Coolie History and Teaching about Race in Social Studies
By Jason Oliver Chang
The curricular framework of Social Studies is well suited to organize lessons on the study of race and racism. Too often black racial formations are the sole acknowledgement of systemic and ongoing oppression, discrimination, and inequality. While attention to racial blackness is central to understanding key tenets of the development of a stratified global system it is not sufficient. Too often the so called, race problem, is taught as a binary black-white problem. Not only is this not historically accurate it is also politically misguided as our daily lives do not bear out in simplified binaries. Teaching race in more complicated ways will help to equip folks with a more sensitive set of cognitive frameworks to think about the world they encounter and make. This lesson provides resources on the history of coolies, or nineteenth-century Asian contract laborers, to expand discussions of race in social studies. Coolie history is an important chapter in the study of race because the hundreds of thousands of mostly Chinese and South Asian workers involved in this global labor circuit were demanded as a response to the problems of the masses of enslaved Africans. By the 1830s Asian coolies were seen as the best solution to labor shortages that resulted from British emancipation of African slaves and the decline of the African slave trade. Coolie history helps to illustrate how the study of race must ask questions not only of how are racial identities formed, imposed, and contested, but also what are the larger political and ideological functions of those racial formations beyond the attendant violence to the targeted population. As Vijay Prashad has poigniantly described, if the study of blackness is to inquiry into what it feels like to be a problem, then one direction we might take with the study of the production of Asian racial difference is to ask what does it feel like to be a solution. The materials in this lesson provide details on the coolie trade as well as audio of the written testimonies and stories recorded by coolies.
Social Studies Themes
Global Connections: Studying coolie history provides encounters with the global dimensions of labor migration and the interconnectedness of forced labor regimes.
Individuals, Groups and Institutions: Studying coolie history shows interactions between non-white groups.
Power, Authority, and Governance: Studying coolie history provides encounters with the creation and evolution of a stratified and racialized workforce along with the institutions that sought to manage, maintain, and reform its structure.
Primary Sources on Coolies: