Journal of American History

Asian American History

Scott Kurashige

University of Wisconsin, Madsion

Exposing the Price of Ignorance: Teaching Asian American History in Michigan

For the final meeting of my Asian American history survey during the winter 2006 semester at the University of Michigan, we studied the narratives of three immigrants whose journeys to the United States followed harrowing experiences that had shaped the course of world history. The first saw his Philippine childhood shattered by the Japanese occupation during World War II. While aiding the guerrilla resistance, his eldest brother was imprisoned and executed. From humble Chinese peasant origins, the second subject saw the Communist revolution transform his family’s status. As a Red Guard militant, he was granted a rare opportunity to attend college. By contrast, the final subject witnessed the extreme deprivation dictatorial Communist rule caused in Cambodia. After she fled to a refugee camp to escape the genocidal regime of the Khmer Rouge, she eventually resettled in Michigan, as the other two had. Asian American historians are blessed with the type of rich source material that pushes forward studies of race, class, gender, war, and migration in transnational context and situates the field at the cutting edge of the discipline of history. Such narratives do more than breathe new life into the foundational concept of America as a nation of immigrants. They demonstrate how the struggle of Asians to establish a home in America offers new modes of rethinking the meaning of national identity.

Those narratives were drawn neither from my primary nor my secondary research. They were instead the product of course-assigned research papers, which in these cases focused on oral histories of the students’ parents. Monica Kim, a Department of History Ph.D. student and graduate instructor, was so impressed by the quality and originality of these projects that she and I asked the student authors to share their findings with the class. By recognizing how their class projects place them at the frontiers of scholarly research, students come to appreciate how histories of marginal subjects stretch the boundaries of knowledge production. My goal is for students to see themselves as history makers—possessing the power both to write and to change the course of history.

As I teach at a large research university in the Midwest, the regular schedule for my Asian American history survey includes three hours of lecture per week and one hour of discussion led by a graduate instructor. It generally draws fifty to seventy students. I could not imagine putting the curriculum together without the graduate school training I received at the University of California, Los Angeles, home to the nation’s largest Asian American studies department. But living and toiling in the hinterlands of Asian American settlement has led me to alter my approach in several critical ways. I will outline the key historical themes I highlight and the methods I use to engage them. Finally, I will try to convey a sense of how students have responded to the course and some of the ongoing challenges I face.1

I want my students to appreciate that history making is a political endeavor; they need to understand the specific politics surrounding the teaching and writing of Asian American history. My syllabus does not start with the ancient empires of Asia or the first Asian sailor to disembark in the Americas. Instead, we open with the creation of Asian American studies as an academic field out of social movements in the late 1960s. I seek to make an important historiographic point here. Increasing attention to the significance of Asians in American history was not the result of internal developments within the discipline. To the contrary, activist-minded scholars and students pushed historians to acknowledge, grudgingly, what a growing number in the discipline now take for granted—a linear master narrative cannot explain the nation’s multiethnic history; “orientalist” discourse has been integral to the construction of race; and the expansion of the U.S. empire into Asia is implicated in the fabric of American national identity. San Francisco State University and the University of California, Berkeley, built the first Asian American studies programs because activists there mobilized massive strikes under the banner of the “Third World Liberation Front.” In that historical moment it was clear that “Asian American” served not as a generic marker of racial identity but as a signifier of radical politics. Indeed, those adopting the moniker “Asian American” were quick to denounce those “Orientals” past and present whom they viewed as exploiting immigrant workers, whitewashing their ethnic identity, and collaborating with oppressors. Thus, the field of Asian American history has been defined not only by the subjects students and scholars examine but more significantly by the critical and oppositional stance they adopt.

As the construction of Asian American identity has been a political project, one cannot genuinely teach the experience of diverse Asian ethnicities as a collective history without having some investment in it. In a technical sense, the history of people who identified as “Asian American” dates back only four decades. My curriculum thus ties together the histories of peoples who often failed to embrace a shared identity and sometimes found themselves immersed in interethnic conflict. I stress that the panethnic “Asian American” rubric through which we examine both pre- and post-1960s history is built on principles that shaped Asian American studies during its movement-era origins. Without glossing over the historical specificities that distinguish one group from another, I lay out two bases for a common approach to the study of multiple Asian ethnicities and nationalities.

