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Julia Chang Wang is Co-Founder of Immigrant History Initiative
Julia grew up in Beijing and Chicago and graduated from Yale Law School. Before law school, Julia studied History and Economics at Harvard and obtained her Masters in History at Cambridge. She also worked in Chicago on community organizing and curriculum development. She has worked at the Center for Reproductive Rights and is now a practicing lawyer in New York. With her friend Kathy Lu, she cofounds the Immigrant History Initiative. She hopes IHI will bring greater understanding and appreciation for the stories of immigrants like herself. The organization produces a curriculum focused on immigrant histories and works with schools and communities to establish courses sharing this knowledge. The Immigrant History Initiative’s Chinese American History curriculum is being taught at youth programs and classrooms around the States.
You are co-founder of Immigrant History Initiative. Can you tell us how you started it, and what motivated you?
I’m an immigrant to the U.S., and I came to this country from China as a young child. Growing up, I always struggled to find where I belonged and never saw the stories of Asians or of other people of color in textbooks or popular media. I’ve always been fascinated with history and narratives of migration, like that of European immigrants from Ireland or Italy, but never felt like I was part of American migration stories because I’m Asian.
I co-founded the Immigrant History Initiative when I was a student at Yale Law school. Before I went to law school, I was a historian of U.S. and European history, and I studied the 1960s anti-immigration movement in the United Kingdom at the University of Cambridge. This led to my interest in immigration history and law as a global topic, and when I entered law school in 2015, I wanted to study legal history and immigration. In 2016, the U.S. election took me and many of my friends by surprise, because we didn’t realize how powerful and persuasive the xenophobic, anti-immigrant rhetoric had become. What was even more alarming was seeing how much this exclusionary and immigrant-unfriendly language was accepted and welcomed in my own Asian American communities. Even though much of the xenophobic language was levied against the Latinx community in 2016, there is a long history of anti-immigrant laws and sentiment targeting Asians specifically. Most people do not know this history, and so they could not see themselves as potential targets of this rhetoric. Unfortunately, it was proven quickly how much anti-Asian sentiment still existed when COVID-19 began. I started the Immigrant HIstory Initiative (IHI) with my friend and Yale classmate, Kathy Lu, to bring the stories of immigrants to public discourse. Our mission is to use these stories to generate an understanding of migration and immigration as a long-standing phenomenon and to learn from the histories of exclusion and discrimination so that we can become a more equitable and inclusive society. We began this work with the history of Asian Americans and the Asian diaspora, because of our own identities and expertise. We work with both educators and communities to incorporate and center the stories of Asian Americans and Asian immigrants because learning this story changes how we see our own agency and stakes in speaking up against injustice.
What were some of the biggest challenges at the beginning? What are the goals you have achieved so far?
We do most of our work within and in support of Asian American communities. Asian Americans are a very diverse group with many different languages, cultures, and a wide spectrum of issues. However, the predominant stereotype of Asians as being the same and the “model minority” can be very powerful in erasing both our vibrant diversity and the real challenges that our communities face. Because our stories are not taught or talked about much in classrooms or mainstream media, Asian Americans ourselves need the language and the context to even begin confronting anti-Asian sentiment. There’s a lot of work to be done, and the challenge is to create spaces and conversations that have never happened before for a lot of Asian communities. We began our work in Connecticut, where we created a youth program for Chinese Americans to learn Asian American history and talk with their parents and families about their immigrant experiences. Many of the kids shared with us how they struggled with the stereotypes that made them feel like they didn’t belong. Many of their parents shared with us how they had never before had an opportunity or the space to talk to their children about their experiences and challenges as Asian immigrants. Our work was aimed at not only providing them with historical information but also help young Asian Americans understand themselves and their identities, which is a long process. We created the space for them to begin thinking about it in a space where they are supported. At the start of COVID, we saw quickly how the rhetoric around COVID would lead to the scapegoating of Asians and immigrants generally, and we see a lot of evidence now in both North America and Europe. But because Asian American history has been so invisible, it becomes hard to see why these attacks are so virulent, because they carry with them centuries of anti-Asian sentiment. None of this started in 2020. In the past year, we have created 4 sets of lesson plans, 6 instructional videos, and numerous social media posts to raise awareness on the history that explains the roots of anti-Asian racism. We have also hosted 7 workshops to help educators and parents talk to their kids and teach this moment. Our free parent workshop in January 2021 provided parents both the history and concrete tools on how to talk about Asian American identity and racism with their children. We also recently published a guide on talking to kids about anti-Asian racism that is available on our website for free and in four other languages. You can find our COVID-related resources here. One of the other really exciting things that we’ve been able to accomplish in addition to this work is connected with groups and collaborate across many different states in the U.S. and even with some advocates in Europe.
