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Want to Understand the History of Anti-Asian Racism? Read These Books

The Atlanta area shootings come after a recent wave of anti-Asian attacks attributed to the pandemic, but violence against Asians and Asian Americans dates back centuries. We've curated a reading list to provide historical context.

Last Tuesday on March 9th, eight people were killed in shootings at three different spas in Atlanta, Georgia.

Six of the eight victims are Asian women, and though details are still emerging and local law enforcement has yet to declare it a hate crime, Asian Americans nationwide are expressing grief, outrage, and fear that their loved ones are next.

The shooting took place after a significant increase in reported anti-Asian attacks in the United States over the last year. Stop AAPI Hate collected nearly 3,800 reports of hate incidents ranging from verbal harassment to physical assault that occurred since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, with women making up a higher share of the reports at 68 percent.

While much of the recent wave of anti-Asian violence has been attributed to the pandemic and our previous president’s racist rhetoric—a recent study found a spike in anti-Asian hashtags after Trump first tweeted “Chinese virus”—scholars and activists alike have been quick to point out that our country has a long history of systemic racial and sexual violence against Asians and Asian Americans.

Wanting to share the knowledge I had the privilege of learning as a former Asian American Studies major, I revisited some of the books that helped me understand my identity and my community’s history. I also consulted Dr. Linda Trinh Vo, a professor and former chair of UC Irvine’s Department of Asian American Studies (and who was one of my favorite professors during my time at UCI!)

Please note that this is a selection of books curated for a general audience looking to get a basic understanding of our country’s history of anti-Asian racism. It’s important to highlight the fact that our community is not a monolith—there are countless other books that cover specific ethnic groups and unique topics and are worth looking into.

“What I find impressive is that there are so many informative books I can recommend on ‘Asian American history and racism’ covering a range of topics, unlike the past when the scholarship was limited,” Vo told me.

Asian American Dreams – Helen Zia

Asian American Dreams was on my assigned reading list in an Intro to Asian American Studies class and was key in my decision to declare my major. The book chronicles the rise of Asian Americans as a fully formed racial group, especially over the last few decades and after the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American who was scapegoated and beaten to death by two disgruntled white autoworkers who believed he was Japanese. Chin’s murder shocked Asian Americans across the country, and according to Asian American Dreams, helped shape our community’s consciousness as we know it today.

The author, Helen Zia, is an activist, journalist, educator, and one of the AAPI community’s most celebrated figures. Zia was also one of the main spokespeople for the Justice for Vincent Chin campaign. She’s currently developing a limited series about Chin’s murder and the subsequent civil rights case, which resulted in minimum fines and probation for the killers by a white judge who notoriously said, “these are not the kind of men you send to jail.”

The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority – Ellen D. Wu

You might have seen or heard the term “model minority” used to explain why so many of the issues plaguing our Asian American communities, including the recent attacks, have been waved off as “not a big deal,” or why so many believe Asians don’t have it that bad in America. This myth paints all Asian Americans as successful and well-assimilated, especially in comparison to other minority groups. This book traces the history of the myth back to several events and shows how it has since impacted our community and Americans’ understanding of race.

The Making of Asian America – Erika Lee

The Making of Asian America was published after I graduated, but when I read it, I could immediately see why it’d be assigned to students in Asian American Studies programs. The book provides a fantastic overview of Asian Americans in the United States, from immigration to Japanese American incarceration and beyond. It’s everything that my high school history books left out and more.

“All of these books provide overviews on how racist stereotypes became embedded economically, politically, and culturally in American society, leading to the mistreatment of Asian Americans as well as their conditional inclusion,” Vo said.

Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown – Nayan Shah

COVID-related racism is nothing new—in fact, race has been intermingled with public health for centuries. This book explores how public health authorities demonized 19th-century Chinese immigrants by portraying them as diseased and dirty, and how this stereotype contributed to the othering of Asian Americans. Professor Vo also recommends Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans by Jean Pfaelzer.

Our Voices, Our Histories: Asian American and Pacific Islander Women – Shirley Hune and Gail M. Nomura

This recently-published anthology unites 35 AAPI authors in one volume to explore both the diversity and shared experiences of women of color in the United States.

“Given the recent murders in Atlanta, there is the need to understand how the exotification and fetishization of Asian American women against a backdrop of colonialism and imperialism can lead to sexualized, racialized violence,” Vo said. “Our Voices, Our Histories presents their voices and humanizes these women's experiences, building upon their earlier collection, Asian/Pacific Islander American Women: A Historical Anthology.”

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Not into reading? No problem! PBS is currently streaming their Asian Americans series online for free.

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