Stanford scholars reflect on contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders during heritage month and a period of increased racial violence

The many contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are noted by Stanford scholars during a time that has seen a drastic rise in anti-Asian hate crimes.

Every May, the nation honors and recognizes Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month. This year’s celebrations come in the midst of an increasing number of anti-Asian hate incidents in California and across the country, but the scourge of anti-Asian violence is not new, Stanford scholars note.

Here, scholars from the School of Humanities and Sciences reflect on historical and recent anti-Asian violence. They also discuss the many contributions of AAPI communities to California, the Bay Area and Stanford and how those communities have shaped their work.

In addition, scholars share their suggestions for books, articles, films and other resources where people can learn more about the contributions and history of AAPI communities.


Gordon H. Chang

Professor, History

Gordon H. Chang (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Stanford, on the edge of the great Pacific Ocean, is an Asia Pacific university, though we need to be reminded of it. The founders of the school appreciated that reality, but we have inconsistently pursued that vision through the years. We should recommit ourselves to realizing its [Stanford University’s] educational, social and intellectual possibilities.

The Stanford community must also confront the ugliness of anti-Asian hatred that has recently swept the country, including here on campus and in Palo Alto. Incidents of violence, including murder, right on American streets remind us of the dark undercurrent of anti-Asian racism. Asian Americans have gone from being stereotyped as model minorities to becoming model targets for brutalization.

Many have been shocked by the mounting incidents accompanying the terrible violence against other communities of color. The surprise that many have expressed over the outbreak is itself a sad commentary, as the history of racism and anti-Asian violence in America is as endemic as it has been continuous. It is time to acknowledge that reality, too, and stand against it.


Shelley Fisher Fishkin

Professor, English 

Shelley Fisher Fishkin (Image credit: Steve Castillo)

Between 1865 and 1869, some 15,000 to 20,000 workers from China came to the U.S. to build the first transcontinental railroad. They carved and blasted fifteen tunnels through solid granite, survived avalanches and explosions, and faced racist violence and discrimination.

The railroad Chinese workers helped build was the source of much of the wealth that allowed Leland Stanford to found our university, but they remained largely invisible. Believing that Stanford University had a special obligation to try to fill this gaping hole in the historical record, I co-founded and co-directed the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project at Stanford with Gordon H. Chang, professor of history. It was a pleasure and privilege to bring together more than 100 scholars from Asia and North America in archaeology, American studies, anthropology, Asian American studies, history and literature to recover this chapter of the past that linked China and the United States.

Our website contains a wealth of resources, including books and articles in English and Chinese, that our collaborative transnational research project produced. It also includes an exhaustive bibliography, a digital materials repositoryexhibits, a curriculum guide and scores of oral histories with railroad worker descendants.

At a time when anti-Asian violence is on the rise, it is all the more important to recognize the absolutely central role Asian people played in the development of the American West and of America as a modern nation.


Daniel Ho

Professor, Political Science and School of Law

Daniel Ho (Image credit: Rod Searcey)

From the ethnic violence in San Francisco that led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to the internment of Japanese Americans under Executive Order 9066, the history of Asian Americans is fundamentally shaped by the law. Yet Asian Americans are objects and subjects of the law, shaping the law even as their lives are shaped by it. In the decades following the Chinese Exclusion Act, individuals of Chinese descent filed over 10,000 suits in federal court, cementing key aspects of the 14th Amendment. Significant constitutional protections would not exist in the same way but for the names of Wong Kim Ark, who fought for birthright citizenship, and Lee Yick, who helped establish that equal protection prohibited biased enforcement of a race-neutral law.

This history surfaces in many present-day terms. Chinese laborers planted the palm trees on Palm Drive on the Stanford campus. When we bought our home in Palo Alto around 2015, the restrictions associated with the neighborhood, dating back to 1923, stated that the “property shall not be used or occupied by any person of African, Japanese or Chinese or any Mongolian descent.”

Informed by this long history, my research in part examines current issues of civil rights: the role of public policy in shaping racial disparities and the collision between antidiscrimination law and algorithmic decision making.


