To the Teacher
Anti-Asian hatred and violence, which has existed throughout the history of the United States, surged during the Covid pandemic. The murder of eight people, including six Asian women, in Atlanta on March 16, 2021, sparked grief and rage across the country, and drew attention not only to anti-Asian violence, but to sexism against Asian American women.
Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) across the U.S. have called on all of us to increase our awareness of Asian American experience, culture, and history.
This lesson invites students to learn about the history of one Asian American family, consider some key dates in Asian American history, and learn about and discuss their own family history.
Share with students that today we’ll talk about the history of Asian Americans in this country. We’ll begin by meeting one Asian American woman, the creator of this lesson, educator Liz Young.
Play for students this 2-minute video clip of Liz sharing her experiences of being asked throughout her life, "Where are you from?"
After watching the video, ask students:
- What most struck you about the clip we saw?
- How does Liz say she feels when people ask her where she is from?
- Whether we were born in this country or not, all of us are part of this community. What impact does it have to feel, for whatever reason, that we are an outsider or that we don't belong?
Give each student a chance to share a time in their lives when they felt they did not belong because of someone else’s questions or statements.
Liz’s Family Story
Next, tell students that we'll hear some facts about Liz's own family history.
Invite one or more student volunteers to read out loud the following story from Liz:
- My father, Charles Young (Yurn Chah Jing), was born in Fah Yuen, outside of Guangzhou, in southern Guangdong Province in 1909.
- When he was five years old, he joined his parents in Hanford, a small farming community in the San Joaquin Valley, California. His father ran a horse-drawn laundry cart.
- Anti-Chinese sentiment was high; someone threw a rock at his father and blinded him in one eye.
- After graduating from Hanford High School, my father Charles took the civil service exam for the U.S. Postal Service. He scored first on the exam, but was never called to work there.
- In 1942, the family, including Charles and his five younger brothers and one younger sister, all U.S.-born citizens, leased a grocery store from the Omadas, a Japanese American family.
- The Omadas had to lease out their grocery store because they had been forced to move to an internment camp following the bombing of Pearl Harbor and U.S. entry into World War 2.
- The Young family business prospered. Eventually they would open stores in other small San Joaquin Valley towns like Mendota, Avenal, Coalinga, Delano, and Hanford. They eventually opened up larger stores in San Luis Obispo and Morro Bay.
- My father often said that if it weren’t for anti-Asian racism, he would have become a civil servant and lived a working class life. Instead, his family became entrepreneurs and moved into the middle class.
- What strikes you about Liz’s family history?
- How did anti-Asian racism affect her family?
Key Moments in Asian American History
Share with students the following (and see this pdf version)
Racism has been part of this country’s history since its inception. So has ignorance about this history of racism.
The first harm was perpetrated on Indigenous people when Europeans first appeared on this soil. The second harm was when Africans were enslaved and forced into chattel slavery in what is now the United States.
After the Civil War brought an end to chattel slavery, thousands of Chinese workers were brought to the U.S. to supply cheap labor, including to build the Western half of the transcontinental railroad.
By telling stories about individuals and families during crucial times in U.S. history, we can better understand the rise and reoccurrence of anti-Asian racism and violence. We can also better understand the resilience, strength, and contributions of Asian Americans and other people of color, who are often erased or made invisible in the teaching of standard U.S. history.
Let’s explore some key moments in the history of Asian Americans and in the history of the racism and sexism that has been directed at them.
The Naturalization Act was signed into law, prohibiting non-white people from becoming citizens of the United States.
Chinese workers exploited: After slavery was ended, Chinese laborers were imported to supply cheap labor for industrialists. Chinese workers built the western half of transcontinental railroad, which eventually made it possible to travel across the entire country in just a week instead of months. According to Gordon Chang, Stanford professor of American history and author of Ghosts of Gold Mountain, Chinese received 30-50 percent lower wages than whites for the same job and also had the most difficult and dangerous work, including tunneling and the use of explosives. No Chinese workers were present at the Golden Spike ceremony that joined the Western and Eastern transcontinental railroad in Promontory Point, Utah.
1865 – 1882 (and beyond)
“Yellow peril”: Chinese workers were scapegoated for depressed wage levels and for “stealing” jobs from white people. They were depicted as disease-ridden and as people who would never assimilate to the U.S. The media stoked the idea that Asians were a dangerous “yellow peril.”
Chinese Massacre: Nineteen Chinese immigrants were lynched by a mostly white mob in Los Angeles. Eight people were eventually convicted of manslaughter in the murders, but their convictions were overturned.
