A Conversation: Asian American History and How It Impacts Us Today

May 24, 2021

“Learn. Show up. And participate. It may not be more profound than that.”

In a recent firmwide discussion with Robert Chang—Professor of Law and Executive Director of the Fred T. Korematsu Center for Law and Equality, Seattle University School of Law—Morgan Lewis partner Michelle Park Chiu explored the collective past experiences of the Asian American community and asked Professor Chang to share his thoughts on how this history has shaped the present.

Below are some insights from the conversation.

Can you tell us what critical race theory means?

There is some controversy about critical race theory. There are some out there currently alleging that this is something about creating hate and division. Some see race theory as an empty vessel into which they can fill meanings that are not correct.

The history behind critical race theory emerged among law schools in the 1980s following discussions that civil rights was not paying enough attention to the interests of minorities. Critical race theory centers on asking: how does race factor into people’s lived experiences and the distribution of resources and wealth?

Asking these questions can be scary to some. If people understand or appreciate this, then maybe they want to bring about change—and many see change as scary.

Can you give any advice on how to process the discomfort of learning about potential inequities in structural systems that we have in our society?

Be empathetic. It’s important for each of us to keep in mind that over the course of our lived experiences—regardless of race, ethnicity, gender—there has always been a time when we were “the other.” Understanding how we felt during that moment, and then doing the work to learn about different groups and having the necessary conversations, is how we can move forward.

Can you provide us with background on the creation of the “Asian American identity?”

When thinking about “Asian American identity”—it’s something that I am becoming. It is not this static category. Our racial identities are made; they are not something we are born with. I am more than just one thing. I was not born Asian American. I was born in Korea. But I am American.

In the 1960s, “Asian American” emerged out of seizing upon identity—instead of thinking about it as that which you are discriminated for or against—and trying to find something positive about it. So, drawing from African American civil rights slogans, activists urged us to think yellow is beautiful, to think about yellow power.

During this time, there was a conference at UCLA called “Are You Yellow,” and there a group of Filipino Americans said, “We’re not yellow, we're brown.” And out of this, a conversation took place between those involved, and they formulated this identity as Asian Americans and a narration of history that was inclusive.

There are a variety of cultures and ethnicities under the umbrella term “Asian American.” Can you discuss the impact and concerns of labeling individuals as Asian American rather than Desi American or Vietnamese American?

When I think about identity, I think about it contextually. When I think about being Asian American, it does not erase that I am also Korean American.

In talking about Asian Americans in the aggregate, it’s important to make sure that we do not erase others. There are some dangers with focusing too much on the larger “Asian American” umbrella—which often focuses largely on East Asians—and not thinking about other groups such as Pacific Islanders and Southeast Asians who sometimes get lost.

When we can combat the “perpetual foreigner” or “model minority” myths, it is important to do so. While “model minority” may have been used initially as a form of compliment, it is also a criticism toward other minorities who did not meet the standards of the myth. It erases the tremendous differences among the Asian community and subgroups.

Can we delve into the historical underpinnings of anti-Asian violence and microaggressions and how they tie into the larger struggle against racism?

I am a strong believer in connecting and understanding that discrimination and hate aren’t new. They grow out of a long historical trajectory. Words end up being powerful and have an impact. There is a rich foundation upon which anti-Asian harassment/discrimination grows.

We can look at this as a pyramid. At the top are the more significant and often horrific events that occur. They are what we see. What we don’t always see is what’s happening at the base of the pyramid. While much of the focus is on what’s taking place at the apex, if we don’t acknowledge and address the base-level microaggressions, then they lead to the next level and the apex. We cannot allow conditions where microaggressions are not dealt with.