Valerie Wu tells us about ‘Model minority mutiny’: The false and dangerous portrayal of Asian Americans in US education
Editor’s note: Valerie Wu submitted her following personal story to Global Young Voices. You too can submit yours to us here.
When I first took Advanced Placement (AP) United States History, I became distinctly aware of the deliberate exclusion of Asian American experiences from a Western lens. In our discussions of Japanese American internment, America’s concentration camps were perceived as simply Korematsu v. United States (1944), with an emphasis on the United States. In these discussions, we failed to evaluate the social implications behind the incarceration of Japanese Americans. Internees were numbers. Statistics were our primary sources. These differences in perceptions affected how we viewed ethnic minority groups as a whole.
This seemingly deliberate “gap of consciousness” reflected my understanding of race in America. In a nation where I could not even communicate with those who looked like me in my textbook, I did not understand why I was still being told to “go back to your country.” When United States History told me that internment was constitutional with Executive Order 9066 but failed to explain its legacies, I did not — could not — understand why racism still existed, or why one side was still viewed as “alien” and the other was not.
Today, when we look at ethnic communities, we find that differences in perception color the conceptions of race in America. The perspective that Japanese Americans were threats to the security of America has prevented the United States from achieving full equality between races. The deliberate exclusion and erasure of Asian Americans in our history textbooks has had an undeniable effect of Asian Americans still hitting the glass ceiling and facing verbal and physical discrimination because of the names on their resumes or the color of their skin.
As the second-generation daughter of immigrants, the invisibility of Asian Americans is a reality. My goal is to combat this through the stories we tell, and in effect, shift our perspectives on the politics of memory, starting with our history textbooks.
This past summer, I began working with POC (People of Color) Online Classroom to curate a collection of educational resources on Asian American identity and social history. The organization, first founded in November 2016, was created to assist both people of color and allies in learning about the multiracial communities that exist today. Titled “Model Minority Mutiny,” the syllabus is a compilation of Asian American voices in historical and global context. The project is based off the idea that only by rewriting (or “re-righting”) our history can we become more informed on what to do to alleviate race tensions in America.
“Model Minority Mutiny” is a journey into the very annals of Asian American history. From the construction of San Francisco’s first “Oriental School” in 1885 to the 1966 New York Times article that labeled Japanese Americans as the “model minority,” the history presented is aimed at an Asian American audience. As human rights activist Yuri Kochiyama said, “Unless we know ourselves and our history, and other people and their history, there is really no way we can really have positive kind of interaction where there is mutual understanding.”
This incorporation of Asian American voices is designed to spark conversations about the way we see Asian Americans today--not just as numbers and statistics, but individuals with voices that are just as valuable as the voices of any other ethnic group in America.
Since the publication of “Model Minority Mutiny,” the curriculum has reached an international audience. Its resources will be used in the exhibit In(di)visible at the Station Museum in Houston, a curation of the (East/Southeast) Asian American experience across history. We have received feedback from students who are planning to petition their schools’ history departments for its inclusion in their curriculums. Through conversations with those I’ve worked with to implement the voices of revolt in my community, I’ve learned that race is both a way of reiterating our humanity as much as it is seeing it for ourselves.
The memories ethnic minorities retain of their own authentic experiences are liberating. Memories will always be political. The existence of Asian Americans in today’s America will always be political. Here, the boundaries between countries blur. Race is not a singular narrative; rather, it is a collective one.
As a minority, I have seen racism. I have seen teachers who have said that my words aren’t my own because my parents are immigrants. I have seen the microaggressions of the contemporary classroom--being called the same name as another Asian, being told that I “look like the enemy” while learning about communism in China, being categorized according to the profile of an Asian American: good at math, voiceless, without dreams of my own. These are differences in perception that ultimately affect not only minorities, but also the ignorance in America.
How we perceive history is affected by how we write it. Just like the experiences of each nation shape the politics of memory, the experiences of each individual does as well. Today, it is more essential than ever that we write our history not the way others want it to be, but the way we need it to be.
Cover cartoon credit: Sergio Algeri/GYV