
Dear Asian Youth,
A banana: yellow on the outside, white on the inside. A racial description often used to describe someone of Asian descent that has been “whitewashed” — someone who lacks a connection to their cultural heritage.
As a second generation Asian American, I am all too familiar with the term. My grandparents immigrated to the U.S. in the 1950s. My parents were born and raised in the American public education system. I grew up in a predominantly Asian immigrant community near East San Jose, California. A lot of my peers were first generation and spoke their native language. I often felt alienated since my personal experiences and home life were very different. Often, when my peers met my parents who spoke perfect English or learned about my inability to speak Cantonese, I was condemned as a "banana."
I never thought I was out of touch with my culture though; my family still celebrated Chinese holidays and ate traditional foods. My grandmother would always cook traditional Cantonese food at home and we would go out for Dim Sum every week. We would hold large banquets and pass out Lai See (red envelopes) on Chinese New Year and eat Mooncakes on the day of the Mid-Autumn Harvest Festival. Every year, my family would visit the cemetery to pay our respects to our ancestors, following Chinese tradition.
Growing up, it was also important that my parents taught me my family history: how my great grandfather immigrated through Angel Island, how my grandfather came to the U.S. at 14 to help support his family in China, and how my other relatives had to buy papers to be able to immigrate to the U.S. My parents also made sure I knew the true history of the Chinese in America. I learned about the transcontinental railroad, the Chinese Exclusion Act, the history of Chinatowns, and the extensive racism, violence, and hatred the Chinese faced.
Yet, when I began school, I often found the stories and narratives I learned growing up to be omitted from public school curriculum. There were mentions of Chinese building the transcontinental railroad and the Chinese Exclusion Act, but nothing more than a few sentences in a history textbook. For a class full of Asian kids, I questioned why we never learned about our own history and contributions to America. Why was there so much importance placed on European figures and their narrative in shaping the country?
Even from first grade, we were taught that America is the best country on Earth: the richest country, the land of the free, the home of the brave. We discussed the Founding Fathers and the great ideas our nation was built upon. And yet, there is a completely different narrative that seems to exist between all this: the narrative of the minority — one of racism, oppression, hate, and exclusion.
Last month, PBS aired a documentary called “Asian Americans.” The documentary detailed the complex history of Asians in the U.S., from Supreme Court cases involving Asian Americans that defined race, ethnicity, and property ownership in the U.S. to pioneering Asians in the entertainment industry. From the complex race relations in the L.A. riots to the role Asians played in American politics. Personally I was furious to have learned that our contribution to American history goes without recognition. We played a part in creating laws and policies that still affect us today, we built and fought for this country, and regardless, we still face incredible amounts of racial discrimination and violence. This is the history that my immigrant family was a part of for more than 80 years. And still, there is only a sliver of a sentence mentioning Asian Americans in our textbooks.
American history in school is very one-sided. It’s often written from a white, eurocentric perspective. Writing history from a singular perspective omits the history of a lot of people and often distorts some events. Even when discussing the darker parts of American history, textbooks fail to grasp the full gravity of a subject, portraying the United States as the overcomer — the bold achiever.
The New York Times article, “Two States. Eight Textbooks. Two American Stories,” by Dana Goldstein highlights this exact issue. The article compares content from two different textbooks: one from California, the other from Texas. Both textbooks have the same publisher and credit the same authors as sources. But there are actually hundreds of subtle differences between the books, proving that the history we are taught is not objective in the slightest. As summarized by Goldstein, “Conservatives have fought for schools to promote patriotism, highlight the influence of Christianity and celebrate the founding fathers... The left has pushed for students to encounter history more from the ground up than from the top down, with a focus on the experiences of marginalized groups such as enslaved people, women and Native Americans.” Learning the history of minorities has become a partisan issue, which often leaves POC students with the short end of the stick. Rather than writing history to the objective truth, varying the lens as to view historical events from multiple perspectives, the American government would rather fight over whether kids are being indoctrinated by right or left wing “ideology.”
In recent weeks, our country has become more polarized in light of the death of Amhaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many more. I began to realize that the Asian American community isn't the only victim of having our history excluded from school textbooks. The history of other minorities is missing from our public school curriculum as well.
Part of learning history is understanding why some people today still suffer repercussions from the past. When we leave out the history of minorities, we effectively ignore the very valid reasons why things are the way they are in today, making progress an impossible feat. If we begin to look at the U.S. from the lens of race, untold history will start to emerge, starting with our Founding Fathers being slave owners. We will then be able to acknowledge the fact that while our Constitution says, “All men are created equal,” this was never true. By studying the history of slavery, we can find the bold hypocrisy within the founding of our nation.
