By Cynthia Liu
Once upon a time there was a girl who grew up in a remote small town in upstate New York. There were five Asian American families in her town; hers was one.
At that time, she knew nothing about transcontinental railroad workers from China, or Delano, California grape pickers from the Philippines or Mexico, little to nothing about chattel slavery in the South or sugar plantations in the Caribbean. In school she learned a smattering about the Native-named places around her in upstate New York and how they were the legacies of Cayuga and Onandaga peoples who had lived there for centuries before her parents immigrated to the United States from China. But she could tell you who Paul Revere was, or that the Boston Tea Party happened, or that the Declaration of Independence has roots in the Magna Carta.
She read a book called The Woman Warrior as a girl, and it blew her mind. It was the first time ever someone had described the foods she ate, or the mildew-and-hempen smells that wafted out of boxes her family received from kin who lived in an Asian country overseas she had never visited. The book told secrets she thought were hers alone about distant women relatives with bound feet or who made and ate strange food or had relatives with names like Second Maternal Aunt or Tenth Paternal Uncle. After reading that ground-breaking memoir, it occurred to her that her picture of America was incomplete, because people like her weren’t typically in it. And to see a truly inclusive America better, we’d need a different mirror.
Of course that girl was me. And I didn’t see more of anyone who looked like me until I went to college. If there were only five Asian families in our small town, there was probably one girl who was African American and likewise very few Latinos.
It would be easy to say, well, those were different times and it’s only natural that you discovered what Howard Zinn calls a “people’s history” of America when you were in college. I was lucky; my passion for literature led me to worlds I could inhabit through stories. I wanted to fill in everything that I missed growing up in such a homogeneous town that seemed blanketed by snow eight months of the year.
But there’s absolutely no reason why students today — more than 40 years after the Third World Student Strike at San Francisco State, and the emergence of Ethnic Studies as an academic discipline at colleges and universities all around the nation — should be bereft of the knowledge and understanding of ALL the people who have had a role in shaping this vibrant, diverse city of Los Angeles, the multicultural state of California, or our increasingly varied (possibly ‘polycultural’?) nation. Ethnic Studies is a path to self-understanding for students otherwise denied the histories of those who speak and look like them, but it’s also how all people can empathize across lines of race, culture, religion, ethnicity, and language and feel in our bones the deep commonalities of shared hopes, struggles, and dreams of our individual lives. Yes, empathy can be taught. Anti-racism can be learned and racism and bigotry unlearned. But first we have to set aside blinkered monocultural lenses.
As an undergrad, I helped found the Asian American Studies program at my university. I went on to get a PhD in Asian American literature. While at the University of California Berkeley, I helped organize the Asian Pacific American graduate students into a group that pressed the English department to hire its first specialist in Asian American literature. I taught undergrads for six years at UC Berkeley and also at San Francisco State, and I taught them multi-ethnic literatures of the 19th and 20th centuries, which of course necessitated understanding (and teaching) the history and context of slave narratives, or the American colonization of the Philippines, or the place of the “borderlands” as a crucial space defined by Chicana/Latina queer feminisms.
I was living in California when then-Governor Pete Wilson led the attack on affirmative action in college admissions to the state’s universities (Proposition 209), and saw how the politics of fear drove voters to pass ballot initiatives like Proposition 187 (racial profiling) and Proposition 227 (English Only). I rebelled against it all and marched and organized students and faculty to oppose these harmful laws. We failed then. Now we have a chance to right all those wrongs.
Asian Pacific Americans must know and understand the struggles of our forebears in fighting for education, working people’s, language, immigration, queer, women’ s, and economic rights. As a people, we Asian Pacifics have done this ever since we set foot on North American soil. We did this in brotherhood and sisterhood with others around us who also fought for the same human rights. If we have a firm grasp on these shared histories, we can work together to increase opportunity and educational equity for all. Without this shared history of struggle, we scramble for crumbs and try to snatch them from one another.
This is why I support Ethnic Studies graduation requirements for high school students in California and beyond. Because in this day and age, we need frameworks to understand race, power, racism, gender, sexuality, class, and culture — and college is too late to BEGIN this instruction.
We most certainly need Ethnic Studies in our curriculum. It’s only a step toward full humanity for all in a diverse future in which power is equitably balanced among Americans as aspired to in our nation’s founding documents. We also need teachers who are racially proficient and equal to the task of educating our infinitely mixed and multilingual students. We need more teachers of color in the classroom as role models of what thought leaders and master teachers look like, because, for example, WEB DuBois was and is as central to American thought as Thomas Paine. We can reject implicit bias and look to scholars of color and students of color as experts and narrators of our own experiences and shapers of the future. Most of all, we need to move away from subtle deficit thinking about race, and embrace new language to describe it as neutral even if embedded within hierarchies of power and/or acknowledge it as a rich and generative force in visual and cinematic art, music, dance, literature, and theatre — in all the things that make us most human.