In the late 1960s, America was all in a fury. Martin Luther King Jr. was fighting for civil rights. Malcolm X was calling for black nationalism and self-determination of African American communities. Chicanos were fighting for farm workers’ rights and economic justice. But what were the Asian Americans doing? I’ll tell you what they were doing. They were raising hell in Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and the entire US of A. They were fighting for their Chinatowns, Manilatowns, Japantowns, and other ethnic enclaves. They were fighting for liberation, social justice, and a valid education. They taught their communities lessons of self-determination, courage, ethnic consciousness, and resilience. They were the pioneers of the movement, the Asian American Movement.
Now these folks, these pioneers, did not have covered wagons, oxen, or beautiful, white faces. What they had was hystory—a rich, ethnic hystory of subjugation, inequality, courage, and ongoing determination. What they had was knowledge—knowledge about the hardships they were facing, knowledge about the social and economic needs of their communities, and knowledge about their culture, heritage, and ancestors. But they struggled—they struggled with the aggressive and verbally abusive interrogations at Angel Island, they struggled with having to live in poor, impoverished neighborhoods, they struggled with the name-calling, the bullying, and the hate crimes, and they struggled with their education, an education that erased them from the textbooks—an education that refused to give them a place in hystory. But they lived, they thrived, and continued to fight, and in the late 1960s, the Asian American Movement had begun.
It was a couple—Yuji Ichioka and Emma Gee—two students at UC Berkeley who organized every Asian American student they could contact—that founded the Asian American Political Alliance (AAPA). AAPA was the first group who called themselves “Asian American”—a term proposed by Ichioka. “Asian American” wasn’t just a term to signify their race or birthplace—it was a term that called for Asian American panethnicity, a term that served to empower communities and unite Asians in America under a collective identity, a collective voice, and a collective goal. Many AAPA chapters and other Asian American groups spread across the United States. These groups served to educate, empower, inspire, serve, and change their communities. They wanted to reclaim their hystory, redefine their identities, and liberate themselves from oppression.
Soon, the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF) began at SF State. African Americans, Chicanos, Native Americans, and Asian Americans united under a collective front to fight for a valid education—a Third World College. For so many years, the hystories, struggles, and successes of people of color had no place in our public school system. Native Americans were only visible in romantic simulations of prairie romance and bad Western films. African Americans were only mentioned once students reached the unit about the American slave system. Chicanos were only briefly mentioned as “losers” of the Mexican-American War. And Angel Island was nothing more than a piece of land floating in San Francisco Bay. We were invisible, and yet, we were still there. We were always there, and now was the time to reclaim our hystory and proclaim our presence. As a result, ethnic studies departments were established in America, and people of color finally had a place in hystory.
But the fight doesn’t end there. Even though so many members of our Asian American communities have lifted themselves up from their boot straps, about 14% live in poverty today. Even though we now have Comparative Ethnic Studies, Native American Studies, African American Studies, Chicano Studies, and Asian American Studies at several institutions, we still don’t have a Third World College. We were able to establish these departments and programs through struggle, but we are still struggling to keep them. There have been so many threats to cancel these programs, to take away our majors, and cut the resources and funds of our departments. This shows that the movement is far from over. The movement is ongoing. We must continue to struggle, fight, and unite for our place in America.
Asian Americans were never your quiet, passive-aggressive, model minority. We’re still not. We’re out there raising hell—fighting for our families, our communities, and ourselves. Try putting this in your chop suey.