First, I situate Asian American history in a global context that recognizes not only the importance of “push” factors that spurred migration from Asia to the United States but also the omnipresent relevance of imperialism. We reflect, for instance, on the trans-national significance of U.S. intervention in Indochina. The wars in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos galvanized Asian Americans to unite, not only to stop the bloodshed but also to confront the racist “gook” discourse in American militarism. At the same time, those wars forced hundreds of thousands of Southeast Asians to seek refuge in America, where their new experiences with discrimination (because they “looked like the enemy”) led them into Asian American organizing circles.

Second, I situate Asian American history in the multiethnic construction of race. In particular, I point out that those who identified as Asian American consciously resisted the assimilationist imperatives in “model minority” ideology. As conservatives deployed images of high-achieving and politically passive Asians to discredit African American protest and rebellion, young Asian American activists turned for inspiration to the black power movement and elder radicals such as Yuri Kochiyama of Harlem and Grace Lee Boggs of Detroit. While we read narratives from this era, I present evidence of black-Asian relations dating back more than a century, such as Frederick Douglass’s arguments against the Chinese Exclusion Acts, which foreground the relationship between Asian immigration and Reconstruction.2

Although I am a less than perfect practitioner, I am philosophically committed to a problem-posing method rooted in the belief that people’s convictions are strongest when they draw their own conclusions. I attempt to let actors on all sides of historical debates and conflicts speak for themselves through primary documents. For instance, members of the Japanese American community still debate today the actions of the Nisei who resisted the draft during World War II. Did their refusal to be drafted out of internment camps damage a community that was already politically vulnerable? Or was their stand a patriotic defense of constitutional rights? We read a statement from the Japanese American Citizens League advocating cooperation with the government alongside a petition from the Fair Play Committee at the Heart Mountain, Wyoming, internment camp justifying civil disobedience. Then I ask the students, “How would you have acted under these circumstances?” In the end, I try to reiterate that we are not evaluating the students’ opinions, but the strength of their analysis. While we trace the origins of Asian American identity to the radicalism of the sixties, I do not expect that the students will become activists themselves (though some inevitably do). What I want them all to recognize is that history is alive, and that it is constantly shaping our sense of identity, reality, and possibility. That may be stating the obvious to students majoring in history, but the overwhelming majority of history majors at Michigan never set foot in my course. In fact, most of my students admit that they have generally found the study of history (based largely on textbook-driven high school experiences) to be dry and uninspiring.

Why, then, are they taking my course? Some have developed an interest in ethnic studies as undergraduates, and others are trying to satisfy various requirements. But some vague curiosity motivates the largest group.  Three out of four claim Asian ancestry, and those students suspect that they will have a chance to learn something about “their” history. But with very few exceptions, what is common across all students in the course is that Asian American history never received more than a cursory nod throughout their precollege education. That is especially true for those reared in Michigan, where, to my knowledge, I am the only teacher statewide at any level of education hired as an Asian American history specialist. Hence, most of the students (Asian and non-Asian alike) have never done any serious thinking about the course topic.

That deficiency creates the basis for the central problem I pose in this course: What is the price of ignorance? Such a question can be interpreted both individually and socially. It resonates most clearly at the individual level with the Asian American students, many of them raised in predominantly white, midwestern neighborhoods. Often for the first time, those students are able to see how their families’ experiences contribute to broader historical patterns, providing a context for their personal struggles with issues of exclusion and assimilation. During the first week of class, I run an exercise in which I ask students to plot the date, place of origin, and occupation of their first known ancestor in America on a giant timeline. Without fail, the resulting portrait is the same every time I do this at Michigan. In the section before 1850 there are the postings of a sprinkling of non-Asian students tracing their ancestry to the Mayflower, African slaves, indigenous people, and Irish laborers. Next comes a clump reflecting the “new” immigration of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Most were pulled by the demand for labor, including Asian immigrants like my great-grandfather who sailed from Japan to Hawaii as a contract laborer in 1889. There is a  noticeable gap between 1924 and 1965 marking the palpable impact of racist exclusion laws. Finally, we come to the largest bloc, comprising post-1965 immigrants and refugees from Asia. Probing further, we discover that the majority in that group are professionals in the fields of medicine, science, and engineering, rendering the impact of immigration preference categories abundantly clear (as well as the overrepresentation in “elite” public universities of students from upper middle-class families). As such trends reveal the operation of power, students are drawn to new questions about the social significance of history.3

