Asian american history and afro-asian solidarity
The long history of Afro-Asian American solidarity and the importance of teaching Asian American History
Recently, Florida has joined the rising number of states mandating Asian American history be taught in public schools. While schools finally beginning to discuss the contributions of Asian Americans is something to be celebrated, the news came on the heels of the state banning the newly created AP African American History curriculum. To many observers, this new Asian American history requirement appeared to be another case in the long history of the media and politicians pitting Asian American communities against African Americans. From the origins of the model minority myth that was propagated to deflect from claims of anti-Black racism during the 1960s Civil Rights movement, to high profile court cases surrounding affirmative action in schools, we have time and again seen Asian Americans used to create a wedge between communities of color, before being disappeared from political discourse and school curriculums.
Lost in these moments of manufactured tension is the long history of solidarity between the two communities. From Frederick Douglass fighting against the Chinese Exclusion Act to Grace Lee Boggs’ organizing alongside Black Autoworkers in Detroit, our histories and fights for freedom have always been intertwined. To teach Asian American history while erasing Black American history is to distort the decades of Asian-Black struggle and community building.
The following is a conversation between myself (African American), Avery Crocker (African American), and Elizabeth Li (Biracial Chinese American), on what we did (not) learn about Asian American history in school, how we have formed community across ethnic and racial lines, and what solidarity can look like.
“Solidarity is community, and when it comes to the histories of Asian Americans and Black Americans, if we’re curious enough, and willing to listen-we’ll find that those histories are way more seeped in solidarity and similarity than they are in division and difference.”
Was Asian American history something you both learned about in school? Personally, I learned almost nothing of the history of Asian Americans or Pacific Islanders including the US colonies in the Pacific. I do remember one moment in my world history we were supposed to learn about the Ottoman empire, but ended up skipping over it so we could focus more time on the European Enlightenment. That was pretty much the only conversation we were going to have on Asia for the whole year, and even still it was cut.
Practically everything I learned about Asian American history or Asian continental history was learned from the internet especially social media or from being in community with friends, neighbors, and peers. I also learn quite a bit as a part of my African American Studies degree where Asian American history often intersected with important moments in African American history.
Like you, Jamayka, I have little to no memory of learning about Asian American history. A lot of my education was European focused or on the flip side, about the oppression of Black Americans. Other marginalized communities weren’t mentioned nearly as much if at all.
Two of my closest friends in middle and high school were Asian American and I learned so much about their culture without even realizing it until years later. From attending ceremonies to experiencing authentic dishes, I was immersed in a way that was so valuable to me. In these moments, it didn’t occur to me that I wasn’t learning about these things in school, but I think about how great that would have been to have had that more formal experience along with what I was experiencing outside of school.
My dad came in as a guest to teach about Asian Americans at my school – when we had “China” units. No, my dad was not a teacher. He worked in a Chinese restaurant along with my entire family. He taught us from an assimilated immigrant’s point of view to a classroom full of white children who his daughter was DESPERATELY trying to fit in with. To say it was far from a complete history is an understatement. That being said, it didn’t make me any less proud. I loved the fact that we got to share this part of us, because even though I actively hid that side of me, it was that part of my identity where I felt the most comfort. I learned zero history about Pacific Islanders, which is often left out of the classroom and mainstream discussion. Inter-Asian conflicts, immigration…nothing
When I moved to high school and we started to expand to world history, the extend of our education was Asians equals communists. And how the western world needed to save them.
I can definitely relate to learning about Asian history by experiencing other cultures! My closest friend growing up was Indian, and eating roti at her house initially confused me because I always associated roti with the Caribbean, and it was through that experience that I learned about the South Asian diaspora in the Caribbean and the exploitation of Indo-Caribbean indentured laborers.
Did you ever learn these connections between communities in school?
I had lived experience alongside Black Americans in my community outside of school, but it wasn’t WELL into my adulthood that I made historical connections and discoveries around solidarity. Once I gained access to diverse historical materials and first-hand accounts, I could see that it wasn’t just some weird fantasy that I was living in, but that there was more instances of solidarity and shared experience than there was of the divisiveness that was portrayed in the mainstream and within my classroom.
I knew from a young age that everyone thought that Black students were “lazy” or “unintelligent” and that there was a stereotype of the high achieving Asian student, but I didn’t really put those two stereotypes in conversation until adulthood.
I grew up with such a large dichotomy between my home life and school life. So, it was a constant internal debate. When I was in minority communities, Black communities and Asian communities – I’d feel comfort, affirmation of my feelings, understood. But in the classroom, the histories I was taught or the histories that were completely erased from my learning made me feel like maybe I’m doing this wrong.
That’s why I’m so invested in the present space of speaking up about erasure, uncovering untold stories, and ensuring that people feel seen, because they’re not alone.
My friends and I had concerns and questioned our experiences as well but only with each other. It wasn’t until our senior year that people started a Black student union and people started to voice these things outside of their own personal groups. After that group was formed, there was such a big difference in how the school did things and acknowledged what was happening for different cultures and communities. The curriculum was pretty much the same, but there were more efforts and actions taken outside of classes that were student led and supported by staff.
In light of the recent state laws that appear to be using Asian American history to further divisions between communities of color, what does solidarity between Asian and Black Americans look like to you?
After all this reflection, my initial thoughts are to talk about it! Share these experiences you’re having with each other and what the truth behind these things are. And also ask questions. Challenge folks when they try to divide these communities. Use your voice, educate when possible, and get involved where you can.
A quote that motivates me in my work is from civil rights activist Amanda Nguyen “the problem is invisibility, therefore, the solution has to be informed, thoughtful visibility.”
Telling stories, engaging in community, being curious, sharing experience…to me that is how we breakdown the wedge between minority groups that is engineered and reinforced to perpetuate white supremacy.
Solidarity is community, and when it comes to the histories of Asian Americans and Black Americans, if we’re curious enough, and willing to listen-we’ll find that those histories are way more seeped in solidarity and similarity than they are in division and difference.