Knowing true history of U.S. can help us avoid mistakes from the past

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. To fully honor those resilient and brave Americans, it is our duty to learn more about our nation’s past and current relationship with them.

Admittedly, prior to the pandemic my knowledge of United States history, specifically the path of Asian American and Pacific Islanders, was relatively shallow. In my earlier lifetime, during a heritage month, I would have dipped my toe into a speaker series at the library or watched a PBS special.

Instead, my pandemic hobby was to do the work myself rather than to lean on my Black, indigineous, people of color (BIPOC) friends to teach me. Through this focused journey I have come to better understand more about the gap of what I didn’t know about our history. Perhaps, I will pique your curiosity as well.

I joined the military, in part, to protect other countries from unjust wars. I saw inequities in the U.S., but believed these were isolated to certain, small areas of the country, not peppering every city in the country. I lacked knowledge of the unjust battles that happened here.

A Spanish philosopher, George Santayana, wrote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The first time that I read those words was on a wall at Auschwitz.

When I visited Auschwitz, I was a confident, young 20-something serving in the U.S. Army in Germany, and shockingly naive as to my understanding of my own country’s history. I would have told you that I knew my nation’s history based on a personal assessment that I scored well in an advanced U.S. history course. I would not have imagined there were gaping holes in my comprehension that I am discovering some 20 years later.

I did not have any idea that the sins throughout history in our nation to Black, indigineous, people of color would have been comparable, en masse, to the cruelty that occurred at Auschwitz. I thought we were the “good guys” and was unaware of the battles waged on our soil.

Yet, here I am, a fully grown adult, white woman with a new awareness of our violent and exclusionary past.

The Asian American’s path to citizenship was missing from my textbooks in high school. I was unaware that just 17 years after the abolition of slavery (the passing of the 13th Amendment in 1865), our nation adopted a law to ban another group of people from citizenship. The Chinese Exclusion Act (1882 – 1943) banned those with Chinese ancestry from becoming citizens, owning land, voting, immigrating and — if you were a laborer — from marrying or having children.

The influx of French and Irish laborers during the same time were not similarly banned from immigration or citizenship. During this time, towns expelled people of Chinese heritage under the threat of violence, including mass lynching and mob justice (1871 Chinese Massacre, Los Angeles). And let us remember that U.S. cities were also banning Black Americans from resettlement as they escaped from the violence against them in the South.

We continued targeting Asian Americans during WWII, when our country decided that all people who looked Japanese were to be treated like prisoners of war and moved to internment camps (1942-45). There was a paragraph in my history books that mentioned internment camps, but there was no mention of the anti-Asian laws and violence that preceded it.

Over the past year, the incidences of Asian Americans being harassed, subjected to violence and murdered has hit an all-time high. Adding to their fears of violence, is being treated as an outsider. Imagine for a moment being asked on a regular basis, “Where do you really come from?” when your answer to the question is, “I was born here.”

In spite of all of these setbacks, our country has many Asian Americans to brag about. This year, then-Senator Kamala Harris broke the glass ceiling in the executive branch for being the first woman as well as the first Black woman and the first Asian American to hold the office of Vice President. We should also celebrate a few Asian American warriors that led the resistance against discrimintation of BIPOC citizens — Yuji Ichioka and Grace Lee Boggs.

So, at this outset of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, let’s all learn more about our full history, so that in knowing, we will not repeat the mistakes of our past.

For anyone looking to deepen their own understanding and fill some gaps, here are a few recommendations:

Films:

“A Thousand Pieces of Gold” (1991)

“The Joy Luck Club” (1993)

“Tigertail” (2020)

“The American Experience: The Chinese Exclusion Act” (2017)

Books:

“Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People” by Helen Zia

“The Magical Language of Others: A Memoir” by E.J. Koh

“Paper Wishes” by Lois Sepahban

“Living for Change: An Autobiography” by Grace Lee Boggs

“On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family” by Lisa See

Sarah Fox is a city councilmember for the city of Vancouver. Sarah holds a master’s degree in urban and regional planning and has worked as a city planner in Camas for the past 16 years. She is a U.S. Army veteran and served in combat in Bosnia. She was born in Vancouver and has lived most of her life in Southwest Washington.