Debates about the price of ignorance at the social level bring into sharper focus the degree to which the production of historical knowledge is a high-stakes endeavor. While Michigan students are used to hearing that they represent the “best and brightest” of their generation, they recognize that even their vigorous pursuit of education has never afforded them the opportunity to study Asian American history. As they begin to realize that historical omissions and distortions are not accidental but deliberate, it is not hard for them to appreciate how and why racist stereotypes and half-truths have so frequently been used to justify colonialism and white supremacy in American history. For example, John Dower has marshaled ample evidence of how the intense and dehumanizing anti-Japanese racism of the Americans (matched by the anti-Americanism of Japanese chauvinists) led to the devolution of the Pacific war into a “war without mercy.” The same totalizing racist logic led the U.S. government to conclude that Japanese American civilians were a threat to national security. Because I recognize that most of my students would rebel against Dower’s prizewinning—but long—scholarly texts, I try to make that point in one lecture after screening Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips, showing an editorial cartoon by Dr. Seuss that cast Japanese Americans as saboteurs, and passing out the December 1941 Time article “How to Tell Your [Chinese] Friends from the Japs.”4

Students also recognize that the marginalization of Asian American perspectives distorts our conception of America’s past, present, and future. When asked how many died due to the Korean War, most students estimate between twenty-five thousand and three hundred thousand persons. They are shocked to learn that the actual figure is closer to 4 million. Moreover, few are aware that American soldiers massacred Korean civilians at No Gun Ri, an event that journalists confirmed in 1999 to end a half-century cover-up. As students discover the degree to which a war of that magnitude could be reduced to little more than a footnote in the standard American curriculum, they begin to question how and why our nation has developed collective amnesia. My hope is that history’s significance to the present and future is clear. A lack of appreciation for the legacy of the Korean War hampers the public’s ability to make sound judgments regarding potential military actions against North Korea.5

As public consciousness of Asian American history is geographically uneven, my course takes that reality into account. While Asian American organizing since the 1960s has provided new mechanisms to establish community and overcome discrimination, that process of empowerment bypassed much of the Midwest, where Asians are still frequently viewed as an intrusive alien presence. Over the past three decades, the hardships caused by the failing rust belt economy have intensified anti-Asian sentiments generated in response to the Vietnam War and the trade war with Japan. The award-winning documentaries Blue Collar & Buddha and Who Killed Vincent Chin? put a spotlight on two notorious hate crimes by respectively examining the bombing of a Laotian temple in Rockford, Illinois, and the death of a Chinese American in Detroit by two white auto workers using a baseball bat. They depict disturbing scenes, ranging from grass-roots bigotry to gross displays of institutionalized racism, forcing students out of their comfort zones. After viewing such films, students often ask, “Why did I never learn about this?” Some exclaim that they have been “lied to,” “cheated,” and “robbed” of a relevant education. My goal is not simply to agitate them but to challenge them to think creatively about unresolved societal problems.6

While it would not be difficult to fill a semester of lectures with stories of anti-Asian racism, Asian American history is driven by events and personalities that resist innocent narratives of victimization. The pioneering historian Yuji Ichioka—who is credited with coining the signifier “Asian American” in 1968—argued stridently that scholars must reclaim the agency denied Asian American historical actors by recovering what he called the “buried past.” I attempt to drive that point home on day one by playing my acoustic guitar and singing “We Are the Children” from the landmark 1970s album A Grain of Sand by the folk trio Chris Kando Iijima, Joanne Nobuko Miyamoto, and Charlie Chin. Its lyrics begin:

We are the children of the migrant workers

We are the offspring of the concentration camp

Sons and daughters of the railroad builder

Who leave their stamp on Amerika

Taken as a statement of identity and class politics, the song reveals the relationship between Asian American movement activism and the construction of narratives rooted in a progressive conception of social history, moving non-elite actors from the margin to the center of analysis. My course materials draw heavily on research that was part and parcel of that search for the buried past, mostly conducted by researchers outside, or at best on the margins of, the academy. While I employ Sucheng Chan’s concise overview as a reference text, the vast bulk of my reading list consists of first-person accounts.7

We study the post-1882 era of Chinese exclusion, for example, by reading poems inscribed on the walls of the Angel Island Detention Center in San Francisco Bay. These writings entered the consciousness of historians through the work of a community-based reclamation project spearheaded by Judy Yung, Genny Lim, and Him Mark Lai; translations were published in the book Island. Authored by migrants whose entry to the United States was delayed or denied, they convey resignation, resentment, and resilience. I complement those assigned readings with a lecture on the politics of exclusion and a screening of the documentary Carved in Silence, featuring oral interviews with Angel Island survivors describing the subversive means they deployed to circumvent racist laws and outwit authorities. Next, I ask students to complete a writing assignment involving both historical analysis and imagination. Drawing on course materials, they reconstruct the life of a Chinese immigrant using one or more detainee poems as clues as to why the subjects left their homeland, why they were drawn to America, and how detainment reshaped their attitudes and goals. By having them write those essays in the first person, I hope to encourage the students, most of whom are immigrants or children of immigrants, to see their personal connection to history. Finally, we push that connection further through online and graduate instructor–led discussions that ask students to consider how our understanding of the past (or lack thereof) informs or should inform contemporary political debates about immigration.8

