Note: This was written for the EduPolicy Hackathon event hosted by Harvard. Following this project, we felt like this is such an important issue to discuss and to try our hand at an op-ed. Special shoutout to Amanda Sherman & Moniola Odunsi for being amazing teammates throughout the process!
There was a feeling of excitement that I felt in my stomach, mixed in with trepidation and curiosity. It wasn’t just the excitement and nervousness that came from being an incoming freshman, but also for the first time, I had the opportunity to take a world history class.
As someone who dreamed of traveling the world one day, I wanted to learn about different cultures and languages. I wanted to experience different customs, world views, and ideas. I hoped that this class would provide some of this exposure and in the process, provide the opportunity for me to see my own heritage as a Chinese-American girl represented in this intricate story of humanity.
However, my expectations were unfounded. The year started out with Medieval Europe followed by the Age of Exploration, the Renaissance, Imperialism, and the Industrial Revolution. To sum it up, the narrative was completely Eurocentric and focused strictly on European power, culture, and influence.
I remember feeling so alienated, misrepresented, and angered that what was considered as ‘World History’ in my school was strictly a story where Europe was the protagonist and the other countries/cultures present were merely side characters. At worst, extras.
This experience made me question the history I had been learning up to that point and I started to notice how every single history lesson I attended came from a Eurocentric view. I noticed how all the primary sources we received on topics such as slavery, few came from the slaves themselves or black abolitionists such as Sojourner Truth.
I noticed how my classmates would complain about how boring and pointless history seemed because it was the same thing over and over again. What was the point of learning history if we kept repeating the same mistakes anyway? I remember that I wasn’t the only one who felt that we weren’t getting an authentic picture of the past.
Conversations with my friends and other classmates revealed how we noticed the lack of representation of Native Americans, immigrant populations, women, and the LGBTQ community.
Why weren’t we talking about Marsha P Johnson who was a key gay rights activist in the 1960s or Harvey Milk, one of the first openly-gay officials elected in American history? How about Chien-Shiung Wu, an American-Chinese physicist who made key contributions towards nuclear physics where she developed a process for separating uranium into isotopes U-235 & U-238? How about Sequoyah who developed Cherokee Syllabary, a creation of traditional sounds and symbols that was used to promote literacy in Cherokee nations?
Just as it’s important to celebrate key figures from a variety of backgrounds, it’s just as worthy to discuss American foreign policy and imperialism as well as the effects it has on the world today. No matter how positive or negative these actions were, they are worthy of discussion.
Things like the voluntary relocation program in the mid-1900s that tried to erase Native American culture completely from the American landscape, America’s own eugenics movement that legitimized sterilization of the disabled, the US-CIA collaboration in the 1953 Iranian coup d’état where they overthrew the Iranian government, the Japanese internment camps during WWII, or the Philippine-American War where the US army fought against Filipino citizens fighting for their own independence.
In order to get an authentic view of this story, it requires us to visit the triumphant and the tragic parts. To read parts that make us feel shameful, confused, and disgusted. Just as we read the story for all the beautiful and gritty parts that make it memorable, shocking, and thought-provoking.
Especially in a time where we find ourselves divided, where marginalized communities are being exploited and discriminated against, where what we need is global collaboration to solve the world’s biggest problems.
We all dream of a better world. One with acceptance and empathy. One where we acknowledge the past without getting butthurt nor holding grudges collectively moving towards the future. One where we may not completely understand each other, but we are aware of the different factors that led to these difficult emotions.
This doesn’t mean that we should create separate courses strictly focused on Asian history or Hispanic history. What we need is to integrate all these threads into one chronicle of the past. By creating a separate ‘optional’ class for Black history or LGBTQ history is like saying to those kids, “You are not important. Your history is separate from the American story.”
Black History matters. Asian History matters. Hispanic History matters. Native American History Matters. Women’s History matters. LGBTQ History matters. Our histories all matter because they reaffirm who we are as individuals, our roots, and the message that we should be proud of our heritage. We should be proud of our predecessors.
Most importantly, WE deserve to be properly represented. No matter our color, sexuality, gender, religion, and whatever distinction under the sun, we deserve to be represented authentically and respectfully.
This all starts in the history classroom. When we begin to integrate diverse perspectives and the unheard voices of the minorities from our past, we reaffirm to minority children that they matter. That they should be proud of their heritage, that they as individuals matter, and most importantly, the tapestry we call the American narrative, has a place for them too.