Fighting for equality

Stanford professor, students break down Asian American advocacy.

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Art: Lauren Yan

Jacquelyn Lai and Gwyneth Wong

“Go back to your country” is a phrase commonly hurled at those in the Asian American community.

It seems that even in 2021, Asian Americans are still struggling to establish themselves as Americans and find acceptance.

American Studies Professor William Gow from Stanford goes more into depth on this issue.

“There’s been this history where despite how long Asian Americans may have been here — they may have been here for three, four, five generations — they get treated as if they’re not part of the United States or don’t belong here,” Gow said.

Gow traces the foreigner label back to earlier in the history of Asian American presence in this country.

“There’s a prominent 19th century stereotype that the Chinese immigrants ate rats,” Gow said. “There’s all kinds of references in newspapers with White reporters and artists kind of drawing pictures of Chinese eating rats and writing about Chinese restaurants serving rats.”

This stereotype of the perpetual foreigner is still in existence today. Former president Donald Trump has helped fuel this bias and incite violence against the Asian American community during his presidency by using derogatory language, according to Gow.

“The former president and many Republican leaders kind of began using terms like the “China Virus”… racializing the virus which all kind of increases this animosity towards Asian Americans and leads to a climate in which we have increasing amounts of Asian violence,” Gow said.

Many of these stereotypes originated in the Bay Area and later spread nationwide, Gow said, adding: “The Bay Area was for a long time the center of Asian American communities,” Gow said.

Asian American activists have tried for many decades to combat these stereotypes. Finally, it seems that their work is being acknowledged.

The model minority creates a misconception that Asian Americans can’t be victims of racism because many of them achieve great success. But it isn’t that Asian Americans are successful without having to face racism, it is that Asian Americans are successful despite having to face racism.”

Asian American activism

The Asian American community has struggled for decades to shed light on the racism they face in the United States.

“Since the 19th century, there has been a large contingent of Asian American activists,” Gow said. “In the 1960s, the founding of the field of Asian American studies and ethnic studies came out of the work of the Asian American student radicals at San Francisco State [University] and UC Berkeley.”

More recently, there has been a sizable number of young Asian American activists who want to continue this work. Gow has high hopes for the new generation of activists to build off of the work of their predecessors.

“The younger generation is just better poised … to take up this issue,” Gow said. “I’ve interacted with my students and with younger folks and I definitely feel like… this is a generation that… is more open to embracing activism.”

It is clear that young activists today are determined to make a difference in their community.

The rapidly growing movement called “Stop Asian and Pacific Islander Hate” involves people of all ages who are intolerant of racism towards the Asian American community.

Model minority myth

Historically,  the work of Asian American activists has been mostly overlooked by the public in part because of the model minority myth, Gow said.

The model minority myth argues that because the Asian American community is among the most successful and prosperous minority groups, the community does not face racism or adversity compared to the other minority groups.

“There’s this long kind of history of Asian American radicalism, but it’s been washed aside or hidden in part because it doesn’t conform to the model minority stereotype,” Gow said.

This myth discounts the challenges Asian Americans have faced to become successful, argues Emily Yun, Palo Alto High School junior and co-president of the school’s Asian Student Union.

“The model minority creates a misconception that Asian Americans can’t be victims of racism because many of them achieve great success,” Yun said. “But it isn’t that Asian Americans are successful without having to face racism, it is that Asian Americans are successful despite having to face racism.”

Cody Hmelar, senior and co-president of the Asian Student Union, agrees with Yun.

“People outside of our communities are thinking they [Asian Americans] are very smart, very wealthy, very successful,” Hmelar said.

This history of activism goes against the very idea that all Asians are subservient and quiet, Gow said.

“That history pushes back very firmly against this idea that Asian Americans are model minorities who just kind of like to sit quietly and submissively and don’t face racism or when they do face racism don’t say anything,” Gow said.


History of Anti-Asian Sentiment

Here is a timeline of major historical events that involve Asian American discrimination.

  • Chinese Exclusion Act enacted in 1882. This law barred Chinese workers from immigrating to the US and is the foundation upon which our modern immigration system is built. Prior to this, the US essentially had no federal immigration statutes, Gow said.

 

  • 1900 San Francisco Plague Outbreak. According to the Washington Post, San Francisco had a bubonic plague outbreak in 1900. The virus was transmitted by a ship from Australia, but the Chinese American community was blamed instead. Chinatown was surrounded by police and only White residents were allowed to pass and leave. Chinese Americans’ houses were subject to searches and destruction.

 

  • Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907. This agreement with Japan regulated the entry of Japanese workers into the United States, according to Gow.

 

  • Asiatic Barred Zone of 1917. According to Immigration to the United States, this act was “the first federal law to impose a general restriction on immigration in the form of a literacy test” and it “broadened restrictions on the immigration of Asians and persons deemed ‘undesirable’ and provided tough enforcement provisions.”

 

  • 1982 Killing of Vincent Chen. Vincent Chen was a Chinese American who was attacked in Detroit by two white men because they thought he was Japanese American, according to Gow. “There was a lot of frustration among white workers against Japanese automakers, so the two men took their frustrations out on Chen and killed him,” Gow said.

 

  • 2020 Coronavirus is labeled the “China Virus.” Gow said,“Many Republican leaders began using terms like the so-called China virus … racializing the virus, which increases this animosity towards Asian Americans and leads to a climate in which we have increasing amounts of Asian violence.”