5 Things About Asian American History They Don't Teach in School

By: Tara Yarlagadda  | 

Asian American history
Street art in Unidad Park, Filipinotown, Los Angeles, depicting Filipino farmworkers Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz, who banded together with Mexican civil rights activists Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta to boycott non-union grape growers in the Delano grape strike. Timothy Biley/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

As anti-Asian hate crimes surge in the U.S., Asian American scholars and activists have responded by speaking out about their authentic stories, which have often been overlooked in textbooks.

"There are so many stereotypes and myths about Asians in America, and [they] really need to be disabused," says Gary Okihiro, professor emeritus of international and public affairs at Columbia University and author of "Margins and Mainstreams: Asians in American History and Culture."

In fact, Asian Americans have been challenging injustice for a long time, but mainstream narratives don't do justice to the complex history of the vast, diverse Asian American community, which is the fastest growing racial group in the U.S.

According to the 2020 census results, 23 million Asian Americans in the U.S. can trace their ancestry to more than 20 countries, and many of these individuals have roots in the U.S. that span decades and even centuries.

In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, here are five things about Asian Americans that you didn't learn in school, including incredible acts of patriotism and resistance.

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1. The Resistance of the 'No-nos' Was an Act of Patriotism

When Japanese American writer John Okada penned the book, "No-No Boy," in 1957, he brought to light the stories of a brave group of Japanese Americans, who spoke up against their subjugation during World War II.

Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the government began to fear that Japanese Americans were enemy agents of Japan, even though two-thirds of Japanese Americans were American citizens, according to Okihiro.

As a result, the government ordered 120,000 Japanese Americans to leave their homes and relocate to internment camps under Executive Order 9066, issued by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

There was no evidence to support these claims and, decades later, Ronald Reagan declared internment was a "mistake" based solely on race, implicitly recognizing that these fears were rooted in racism.

As the war progressed, the government began seeking Japanese Americans from the camps to serve in the U.S. Army. The government presented residents in the camps with a loyalty questionnaire. Two questions — questions 27 and 28 — were particularly controversial, asking Japanese Americans if they would renounce any loyalty to Japan and serve in the U.S. military.

About 6,700 individuals — including a fair number of second-generation Japanese American men, who became known as the "no-no boys" — answered "no" to both questions. By answering "no," they challenged the U.S. government for depriving them of their rights and treating them as enemies.

"The no-nos were responding to this illegal confinement of them — there was no reason given for their mass confinement. There was no justification for holding citizens within those camps," Okihiro says.

For their refusal, the no-no boys were incarcerated in a federal penitentiary at Fort Leavenworth for the duration of the war, according to Okihiro. Okihiro argues that the no-no boys' defiance showed they were "true Americans."

"What they were trying to do was to have the U.S. live up to its constitution and the promises afforded to all citizens. If that's not patriotism, I don't know what is," Okihiro says.

Asian Americans
The Manzanar War Relocation Center was one of 10 camps where the U.S. government incarcerated Japanese immigrants ineligible for citizenship and Japanese American citizens during World War II.
Wikimedia Commons (CC By SA 2.0)

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2. Asian Immigrants Were Denied the Right to Citizenship

While their American-born children were granted citizenship, Asian immigrants could not acquire the same legal status for much of American history.

This lack of citizenship status dates back to the 1790 Nationality Act, which limited citizenship only to "free white persons." But after World War I, many people, including Asian Americans, were seeking citizenship through the courts and demonstrating they were "white."

Two of the most notable were Bhagat Singh Thind, a Sikh immigrant from the Indian subcontinent who served in the U.S. Army, and Takao Ozawa, an immigrant from Japan who had lived in the U.S. for 20 years.

Both appealed to the federal court on racial grounds. Ozawa argued before the Supreme Court in 1922 claiming to be white because he had adopted American culture. Thind argued before SCOTUS in 1923 that he deserved citizenship because he was Caucasian because he grew up in the Caucus Mountains. The court denied both Thind and Ozawas' citizenship based on race.

"The Supreme Court said, "No, you're not white, racially, so you don't qualify," Okihiro says.

Yet, their challenges show how Asian Americans resisted laws that limited their naturalization, believing they were entitled to their full rights as Americans. "Takao Ozawa and Bhagat Singh Thind challenged that exclusion of Asians [as] 'aliens ineligible for citizenship' from 1790," Okihiro says.

