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Celebrating culture and elevating tradition

When Mary Tape’s young daughter was denied admission to public school in California due to her Chinese heritage in 1884, Ms. Tape knew the action was not right. As the school superintendent pushed through legislation to establish “separate but equal” schools for Chinese citizens, effectively barring Chinese children from the same education as their peers, Ms. Tape pushed back.

She filed suit against the principal of the school and the board of education in a case that would be upheld by the Supreme Court of California in Tape v. Hurley. In a landmark judgment, it was ruled that public school could not deny Ms. Tape’s daughter or any Chinese American child access to public education based on their cultural identity. The result would give greater legal foundation for eliminating segregation in schools in the years to follow.

Mary Tape is just one of the Asian American and Pacific Islander Voices to Remember  highlighted by Upper School students during this week’s Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month assembly.

Every May, the United States honors the contributions and influence of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to the history and culture of the United States. On Monday, students reflected on the theme of this year’s Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month assembly: Celebrating Culture, Elevating Tradition.

Students heard about the dedication that led Kalpana Chawla to become the first Indian American woman in space. They learned more about Patsy Mink, the first woman of color and the first Asian-American woman elected to Congress, who had to work against racism throughout her education and career. Students also heard about Anna May Wong, whose work in early Hollywood would blaze a trail for Asian American actresses to follow.

Whether on the stage or in the Capitol, Asian and Pacific American women continue to positively impact American society and demonstrate what it means “to lead with hope and maintain one’s cultural identity,” junior Priyanka Chiguluri said.

The assembly also featured guest appearances by several Harpeth Hall alumnae. Senior Camille Hu led the panel discussion by asking questions to alumnae Emily Tseng '10, Shirley Li '02, and Anjali Lewis '91, who joined on Zoom

“[Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month is important] in starting the dialogue and bringing everyone to the table,” Ms. Li said. “These are themes relevant to just Asian Americans, learning the differences of all kinds of lived experiences. There are role models out there, there are great stories that I didn’t grow up reading about. Now, kids have more sources of inspiration, knowing more about the struggle and the triumph. It is hugely inspirational.”

When asked about the rise violence against Asian Americans, the panelists questioned if the violence has always been there, just not

in the spotlight.

“I am in New York and the uptick in anti-Asian hate crimes has been really serious here,” said Ms. Tseng, who is currently a Ph.D. student in Information Science at Cornell University. “I think people are experiencing literal physical violence, but there is a broad spectrum of violence too. Bullying, hate speech, exclusionary language, all the way down. We have a lot of power and privilege in this country compared to a lot of people. It has been powerful for me to figure out what we can do.”

“Now, people are paying attention,” Ms. Li agreed. “People are talking about it.”

As she spoke, Ms. Li refected on her own childhood and what has changed in her approach to discussing racism.

“Growing up, my parents were very much about ‘Keep your head down. Do a good job and your achievements will protect you.’ This was a model minority mentality,” Ms. Li said. “A recent awakening was to see that nothing really protects you from hate and how people can behave. Keeping our heads down and not showing up to the conversation is not the way to help others see the problems out there.”

Ms. Lewis, whose grew up in an Indian and Filipino household, often navigated a world where she had to decide how to identify herself in different situations.

Reflecting on what Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month means to her, Ms. Lewis commented that, “it is nice to be recognized and share our culture and stories growing up. When I was 16 and getting my license, it asked me to check race. It was either ‘White, Black, or Other.’ So, I was ‘other.’ When I took my kids to get their licenses, there are so many more choices now. It feels like we are moving forward.”

Now, Ms. Lewis focuses on bringing together her close friends from differing backgrounds, as she emphasizes how individuals are both unique and alike.

“Just because cultures are different, there is not one that is better or worse than the other,” she said. “It is just about treating each other with respect.”

Students, if you too were inspired by Monday’s assembly. Be sure to check out more resources in the library’s Lib Guide!