The Page Act was passed. It explicitly forbids “the importation of women for the purposes of prostitution.” In practice, the law was used as a way to keep all Chinese women from migrating to the United States. Preventing women from immigrating with their partners meant that male laborers were unable to create families and set down roots in America.
The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, making Chinese people the only racial group to be legally excluded from the U.S. The act intentionally left Chinese people unprotected by law, and led to a widespread fear of authorities and deportation among Asians in the U.S. Many Asian laborers were recruited instead to provide cheap labor in plantations in Hawaii (which was not a U.S. state until 1959).
U.S. v. Wong Kim Ark: The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a child born in the U.S. whose parents were of Chinese descent would automatically become a U.S. citizen at birth. The decision established an important precedent: Under the 14th Amendment, children born in the United States are U.S. citizens.
Internment camps: After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, 120,000 Japanese Americans, including 110,000 Japanese American citizens, were sent to internment/concentration camps by Executive Order 09066. The last camp was not closed until March 1946.
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was lifted. A quota of 105 people was allowed in. Most were brides of U.S. soldiers.
The Immigration and Nationality Act (also called the Family Reunification Act) opened entry to the U.S. to other immigrants on parity with immigrants from Europe. The Act also gave priority to admitting relatives of U.S. citizens and legal, permanent residents, professionals, and other individuals with specialized skills, as well as refugees. The act greatly increased the total number of immigrants, as well as the share of immigrants from Asia and Africa.
Model Minority myth: Sociologist William Petersen coined the term “model minority” in an article he wrote for the New York Times France. In it, he argued that quiet determination and hard work enabled Japanese Americans to thrive even when other “minorities” did not. It perpetuated stereotypes about Asians and others, and continues to be used as a wedge between Asian and Black communities.
Third World Studies: Strikes by students of color at San Francisco State University and at the University of California, Berkeley led to the creation of Asian American studies programs – as well as Black studies, Latino/a studies and American Indian studies – in California and ultimately across the country. The term “yellow peril” was re-engineered to “Yellow Pearl” as Asian American artists, writers, and activists found their voices and shared their lived experiences in their own words.
Vincent Chin murdered: Two auto workers (one unemployed), killed Chin at his bachelor party because they mistook him for Japanese. They blamed Japanese automakers for the loss of U.S. auto jobs. The killers were given a year of probation and a $3000 fine.
Korean-Black tension: A Korean store owner in South Los Angeles shot and killed a 15-year-old African-American girl who was accused of trying to steal orange juice. Rage in the Black community spilled over to KoreaTown, where stores were vandalized or burned. In New York City, Korean and Black mediators came together as a team to address conflicts between the Black community and Korean store owners.
9/11 hate crimes: After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, hate crimes spiked against Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim, including people of South Asian descent. Four days after the attacks, aircraft mechanic Frank Silva Roque murdered Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh American gas station owner originally from India, whom Roque mistook for Muslim. The post-9/11 period led to greater awareness and advocacy between the South and East Asian communities.
Kamala Harris sworn in: She became the first female, first Black, and first Asian American vice president of the United States.
A brief history of anti-Asian racism in America (4 minute video from the Washington Post)
The long, ugly history of anti-Asian racism and violence in the U.S. (Washington Post)
Yellow Pearl: The Birth of the Asian American Movement (Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center)
Black-Asian solidarity has a long and storied history in America (Van Jones, CNN)
Ask students to reflect on the timeline:
- What stands out to you in this timeline?
- What surprises you? Why?
- What patterns do you see in this history?
- What has changed? What hasn’t changed? When there has been change, why did it happen?
- Does anything in this history make you think about the racism, sexism, or other forms of bias that you yourself have experienced, whatever your identity? Why?
Research your History
Ask each student to pick four dates included in the timeline.
Ask students to interview a family member(s) or any member of their household to find out:
- Do you know where our family/your family was during this point in history?
- What was going on with the family?
- Do you know how this history relates to the event in the timeline?
- Were you yourself aware of this event? What was happening in your life at this time?
Tell students that many people don’t know much if any of their family history. If this is the case, ask students to focus their inquiry on the last question.
At your next session, invite students to share what they have learned. Ask:
- What surprised you about what you learned?
- How does the experience of your household member relate to the history of anti-Asian racism that we discussed?
- What patterns do we see, if any, in what we have all learned?
- Do you have new thoughts or reflections on how anti-Asian racism has played out in this country and what we can do about it?