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Why Ethnic Studies is Vital for Our Children

This article was translated into Chinese and published on WeChat through a collaboration with Chinese for Affirmative Action

Written by Shengxiao "Sole" Yu | 虞圣晓

After years of advocacy and debate, California became the first state to make ethnic studies a high school graduation requirement. The bill was passed in the California state legislature and signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom in October 2021. Ethnic studies is dedicated to understanding the collective struggles and triumphs of marginalized communities in the United States, including Black, Asian, Latine, and Indigenous Peoples. Ethnic studies teaches theories of racial formation and seeks to understand how other identities, such as gender and sexuality, intersect with racialization.

California now requires ethnic studies for all of its high school students. Image courtesy of New York Times.

Although the teaching guide that accompanied this bill was stripped of a few important components that advocates wanted, such as feminist history and a critical examination of capitalism, I am still filled with hope for current and future generations of students in California, knowing that they will get more access to vital, identity-affirming curricula when they go through high school.

I am filled with hope because this is the kind of education Chinese children of the diaspora deserve. I know this from my personal experience as an immigrant who did not have access to ethnic studies. This is the kind of education my younger self would have wanted.

My family immigrated from mainland China to a predominantly white suburb of Chicago when I was 11 years old. I had finished up to the fifth grade in school in China, and even though I hadn’t learned a ton of Chinese history, living and going to school in China in my early childhood gave me a sense of groundedness, a sense of place, and a sense of belonging that comes from being consistently affirmed about the ancestors, lineage, and history that gave birth to me.

However, that budding sense of self and identity was fragile for an 11-year-old, and the experience of immigration uprooted everything. I went to school from the sixth grade until high school graduation in that predominantly white suburb of Chicago. Looking back, I remember every fall, my teachers told and retold the story of how the Pilgrims “discovered” this land. My teachers stretched these stories out until Thanksgiving, when our class would be given coloring sheets with turkeys and pumpkins. Now, looking back as an adult, I see how these narratives violently erased Indigenous Peoples and triumphantly held up settler colonialism as the origin story of this country. Even though I did not have this understanding as a child, I still knew that these stories were not my stories. I knew that these were not the origin stories of my family, my community, my people. And I knew that my stories were nowhere to be found in my school textbooks.

Kids working on turkey coloring sheets in school. Image courtesy of Grade Onederful

Whenever the topic of being Chinese came up in school, it almost always consisted of a white teacher or classmate telling me about how much they loved orange chicken from Panda Express or asking me to teach them how to use chopsticks.

I felt a wide gap between the history I was taught in school and what I truly wanted to know about my own history. I was hungry to know about my origin story. Why did my parents move us to the U.S.? I knew that they, along with many of their Chinese American friends, came in search of opportunities for themselves and their children. But just what allowed all these people to take such a giant leap of faith, a giant risk, to move their entire families across the ocean? What underlying conditions in China made them leave? What underlying conditions in the U.S. allowed them to come? What were the historical forces that created Chinese diaspora communities? How have these communities evolved over time? What does this history mean for me and how I am viewed as a generation 1.5 Chinese American? All these questions were swimming in my head as a young person, but I couldn’t even put them into words when I was growing up. My school did not give me any of the tools I needed to ask these deeper questions about myself and my story. My school did not do anything to validate my inquiry. In U.S. history or social studies classes, I used all my energy to do my homework and get good grades, but the content felt so irrelevant to me that I constantly felt as though I was playing the role of me being a student rather than being a student.

When I went to college, my worldview dramatically expanded and I gained access to many more spaces of learning that were relevant to me. However, my university didn’t have ethnic studies, and in all the years I spent in school, I never had a single Chinese teacher or professor. I tacitly believed that Chinese Americans could not become teachers or professors.

It wasn’t until a few years after I graduated from college that I met a friend who had majored in Asian American studies in college. I remember hearing about this, and my mind exploded. Wait, what? You can study the experience and history of Asian America? When I found out that there were entire departments, journals, faculty, and institutions dedicated to Asian American studies, something in me shifted. I felt validated. I wanted to go back in time to tell my younger self that the questions she asked were valid, that her thoughts were important, and that there were spaces where she could deepen her inquiry, her curiosity, and ultimately, her self-understanding.

Mural image for Asian American studies at the University of California Irvine. Image courtesy of UC Irvine.

Since then, I have read many books and articles by Asian American studies scholars. In 2020, I got the opportunity to take my first official Asian American studies class through a public class offered on Zoom. Diving into ethnic studies affirmed for me that Asian American history is American history. There is no separate history. The more I learned, the more I was able to place my story and my family’s story into the larger context of global forces. I learned that after Great Britain outlawed slavery in 1833, the “coolie” trade in China accelerated, bringing in indentured laborers from China in order to build the foundations for the wealth this country holds today. In this way, enslaved African people and coolie laborers from Asia were closely related in a system of racial capitalism. Even though my family did not immigrate in the 1800’s, knowing this history helps me to understand how Asian Americans have been racialized and therefore, understand how this country views me today. Knowing this history helped me to dismantle the narrative of the U.S. as a benevolent land that welcomed immigrants and instead, construct an understanding of how deeply wealth in this country is connected to exploitation. I learned about the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 and how it created a highly selective basis to choose the kinds of Asian immigrants this country allowed in. This piece of legislation is closely connected to how my family was able to immigrate decades later, and knowing this helped me to dismantle the narrative of Asian American success and instead, construct an understanding of how deeply achievement in this country is connected to exploitation.

Chinese workers on the transcontinental railroad, in the mid 1800’s, derogatorily known as “coolies.” Image courtesy of NPR.

Over the years, advocates have fought hard to make ethnic studies a reality. This is not only true in the history of the recent bill that was passed in California, but also true for the entire existence of ethnic studies. In 1968, students at San Francisco State University went on strike to demand an educational curriculum that taught their history and affirmed their identities. The strike was a joint effort by a multiracial coalition of students from the Black Student Union, Latin American Students Organization, Asian American Political Alliance, Philippine American Collegiate Endeavor, and Native American Students Union. A year later, a coalition of students at University of California at Berkeley also went on strike. Both times, the students faced violence and were brutally beaten by the police, but stood their ground because they knew just how damaging it was to learn from a curriculum that systematically ignored the existence of non-white people. To have a curriculum that valued our history and identity was invaluable.

Students march for ethnic studies at Berkeley. Image courtesy of The Daily Californian.

Growing up in that predominantly white suburb of Chicago, I often felt adrift, lost, and untethered to any history and narrative that told my story. Ethnic studies has taught me the kind of history that I needed to know in order to know and love myself. This is why I am filled with hope knowing that our Chinese children of the diaspora growing up today will have more access to the kind of identity-affirming education that they deserve, and that they will have more opportunities to know and love themselves.


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