Are Asian Americans’ history and their contributions to the U.S.A. incorporated and taught in the official scholar education? How educators should rethink the way they teach immigration History?
Asian American history, like African American, Latinx American, and Native American history, became an official field of study at the university level in the 1960s, after years-long student activism for ethnic studies on the West Coast of the U.S. As a result of this movement, there are Asian American studies departments in some universities and colleges, and there are a good number of historians and academics who focus on Asian American stories. However, it’s definitely not universal in the U.S., especially in primary and secondary education. Where I grew up, in the Midwest, and where I live and work, on the East Coast, incorporating Asian American history is still a very live topic: I know of three different states where people are trying to bring Asian American history into classrooms through new legislation (Illinois, Connecticut, and New Jersey). Through our work, I have met really fantastic educators who are actively trying to incorporate Asian American history into their classrooms, but we need schools and institutions to support these individual efforts in order to make sure our stories are heard on a larger scale. In teaching history, I think there are two key themes that are rarely drawn out. One, immigration and race and ethnicity have been tied together for much of American history. In order to understand racism, we have to also look at the history of immigration laws and how these laws were used to maintain notions of who has a right to live here.
Two, people of color have a long history in the U.S., and that history is rich, vibrant, and complex. We have to contend with these histories: the legacies of slavery, of genocide and displacement of Native Americans, and of the discrimination, violence, and exclusion of non-white immigrants, including the histories of colonialism and war, for over a hundred years. The invisibility of these stories in the classrooms does not reflect the diversity of our society or the lived experiences of its members, and that needs to change.
Do you think the lack of awareness about Asian Americans diaspora cast them as perpetual foreigners?
Yes, absolutely. I think it’s both the lack of knowledge about Asian Americans and our history, as well as the history itself that create and perpetuate the perpetual foreigner myth. For much of the 19th and early 20th century, Asians were prohibited from immigrating to the U.S., starting with the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and broadening to exclude almost all Asians with the 1924 Immigration Act. The passage of these laws came from massive and violent movements against Asian Americans and the depiction of Asians as not only “unassimilable” and foreign, but also sub-human. The idea of “yellow peril,” the depiction of Asia and Asians as not only foreign but also a threat, actually began in Europe with Kaiser Wilhelm II, so it is also not a uniquely American phenomenon. Over time, this history becomes unknown but the stereotypes remain, and we are seeing the devastating consequences of these stereotypes now.
After the horrifying shooting in Atlanta, and the rise of anti-Asian violence many Asian Americans are worried about their family members and friends going out alone for fear of being attacked. Do you share the same sentiment? Have the level of harassment shift also in your area?
Yes, like a lot of my friends and family members, I am very worried about safety, especially because I have friends who have experienced harassment. I live near New York City, which has seen a 200-time increase in attacks against Asians since 2019. Statistics from Stop AAPI Hate, which has its own reporting center, show that the majority of the attacks are against women. We really have to grapple with the intersectional nature of violence against Asian women, and the Atlanta shooting of six Asian women made that very clear. Last year, IHI created a bystander intervention guide in multiple languages to help people become better bystanders to public harassment. You can access the guide here: We also have a simulation where you can practice how to effectively intervene here.
