Asian Americans and America

In the 2021 Zeidman lecture, Erika Lee tackled the history of racism against the AAPI community.

“Many call racial hatred un-American,” said Erika Lee, in her 2021 John Fisher Zeidman ’79 Memorial Lecture, to the Sidwell Friends community. “But the hard truth is that it is very American.”

Since March 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in the United States, the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community has become the target of renewed and virulent anti-Asian racism across the nation. Throughout her April 27th talk, “The Long History of Anti-Asian Racism in the United States and What We Can Do About It,” Lee, the author most recently of the American Book Award–winning America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in the United States and a featured contributor to PBS’s Asian Americans, connected recent animus toward the AAPI community with a centuries-old narrative.

It was a striking moment for the 38th Annual John Fisher Zeidman ’79 Memorial Lecture. The last 12 months of the pandemic reignited Asian hate, from slurs about the “Chinese virus” and “Kung flu” to violence and fatal attacks, including an eight-person massacre outside Atlanta, Georgia. It was also the year an Asian American woman reached the vice-presidency and two Asian women won Academy Awards. Making sense of these events is a vital component of the Zeidman lecture, part of the Sidwell Friends Chinese Studies Program, which receives funding from the John Fisher Zeidman ’79 Chinese Studies Fund and the Dora Chao, M.D., Endowed Fund.

The evening began with an introduction from Head of School Bryan Garman, who noted that the event was “the kickoff to AAPI Heritage Month at Sidwell Friends.” He also explained that while the lecture was originally set to focus on China policy, the School pivoted in order to address America’s current climate. Lee—Regents Professor, Distinguished McKnight University Professor, Rudolph J. Vecoli Chair in Immigration History, and Director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota—Garman said, was exactly who the Sidwell Friends community needed to hear from.

She began with a look at the fallout from 2020. “Asians have been the subjects of attacks; they’ve been yelled at, spit on, harassed,” Lee said. In the last year alone, the group Stop AAPI Hate recorded nearly 3,800 incidents of anti-Asian hate since the start of 2020, up by more than 1,200 from the previous year. But Lee cautioned against calling it a surge; the roots of such hatred are inseparable from U.S. history. Asians came to the United States as slaves and laborers as early as the 1600s, though the first major wave of AAPI immigration occurred in the 1800s when white Americans began to use people across Asia to build the transcontinental railroad, to work on sugar plantations in Florida, to man lumber mills in the Pacific Northwest, to head into mines in Wyoming, and much more.

Even then, Lee said: “The Chinese, in particular, were considered vectors of disease and contamination. It’s a trope that returned last year.” She described insults about the Chinese eating rats and being hypersexualized. She recounted Asians being tossed out of entire cities while white people burned local Chinatowns to the ground. She explained that then and now, the AAPI community is made into an “other,” an outsider, a foreigner—never citizens. “Xenophobia,” Lee said, “is inextricably related to the discrimination of indigenous peoples, to Mexican nationals, to African Americans,” and to all American minorities.

That connection to other forms of racial oppression created its own warped dynamic as communities were compared with and even pitted against one another. Over the decades, this has meant a false inflation of the AAPI community as the “model minority,” one that “respects authority, values gender roles, family, and academic and economic success.” For Jim Crow America, the contrast to the Black Civil Rights movement in the 20th century became a useful tool: “Asians’ quiet success versus Black power.” This patronizing view of Asians as role models—as long as they didn’t complain and remained submissive—included Lee’s own family: In 1953, her grandmother won a mother-of-the-year contest for raising seven accomplished children (the local paper called her “a fine Christian woman”); yet the U.S. government still barred Lee’s grandparents from becoming American citizens because of their race. That is, so-called “good behavior” and full access to constitutional rights were not linked.

But the persistence of tropes like the “Asian whiz kid” and “Asian docility,” Lee said, led to dismissive attitudes toward AAPI hate. “The minimization of anti-Asian racism has left many unprepared for this last year.” (And by “many,” she means more than ever: The largest wave of Asian immigration to the United States occurred over the last two decades, from 2000 to 2014.) She spoke of a rattled Hmong family in her home state of Minnesota who found a yard sign in front of their house telling them to go back to China and take the disease with them. “It is,” Lee explained, a full-circle moment, “a continuation of a much longer history.”

But history can also be made. On March 18, Lee testified before the U.S. Congress at a historic House Hearing on Discrimination and Violence Against Asian Americans. It was only the second time Congress had ever taken up the topic (the first was in 1987). Now the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act is close to passing; the act would create a new position at the U.S. Department of Justice to review hate crimes related to the pandemic, to educate the public, and to offer other agencies relevant guidance.

“Asian American history is American history,” Lee said. That includes a lot of positive changes, too: Asians, for example, helped create birthright citizenship—now a potent American value. Unfortunately, Asian American history is rarely taught in schools. Or at least, schools that are not Sidwell Friends. Lee cheered the Nancy Levy Zeidman Gift for Student Experiences, which invites new generations of Sidwell Friends students to experience the wonder of China each year. And she is excited about “curricula that start with representation,” including the deluge of Asian literature, hip-hop music, films, and more that have flourished in recent years. “The materials are there,” Lee said. “It’s about bringing them in.” She’ll be doing exactly that for the 7th through 12th grade, as she reprises her lecture specifically for Sidwell Friends students.

“What we’re seeing now is now new,” Lee said. “It has happened in the past, and it will happen in the future unless we act now. We each need to investigate how we can make the world safer so there is never the hate and violence we see today.”


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