On Social Justice Through Education: An Interview with Author Sarah-SoonLing Blackburn


By Louise Liu

“Exclusion and the Chinese American Story” by Sarah-SoonLing Blackburn

On May 6, 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was signed into law, suspending the immigration and naturalization of Chinese immigrants. Initially intended to last ten years, this discriminatory law was not repealed until 1943, before which it spurred legislation further limiting immigration from Asia.

To commemorate the date, we spoke to Sarah-SoonLing Blackburn, an educator, speaker, and writer whose work focuses on the role of education in the realization of social justice. Born in Bangkok, Thailand into a mixed-race Malaysian Chinese and white American family, Sarah grew up moving around various East and Southeast Asian countries, before permanently settling in Mississippi as an adult. Her new middle-grade book Exclusion and the Chinese American Story, a non-fiction exploration of the history of Chinese people in America, was published in March 2024 as a part of the Race To The Truth book series.

What inspired you to write “Exclusion and the Chinese American Story”?

S: I’m going to back into that question. One of the questions that I had when writing this book was, am I Chinese American enough for this book? Given my experience growing up really not so much in the United States, at least as a kid; coming from a very Chinese family, but not a Chinese American family — I come from a Malaysian Chinese family; and being mixed-race, I wondered, what claim do I have to this history? What right do I have to tell these stories? But I quickly discovered through research, through conversations, through reading, that obviously there is no one way to be Chinese American, or any kind of Asian American. Part of our collective identity is of nuance, of difference, of diversity. Even “Asian American” as an umbrella is an exercise in diversity and solidarity and community to begin with because it’s such a broad conception. Within “Asian American,” each group — Chinese American, in the case of this book — is a very broad and diverse thing, because China is a very big place with lots of different types of people who come from there.

But I wanted to tell these stories because I didn’t learn most of them. For the last six or seven years, I’ve been doing a lot of talks and work with adult groups (like companies, employee resource groups, or affinity groups) about Asian or Asian American inclusion and belonging. They’ll bring me in to do workshops and discuss, what are some common issues that we face in the workplace? And how can we address these? Or how do we advocate? Or what do other people need to know who maybe don’t identify that they need to understand?

I quickly realized that I needed to incorporate historical perspectives into those talks, because how can you understand this idea of, like, why are we so overrepresented in individual contributor roles yet so underrepresented in leadership roles? It’s not just random, right. That comes from centuries of history of stereotyping, of certain understandings. Going back into the past allows us to understand the present. And I realized that of the adult groups that I talked to, pretty much no one –even though we all had these similar lived experiences — had had access to the education that allowed us to understand those lived experiences.

That led to the idea of, “well, what would it mean for young people to grow up actually knowing our histories, actually having access to understanding?” Yes, some of that history is difficult. But it’s also empowering to be able to situate who you are in a place and time, and to understand what that means and what you can do to help advance your own experiences or to support the experiences of others.

In your Note to Readers at the start of the book, you discuss the idea of “invisibility,” a feeling many Asian Americans experience; as well as the idea that, hopefully, by shedding light on some of our histories, some of us can feel a little less invisible? How did that concept of invisibility, specifically from an Asian American lens, shape your approach to writing this book?

S: It made me realize that there’s so much that still needs to be told, and I quickly realized that I wasn’t going to be able to fit all of it into the book. I had to think, what themes do I want to include? Like, yes, exclusion, but at the end of the day, I wanted it to be a book about belonging and the flip side of exclusion. And what does belonging mean? Well, belonging means that you can be who you are, and be proud of who you are, and not at the expense of anybody else. And that other people can have that same experience too. Belonging includes solidarity — standing up for people who are different from you; finding connections and relationships, not in spite of difference, but almost because of difference.

That way, the book wouldn’t just be countering invisibility by giving facts and names and dates, but it would be bringing visibility by introducing concepts that would allow the reader to want to learn more, or to see connections. That is the power of reversing invisibility, because it gives you reference points that you can build upon.

Sarah-SoonLing Blackburn at the Society of Asian Scientists and Engineers 2023 Conference

In your article in School Library Journal, you describe learning about somebody’s histories and stories as “mirrors” for students to see their identities and stories reflected back to them. I’d love to hear how you hope this book might be able to function as a kind of mirror for readers.

S: Credit to the great scholar Rudine Sims Bishop and her essay “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors,” which introduces a concept that I and many other people who teach literacy think about quite often. The idea is that all of us, regardless of who we are and how we identify, deserve to have reflections of ourselves in texts that we read and the things we encounter at school.

This goes back to the idea that I was saying that some people have mirrors everywhere, and what a difference that must make in your experience of the world compared to people who have very few mirrors, who rarely see themselves in texts. As a kid, I don’t think it was sufficient having the teacher read Tikki Tikki Tembo — I don’t think that counts as a real mirror; it’s almost like a funhouse mirror. It made me wonder, “Oh gosh, my name is Sarah-SoonLing. Is that funny, too?” I wanted kids to have mirrors that go beyond stereotypes.

We see a lot more Asian representation now than even five years ago — on television, in movies, and in commercials — which I think is great, and we still have a long way to go in terms of types of representations that we have. Surveys that have been done over the years show that, by and large, there are still ideas that we are all kind of robotic scientists and engineers, that we’re IT people, that women are sex objects. These are stereotypes that persist. And yeah, I want a kid who reads this book to be an engineer, but I also want a kid who reads this book to love painting, to learn the story of Tyrus Wong, who was a brilliant artist. If you’ve ever seen or can visualize Bambi, then you are influenced by the art of Tyrus Wong, whose name very, very few people have heard. And so I wanted mirrors that were a lot more diverse than the ones that we typically have.

