By now, most people have heard of Jeremy Lin, the New York Knicks’ Chinese-American sensation. Lin breaks many stereotypes – he’s an “Asian” athlete who can jump! – while fulfilling many American racial fantasies: a model minority Harvard-educated athlete who can redeem the NBA from the damage wreaked by “unmodel minority” athletes and make millions of dollars in the process.
As “Linsanity” spreads, press coverage of Lin has not quite risen above old discourses of Asians and Asian Americans: from evocations of Asian American men’s reduced manliness (Fox Sports’ tweet about Lin’s “couple of inches”) to outright racism (ESPN’s “a chink in the armor”) to the usual hackneyed Chinese restaurant references (fortune cookies and MSG).
Though Lin is a recent (and rare) blip of Asian American visibility in the U.S. media, Asian Americans have long served a crucial function in U.S. history and consciousness – in the popular imaginary, corporate labor practices and the very idea of what is American – but this history continues to be invisible to most Americans, including highly educated persons.
That is why the campus should pay serious attention to the brave and strenuous efforts of the students behind the campaign for Asian American studies who are fighting for the institutionalization of Asian American studies at the College. Like Africana studies, Latina/o Studies and Native American studies, Asian American studies is an established academic discipline with its own Ph.D programs, trained scholars, professional organizations and academic journals. The creation of each these intellectual fields all stem from the same seeds: the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and 1970s.
Thus, while many people confuse Asian American studies and Asian studies – and Asian Americans and Asians – the two academic disciplines have very different intellectual origins. Unlike Asian studies, which traces its beginnings to missionary work in Asia and to the formation of Cold War area studies programs, Asian American studies focuses on the intellectual, political and cultural aspects of the experience of Americans of Asian descent and the role that the racialization of Asian Americans has played in our country’s history, thought and ideological underpinnings.
As Asian American studies fully embraces transnational issues – the history of Asian Americans and of the United States cannot be written without mentioning the Opium War, Hiroshima or Vietnam – scholars of Asian-American issues are also acutely aware that, of the various U.S. minority groups, Asian Americans are the most persistently viewed as foreign – indeed, constitutively “alien”: both non-American and un-American. The evidence is not only anecdotal (“Is English your native language?”) but also legal (Supreme Court cases) and cultural (Colbert’s Ching Chong Ding Dong character) with real material consequences. The tenacious view of Asian Americans as “un-American” is not a thing of the past: In October 2011, Army Private Denny Chan committed suicide after intensive racial hazing by his fellow soldiers in Afghanistan.
We may dismiss the UCLA student who posted the YouTube video last year mocking the “hordes” of Asian people lacking “American manners,” but we might ask ourselves about our own assumptions about Asian Americans and about how much we know about Asian American history.
How many of us know that the United States fought four wars with Asian countries in the last century? John Sayles ’72 has recently written a novel and made a movie about the U.S.-Philippines War, of which he asked,, “How come it’s not in our history books? … How does a piece of history, where probably a million Filipinos died, get plowed under like that? And why?”
How many of us know that the first and only U.S. immigration law to exclude a specific group on the basis of race was the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which was not repealed until 1943?
How many of us know that for Asia-born American residents, the 1790 Naturalization Act, a law limiting naturalization to “free white persons,” remained in effect until 1952?
How many of us know that the 1922 Cable Act stripped American women of their citizenship if they married “aliens ineligible for naturalization” such as Asians?
How many of us know that the only group of American citizens to be interned in concentration camps on the basis of race was Japanese Americans?
How many of us know that the abolition of the fraternity system at the College was set in motion when three members of the Alpha Delta Phi fraternity refused to allow Myong-Ku Ahn ’63 to join as a residential member, saying they did not want to live with “an Asian?”
The activism of the campaign for Asian American studies may seem recent, but it is only the latest in a long line of student efforts, spanning over 20 years, to make Asian American studies an integral part of the curriculum at the College and educate the campus about Asian American issues.
I am gratified that our students, Asian American and non-Asian Americans, are leading the way for us, as they have often done in bringing intellectual and social change to our campus. They understand that Asian American studies is as necessary a field of academic inquiry as Africana studies and Latina/o studies and that it should be a vital and legitimate part of the College curriculum. Asian American history and culture are fundamental to U.S. history and culture, and the very notion of what is American cannot exist without Asian Americans in our country, in our consciousness and in our classrooms.
Dorothy Wang is an assistant professor of American studies and faculty affiliate in English.