Histories of Asian American Resistance

Endorsed by the OAH Committee on the Status of ALANA Historians and ALANA Histories, OAH-Japanese Association for American Studies Japan Historians' Collaborative Committee, IEHS, and the Western History Association

Friday, March 31, 2023, 3:30 PM - 5:00 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Asian American; Nationalism and Transnationalism; Race


Our panel will explore histories of Asian American activisms and their salience in current movements of self-determination. Scholars like Monisha Das Gupta, Seema Sohi, and Daryl Maeda have underlined the domestic and global entanglements of Asian America, considering the impacts of US imperial power “at home and abroad” in self-determinative struggles. Our panel is particularly interested in thinking about histories of Asian American activisms as transnational movements, where liberatory imaginaries emerge through multiple strategies like cross-racial coalition building, place-based activism, transnational relationship building, and the politics of silence, to name a few. We collectively ask: what tangible lessons can we take from the many legacies of Asian American activism in the twentieth century? And, what struggles are still being fought today? How can we build on the work already done to collectively agitate for change within our communities and the larger systems that bind us? As historians of Asian America, we are particularly interested in thinking about these dynamics through archives that speak to the lived experiences of the communities themselves. By telling these stories from the “bottom up,” we seek to center our subjects and their narratives in our analysis of social movement and political change. Minju Bae uncovers the transnational dimensions of the relationship between labor and protest in the context of the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement. Jean-Paul Contreras deGuzman examines how the historical racialization of Japanese Americans and the evolution of Buddhism in the United States has driven discourses of Engaged Buddhism in relation to the Black Freedom Struggle. Meredith Oda reads Japanese American early relocation from incarceration camps as resistance to the relocation program and its categorization of incarcerees during World War II. Ida Yalzadeh unpacks Iranian student resistance against identification efforts in the United States during the 1979 Iranian Revolution and Hostage Crisis.

Papers Presented

“Down Down FTA”: Opposing the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement in the 2000s

In 2006, the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement (KorUS FTA) was slated to become the largest since NAFTA. Looking at NAFTA and its impacts, it was not lost on diasporic Koreans that this uneven trading relationship would exacerbate an already lopsided relationship between South Korea and the United States. As activists marched through the streets of Washington, DC, performing a funeral procession for the Kor-US FTA and chanting “Down Down FTA,” they demonstrated the importance of understanding how the United States wields its imperial power and affects laboring people in the global economy. Examining newly-digitized film footage from events, rallies, and demonstrations from the anti-KorUS FTA struggle, mounted by a coalition of working people, diasporic Koreans, Asian American activists, and a delegation from Korea, this paper argues that labor organizing extends beyond the realm of the shop floor or the workplace. Identifying the impacts of international agreements as conditions for worsening work conditions for laborers, in the United States and South Korea, activists revealed the thoroughfares of global racial capitalism and imperialism.

Presented By
Minju Bae, Rutgers University

“A Buddhist Deplores Inequality:” Discourses of Engaged Buddhism in The American Buddhist, Wheel of Dharma, and Beyond

The contemporary movement for racial equity has renewed a generative debate within the Buddhist Churches of America (BCA), the nation’s oldest extant Buddhist organization, over the necessity for “Engaged Buddhism,” a fluid set of practices that use the principles of Buddhism to motivate and guide solutions to society’s problems. With roots dating back 1899 when immigrant Japanese priests of the Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha sect of Pure Land Buddhism landed on American shores, the BCA has weathered anti-Asian racism for generations and, as this paper demonstrates, has debated the nexus of religion and social justice in a variety of flashpoints in post-World War II history, particularly in relation to the Black Freedom Struggle. Through an analysis of institutional pronouncements and organizational documents in relation to the core teachings of Jodo Shinshu, this article illustrates how the justifications for Engaged Buddhism have shifted in tandem with the racialization of the BCA members and the evolution of Buddhism in America. An emphasis on universal Buddhist concepts of “brotherhood” or “equality” in the 1960s reflected a Japanese American congregation shaped by the entangled traumas of World War II and the mounting tenor of the Civil Rights Movement. Today, however, a focus on doctrinal teachings unique to Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, gestures towards the BCA’s reconfiguration as a smaller yet increasingly multiethnic organization competing within a broader marketplace of religions.