Julia Chang Wang and Kathy Lu, Yale Law School graduates, are cofounders of the Immigrant History Initiative. Both as children of immigrants, due to xenophobia were prompted to think deeply about the importance of immigration in shaping their nation. The Immigrant History Initiative is a non-profit organization founded in 2017. They started the Immigrant History Initiative to celebrate and highlight the centrality of immigrant experiences to the American identity. The Immigrant History Initiative seeks to build community through education, preserving these narratives for generations to come. They work with students, educators, schools, communities, and organizations to share the untold stories of immigrant diasporas. Immigrant history IS American history. Their mission is to fundamentally change how we learn, talk, and think about race, migration, and social justice as a global society.
The pandemic is having an undeniable impact on education, some Asian American students are returning to school at lower rates than their peers, citing fear of racist harassment as one key factor. What schools should start doing about anti-Asians hate and violence?
One of the immediate things that schools can do is provide more training to educators and staff on how to recognize anti-Asian racism and bullying. One of the things we hear most often from Asian American parents is that when their children are bullied at school, teachers often don’t recognize the racialized elements. But with the pandemic, the incidence of racialized bullying has drastically increased against Asian students. Schools need to recognize and respond in a more systematic way, including creating procedures that address identity-based bullying and making sure that educators, students, and parents all understand what the process looks like for addressing racialized harassment. Another longer-term action that schools can take is to incorporate Asian American and Asian diaspora stories into the school curricula. This might look like including more Asian American and Pacific Islander books in the library or on the reading list. This could also look like teaching the Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese Internment, Filipino American labor activism, the history of Southeast Asian refugees, and other topics on Asian American experiences in History, Civics, and English language and literature classes. IHI works with schools and educators to provide training and lesson plans and resources to incorporate in the classroom. You can see the different lesson plans we’ve developed for high school and middle school students here.
Racial insensitivity can take root on the playground, even if parents believe they’re teaching their kids to be kind. How to equipping educators to upend discrimination and stereotype? How to help them foster empathy and allyship?
Empathy building is really important, and educators can begin these conversations in their classrooms using practices like restorative justice circles. We created a free restorative justice-based facilitation guide on fostering empathy during COVID for educators to begin talking about anti-Asian violence and what their students might be seeing in the news or on social media. The other way educators can build empathy and help students reflect on messages that might be discriminatory or problematic is through using history as a tool to think about the present. We created a lesson plan for middle school and high school students on the history of the San Francisco smallpox epidemic when Chinese residents were heavily scapegoated for the outbreak. In this lesson, students engage in activities such as looking at political cartoons and other art from the past and the present to recognize and question messages that blame particular groups for public health crises.
Some kids start asking their parents: “Why do they hate us?” How parents and educators can talk to kids about it before it came to this sad question?
Parents and educators can definitely begin to have these conversations with kids, whether it’s in response to the news, social media, or if their child or student witnesses or even experiences a racist incident. We developed a detailed guide for parents to talk to their kids about anti-Asian racism. The guide provides some historical context and a four-step process to talk to kids, which we developed with a mental health expert, Dr. Jenny Wang, founder of Asians for Mental Health. This guide contains some specific scenarios and walks users through how to approach this conversation with children. Example scenarios include when a child experiences a racist incident, when a child witnesses a racist incident, and when a child says something that is biased. The information in this guide can definitely also be used for educators, in addition to the educator-specific resources I’ve mentioned above. You can also access the Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Hindi versions of this guide from our website.
Since is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, there is any the meaningful story you want to share or anything else you want to add?
May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in the United States because a lot of important events happened in Asian American history in May. We created a short video last year on six important events that happened in May. One of those events is a strike that took place on May 21, 1968, at San Francisco State University, where 400 students staged a sit-in to protest the lack of diversity in the faculty. This strike eventually led to the creation of the first ethnic studies department in the country, and this created a new generation of scholars and academics who bring the stories of Asian Americans to light. We share lots of Asian American and immigration history on our Instagram page, where you’ll get “mini-lessons” on our feed and stories.
Photos courtesy of Julia Chang Wang & Immigrant History Initiative