Thind, who had served in the army, eventually was granted citizenship in 1936 when a bill was passed providing citizenship to anyone who served. But it wasn't until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 that every Asian immigrant finally became eligible for citizenship under the law of the land.

"Asians were not immigrants like Europeans, and, unlike Europeans, [were] never intended to be citizens of this country by the founders of this nation," Okihiro says. "But despite all that, they stayed, and they made laws for them and their children became American."

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3. Filipino Americans Played a Key Role in the Labor Movement in the U.S.

Even though Filipinos comprise the third largest group of Asian Americans in the U.S., their history has often been overlooked in the history textbooks.

Okihiro describes the Manila galleon trade, which brought Filipino indentured workers to Mexico. From Mexico, the Filipino workers eventually made their way to California, Louisiana and beyond.

Additionally, Filipino indentured workers — along with Japanese and Chinese workers — were brought to work in sugar plantations in Hawaii and on the West Coast to serve as a cheap source of labor.

"Now, these workers who came to Hawaii and to the West Coast, over time, they began to see that they might want to stay here [in the U.S.]. And when they did that, they began to demand rights," Okihiro says.

That led to the formation of unions, with Filipino farmworkers like Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz banding together with Mexican civil rights activists Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta to boycott non-union grape growers in the Delano Grape strike.

Thus, the United Farmworkers' Movement was born. Leaders like Itliong went up and down the coast, from the fields of California to salmon canning industries in Alaska, to organize workers.

"This is an amazing thing, because agricultural workers were never organized by unions, until Asians and Mexicans got together and formed those agricultural unions," Okihiro says.

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4. The Murder of Vincent Chin Was a Sea Change for Asian Americans

A Chinese American man, Vincent Chin, went out for a night on the town with his friends on June 19, 1982. Chin's friends were hosting a bachelor party in advance of his wedding.

But Chin never got to walk down the aisle. Two white men, fueled by racist hatred blaming Japan for the unemployment of Detroit auto workers, identified anyone who seemingly appeared Japanese as a target for their hatred.

"Chin was a Chinese American who was born in the United States, but it didn't matter to them," Okihiro says.

The two white men murdered Chin on that same night in Detroit. For their heinous crime, the murderers received no prison time and only a $3,000 fine.

The ruling in Chin's death sparked a wave of activism among Asian Americans, and his story remains important for Asian Americans to this day. Actress and producer Gemma Chan is working to develop a podcast and film about Chin's life.

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5. There's a Long History of Asian-Black Solidarity in the U.S.

Asian Americans have a long history of speaking up in the face of injustice, but have often been portrayed in the media as the model minority, a trope that depicts Asian Americans as successful, hardworking individuals who don't cause problems or challenge the status quo.

The model minority trope set Asian Americans apart from other minority groups, including African Americans, seemingly driving a wedge between the two communities.

"The model minority, then, arises largely out of the 1960s during the Civil Rights Movement, and African Americans are badass and they're disrupting American society. And the U.S. needed a good, quiet, docile [model] minority," to use as a counterpoint, Okihiro says.

But Okihiro says Asian Americans have long been pushing back against this trope, which ignores their lived history of racism.

Many Asian Americans have recognized the shared struggle between Asians and Black individuals. Asian and Black activists collaborated on the Third World Liberation Front at UC Berkeley, which led to the formation of ethnic studies programs in California. Japanese Amerians also supported African Americans in school desegregation efforts.

"They worked together, the NAACP and the JACL [Japanese American Citizens League], on a discrimination case against Mexican children in California. And from that working together came Brown v. Board of Education," Okihiro says.

However, there is perhaps no one more famous for bridging the divides between the two communities than Japanese American activist, Yuri Kochiyama, who passed away in 2014. Kochiyama was forced to relocate with her family to an internment camp during World War II, which shaped her activism.

As a result of their experiences of "victimization during World War II, many Japanese Americans began to understand that racism against them is allied to racism against black people," says Okihiro.

Kohiyama organized sit-ins to protest civil rights violations and collaborations with the Freedom Riders, who challenged segregation in the South.

Kochiyama also formed a brief friendship with Black activist Malcolm X and was present when he was assassinated.

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