Shirley Yee is the fourth generation of a thoroughly American family. Yet in the small New Jersey town where she grew up, sometimes her second-generation Polish- and Italian-American classmates saw themselves as more quintessentially American than she.
“That’s how it played out on the playground,” Yee said, “with name-calling, assuming I didn’t speak any English, or a teacher thinking I would need a speech class.”
Those recent immigrants weren’t any less American than Yee, but they weren’t any more American either. They were just white, which tends to be an assumed part of being really American.
Yee, a historian and a professor in the Department of Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies at the University of Washington, often focuses on race, class and gender.
There are conversations and confrontations all over the country about identity and representation, and so much of that is rooted in how we portray our history. Sometimes they are about Americanness, but always they are about who matters.
Whitman College in Walla Walla, on the other hand, chose to stop using Missionaries as its mascot, though it will continue to carry the name of the missionaries Marcus and Narcissa Whitman.
In entertainment, the casting of white actors to play Asian characters in several recent films caused people to ask once again, why won’t Hollywood cast Asian-American actors? And, of course, there were the Oscars.
There’s always something: the Confederate battle flag, racist place names, sexist political candidates. Some people still think Barack Obama is not their president, or even American.
I thought of Yee when the U.S. government committed to adding some new faces to its currency in 2020, including abolitionist and women’s-rights activist Harriet Tubman.
“My first reaction was that it’s only money,” Yee said. But then she remembered she tries to help students “see that history and the contemporary walk together all the time.” The images on money “bring up questions of national identity, of who gets to represent the nation.
“That people have such strong feelings about who is on their money shows how much the past is connected to the present,” she said.
I feel that myself. When I pull out a $20 bill and have to look at Andrew Jackson, I have an idea where I stand as an American. Andrew Jackson owned African Americans and gained part of his fame for killing Indians, so the choice to glorify him has to be made while either honoring those characteristics or considering them less important than other considerations.
Generally white guys get to be national heroes. Yee said that even when other people get national recognition — Cesar Chavez, Sojourner Truth, Sacagawea — it’s not really as national heroes. They tend to serve a narrower purpose, such as being social-justice heroes, for instance, she said.
Sometimes the exclusion is intentional, but often it is exclusion as a mindless habit we need to break.
Breaking the habit doesn’t mean every discussion or every image has to include a broad spectrum of people, just that we’re inclusive enough that we can have a truer sense of America and its people.
Yee said the diversity of this country makes it impossible for a single image to be truly representative, and yet. … The people in power, she said, “get to decide who represents this country and who should be the worthiest and whose lives matter most.”
Yee has been interested in history since she was a kid and used to drag friends into staging re-enactments in her backyard.
In college she focused on abolitionist history, maybe rebelling a bit against her family’s insistence that she should study Chinese-American history.
Relatively little had been written about black women abolitionists, so she set out to fill the void. In 1992 her work was published as a book, “Black Women Abolitionists: A Study in Activism, 1828-1860.”
“Lifting as we climb, the motto of black women activists of the late 19th century is, I think, a good motto for everyone,” she said. It meant that as you rise you should help lift others.
Yee said Tubman, who was one of those women, and who will replace Jackson on the front of the $20 bill, is a representative of America at its best.
We should always celebrate the best of us.