Presented By
Jean-Paul DeGuzman, UCLA and Windward School

Voting With Their Feet: Mobility and Resistance in the Japanese American WWII Incarceration

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans were branded “enemy aliens” and removed to isolated detention camps overseen by the War Relocation Authority (WRA). This paper will explore two forms of resistance to the racialized assumptions of danger and alienage underlying these events. First, I will look at the early efforts of a cohort of incarcerated individuals to leave camps, some mere months into their detainment. Departing from the stories of resettlers with powerful, white organizational support, such as students or agricultural workers, I focus on those who had to forge their own path: individual workers and women joining servicemen-fiancées or husbands. These resettlers created their own protocols for leave, framing their applications with their essential Americanism, both through explicit statements as well as their orderly, persistent efforts. Secondly, I’ll look at another, more paradoxical form of resistance: returning to camp. In part due to early resettler efforts, officials came to view resettlement as the pillar of a democratic incarceration. By framing the process as the physical dispersal and guided assimilation of a segregated but harmless minority, officials reinterpreted internment as an unfortunate but ultimately benevolent action. Resettlers who returned to camps, therefore, undercut and implicitly rejected this rosy view. By focusing on Japanese American resettlement from camps, my paper builds upon a large, rich, and diverse literature of internment shaped by the language of stasis: internment, confinement, detention, detainment, imprisonment. Exploration of the movement and mobility that was at the heart of the institution and experience of Japanese American incarceration illuminates a new realm in which Japanese Americans redefined and resisted their conditions.

Presented By
Meredith Oda, University of Nevada, Reno

Refusal to Name: Iranian Student Resistance and the Politics of Identification

While the Iranian Revolution signaled the end of US neocolonialism in Iran, the Hostage Crisis (1979-1981) confirmed it. Indeed, the severing of diplomatic ties between the two countries reverberated within the borders of the United States, where domestic legislators combed through and molded existing migration policies to make it much easier to deport Iranian foreign nationals, as public clamors for them to “go back home” rang throughout the country. This paper will investigate some of the means through which Iranians resisted these deportation policies through collective organizing and the refusal to identify themselves to disciplinary powers of the state. I will begin with outlining the origins of Iranian de-identification through pre-Revolutionary protests where all members wore masks over their faces to remain anonymous to authorities in Iran and the United States. My paper will then turn to the ways in which these measures were heightened as immigration policy overtly emphasized domestic Iranian surveillance with the Revolution and Hostage Crisis. While organizations such as the Iranian Students Association turned to US civil rights attorneys as a means of navigating their new migratory context, students also participated en mass in the refusal to identify themselves. By focusing on this tumultuous time in US-Iran diplomatic history, my paper speaks to a larger legacy of Asian/American resistance that is based on everyday acts of refusal and transnational considerations of safety.

Presented By
Ida Yalzadeh, Charles Warren Center, Harvard University

Session Participants

Chair: James Zarsadiaz, University of San Francisco
James Zarsadiaz is Associate Professor of History and serves as Director of the Yuchengco Philippine Studies Program at the University of San Francisco. His forthcoming book, Resisting Change in Suburbia: Asian Immigrants and Frontier Nostalgia in L.A., examines the ways in which myths of American suburbia, the American West, and the American Dream collectively informed the experiences of residents (particularly Asian Americans) in L.A.’s East San Gabriel Valley. His articles include "Design Assimilation in Suburbia: Asian Americans, Built Landscapes, and Suburban Advantage in Los Angeles's San Gabriel Valley since 1970” (co-authored with Becky Nicolaides), published in the Journal of Urban History (2015) (winner of the Urban History Association's Arnold Hirsch Award and the Vernacular Architecture Forum's Catherine W. Bishir Prize); "Raising Hell in the Heartland: Filipino Chicago and the Anti-Martial Law Movement, 1972-1986," published in American Studies (2017); and “Methodists against Martial Law: Filipino Chicagoans and the Church’s Role in a Global Crusade,” published in Alon: Journal for Filipinx American and Diasporic Studies (2021). He received his Ph.D. and M.A. in History from Northwestern University and his B.A. in American Studies and Political Science from George Washington University. James was previously a fellow at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History and Asian Pacific American Center.