Marci Kwon

Assistant Professor, Art and Art History

Marci Kwon (Image credit: Courtesy of Cantor Arts Center; photo by David Reilly)

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Jisha Menon

Associate Professor, Theater and Performance Studies

Jisha Menon (Image credit: Michael Byun)

This year we celebrate AAPI history in the midst of a surge in anti-Asian hate crimes. Sadly, these attacks suggest that to some fellow citizens Asian Americans are imagined as vectors of disease or terror, as outsiders, as primarily Asian rather than American. The recent violence that killed seven people – four of them Sikhs – at a FedEx warehouse reminds us how this community, following the 9/11 attacks, has been repeatedly targeted as terrorists despite their long history and significant contributions to American society. Turning to art may allow us to dispel some of these pernicious stereotypes and encourage us to imagine the lives of Asian Americans in a way that appreciates their fullness and complexity.

Indian Sikh photographer Gauri Gill captures the heterogeneity of the South Asian American experience in all its radiant ordinariness in her photo series The Americans. Writers like Jhumpa Lahiri and Ayad Akhtar move us away from assimilationist narratives of the model minority to more multifaceted and layered portrayals. These artists illuminate the humanity and variety of racial minorities, something we should cherish in these unsettling times.


Priya Satia

Professor, History

Priya Satia (Image credit: Steve Castillo)

The history of people of Asian and Pacific descent in America is local, national and global history. It is the history of American imperialism abroad, of labor in the Bay Area, of the vice-president.

Growing up in California as the daughter of Punjabi immigrants whose lives had been shaped by British colonialism, I was keenly aware of the persistence in my time and place of the very stereotypes about Asians that had sustained colonialism and that continued to justify colonial actions. As a historian of the British Empire, I emphasize the way the empire bridged the history of North America and Asia, from Aaron Burr’s Bengali mistress to American drone policing in areas of earlier British aerial policing. I have also explored the important role of American Asian communities in global anticolonial and antiracist movements, such as the revolutionary Ghadar Party formed by Punjabis in California early in the 20th century.

Asians have been integral to American history since the start, and yet their presence is continually erased or questioned, making narration of it both urgent and empowering. The PBS documentary series “Asian Americans” (2020) is a ground-breaking recent account.


Jeanne Tsai

Professor, Psychology

Jeanne Tsai (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

California has been the first stop for many Asian immigrants including my parents, who came here from Taiwan for graduate school in the 1960s. Because I grew up in a predominantly European American community in Southern California, I experienced first-hand the differences between mainstream U.S. and Taiwanese cultures. These personal experiences fueled my interest in how cultural factors shape people’s emotions and social relationships.

Today, my lab, which is comprised of many Asian American students, examines how cultural models of self shape the emotions that people ideally want to feel (their “ideal affect”). We also look at the implications of these cultural differences in ideal affect and their impact on how people judge and respond to others. Our work primarily focuses on individuals from Western and East Asian cultures, including Asian Americans.

In response to the pandemic, we have started examining what happens when people cannot read others’ emotions because of mask-wearing and whether this varies by culture. And in response to the recent spate of anti-Asian hate crimes, we are starting to explore whether people are more likely to dehumanize and harm others whose expressions don’t match their culture’s ideal affect. Our hope is that this work will not only illustrate how culture shapes our emotions and social relationships but also further illuminate the cultural experiences of many Asian Americans in California and beyond.


Barbara Voss

Associate Professor, Anthropology

Barbara Voss (Image credit: Sarah Deragon)

This year’s AAPI Heritage Month falls in the midst of a resurgence of anti-Asian hate in the United States.

In my archaeology laboratory, we are studying artifacts from San Jose’s first Chinatown, which was founded in 1867. Interpersonal violence and racist laws continually challenged Chinatown residents’ personal safety and political rights. In May 1887, a catastrophic fire – most likely arson – destroyed the Chinatown. Newspapers described “general rejoicing” among crowds of white San Jose residents, and San Jose’s district attorney issued an order that prevented Chinese Americans from rebuilding their homes and businesses.

But with determination, San Jose’s Chinese American community rebuilt in a new location. Over time, this area became a multi-cultural AAPI neighborhood. During World War II, Chinatown residents guarded the homes and businesses of incarcerated Japanese American neighbors. As a result, San Jose’s Nihonmachi is the only Japantown in the American West that survived intact from the pre-WWII period.

During AAPI Heritage Month, I gather strength from this history of courage, leadership and community survival.

Media Contacts

Holly Alyssa MacCormick, Stanford School of Humanities and Sciences: hollymac@stanford.edu