Courtesy of The Sikh Coalition
by Julianne Hing
Yesterday I got stuck on a photo from a new Tumblr I heard about, Fuck Yeah API History. (You can explore the meme here.) It's a new blog on the block that's just black and white photos of Asian and Pacific Islander Americans doing their thing. One photo in particular from the site, of a Sikh parade in Stockton, California, made me pause. Sikhs have a long history in the region--the first gurdwara in North America was built in Stockton in 1912. But on May 11, 1945, Sikh men in turbans and beards--and plenty without either--and a few women gathered for a dignified photo that was jarring to my eyes in 2011.
When I saw that photo I saw old Asian people, old and proud of their heritage and who they were. Look at those old cars! The beautiful cut of the men's suits! There could be a hundred people in that photo. I stared at it for a long time.
It made me think about Arizona's HB 2281 (you know, Arizona's other new racist law), the one ostensibly meant to protect American students from anti-American curriculum in the state's public schools. The law forbids any public school course that does any of these things: encourages students to "resent or hate other races or classes of people; promote[s] the overthrow of the United States government; promote[s] resentment toward a race or class of people" or "is designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group" or "advocate[s] ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals."
Its champion is Arizona's new attorney general, Tom Horne. As the state superintendent he set aside Tucson's ethnic studies courses for elimination and made it his mission to outlaw the program's Mexican-American studies courses, even though educators argued that students who took the classes graduated at higher rates than students who didn't. The history and English electives put special emphasis on Latino history in the U.S., one which happens to include racism, oppression, exploitation and exclusion. Horne has repeatedly said these classes teach kids "ethnic chauvinism."
HB 2281 is full of transparently coded language. Nonetheless it falls on the shoulders of whoever wants to challenge the underlying assumptions within it to unpack it all.
I was entranced by that photo. And something about old Asian people stirs up feelings of automatic reverence. I blame my upbringing. The photo also reminded me just how deep Asian-Americans' roots in this country go, and my ignorance of that history. Ethnic studies courses offer a version of this experience for all students of color, a chance to look at history and see the images of ancestors, however distant, reflected back at them. The dominant message that Asian-Americans are outsiders and will forever be foreign is so entrenched in our culture that proof to the contrary can still feel like a precious discovery. Knowing that I have a history that is much bigger than my own small life makes me feel like I have the right to be in this country, and an obligation to defend my community and other people society would be more comfortable labeling perpetual unwelcome outsiders.
This is the personal political empowerment Horne and new state superintendent John Huppenthal and Gov. Jan Brewer so fear. I don't think they are right to be afraid--Horne's idea of overthrow is my idea of active participation in American democracy. But I understand their fears. They were threatened by Tucson's ethnic studies classes and the young minds ready to absorb this stuff. They had enough votes in the overwhelmingly conservative Arizona legislature to pass it, and so they went ahead and did it. They made it against the law for Tucson kids to learn about Latino history in the United States.
The Tucson Unified School District is in a bind right now. Before the bill became law, Tucson ethnic studies supporters fought the bill. Now that it's here and the program's been declared illegal they insist the Mexican-American studies classes, which have been around since 1997, are legal. The district has so far stood by the program and intends to appeal the ruling, but stands to lose 10 percent of its state funding, about $15 million. The district also offers African-American studies and has since the 1970s, but it's not yet clear how the new law will affect those classes.
I've actually only ever taken one ethnic studies course. It was a powerful one (thank you, Professor Vo). It didn't make me hate other races or want to overthrow the U.S. government. It made me want to fight to better this country.