This article is the second part of a series on the field of Asian American studies.
My high school US history teacher was a staunch progressive. This fact was blatantly clear in the way she structured her curricula. As a result of my high school having a program called “Advanced Topics” – or “AT” for short – teachers have a freer hand in creating college-level courses. My ATUS teacher took full advantage of this freedom, creating a curriculum that focused on many often-overlooked aspects of social history and omitted discussion of military battle history. I loved the class because it brought our attention to more marginalized groups. We went beyond the wealthy, powerful, white elites who tend to dominate American history discussions, and learned about the people from a variety of disparate backgrounds that are neglected in the dominant historical narrative.
That’s why I was so frustrated when I saw that she was skipping the section on Japanese American internment in our textbook. During World War II, the US government rounded up over 100,000 Japanese, approximately two-thirds of whom were American citizens, and sent them to internment camps all across the western United States. It remains today as one of the worst civil rights violations in American history. Japanese orphans were taken from their adopted parents by the governmentfor fear that they still might “aid the enemy.” Internees could be shot on sight if guards thought they were trying to escape. In my ATUS class, we focused on the history of the labor movement, early women’s rights campaigners, and the social conditions of blacks during Reconstruction. Still Japanese American internment, which even prompted the first ever apology from Congress, was completely omitted from our otherwise highly progressive curriculum.
But I cannot solely fault my teacher for not discussing Japanese internment. Most educators have been slow to incorporate Asian American history into curricula at the primary, secondary, and tertiary levels of education. One only needs to look at textbooks to see this trend. If you examine most high school textbooks, Asian American history will generally be restricted to brief discussions of Japanese interment and Chinese Exclusion – which lasted from 1882 to 1943. At the college level, Asian American history isn’t addressed formally at many colleges, Princeton included.
This educational trend deprives discussions of American history of a critical way to examine the development of race in the United States. It’s easy to think of the importance of Asian American history with a simple scenario: consider what you know about Southern race relations after the Civil War. It was a dichotomous society divided along racial lines between black and white. Jim Crow was law.
Now, throw in an Asian person. How would society categorize her? What restaurants could she eat at? Where could she go to school? Not easy, is it? Luckily, we can find the answer in history since this scenario isn’t just a thought experiment. In 1927, the Supreme Court ruled in Gong Lum v. Rice that a public school in Mississippi could exclude “Mongolians” for the sake of maintaining segregated schools. Incorporation of Asians into the South’s racial system was apparently controversial enough that the highest court in the land had to step in.
The Supreme Court has had other critical cases involving Asian Americans. Takao Ozawa and Bhagat Singh Thind, a Japanese American and an Indian American respectively, both went to the Court in the 1920s to argue that they should be able to gain citizenship, which was denied to Asian Americans until 1952 – 84 years after the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified! But the interesting part is what they argued: that they should gain citizenship because they were actually white. Both men lost their court cases, but just think about their arguments. The idea is ridiculous to us now, but back then it was reasonable enough to argue to the Supreme Court that someone’s race should be changed. A person’s race, a fact that we tend now to take for granted, was flexible because of the ambiguity of race in America.
This is another reason why the current state of Asian American Studies at Princeton is so regrettable. History is arguably the most basic component of any ethnic studies field. It doesn’t matter that most Asian Americans are immigrants, because their experience in this country will inevitably be shaped by how society has historically adjusted to incorporating them into the national framework. While Princeton may be working to incorporate Asian American history into the curriculum, course offerings are still woefully deficient. In the fall there was only one Asian American history course – Asian American Public History and Memory. Next semester there won’t even be an Asian American history course, with just one Asian American Studies course overall – Professor Anne Cheng’s ‘Too Cute!’ and the New Asiamania. By comparison, Stanford will have nine Asian American Studies classes this year and Berkeley will have a whopping 27. They also both heavily incorporate history with courses on topics such as South Asian American history, the development of Islamophobia, and the development of Asian American history museums.
I didn’t know about any of this history when I was in high school; I just thought that not learning about the internment of over 100,000 people was absurd. But the revelations that I have had from merely being aware of these episodes would have been all the more transformative at a younger age. Of course, a high school history class might not be able to do justice for topics like the historical formulation of racial identity. But, Asian American history is much more expansive than the examples that I provide above and can focus on many other important issues. Regardless, at the university level these historical issues can and should be tackled. There is only so much about race that students can learn from informal discussions outside of the classroom. An Asian American Studies program would help to facilitate a discussion of Asian American history and its implications on American society. If Princeton wants its students to truly understand the emergence of race in America, it must expand its course offerings to include Asian American history.