The halls of the Chinese History Museum are filled with exhibits that tell the story of Chinese immigrants who struggled and sacrificed for the American dream, or more specifically, American citizenship. Within this modest museum lies a great part of a much greater narrative, one about what it means to be an outsider looking in on America and how difficult it is to define and become an American
The museum’s current exhibit is Dreams Deferred, where plaques and paper notes along a wall illustrate a timeline of immigration legislation in the US. Dreams Deferred deals with the less flattering moments in our history by bringing them front and center. A plaque on the wall cites the McCreary Amendment to the Geary Act of 1892, which mandated that all Chinese immigrants carry legal documentation or face deportation or even hard labor, a harsh reminder of the history behind such laws as Arizona’s more recent and controversial Senate Bill 1070.
In the Remembering Angel Island exhibit, we add personal stories to the history, turning discrimination into those who were and are discriminated against in a frank discussion centered around the west coast’s first immigration station, Angel Island, where nearly one million Asian immigrants were processed upon entering the US, some of them held for years at a time. A passport is displayed here, one belonging to Florence See, a nine year old Chinese girl who was detained and interrogated on Angel Island. The passport is provided by Florence’s great aunt, who is an American citizen and author.
Ronald Takaki, an academic and historian whose work focuses on perceptions of Asian Americans, retells in A Different Mirror how a taxi driver once asked him, based on nothing but his complexion, how long he had been in America and then complemented him on his English. Takaki was born in America, he was American and had spoken English his entire life. Takaki discusses how different ethnic groups have all contributed to American society and industry and how non-white minorities are now represented in powerful numbers, especially in Los Angeles.
The pattern of exclusionary practices and views toward immigrants is part of a greater and limited perspective held by American society at large, one that holds historically that whiteness is American-ness, and that only those who are American can define what an American is, maintaining, as Cornel West, civil rights activist and member of Democratic Socialists of America notes, a system wherein discrimination and exclusion through a societal possessive investment in whiteness become not only a historic theme, but a self sustaining system that needs to be broken by expanding the ways in which we view American-ness and begin to decrease our societal moral investment in what it means to be white and non-white.
Even in colonial America, those who were formerly British and newly Americans attempted to exclude Germans and other white Europeans. The meaning of American changed with time and when faced with other ethnicities’ emigration to the US, American became more about race and less about national origin. Now, the meaning of what it is to be American is shifting once more, but, as the exhibitions starkly displayed over the walls of the Chinese History Museum make painfully clear, the shift in how American-ness is viewed is often two steps behind who and what an American is.