There’s also a stereotype of Asian people, particularly young Asian people, as apolitical, or just very meek. The story of Mable Ping-Hua Lee, who as a teenager was advocating for women’s right to vote, standing up, speaking up, using her platform, writing — doing all these things for an issue that she cared passionately about. That’s a mirror for a kid who cares deeply about rights and advocacy but maybe doesn’t see themselves represented in the way that social justice or civil rights movements are traditionally depicted.

If we go back to “Windows, Mirrors, and Sliding Glass Doors,” I also wanted readers who don’t identify as Chinese or Asian to have windows into these stories, into these people, into these experiences that, again, go beyond the stereotypes, because it’s not good enough for just us to have these rich, diverse mirrors. Everyone needs to see that we are as wonderful and diverse and complicated and complex as we are. The thing that I love about this concept from Dr. Bishop is that at the end of the day, you want the window to function more like a sliding glass door, so you want to be able to slide that pain to the side. It’s no longer voyeuristically looking at people who are different from you, but engaging with people who are different in meaningful ways. Books are an important way that we can do this because not all of us are able to live in places or have good relationships with people who are different.

How did you navigate writing about other histories, such as Black and Indigenous histories, that were happening alongside Chinese American histories in a way that you were able to acknowledge and honor their stories as well?

S: I had to just put it right in the author’s note at the beginning to say upfront that we, as Asian Americans, as Chinese Americans, have both been harmed by racism and we have also perpetuated racism. It’s complicated, but a reader — even a young reader — can understand nuance, can grasp the idea that history or people are complicated. There’s a chapter that starts with the story of Plessy v. Ferguson, which is about Homer Plessy, a Black man, and the codification of separate but equal, or segregation on the basis of race. And I thought it was interesting that I was writing a whole section about this story that is not about Chinese Americans, but it is, because in the decision of that case, there is a mention of Chinese people being excluded. It was important to talk about the racial hierarchy that was being solidified at that time, that put Asian people below white people but above black people in the hierarchy, because you can’t explain something like the model minority myth without first knowing the basis of the racial hierarchy. You have to tell all the stories at the same time and talk about how, yes, that was created by a white supremacist system. I had to really add nuance in explaining that.

Your book illustrates how solidarity, specifically Black and Asian solidarity, is not a new phenomenon, but is also not always easy due to historical tensions between the groups. How do you approach solidarity building in your work, specifically for a younger audience?

S: That’s a tricky one. That comes up a lot. I’ve seen people’s comments in response to it saying that “Asian Americans have never stood up for the Black community, so why should we care about this?” And I get it. I don’t necessarily agree, because I think that’s an example of divide and conquer, right? If we do that, we’re never going to get past these historical divisions.

I also understand where the impulse comes from. If you don’t have the trust or examples of historical solidarity, why would you believe that things would be different today? That’s why those stories are very important for me to tell, such as Frederick Douglass’s “Composite Nation” speech or Chinese American activist Grace Lee Boggs. With young people, when I mention Black and Asian solidarity, they are very quick to identify the tensions or issues with it because they’ve seen them in their own lives. But it just takes a couple of questions like, “Is that helpful?” for them to realize, “Oh, this is just keeping us in conflict and there’s a system that’s benefitting as long as we’re in conflict.” So I try to tell those stories better with examples of things they can do moving forward.

What are you most proud of about your book?

S: I’m proud that it exists. I’m proud that these stories are out there. It’s little silly things, like, I’m proud that the book is affordable because that means that more people can access these stories. I’m proud of the feedback I’ve received from parents and kids, like, “I opened the book and I just kept reading.” That lets me know it was meaningful to them too. It’s very humbling. I feel a little weird saying that I feel proud of those things, but I do.

To wrap up this conversation, is there anything I missed that you’d like to talk about?

S: One thing I didn’t realize is how long our legacy of resisting through the legal system has been. There’s a case I discuss in the book about Ho Ah Kow, a man whose hair was cut off — his queue — in jail (Editor’s note: a “queue” is a traditional Manchurian hairstyle that was imposed on Chinese men during the Qing dynasty. Sarah is referring to Ho Ah Know v. Nunan, in which a Chinese prisoner sued a sheriff for damages related to a law that forcibly required male prisoners, especially the Chinese, to cut their hair). That happened in the U.S. during the Qing dynasty and he won. It was an unfair punishment. Seeing the legacy of resistance and so many different fields — of course, it doesn’t just happen through the legal system — but that’s a very important place that it can happen. And knowing that there are organizations and people who support organizations that continue to do that work, like Advancing Justice — AAJC — it matters a lot. It builds on a long legacy that has increased belonging, and hopefully will continue to do so.

You can find more about Sarah-SoonLing Blackburn on her website and her book Exclusion and the Chinese American Story here.

Louise Liu is the Anti-Hate Communications Coordinator at Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC.

Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC has a mission to advance the civil and human rights of Asian Americans and to build and promote a fair and equitable society for all. Visit our website at



Advancing Justice – AAJC
Advancing Justice — AAJC

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