From the Community | A history of forgetting: Remembering Stanford’s complicity in anti-Asian violence

Opinion by Kyle Wang
May 6, 2021, 9:50 p.m.

I read the President and Provost’s email inaugurating the beginning of Asian-American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month with a sense of familiar frustration and exhaustion. On paper, the language of the email feels innocuous, even flat — there’s the usual rhetoric about “celebrating diversity” and “honoring the achievements of Asian Americans,” with a few events to boot. But the email’s seemingly innocent rhetoric masks deeper problems reflective of Stanford’s historic complicity in racism against not only Asian-Americans but all marginalized communities. 

These issues manifest from the beginning with the email’s uncritical use of  the term “AAPI.” Though the email references “AAPI Heritage Month” several times, not once does it mention Pasifika history or heritage — not the cultures that were wiped out by settler colonial expansion, nor the Pasifika community’s history of organized resistance to these violences. As a Chinese-American child of immigrants, I cannot speak to these heritages myself, but even I can recognize the deep problems with the undiscerning use of the term “AAPI.” To suggest that our histories are comparable and exclude the PI half of the acronym is to refuse the space to honor and celebrate these histories. (For more information on the fraught nature of the term “AAPI,” you can read Keoni Rodriguez’s article for The Daily here.) 

Even if we set aside the problematic marginalization of Pacific Islanders, the email’s rhetoric still sanitizes Stanford’s historic complicity in anti-Asian racism. This erasure appears powerfully in the email’s next several lines: “This fortune was amassed in no small part as a result of the work of the Chinese immigrants, a good number of whom also tended ‘the Farm’ and then helped construct the early university.” This is a gross distortion of the truth. Leland Stanford’s wealth was built, quite literally, on the backs of exploited Chinese immigrant laborers — a more accurate statement would be “this fortune was amassed because of the work of Chinese immigrants.” 

Likewise, the term “work” is technically correct but historically inadequate, erasing the violence Stanford enacted against Asian Americans in the process of building the railroads. The Chinese laborers who built the railroads were subjected to horrific working conditions: They received the most dangerous work assignments and were paid only 30-50% of the wages of their white counterparts and frequently faced physical abuse from their supervisors. As anti-Asian sentiment rose, these conditions often spiralled into direct violence: in 1885, 28 Chinese laborers were murdered by white miners during the Rock Springs massacre, marking one of the largest-scale anti-Chinese lynchings in history.

But there’s no acknowledgment of Stanford’s complicity, or even of this history. The Stanford family’s systemic exploitation of Chinese laborers and Leland Stanford’s well-documented Sinophobia go almost entirely unmentioned. Instead, we’re told that the completion of the transcontinental railroad — part of the settler colonial project that decimated countless Indigenous cultures — was an achievement to be celebrated. We’re given a narrative that romanticizes the real, concrete suffering that Chinese laborers were forced to endure and erases Indigenous genocide. 

At a time when violence against Asian-Americans has re-emerged in our public consciousness visibly and powerfully, these acts of erasure are neither neutral nor harmless. The problem with the email is the same flaw that undergirds so much of the current media discourse surrounding anti-Asian violence: Stanford — and, more broadly, the United States — refuses to recognize how the violence it inflicted centuries ago is not a historic aberration, but continuous with the violence that this country continues to inflict against Asian-Americans to this day. 

When the administration romanticizes the transcontinental railroad as a moment of Asian-American (and, implicitly, American) triumph, it not only sanitizes the history of labor exploitation and racialized violence against Chinese-Americans that enabled the railroads’ completion, but it fails to reckon with the very real, ongoing settler colonialism that the railroads enabled. It fails to recognize how the historic violence against Chinese and Asian laborers is part of a pattern that began with Leland Stanford, but has continued with events like the massage parlor shootings in Atlanta. Even the railroads themselves contributed to one of the largest-scale genocides in modern memory, and this was only made possible by the violent, racist exploitation of Chinese laborers. One cannot discuss the railroads earnestly without reckoning with these histories, much less consider them a point of “celebration” at a time when the very same violences that enabled the railroads’ completion have re-emerged yet again in our public consciousness.  

The further I read the email, the more tired I grew. I was tired of the University’s commendations of these laborers’ “contributions,” knowing how it exploited — and continues to exploit — its subcontracted labor force during the COVID pandemic. I was tired of its empty promises to support “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” when the vast majority of its instructors in Asian-American studies are either affiliated faculty from other departments (e.g. psychology) or non-tenured lecturers — not to mention the alarming lack of faculty specializing in Pacific Islander heritage. I wish I was surprised by the tone the email struck when discussing (or refusing to discuss) a violent history, but I wasn’t. These gestures are continuations of the same patterns I’ve grown accustomed to from administration over the years.  

But I recognize, too, that despite all of the anger I hold — that despite my justified outrage with the University’s half-hearted attempts to pander to its Asian American students — I can still hold space for hope. At a time when violence against people who look like my grandparents is on the rise, the term “celebration” feels woefully inadequate, and so instead I’ve taken solace, lately, in the knowledge that we have fought this fight before. I want to believe that we can turn back to the narratives we’ve so often ignored and recognize how the history of Asian Americanness is one of violence but also of struggle and resistance. I want to believe that we can acknowledge these histories while simultaneously recognizing the ways that Asian Americans, too, are capable of reproducing that violence — by, for instance, uncritically aggregating Pacific Islanders with Asian Americans, or perhaps by attending a university on occupied Muwekma Ohlone Land. 

In the face of these repeated institutional failures, I believe we can — and must — make a new way for ourselves. And we begin, first, by refusing the narratives we’ve been given about our past, so that we may learn how not to repeat these mistakes in the future. 

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