Even when slaves were liberated after the passing of the 13th Amendment, it only brought about different forms of slavery: sharecropping, redlining, and mass incarceration. Same institution, different names. A loophole in the amendment stated that slavery was illegal, except in the form of punishment for a crime. After the Civil War, while the south struggled to rebuild its economy, African Americans were kept in cycles of economic oppression and poverty, denied from buying homes in wealthy areas and arrested en masse for petty crimes. They were given unfair trials and jailed, where they could be put to work for little to no money. Many of these systems still exist today.
When Asians began to immigrate to the U.S., this system of racism started to spread to other immigrants as well. We too became victims of racism, along with every other immigrant community. Yet unlike the African American community, a physical bill (the Chinese Exclusion Act) was written to prevent Asians from even entering the country. The system of racism was adapted to exclude Asians from owning property, obtaining citizenship, and being able to settle in wealthy communities. While most European immigrants entered through Ellis Island in New York with the grand Statue of Liberty, Asian immigrants were locked up in Angel Island, often for months and separated from their families. During World War II, the Japanese were relocated after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Some families were separated based on how they “pledged their loyalty” to the United States. Meanwhile, the 442 division, an all Japanese infantry division, fought on the frontlines for the U.S. while their families were locked up at home. A similar act of selflessness was seen when the Tuskegee Airmen defied social norms to become the first all-Black bomber squadron, running hundreds of successful missions and becoming a force for desegregation in the military. Yet despite their bravery and victories, they still faced racism and prejudice at home.
When we look at government policy, African Americans could technically vote after the passing of the 15th amendment, but millions of black men and women were denied their right to vote by poll taxes, grandfather clauses, literacy tests (which were made to be impossible to pass), and threats of being fired from their job. It wasn't until 1965 when the Voting Rights Act allowed equal voting rights for Black people. Even Asian Americans weren’t allowed to vote until 1952's McCarran-Walter Act, which also allowed Asians to become naturalized citizens.
Politicians such as Patsy Mink, the first Asian woman representative, and Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman representative, drafted policies like Title IX and other bills expanding education and healthcare. These policies written by minority women led to sweeping reform in schools and other major institutions; their legacy is still evident today.
By changing the lens in which history is viewed in the United States, our history changes drastically. We begin to acknowledge the issues within our country and the mistakes that we made. But we will also begin to picture the United States as the diverse nation it is.
Still, people are relentlessly fighting to get this history told today. Ethnic studies programs are often few and far between. Even when we look back at the beginning of the movement to teach Ethnic Studies or the History of Minorities in America it was often met with violence and inaction. San Francisco State, which now has one of the premiere Schools of Ethnic Studies, was born out of protest in 1968. A school with a primarily white student body had a growing Asian and Black Population, and these POC students demanded that a School of Ethnic Studies be created. The Black student Union and the Third World Liberation front (TWLF) started a schoolwide strike demanding that an ethnic studies program be implemented. This was met with police force, brutality, and violence. The students went on strike for over a year, and the administration finally created the school.
This brings me back to the topic of the Black Lives Matter movement and George Floyd. One of the officers present, while officer Derek Chauvin placed his knee on George Floyd’s neck, was Asian American. Ex-officer Tou Thao, remained complicit while Floyd laid helpless and even went so far as to tell people recording the injustice to back away. This event highlights the complexities of race relations and anti-Black sentiment in the Asian American Community. How we are forgetting the history and narrative of our people. How we choose to ignore the cries of other minorities to focus on our own.
I think of the loss of identity as Asian Americans when an Asian American Police officer would remain complicit while a Black man was being murdered in front of them. The haunting term of my childhood echoes in my mind: White on the inside, yellow on the outside.
When we look at the history of Asian Americans, Black Americans, Native Americans, Latinx Americans, and more, we are inseparable. Our stories, history, and communities are intertwined. We often forget the times other minority groups have come to aid the Asian community, especially in times of political injustice. We have let ourselves become a pawn in the game of race. As California is on the verge of becoming the first state in the country to mandate ethnic studies as part of public high school curriculum, I think of how far we have come and how far we have to go. If we want to get to the root of the issues our nation faces with racism, we need to fully acknowledge the truth of our past.
America's history is the history of minorities. It always has been. We can’t deny the fact that our country was built off the backs of minorities. We can’t deny the contributions of minorities, as well as our racist history. We can’t deny the systems of oppression that were created and still exist today. America’s history is the history of minorities: the good, bad, and ugly. We can’t forget that, because to forget it, would be to tear us apart at the seams.
- Chris Fong Chew