The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Teaching Asian American history in its complexity can help fight racism

Asian Americans have been both the victims — and perpetrators — of racial discrimination.

Candles and signs are displayed at a makeshift memorial in Atlanta on March 19, 2021, after a multiple shooting there. (Candice Choi/AP)
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San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors recently ushered in the Year of the Tiger by passing a resolution of apology to “all Chinese immigrants and their descendants who … were the victims of systemic and institutional racism, xenophobia, and discrimination.” The cities of Antioch, San Jose and Los Angeles had earlier issued their own formal apologies to Chinese Americans. And New Jersey recently joined Illinois as only the second state to require public schools to teach Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) history.

Many hope that these steps of apology and history education will help to combat the surge in anti-Asian hate. But as important as it is to teach the history of discrimination against people of Asian descent in America and how they have risen above it, it is also essential to teach the history of Asian American prejudice against others and the system of White supremacy that has enabled it. Presenting Asian Americans in all of their complexity as they have sought to negotiate the American racial order can help communities learn from past mistakes, counter model minority stereotypes and build solidarity.

Race in America has tended to operate hierarchically, with groups “ranked” based on their proximity to Whiteness. The stereotypes assigned to different groups effectively work as a divide-and-conquer strategy that can keep non-White groups apart as they contend for access and power. The model minority myth, for instance, places Asian Americans adjacent to Whiteness and has been used as a wedge to prevent interracial solidarities from forming.

But race in America can also operate in a binary that has religious roots in the division of the “heathen” vs. the Christian. The heathen category flattened racial hierarchies by grouping different people together as the “unsaved.” Some classified as heathens found solidarity with other so-called heathens against White Christian colonizers. But others sought to escape the category by claiming a higher position on a civilizational ladder, sometimes deploying racist tropes themselves in the process.

That’s what some Chinese businessmen tried to do in mid-19th century America. Chinese gold-seekers had begun arriving in California in 1848. They faced discriminatory taxes and became the frequent victims of theft and violence. In People v. Hall in 1854, the California Supreme Court ruled that their testimony was impermissible in court, thereby freeing three White men who had been convicted of murdering a Chinese man on the basis of Chinese witness testimony. People v. Hall rendered it virtually impossible for Chinese Americans and Chinese immigrants to defend themselves from persecution.

In the face of such hostility, a “young merchant in San Francisco” named Pun Chi wrote “A Remonstrance to Congress” on behalf of other businessmen. Sometime between the mid-1850s and mid-1860s, they presented the document to missionary William Speer to translate and send to Congress. Speer never sent it, but he published it in an 1870 book on China and America, explaining that it “is thoroughly Chinese, and will aid our people to understand the views and feelings of that people.”

The authors of the “Remonstrance” unflinchingly called out the “unrighteousness of humiliating and hating the Chinese as a people.” Showing their awareness of Christian doctrine, and their understanding of its significance in American national life, they described Jesus as “in accord with the holy men of China”: “He did not permit distinctions of men into classes to be loved or despised. But now, if the religion of Jesus really teaches the fear of Heaven, how does it come that the people of your honorable country on the contrary trample upon and hate the race which Heaven most loves, that is, the Chinese?”

Even as they showed great courage in petitioning Congress for better treatment, holding the White American Christian majority to the egalitarian standards of their own professed religion, the Chinese authors of the “Remonstrance” revealed their own ethnocentrism (“the race Heaven most loves”). This ethnocentrism became more apparent as the authors addressed People v. Hall. Why was the ban on testimony “laid upon us Chinese alone?” they asked. “Shall this degrade us beneath the negro and the Indian? This is a great injustice, such as is not heard of in our Middle Kingdom!” The Chinese merchants appealed to the longevity of their civilization and the great sages it had produced — sages they said were on par with Jesus — to position themselves above Black and Indigenous people and restore what they believed to be their proper position atop a civilizational hierarchy.

Such efforts did not work. By the late 19th century, legislation — the Page Act of 1875, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Geary Act of 1892, which extended exclusion — definitively cast the Chinese as quintessential heathens, marked as incompatible with the American project, and substantially barred from migrating or naturalizing as citizens.

By labeling Chinese migrants as incorrigible heathens, White Americans applied to them a host of traits that had developed around the concept over time. The “heathens” were not only supposed to believe the wrong things, but also to suffer the many bodily and societal consequences that Euro-Americans thought resulted from wrong belief: dirtiness and disease, ignorance and stagnation. European and Euro-American people had long used such supposed heathen traits as an excuse to justify the enslavement, dispossession and death of Black and Indigenous people.

While it was important for the Chinese businessmen to contest a White gaze that flattened their culture by grouping them with other so-called heathens, the choice to resist by putting others down only served to elevate Whiteness.

But history shows other possibilities, too. In a piece published in the North American Review in 1887, Chinese immigrant Wong Chin Foo embraced the heathen label to critique the American racial order. Wong wrote that in China, “we are so far heathenish as to no longer persecute men simply on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude, but treat them all according to their individual worth.” Wong denounced American racism and held up a mirror to White Christians: “ ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ is the great Divine law which Christians and heathen alike hold, but which the Christians ignore. This is what keeps me the heathen I am!”

Where Wong reclaimed the label of heathen as a badge of pride, Japanese religious leader Uchimura Kanzō turned it back on White Americans. Born and raised in Japan, Uchimura was exposed to Christianity and baptized in his teens. He attended Amherst College in the 1880s, believing, from what missionaries told him, that America would be a “Holy Land” in contrast to “heathen” Japan. But Uchimura’s experience with America’s “strong race prejudice” quickly disabused him of that notion. Seeing the “sharp racial distinction” between White and Black Americans under Jim Crow, and the treatment of the Chinese under exclusion, “made Christendom appear to [him] more like heathendom” and “very Pagan-like.”

Even as they used the “heathen” label differently, Wong and Uchimura adopted and adapted it as a way of identifying with marginalized people against American racism.

Today, we are living through another period of anti-Asian hostility that shows how easily the model minority myth can be overtaken by the negative aspects of the heathen stereotype (witness criticisms of Chinese eating habits as reason for their supposed susceptibility to disease). And, as in the 19th century, anti-Asian violence has sent communities reeling and wondering what can be done.

While municipal apologies for past discrimination and state requirements that schools teach AAPI history may not immediately solve the problem of anti-Asian hate, they do offer hope for the future — but only if we teach history in all its complexity. The mid-19th century Chinese businessmen fought heroically against discrimination, but also belittled African Americans and Indigenous people to raise themselves higher in the eyes of White Americans. At times, others have followed a similar strategy in response to White racism. If we overlook this history, we accept apologies for past discrimination even as we should also be making our own.

As educators teach Asian American history, and as cities make amends for anti-Asian racism, let’s keep the whole of that history in view. That means teaching about the variety of strategies Asian Americans have deployed to contest discrimination: from espousing prejudice themselves to climb a racial hierarchy, to finding common ground with others against American racism. Children learn through literature that heroes have flaws; to teach three-dimensional history requires that we show the same, or risk repeating mistakes and bolstering model minority myths.