“Missing in History” and Why It Matters by Phuong Nguyen

I often tell my students that change happens because ordinary people fight everyday to make it so. And in doing so, they make their own history. To kick off the first ever Ithaca Pan Asian American Film Festival, we will be screening a historic documentary by three Ithaca College students entitled Missing in History. After almost 2 years at IC, I, a professor in the Center for the Study of Culture, Race, and Ethnicity (CSCRE) and the coordinator of the Asian American Studies minor, finally got the opportunity to view this incredible short film. The filmmakers tell us from the get-go that they know almost nothing about this craft, but the next 15 minutes prove the exact opposite. These three women—one Chinese, one Filipina, and one White—bemoan the fact that IC is a predominantly white campus that doesn’t provide enough opportunities and spaces to challenge hegemonic thinking on race and ethnicity. In other words, people are legally liberated, but their minds remain colonized. There are student organizations like the Asian American Alliance, and there’s also CSCRE, but why, these students ask, is there no Asian American Studies?

Their labor was rewarded in 2013, when IC hired me to join CSCRE and coordinate the Asian American Studies minor. For that I’m grateful because it’s not often one gets paid for doing something they love while working with some of the best students out there. Protestors wrote letters, signed petitions, spread the word, built coalitions, and they created this 15-minute cinematic testimonial entitled Missing in History. It’s the first time I’ve ever heard of protestors making a video that encapsulated their demands in such humanistic fashion. It’s one thing for Asians to be missing from U.S. history books; it’s another when our society has ready-made ideologies to justify those exclusions. The racist philosophy that guided the historians of the old days stated that superior cultures (and individuals) have and make history while inferior groups lack it. This ersatz meritocracy led generations of people to assume that groups missing from our history books had excluded themselves by belonging to an inferior race, which explained their lack of consequential accomplishments.

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From left: Ithaca College alumnae Kristy Zhen, Kristiana Reyes and Kaitlin Hibbs are the filmmakers of the documentary “Missing in History.”

Lack of Asians in the U.S. history books can easily lead us to assume Asians have not lived in the United States that long. That’s a lie as Asians have lived in North America as early as 1763. Lack of Asians in U.S. history books can easily lead us to assume that Asian immigrants historically didn’t want to become American. That’s a lie as Asians were barred by law from entering the country, testifying in court against whites, marrying whom they wanted, and becoming U.S. citizens. The powers that be came up with every excuse in the book: Asians are sojourners who don’t want to settle here; the founding fathers never intended Asians to become U.S. citizens; we can’t admit more Asians to our university because we want more students who are well-rounded; we can’t promote Asians to leadership roles because we need leaders who everyone can relate to.

Lack of Asians in U.S. history books can easily lead us to assume that Asians lacked any artistic, political, scientific, or business ambitions until recently. That’s a lie, too, as we’ve had generations and generations of talented Asian Americans whose names we can barely remember because those who write our history books don’t want to spend precious book space telling us how Asian Americans, like other people of color, succeeded despite discriminatory barriers that kept many talented people unrewarded and unrecognized, leaving us only with a model minority myth that claims that past and present wrongs are irrelevant because Asians are only good at math and science anyway.

Ignorance is not bliss. The voices in Missing in History know that knowledge is more than just power; it’s a the key to survival, a way to counter the lies we were told throughout our lives all to justify a Eurocentric curriculum. Knowledge is their ticket to belonging and knowing their true place in American society and history. On Monday, April 20, we will invite the three filmmakers, Kristy Zhen, Kristiana Reyes, and Kailin Hibbs, to join us for a screening of Missing in History. And we, the beneficiaries of all the hard work this film marvelously captured, get to thank them in person.

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