May is celebrated as the Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) Heritage Month and the first celebration took place in 1977. During this month, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders remember our long legacy and contributions to the building of America. The White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders has a blog focused on accomplishments and challenges. The theme for the month is “I Am Beyond”: Evoking the American Spirit. One post featured Julie Chu, four-time Olympic Medalist of the U.S. Women’s Ice Hockey Team, Nina Davuluri, Miss America 2014, and Tina Tchen, Chief of Staff to First Lady Michelle Obama & Executive Director of the White House Council on Women and Girls sharing their “I Am Beyond” Stories.
Asians have been migrating to all parts of the world, especially Europe, North America, South Africa, and Chile, since the early 19th century. Many migrated to the United States and Canada where Asians provided cheap labor. Asians first arrived in Hawaii and over three hundred thousand Asians entered the islands between 1850 and 1920. Asians labor became a commodity and the Chinese were among the first in that labor pool as they worked in the sugar industry in Hawaii.
The annexation of California in 1846 by the United States opened a door for Asian laborers. Since Asians were viewed as a commodity, Chinese laborers were essentially imported for the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. Other Asians also arrived in response to the need for laborers to build America: the Japanese (1880s), Filipinos (1900), Koreans (1903), and East Indians (1907).
Asian women sometimes made the decision to immigrate motivated by a desire for freedom. Other times men arranged the migration of Asian women for profit and exploitation . Many women were used for harsh labor to feed, wash and clean for the men. Many were not ready for the hardships of the immigrant life. Korean women worked long hours. Others who worked in the fields for wages spent a full day under the sun, perhaps with babies strapped to their backs, before returning home to fix dinner for their husbands or other male worker. Asian American women suffered in silence within a culture where their roles were defined by the men.
In addition to this difficult physical life, Asian American women experienced psychological and legal suffering in the form of prejudice and discrimination. A series of restrictive laws against Asians were enacted which discriminated against them and limited their life within the United States. In 1870, Congress passed a law that made Asian immigrants the only racial group barred from naturalization into United States citizenship. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act suspended the immigration of Chinese laborers for ten years, but this was later extended indefinitely, eventually being lifted only in 1943. The 1917 Immigration Act further limited Asian immigration, banning immigration from all countries in the Asia-Pacific Triangle except for the Philippines, a U.S. territory at the time, and Japan. Japanese immigration, however, was subsequently limited by the 1924 Exclusionary Immigration Act, which stopped new immigration from Asia. In addition to these laws, Asians were segregated in public facilities including schools and subject to heavy taxation, prohibition of land ownership, and prohibition of intermarriage with whites. World War II brought the unnecessary internment of Japanese Americans. It was not until the passage of sweeping Civil Rights legislation in 1965 that state supported discrimination ended.
These hardships experienced by Asian Americans are not well known within our society today. Their hardships, difficulties and experiences are often overshadowed by other racial minority group’s experiences of racism. These difficulties continue today. Third, fourth and fifth generations of Asian Americans living in the United States believe that they will never find ‘home’ in this land where they are viewed as the perpetual foreigner.
Racism against Asian Americans is disguised under different expressions like “model minority” or “honorific whites” within our society. This is evident in the recent scandalous life of Donald Sterling who favored Korean tenants over other minority tenants. Some use Sterling’s preference to show that he welcomes people of color and do not recognize the racist behavior in such preference of one group over another. We also see model minority affects in the killing of Vincent Chen. Society failed to recognize that Chen was targeted because he was an Asian American. Although such targeting fits the definition of a hate crime, the perpetrators were not charged with such a crime.
Asian Americans made significant contributions to the growth of this country. Asian Americans continue to play important roles in our life together. We have contributed culturally (tai chi, martial arts, tae kwon do, graphic arts), we have contributed to the palette of America by sushi restaurants, Asian food groceries and Asian fruits and vegetables. We have contributed to the religious diversity through our Confucian, Buddhist, Taoist, Shinto, and Hindu religious heritage. We have also contributed in the area of sports, academia, and technology.
As we embrace the joy and accomplishments, we also need to remember the suffering and pain that so many Asian Americans endured to come to where we are today. And we need to recognize the need to do more. We need to promote more Asian Americans to the heads of companies and elect more Asian Americans to public office, even to the level of the president of the United States.
The effort to eradicate racism from our society needs to involve more solidarity, replacing charity and commiseration. We cannot continue to believe that racism does not exist except when someone makes a racist remark. Racism is a disease like alcoholism. Lots of alcoholics don’t drink, but that does not mean they are cured. It can flare up at a moment’s notice, erasing years of living in tolerance with other cultures. White privilege prevents many from recognizing that they perpetuate and contribute to racism. Therefore we must open ourselves and recognize that we all need to work together to fight for social justice and liberation. Silence on the sidelines is not an option in this matter.
For futher reading and discussion, please read Gary Y. Okihiro, Margins and Mainstreams: Asian in American History and Culture, (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014) & Seung Ai Yang, “Asian Americans,” in Handbook of U.S. Theologies of Liberation, p. 173-184, edited by Miguel A. De La Torre (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2004).
Grace Ji-Sun Kim is Visiting Researcher at Georgetown University. She is the author of 5 books, Contemplations from the Heart, Reimagining with Christian Doctrines co-edited with Jenny Daggers, Colonialism, Han and the Transformative Spirit, The Holy Spirit, Chi, and the Other: A Model of Global and Intercultural Pneumatology & The Grace of Sophia: A Korean North American Women’s Christology. She is a co-editor with Dr. Joseph Cheah for the Palgrave Macmillan Book Series, “Asian Christianity in Diaspora”.