YWCA Southeast Wisconsin
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May 2018

By Leland Pan, Racial Justice Trainer, YWCA Southeast Wisconsin


History of Anti-Asian Racism and Asian Anti-Racism

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. There is, of course, an absurdity to condensing a group of people into one “minority” group when they trace their heritage to over half the world’s population. Not only are we talking about hundreds of diverse cultures, racism can look very different for different Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) groups. For instance, many East Asian people are viewed as the “model minority,” which is not only a myth, but also an excuse by people to ignore anti-Black racism. Other Asian groups get different stereotypes. Modern Islamophobia in the United States often means hate crimes, racial profiling, and government detainment against people of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and Southeast Asian descent. This has also led to the rejection of refugees, whether they face genocide, like the Rohingya in Myanmar, civil war, like in Syria, or even wars of our making, like Iraq and Afghanistan.

The truth is that this is nothing new. The United States base these inhumane and racist policies off of past anti-Asian policies. For instance, the first US immigration ban of a whole ethnic group was in 1882 under the Chinese Exclusion Act. This precedent for the current travel ban was in effect until 1943 and was never ruled unconstitutional in the United States.

In the late 1800s, Chinese Americans, along with other ethnic groups like Filipino-Americans, were regarded with hate among white Americans, who believed they were cheap labor undercutting “honest” American workers and that they would bring with them violence and drugs. They even feared Asian men would steal white women. White Americans lynched Chinese and Filipino Americans. In fact, Filipinos didn’t gain their citizenship until 1940, despite the US invading and conquering the Philippines. The current detainment of Muslims has roots in the infamous detainment of Japanese Americans during World War II, which was also ruled constitutional in 1944 and never explicitly overturned in a court of law.

AAPI history is intertwined with the history of other people of color. The 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act that allows for many of today’s Asian Americans to be in this country came off the heels of the Civil Rights Movement. Chinese Americans were often sharecroppers alongside Black and Latinx workers in the South. Japanese Americans won reparations for families of those forced into internment camps (with public support from African Americans). Asian Americans face police brutality and murder, like when Kuanchung Kao was killed out of fear of his “threatening martial arts fashion.” There were Asian Americans marching with the Black Panther Party. Chinese Americans as early as 1893 risked deportation by refusing to comply with the American immigration system. Despite the modern fight for immigrant rights being viewed as a Latinx issue, Asian Americans make up 10% of the population potentially eligible for DACA, South Korea is the sixth largest country of origin for current DACA recipients, and 15% of undocumented people are of Asian descent. It’s important for anti-racist activists to know this history and know that dismantling anti-Asian racism is part of the broader fight against racism. Additionally, it’s critical for AAPI to know their own history. There is a long history of solidarity with other people of color that should be remembered and be lived up to today.

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The 2038 Racial Justice Blog includes monthly insight from YWCA staff and community members working for a more just and equitable Milwaukee.   Learn more about our 2038 goal.