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How Asian Americans amplify U.S. history to boost solidarity


Ashlyn So, 13, calls herself an accidental activist.

When she was in fourth grade, a substitute teacher taught her class about the Chinese railroad workers, immigrants who built America’s first transcontinental railroad in the 1860s.

“Suddenly, this whole new door was open,” she said. “Like, what is this? What is happening? … We were considered outsiders. People thought we were dangerous too. And that was all very shocking to me.”
Over the last year, when she saw Asian Americans being blamed for the pandemic, So felt compelled to act. With the help of Asians With Attitudes, a volunteer patrol group in Oakland’s Chinatown, she organized a #StandForAsians rally in February. As videos of Asian elders being attacked by Black and brown people started to go viral, she organized a second Gold and Black Unity rally in May to promote solidarity between communities of color that have often been pitted against each other.

“I want to stop all this tension and actually bring people together,” said So. “By solving issues separately, we’re actually creating a new issue.”

Young Asian Americans are learning about their history in America earlier than ever, whether it’s through school, social media, film and TV or children’s books. With this knowledge, they’re developing comfort and pride in their racial identities faster than previous generations and realizing they have power to change outdated and harmful narratives around race.

“You know, the joke used to be that you went to college to become Asian American,” said Jeff Chang, who writes about race and culture in America.

Black and Asian communities in America are often portrayed as in conflict with each other — but that ignores the moments of solidarity, resistance and collective power. (Illustration by Diana Nguyễn / For The Times)

College was where the ethnic studies classes were, protested into existence by the Third World Liberation Front — a coalition of Black, Asian and Latino student organizations — in the 1960s.

In the last four decades, many of these programs were scaled back or cut. But in recent years, especially with the national racial reckoning that followed George Floyd’s murder, that has been changing.

Last August, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill requiring Cal State University undergraduates to take at least one ethnic studies course starting this fall. K-12 education has also begun incorporating lessons into its curricula. In March, California approved an ethnic studies curriculum for K-12 schools after years of debate. Earlier this month, Illinois became the first state to mandate Asian American history in public schools.

Chang was at UCLA in the 1990s, getting his master’s degree in Asian American studies, right after the 1992 L.A. uprisings.

“I think a lot of people were shocked by what had happened,” he said. “There was a lot of questioning, a lot of soul searching, a lot of concern about how we were going to be able to rebuild our communities — not just for Asian Americans but to be in community with other communities, particularly Black and brown communities.”

Chang and “Asian Americans” documentarian Renee Tajima-Peña recently coproduced a video series, the May 19th Project, about the history of Asian American solidarity with other groups of color.

“I just think the sort of the way that we’re taught American history is very much in the vein of kind of lifting up whiteness at its core,” said Chang. “And that actually, you know, erases the contributions of all the other folks who don’t kind of fit into that type of picture, that type of narrative.”

“It’s part of the way that we’re educated to hide the ways in which America has marginalized people, excluded people, because it makes the American story look less heroic,” he continued.

“But for us, looking at these stories of solidarity, that’s where the real heroism is. It’s really looking at the ways that people moved away from being pitted against each other, being separated from each other, being segregated from each other, to, above all odds, forging collective solutions. And I think that’s actually the best of what America is about.”

Earlier this year, Asians4BlackLives — a group that supports “the safety, justice and resilience of Black communities, so all our communities can prosper” — organized a weekend in Oakland that brought together artists, former Black Panther members and Chinese elders from a local Chinatown painting program for a mural painting. The theme was “love and protect.”

“It’s a really beautiful display of how Oakland comes together in solidarity,” said Claudia Leung, a member of Asian4BlackLives since 2014.

“It felt really just like a moment to pause and to celebrate and to build something together. When you’re always in the street fighting, sometimes it becomes hard to remember that you can actually create together as well.”

When So isn’t organizing rallies, she designs clothing. She debuted her first collection at New York Fashion Week in 2017 when she was 9. She’ll return to New York Fashion Week this September, and her theme this year will be community and the #StopAsianHate movement.

So’s mother, Angela Wu, remembers her daughter shaking behind the scenes, the first couple of times she spoke at rallies.

“I was holding her the whole time, so tight,” Wu said.

Whereas now, “She’ll go up and she’s fine. She’s very calm. She knows what she wants to say, and that it’s not really about her. … It’s about the issue.”

“Now there’s so much that’s happening out there,” Chang said. “We have so many people who are representing in the culture, in politics, in business and national life. … In this moment, as we’re learning more about what our history is, [young people] are fortified … and able to kind of build on that. And that’s just an amazing, powerful thing.”


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