My refugee parents and sister, age five, took a steamship from Hong Kong, arriving in Seattle in 1950. They boarded the trans-Canada train from Vancouver to Toronto, switching to Chicago’s Union Station. I was the first born in Madison, Wisconsin where my older brother was studying, hence I was the first US citizen of the family.

As a child of immigrants, I believed President Kennedy’s maxim, “We are a nation of immigrants.” This story is typical and binds me to the story of many whom I grew up with. But, I discovered, it was too simple and glossy.

To this day, my siblings would not think of eugenics as having to do with my life. But I’ve come to discover it has shaped the core of my being as a North American.

Growing up, I always navigated the stereotypes of Anglo-American culture. The fear of a “yellow peril” invading London, New York City, and the Western civilized world was the popular culture I grew up within. In my kindergarten class was “Michael,” who had been classified the racist medical term “Mongoloid idiot.” He was imagined having “Oriental features” and was “retarded.” The term emerged from an era when it was believed the human germplasm was subject to racial advancement and degeneration. He was a so-called “degenerate” from being white to a lesser evolved, inferior race. And if he was inferior, so was I.

Looking “Mongoloid” demonstrated racial evolution in reverse (devolution). Geneticists now call this trisomy 21 (or Down’s Syndrome). Weirdly and wrongly, I thought of myself as being the genuine “Oriental” in the class of all white students. I was conflicted and confused but knew I didn’t want to be lumped in with Michael. I still think of him and want to mentor my kindergarten self to apologize and to repair our abusive mistreatment of him. And that’s part of what my memory work is about—to change my attitudes and behavior forward.

As a young person unaware of what happened to people outside of the school textbooks, I uncovered a major part of my story of being sorted. The Chinese Exclusions Acts (1882–1943) defined who could not enter the U.S. for the first time and this policy was based purely on a racial classification logic. Chinese were classified as “yellow” therefore nationality did not matter. Chinese laborers who worked with their hands and their backs were declared “unassimilable” and “unfair competition,” hence excluded.

My father, however, who earned a PhD at the Sorbonne in 1921, would have been exempt. He would have counted as one of the “good” Chinamen who, along with students, scholars, and merchants, could slide under the act’s restrictions. They could become what has been called “honorary whites.”

Here’s where it gets more tangled. With the supposed repeal of Chinese Exclusion when the US was fighting as allies with China against the spread of Japanese imperialists throughout Asia and the Pacific, the permissible immigration defaulted to the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act, which was driven by eugenic/dysgenic policies. All those identified as “fit” “Nordic” Europeans were welcomed to immigrate. All those identified as “unfit” were limited to 2% of the 1890 immigration numbers of their ethnic-national group.

The Chinese quota, already severely limited by the Chinese Exclusion Act, was 105 people per year. In 1950, that quota had been filled. My parents came on a visitor’s visa and wanted to figure out a way to stay. So, as I soon learned from my older siblings, the family solution was for my mother, already into her forties, to have a baby born on US soil. The 105 quota wasn’t actually repealed until the 1965 Immigration Act, which didn’t fully go into effect until 1968.

Strangely, I wouldn’t be here without the quotas or without the Exclusion Laws. That’s how eugenics and racism has impacted my life.

Nor would I be an American if not for visionaries like Frederick Douglass, who argued for a “composite America” that included Chinese and for all those who have pushed back against exclusion and racism, especially the case won by Wong Kim Ark (Supreme Court v. Wong Kim Ark, 1898).

This personal grappling is also my historical reckoning with the US and Anglo-North American past pushing my detective work in deeper and wider investigations. Racial exclusion was formulated in the crucible of Indigenous First Peoples’ dispossession of their lands and the enslavement of Africans to extract value from those lands. Settler colonialism has meant their racialization has also been my racialization. My personal history is intertwined with all those deemed “unfit” to be full-fledged participants of the US democratic promise and process.

Within this contested legacy, I’ve pieced together my forensic findings on how eugenics, colonialism, and pushing back made the world we’ve all been born into. I want to repair forward to my “Mongoloid idiot” kindergarten classmate. I don’t want racism to be the basis of exclusion policies. The challenge is to locate oneself within these true, yet hidden histories guided by the principles of fairness we fashion along this journey of discovery. Our sense of who we are, where we belong, and our purpose in life are all generated from these reckonings.

Sorting “the fit” from “the unfit”—all in North America have been impacted.