In the fall of 2012 and again in spring 2013, Dr. Kevin Kumashiro and I co-taught an undergraduate course called “Introduction to Asian American Studies.” We examined the diversity and experiences of Asian Americans, like the transnational labor brokering of Filipinos and the binary of race relations between African Americans and Koreans during the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Of particular significance in our course was the opportunity for students to critically examine their family history. Tracing one’s family genealogy is a complex process that requires situating a family’s narratives within a historical context. Since our family histories and autobiographies are embedded in social, political, and economic relationships, the way we view our history, progress, and standing varies from individual to individual. However, the historical reality of our past is often forgotten or neglected. To have a historical consciousness, we need to complicate what we know about our past and examine policies and cultural practices that have led to a racialized system of power and privilege, racialized policies, and racialized oppression and progression.
We asked the students to examine their family history with four concepts that we believed would allow them to challenge the common and commonsensical stories of “how we got here.” The four Ps – push, pull, punish, and privilege – reflected the social, economic, and physical reasons why people emigrated and what they experienced upon arrival.
Push factors are reasons that encourage or ‘push’ a person to leave a particular place. These push factors drive people to emigrate from their country of origin due to economic, political, or social factors. For example, a famine crisis in Korea at the turn of the 20th century or the war-torn devastation from the armed conflict of the Vietnamese War served to push some groups out of their country of origin.
Pull factors are reasons that encourage or ‘pull’ a person to relocate to a particular place. These factors are typically characterized by desirable and favorable conditions like higher employment rate, political stability, and better climates. Examples of pull factors were the high demands for highly skilled workers in the fields of science, medicine, and engineering, and Hawaii’s high demand for cheap labor for the sugar and pineapple plantations.
Punishing factors are the negative experiences that punish or marginalize a person upon arrival. An example of a punishing factor was the victimization and internment of the Japanese Americans during the Second World War, as was the explosion of anti-sentiment against Filipinos in the 1930s that propelled lawmakers to amend anti-miscegenation laws to include Filipinos.
In contrast, privileging factors are the positive incentives that helped or privileged a person upon arrival. For example, the ethnic enclave of Chinatown and its internal structures that supplied social services and economic aid for newly arrived Chinese immigrants was a privileging factor.
Perhaps not surprisingly, many students found that the ideals of “rags to riches” and the pursuit of the “American Dream” was a common story among their ancestors. For many of the students’ families, the “American Dream” was what triggered their immigration. But there was a cost of emigration, and the students were able to relive and witness, in a sense, what this cost was through this assignment. For example, one student wrote about the high unemployment rates and poverty that pushed her family out of Mexico. She talked about her hometown and its slowly developing commercialization as a push factor for her family. The largely agrarian-based economy of her hometown meant that many of its citizens grew and sold crops, but the competitive nature of harvesting and selling crops proved to be too demanding and costly for her father and grandparents. As a result, her family looked to America, and the pulling factor for them was America’s growing industrialization. Her family believed that in America, they would be able to set their own working hours, earn a dependable paycheck, and purchase a house. Her narratives, and many others, encompassed the desire for a better life and an escape from economic hardships. Another student wrote about the stagnant economy of the Philippines that pushed her father to immigrate to America. Her father spoke of the unbearable rising cost of living in the Philippines that fueled his decision to seek “greener pastures.”
The “critical family history” assignment was an opportunity for the students to challenge what they know about their family and to examine these triumphs and failures within the context of U.S. immigration policies. What we discovered from their uncovering is despite the unique family history of each student’s migration experiences, there was a commonality of a racialized system of power and privilege. That is, the students’ narratives all touched on racism, racialized oppression and progression, and political inclusions and exclusions.
By employing the hidden four Ps to answer “when, where, why, and how” their families entered U.S. society, the students discovered the sociohistorical contexts of their families’ immigration journey. This conceptual framework – a way of thinking and talking – for understanding family history can be used to examine the historical past of any individual. People migrate for many different reasons, and this framework helps us identity and rethink the political, social, and economic reasons for migrating. This way of critically examining our family history can also be useful for rethinking constructs like race. The underlying feature of applying the four Ps is the necessity to take a critical lens to challenge the common and commonsensical stories of our past. Relatedly, if we apply this conceptual framework to examine the discourse on race, we will understand the evolving definition of race, how race is used to define an individual, and how race was historically used to justify unequal distribution of wealth, power, and resources. I believe that developing a critical lens to challenge and rethink what we know of our past and linking them to broader sociohistorical contexts will yield a greater understanding of “how we got here.”
John J. Lee is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction – with a concentration in Literacy, Language, and Culture – at the University of Illinois at Chicago.