I ran into my Foundations of Journalism class late on my first day last semester. As I rushed in, the room went silent, and I flushed with embarrassment. I felt as though people were staring, wondering, “Who is this Asian girl? Why is she here?”
I sat down in the only seat available in the first row, so people would direct their attention away from me. More judgments crossed my mind as I imagined what my classmates thought about having an international student from Asia in their class. I scanned through the faces in the class, a burden lifting off my shoulders as I realized I was not the only person of color in the room. However, I was the only Asian in the class.
My professor took pride in her dedication to diversity in journalism, and I never doubted that. During a lesson about reporting on diversity, she counted off the list of different racial minority groups in America—black people, Native American people, Latino people. I hoped she would mention Asians, but she skipped us—rather than saying she “skipped” us, though, perhaps I should say she forgot us.
In situations like this, I think to myself, “The Asian community didn’t go through discrimination as brutal as black people faced, so who cares?”
Since coming to the United States three years ago, most of the American racial justice history I learned includes lessons about black discrimination, such as the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Yet, I found no trace of Asian-American history in the curriculum.
In 1850, Chinese people began to migrate to the U.S. and work as gold miners and field workers for whatever wages they could get. This disrupted the labor market by drastically decreasing wages. Some Americans also argued that drug dealing and prostitution in Chinatowns across the U.S. lowered the moral standard of American society, according to the Office of the Historian’s website.
With rising discrimination and hatred against Asian-Americans, white people viewed them as inferior. In 1854, the Supreme Court of California ruled in the case People v. Hall that Chinese people have no right to testify against white people because they “are incapable of progress or intellectual development beyond a certain point.” A decade after that, when naturalization extended to blacks, Asians were not included.
The public outrage pushed Congress to pass the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which suspended Chinese immigration to the U.S. for 10 years. The law soon branched out to other acts prohibiting the reentry of U.S. citizens traveling from China and expanded the jurisdiction to cover Hawaii and the Philippines. The U.S. government extended the act indefinitely until 1943 when it was repealed to restore ties with allied countries.
At the same time, during the anti-Japanese era of World War II, more acts of racism toward Asians occurred, such as the placement of Japanese-Americans in internment camps regulated by the U.S. government. This is just a portion of the forgotten past of Asian-American discrimination.
Without knowing about these periods of American history, I would not have recognized the hardships my Asian-American ancestors have faced, and I understand why people don’t recognize these hardships either like they do other minority groups’ history of discrimination.
It was not until I discussed racism with my friend from China at Emerson that I realized I am not the only Asian who feels marginalized.
Mainstream media, like the movie Crazy Rich Asians, often portray Asians as a successful socio-economic group and top academic achievers. The false label of “model minority” with lighter skin—although many Asians have different skin tones—allows people to believe that Asians are similar to white people and that we are not a part of a minority. At the same time, people use the idea of Asian-Americans as the model minority to highlight the “downfalls” of other minorities, who therefore see us as an enemy.
Some people from other minority groups believe Asians do not face the same conflicts as other minorities, while the majority of Americans sees us as aliens. As a result, a lot of Asian-Americans find themselves not fitting in on either side. Hilary Wong, an Asian-American who spoke at an event called Misconception of Representation at Malden High School on Jan. 26, told me she finds herself and her peers growing up in America feeling lost and not knowing where they belong.
“In the white community, we often can’t advocate for ourselves because they would be like, ‘Look at those minorities who are facing more discrimination,’ and at the same time, when we go to minority communities, we would face things like, ‘Oh, you are one of the white people,’” Wong said. “So there is an idea of the perpetual foreigner where we are also too exotic to be a real American and … viewed as we do not belong here.”
I still remember sitting alone in the first row of my journalism class and feeling so isolated from my peers around me—my ears burned red because I felt so nervous and upset. I kept reminding myself we should all get used to feeling uncomfortable when we encounter differences and ignorance no matter what ethnicity, nationality, sexuality, or ability people may possess.
Perhaps what we need today is to bring up the overlooked history of Asian-Americans and learn and understand the misconceptions that reinforce racism in America. All of us should begin conversations about race without the presence of stereotypes and allow the Asian community to have their own voice and representation in society as a minority.