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2008.041.011 Oral History Interview with Frank Wu

Frank Wu is a civil rights lawyer, professor, and award-winning author of Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White. His book has become an essential text in Asian American Studies. He currently teaches law at Howard University and frequently lectures on civil rights law. “When I was a kid growing up, the last thing I ever would have wanted to do was talk about or think about race, ethnicity,” he recalls in this interview. Frank grew up in Detroit, Michigan in the 1970s. His dad was an engineer at Ford Motor Company, which relied heavily on Asian workers for research, development and product design. He briefly discusses his experience of childhood cruelty on the playgrounds, and how the especially tough times in Detroit made it one of the hardest places in America to have an Asian face during the recession. He discusses how the confrontation leading up to the brutal murder of Vincent Chin in his city and how he or his cousin could have been the victim of this racial scapegoating and violence. It made him realize how words had the powerful to do damage but also to change the world. He reflects on dominant image of Asian Americans as the model minority myth, how it means that they should be submissive, passive, and deferential, and how it was first used to contrast Asian Americans with African Americans and other people of color. In his view, Asian American communities have generally not seen the importance of vigorous participation in democracy and the importance of making a fuss. His experiences as the first Asian American law professor at Howard University, the nation leading historically black institution, made Wu realize the importance of supporting other groups and sharing a common cause. Advancing civil rights, he believes, goes beyond self-interest and involves seeing that there are principles involved that affect others.