Presenter: Minju Bae, Rutgers University
Minju Bae (she/they) is a Postdoctoral Associate at the Institute for the Study of Global Racial Justice at Rutgers University. Her current research examines how Asian Americans navigated the politics of work, racial difference, and the radical restructuring of the urban-based global economy. She is a member of the Asian/Pacific/American Voices: A COVID-19 Public Memory Project and a core founding member of the Ending the Korean War Collective. She received her Ph.D. in History from Temple University.

Presenter: Jean-Paul DeGuzman, UCLA and Windward School
Jean-Paul R. Contreras deGuzman is an historian of the 20th century US focusing on comparative and relational racialization, urban history, and Asian Americans. A specialist in multiethnic Los Angeles, particularly the history of the San Fernando Valley, his writing appears in Amerasia Journal, California History, Journal of Urban History, Southern California Quarterly, The History Teacher (forthcoming), Journal of Asian American Studies (forthcoming) and a variety of anthologies in ethnic, urban, and religious studies. DeGuzman teaches US history and research methods at Windward School and Asian American Studies and LA history at the University of California, Los Angeles where he earned the university-wide Distinguished Teaching Award. He holds a PhD in History from UCLA and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California Center for New Racial Studies. An aspirant to the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist ministry, he has returned to graduate school at the Institute of Buddhist Studies at the Graduate Theological Union.

Presenter: Meredith Oda, University of Nevada, Reno
Meredith Oda’s research and teaching focuses on Asian American history, urban history, the US in the Pacific world, and the 20th century United States. She holds a BA from the University of California at Berkeley, a doctorate from the University of Chicago, and has received fellowships and grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Huntington Library, and the Center for East Asian Studies at the University of Chicago. Oda is the author of The Gateway to the Pacific: Japanese Americans and the Remaking of San Francisco (University of Chicago Press, 2018) and has articles in the Journal of Asian American Studies, Diplomatic History, and the Pacific Historical Review. Her writing has also been published in TIME magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle, and other popular outlets. Her current book project, On the Move: Japanese American Resettlement During War and Exclusion explores mobility and alienage in the Japanese American WWII incarceration and resettlement.

Commentator: Joy Sales, California State University, Los Angeles
Joy Sales is an Assistant Professor of Asian American Studies at California State University, Los Angeles. She studies social movements, migration, labor, race, and diaspora, specifically the history of radical activism in the Filipino American community, including the movement against dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos and the leadership of Filipinos in the United Farm Workers. Her manuscript is tentatively called, We Are Revolution: Empire, Diaspora, and Transnational Filipino/a Activism. Dr. Sales earned her B.A. in History from Grinnell College, where she was a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow, and her M.A. and Ph.D. in History from Northwestern University. She has published in Amerasia Journal, Diplomatic History, and the anthologies, Our Voices, Our Histories: Asian American and Pacific Islander Women and Filipino American Transnational Activism: Diasporic Politics among the Second Generation. Dr. Sales’s work is informed by her involvement in anti-imperialist Filipino organizations, such as Anakbayan and GABRIELA, and currently, she is part of the secretariat of Malaya Movement Los Angeles. Malaya Movement is a diasporic Filipino organization dedicated to upholding democracy and human rights in the Philippines.

Presenter: Ida Yalzadeh, Charles Warren Center, Harvard University
Ida Yalzadeh is a Global American Studies Postdoctoral Fellow at the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History at Harvard University. As an interdisciplinary scholar of the Iranian diaspora, her interests span transnational American Studies, Asian American Studies, and diplomatic history. She is currently at work on a book manuscript that traces Iranian racial formation in the United States from 1953 to 2001. Her writing has most recently appeared in American-Iranian Dialogues, edited by Matthew Shannon. She received her PhD in American Studies from Brown University.