My course ties the study of immigrant pioneers to the collective formation of Asian American communities. It is especially designed to help students from post-1965 immigrant families connect with a past they would not otherwise identify as theirs. (I will never forget the course evaluation of one student who criticized my history course for dwelling too much on the past.) Just as I attempt to make non-Asian students see the impact of Asian American history on their lives, I similarly push post-1965 Asian students to see how historical patterns of racialization, struggles for justice, and transnational politics dating back to the nineteenth century or earlier have shaped their lives. For instance, I emphasize the tremendous legacy created by the small early twentieth-century wave of Asian Indian migration and quickly curtailed by racist exclusionists. As Karen Isaksen Leonard’s writings have shown, Punjabi Sikh immigrants fought to democratize American citizenship and to overthrow British colonialism in India. Sikhs, including leaders such as Bhagat Singh Thind and Dalip Singh Saund, persisted in the face of labor exploitation, political repression, and racist violence, while uniting with other Indians as well as Mexicans to establish permanent communities in America. That legacy, however, is lost on the frighteningly large numbers of Americans who have berated and attacked turban-clad Sikh Americans for “looking like the terrorists.” Students were shocked to read that more than five hundred post-9/11 bias incidents have been reported on the Sikh Coalition Web site, yet they simultaneously acknowledged that their own total (prior) ignorance of Sikh American history was symptomatic of a wider problem in America.9

Much of my current curriculum is a product of adjustments I have made over the past six years. One of the harsh realities of working at a large public institution is that teaching is always a popularity contest, given that course enrollments influence departmental funding. As a result, I try to be sensitive to the cultural orientation of mtv generation students without giving in to the consumerist ethos that has been branded onto them. For starters, I dropped my overheads two years ago and created the now universally requisite PowerPoint presentations filled with eye-catching photos and graphics. In addition to playing folk songs, I present poems, retell dramatic anecdotes, and occasionally rap. I have also been known to accentuate historical analysis with spot-on impressions of Elvis Presley, President John F. Kennedy, George “Mr. Sulu” Takei on Star Trek, and other prominent figures. Now I would be lying if I did not admit that part of my goal is to use humor and entertainment both to keep the students alert and to indulge my alter ego as an open-mic performer in Detroit coffeehouses.

But there is another method to that madness, which may or may not have something to do with Zen simplicity and wabi-sabi aesthetics. Any attempt to teach all of the periods, events, and groups that constitute Asian American history in one semester cannot hope to achieve any semblance of complete coverage. What I try to do with each lecture is hammer home a few themes and leave some lasting impressions. That is especially crucial to reiterate to the many science and engineering majors in my course, who would otherwise spend eighty minutes frantically writing down everything they heard while comprehending only a fraction of it. I lead the students through creative exercises like these: We do role-playing to demonstrate how the 1854 California Supreme Court decision People v. Hall facilitated racist mob violence. Participants witness a heinous murder, then realize through a mock trial that they as Chinese are barred from testifying against a white defendant. After discussing the exclusionary 1924 Immigration Act and the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1922 Ozawa decision denying Japanese immigrants the right to naturalized citizenship, I ask the students to write a seventeen-syllable haiku poem.10

When it comes to aspects of the course I consider core elements, I am far less willing to compromise. Although many students are known to avoid courses that assign a research paper, I insist on retaining this requirement. In my eyes, the papers are far more crucial than the final exam, which I include primarily to ensure that students complete assigned readings. I particularly encourage students to conduct oral histories so that they see themselves as participants in the ongoing search to reclaim the buried past. As I stated at the outset, those projects often produce the most profound and memorable discoveries for both students and instructors. In addition, though mandating an additional hour of class can also inhibit enrollment, I structure the course with discussion sections to encourage peer interaction and to provide a rare opportunity to train Ph.D. students to teach Asian American history. Lastly, I choose not to have this course satisfy the university-wide “race and ethnicity” requirement, which would boost enrollment but alter the dynamics of the classroom by introducing students who felt “forced” to be there.

