When Jinhee Kim’s daughter looked in her history book, she didn’t see anyone who looked like herself – and she had questions for her mother about why that was so.
“Mommy, why do we not learn about Asian American history? Why are other ones more important?” the elementary student asked Kim, an associate professor of elementary and early childhood education at Kennesaw State University. “Why are other people more respected?
About 22.9 million people in the US identify as having Asian heritage, according to the US Census. Yet, in many schools across the US, if Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are mentioned in social studies and history lessons at all, they boil down to brief lines describing primarily two topics: immigration and Pearl Harbor.
“School curriculum is missing AAPI stories that are needed to build up who they are as American citizens,” said Kim.
Experts say this gap in representation has severe impacts on Asian students, who don’t see themselves woven into the tapestry of US history, and for non-Asian students who are not taught to value the contributions of communities with which they do not identify.
Now there is a fresh drive from teachers, organizations and legislators – motivated by a surge in anti-Asian hate crimes as well as the celebration of AAPI Heritage Month – to bring more nuanced, representative Asian American history to classrooms.
This year, partially prompted by the mass shooting in the Atlanta area that left six Asian women dead, fifth-grade teacher Lisa Chu wanted to expand her students’ understanding of AAPI history.
But the single detail in the curriculum that covered Asian history only described Asian immigrants coming in through Angel Island in San Francisco instead of Ellis Island through which European immigrants came in, and she turned it into an experiential learning moment.
She discussed the different treatment of Asian immigrants, how they were held for weeks at the port while European immigrants were often held for only hours. She and her students discussed what it was like to be subjected to embarrassing, invasive questioning. They talked about how that treatment was rooted in racism, a sentiment that has not gone away.
“I think as this generation continues to get older, the more aware they are the more powerful they have to actually cause change,” said Chu, who teaches in Gwinnett County, Georgia.
“My country doesn’t treat me as a somebody”
Education researchers say that denying AAPI students education about their own history not only inhibits their knowledge, it is detrimental to their identity as Americans.
Sohyun An, a professor of elementary and early childhood education at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, has researched AAPI history education across 10 states, including, Georgia, California, New Jersey and Texas. She found that if there was any mention of Asian American history, it was mostly limited to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and Chinese immigration and their participation in building railroads.
Although people of Asian descent have been part of the fabric of the US since its early days, that isn’t taught to students, she said. Instead, the lessons teach that Asian Americans are perpetual foreigners, according to An.
When An’s daughter learned about the American Revolution, she came to her mother asking if she would have been a slave in those times. She couldn’t figure out where she fit in, she said.
Kim’s children came to her with similar questions.
“Mommy, what color is my skin? I think that I’m not White, and I’m not Black and also I’m not Brown,” they asked.
“If we don’t teach about Asian American history, it’s not only letting non-Asian people to treat us as non-humans, but it is also a curriculum of violence because it kills humanity and agency,” An said. “My country doesn’t treat me as a somebody.”
Kiana Kenmotsu was in the sixth grade when she first read about her own history in school.
It was one story about the internment of Japanese Americans, a wrong suffered by her grandfather, but now 18-year-old Kenmotsu said it changed everything for her.
“Every time (Asian history) was brought up, I felt a high,” she said. ” History is something you connect with. I was never able to connect with it.”
That crucial identity formation that is offered through learning history can be especially complicated for Asian American students because their individual experiences under many nationalities often get lumped together under one Asian identity, said Sarah-SoonLing Blackburn with the Learning for Justice, an organization founded by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Or educators get too overwhelmed to touch the topic at all. “For Asian American students, it erases your own understanding of yourself,” Blackburn said.
Stereotypes keeping people divided
But the impacts go beyond those who identify as Asian.
Five years after Kenmotsu’s first encounter with Asian American history, a class in her school held a trial over the morality of internment during World War II and the verdict reached was that the US was right to detain residents the students found to be a threat.
Kenmotsu said she couldn’t look her classmates in the eye afterward, feeling they did not have the knowledge to empathize with and value the trauma inflicted on her family throughout history.
When the history that is taught in the classroom is representative of all American populations, it teaches students that the US belongs to the many groups – not just the European immigrants represented in most of their textbooks, An said. Understanding other cultures and seeing their importance encourages compassion and fights the stereotype of immigrants as dangerous, she said.
Chu said she noticed that Asian history only comes up when an Asian population did something dangerous or when the event has been sugar-coated. It is much less common to hear in a classroom about contributions Asian Americans have made to the nation.
It can also be seen as unpatriotic to talk about the harm the US has inflicted on groups of people, Blackburn said.
Without a rich understanding of how Asian Americans have been discriminated against and been central to the American system, some students are left only with stereotypes to fill in their understanding, researchers said.
The model minority, the economic competitors and the foreigners ordered to go back to their country – even if their families have been in the US for generations — are common roles Asian Americans are cast in during times of crisis, An said.
“Stereotypes erase individuals,” Blackburn said. And without individual power, Asian Americans are stripped of their collective power, which can be used to fight for their own interest as well as in alliance with other minority groups, she said.
Legislation and calls for action
Blackburn and organizations like Learning for Justice hope to equip teachers to make their classrooms more equitable and their curriculum more representative, but others are pushing for legislation to implement change.
Asian Americans Advancing Justice Chicago worked with state Sen. Ram Villivalam and Rep. Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz to introduce the Teaching Equitable Asian American Community History (TEAACH) Act in Illinois.