A lecture at Campbell Hall last night detailed Chinese-American struggles both past and present.
One hundred and fifty people heard Iris Chang, journalist and best-selling author on global Chinese history, speak on the history of the Chinese in America.
Chang began her speech by focusing on the cycle of acceptance and discrimination that has marked Chinese history in the United States.
“At some moments in our history, we’ve been treated as ‘honorary whites,’ while just a few decades later, we’ll be depicted as a threat to the nation,” Chang said.
Chang said the high point of acceptance of Chinese in America came during the first wave of immigration, during California’s gold rush in the mid-1800s. As a low point, she pointed to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred Chinese immigrants from the United States for 60 years.
“As we became prosperous, we met harsher and harsher treatment by the government and the people we lived among,” Chang said. “We were the only people barred from state-funded education and other benefits that any tax-paying citizen should expect. When they needed us for our labor or knowledge, we were fine, but in no time the cycle would turn around on us.”
Chang said that racism against the Chinese was always based on fear, whether it was the fear of their economic accomplishments or fear of their political involvement.
“The driving force behind racism is money and power,” Chang said. “Americans never really care about color as much, as long as they don’t feel threatened somehow by it. When whites were unable to economically compete with the Chinese in some parts of the country, or they felt like we might be spies for the communists, the acceptance toward us dropped off like a roller coaster.”
Chang also detailed some history of Chinese-American activism.
“The Chinese were using passive resistance to injustice long before Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi even existed,” Chang said. “For example, we peacefully organized labor strikes when we were building railroads and won concessions like better hours and a cessation of physical abuse against us.”
Chang said the Chinese should have been more active at some points in history, including during World War II.
“We were seen as the good Asians during that war, while the Japanese-Americans were being thrown into containment camps,” Chang said. “We shouldn’t have worn those ‘I Am Chinese’ buttons; we should have been more active.”
Chang compared the discrimination against Chinese-Americans in the past with the discrimination now faced by Arab-Americans.
“After Sept. 11, I watched as Arabs replaced the Chinese as America’s collective enemy,” Chang said. “Ever since, they’ve faced horrible discrimination and atrocities, much as my race faced just years before.”
Chang ended her lecture by speaking out against what she saw as a “destruction of the rights we’ve fought as Americans to gain.
“We stand at a pivotal moment in our history, where we allow our freedoms to be taken and our private lives to be scrutinized while the government throws up more walls of secrecy around themselves,” Chang said. “People need to realize that democracy isn’t a sure thing, but remains a fragile and new experiment.”
One student who attended the lecture expressed admiration for Chang and her knowledge of Chinese-American history.
“I came because my heritage is half-Chinese, and it really struck me how little I knew about my people,” said Allison Leong, a student at Santa Barbara City College. “I’ve been totally Americanized by high school history.”
Chang has written for numerous publications, including The New York Times, Newsweek and the Los Angeles Times. She is the author of Rape of Nanking and, most recently, The Chinese in America: A Narrative History.
The lecture was presented by UCSB Arts & Lectures and the UCSB Women’s Center.