In the end, what impact does my course have on students? For some, it may be just another line on a transcript. Nevertheless, I can attest that more than a handful undergo life-changing experiences. I have witnessed first-year students go on to take several of my courses and specialize in Asian/Pacific Islander American studies, science majors switch to humanities or social sciences, and seniors shift career aspirations from medicine or engineering to law, social work, or public policy. More commonly, students maintain their majors and career paths but orient themselves toward Asian American concerns through sponsorship of campus programs, engagement with community activism, or teaching in public schools. What I hope that all take away is a sense of responsibility to pass along the knowledge they have acquired and produced, thereby transforming public discourse in large and small ways. Moving from Los Angeles to Detroit and correspondingly from a place of high to a place of minimal Asian American consciousness, has sharpened my awareness of how critical historical narratives are to giving us our sense of place and status in American society. Asian American history is not likely to be a part of the formal education of the average midwesterner for the near future. But if I have done my job well, the students completing my course will understand that Asian American history is too important to be confined to the classroom.

Scott Kurashige is an associate professor of Asian/Pacific Islander American studies, history, and American culture at the University of Michigan.

Readers may contact Kurashige at kurashig at umich dot edu.

1 For my first college teaching experience in 1992 at the University of California, Los Angeles, I had the good fortune to serve as a teaching assistant for Valerie Matsumoto’s Asian American history survey. My oral history assignments are largely drawn from her course.

2 For a valuable collection of primary documents, see Philip Sheldon Foner and Daniel Rosenberg, Racism, Dissent, and Asian Americans from 1850 to the Present: A Documentary History (Westport, 1993). My assigned readings on the Southeast Asian refugee experience include the riveting memoir Andrew X. Pham, Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam (New York, 1999). For recollections by activists from the 1960s and 1970s, see Steve Louie and Glenn Omatsu, eds., Asian Americans: The Movement and the Moment (Los Angeles, 2001). I also assign excerpts from Grace Lee Boggs, Living for Change: An Autobiography (Minneapolis, 1998); and Yuri Kochiyama, Passing It On: A Memoir, ed. Marjorie Lee, Akemi Kochiyama-Sardinha, and Audee Kochiyama-Holman (Los Angeles, 2004).

3 I learned this exercise from popular education advocates at Asian Americans United, a community organization in Philadelphia.

4 John Dower, War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (New York, 1986); Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips, dir. Fritz Freleng (Warner Brothers, 1944); “Dr. Seuss Went to War: A Catalog of Political Cartoons by Dr. Seuss,” Mandeville Special Collections Library, University of California, San Diego,; “How to Tell Your [Chinese] Friends from the Japs,” Time, Dec. 22, 1941, p. 33.

5 Charles J. Hanley, Sang-Hun Choe, and Martha Mendoza, The Bridge at No Gun Ri: A Hidden Nightmare from the Korean War (New York, 2001).

6 Blue Collar & Buddha, dir. Taggart Siegel (Siegel Productions, 1986); Who Killed Vincent Chin?, dir. Christine Choy and Renee Tajima-Pena (1987).

7 Encyclopedia of Japanese American History: An A-to-Z Reference from 1868 to the Present, updated ed., s. v. “Ichioka, Yuji”; Chris Kando Iijima, Joanne Nobuko Miyamoto, and Charlie Chin, A Grain of Sand: Music for the Struggle by Asians in America (lp record; Paredon 01020; 1973); Sucheng Chan, Asian Americans: An Interpretive History (Boston, 1991). Memoirs I have assigned with success include Mary Paik Lee, Quiet Odyssey: A Pioneer Korean Woman in America (Seattle, 1990); and Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston, Farewell to Manzanar: A True Story of Japanese American Experience during and after the World War II Internment (Boston, 1973).

8 Him Mark Lai, Genny Lim, and Judy Yung, eds., Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910–1940 (Seattle, 1991); Carved in Silence, dir. Felicia Lowe (1987).

9 I assign excerpts from Karen Isaksen Leonard, The South Asian Americans (Westport, 1997), 39–66; Reports of bias incidents can be found at

10 An imperfect translation of wabi-sabi is “appreciating the beauty in the imperfect way things are.” People v. Hall, 4 Cal. 399, 404 (1854); Immigration Act of 1924, 43 Stat. 153 (1924); Takao Ozawa v. United States, 260 U.S. 178 (1922); Chan, Asian Americans, 47–48, 55.

This article is reprinted from The Journal of American History 93 (March 2007), 1178–85.

© Copyright Organization of American Historians. All rights reserved.


Diverse Surveys in American History


Gary J. Kornblith and Carol Lasser