The Slow and Silent Road to Teaching Asian American History in Schools

Vien Santiago, Samuel Vogel

The Slow and Silent Road to Teaching Asian American History in Schools
Asian American and Pacific Islander history is often left out of American school textbooks, although it is a fundamental aspect of United States history and shouldn’t be forgotten. It’s sewed into the fabric of society ranging from entertainment to politics. Let us acknowledge the slow but steady rise of such history.

In the United States’ 250 years of history, Asian Americans have been present even before that, with Filipinos working in the Spanish Galleon trade from Manila to Morro Bay in California since 1587. However, the 1850s were when many Asians began to truly make their place in this country, and we’ve been changing this nation ever since.


But you wouldn’t know most of our history if you opened a US history book.

What has caused this? The silence, and even apprehension, of the US education system when it comes to discussing AAPI history.


And that’s the problem today. Americans, Asian or not, are not aware of Asian American history and  our experiences, which  in turn, contributes to rapidly growing issues affecting Asian cultures, people, and general ignorance surrounding Asian Americans.


Eighteen states still don’t mention Asian Americans or AAPI history in their statewide K-12 history curriculum standards. One of these is Georgia (as of March 2021), the state where six Asian American women were murdered in a shooting targeting three massage parlors.


In an interview with the Washington Post, Sohyun An, professor of elementary and early childhood education at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, said, “The White man who killed Asian immigrants was a Georgia product. If he had learned about Asian American history in relation to our humanity, I don’t think that he could travel to three different locations and kill the Asian women as if they are not even human.”


Ignorance, as a result of decades of omitting AAPI history from the education system, drives people to continue to commit hateful acts against the Asian Community.


In the remaining 32 states, the only AAPI history included in their curricula are brief sections dedicated to the Chinese Exclusion Act or the WWII Japanese American Internment Camps.

The Asian diaspora encompasses 50 ethnic groups, so this extensive underrepresentation has caused AAPI students and educators to call for a sweeping education reform to include more AAPI history education in our schools, and this time, legislators are listening:


  • 3 states: NJ, IL, and CT, have established and passed legislation to increase the scope of Asian American history and studies in their K-12 classrooms.

  • Similar legislation in FL, WI, OH, and MD failed to pass, however, they will be reintroduced soon.

  • NY, PA, RI, and MI have yet to vote on their bills.

  • The West Coast (CA, OR, and WA) have recently mandated ethnic studies (the studies of marginalized communities in the United States) programs for students. Legislation specifically for AAPI studies is awaiting an assembly vote in California.


This landmark legislative action is amazing for the Asian American community but highlights the long road our ancestors have trekked to get us here.


In the United States, legislation moves slowly unless it is “pressing” and has a lot of political value to either or both of the national parties. Previous movements haven’t had enough national traction or value to our nation’s politicians, much less our local politicians.


As we are seeing with other education reform movements and legislation, states are the governing level most in control of our education systems, with federal interference being uncommon.


Politics haven’t been the only thing slowing down the push for AAPI history to be taught in schools across the country. General mystery surrounding Asian Americans for politicians has slowed them down from even drafting legislation or taking any action now. For example, after the Atlanta spa shootings in 2021, Boston school district officials were confused on how to respond and distribute resources to their community. This stresses the importance of telling our own untold stories.


History can easily be lost, so it’s important for us to teach what we can, especially in today’s fast-changing world.


The Labor Reform Movement:

Larry Itliong led Filipino-American workers around Delano, CA in a strike off of grape farms to demand better working conditions and minimum wages. Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and the National Farmworkers Association joined soon after, beginning a bond between Filipino and Latino-Americans that would change the nation and enrich both cultures’ understanding of one another.


Civil Rights and Exploitation for White Supremacy:

The 1960s-70s civil rights movements were not as black and white as taught in schools, often associated with white supremacists to divide racial groups and use false stereotypes (i.e Model Minority). Their continued efforts slow the progress of the AAPI community such as AAPI teaching in the school curricula. However, Asian American groups such as the AAPA (Asian American Political Alliance), led by Yuji Ichioka and Emma Gee, and AAA (Asian Americans for Action), led by Kazu Iijima and Minn Matsuda, unified Asian-Americans with pan-Asian ideologies and stood with other POC movements to call for equality regardless of race.


If you are moved to help our community finally get what we deserve as Americans who have helped shape our nation, we compiled a list of actions you can take, big and small:


  • Educate yourself and tell the untold stories.

  • If schools won’t teach our history, start educating yourself. Here are some books which go in-depth on Asian American history:

  • Rise: A Pop Culture History of Asian Americans from the Nineties to Now by Jeff Yang, Phil Yu, & Philip Wang;

  • Asian American Histories of the United States by Catherine Ceniza Choy;

  • A New History of Asian America by Shelley Lee

  • For a start on stories to tell, check back on slide 6; research and tell them.

  • Keep following DAY for more history-related posts regarding the Asian community!

  • Research legislation in your state and write to/call your state and federal representatives to let them know we, as a community, need action.

  • US: Teaching Asian Pacific American History Act (HR2283, introduced on March 29, 2021) [STATUS: Awaiting House vote]

  • Support student-led movements that call for AAPI studies in our classrooms.

  • Any AAPI student association (SA) at your school

  • Asian Student Union, SEASA (Southeast Asian Student Association)

  • PIC (Pacific-Islanders Club)


In the words of award-winning author and Regents Professor of History and Asian American Studies, Erika Lee, “We can’t teach US history without teaching Asian Americans.” (Organization for American Historians)


Testimonials

*Note - Testimonies have been slightly edited for grammatical purposes


“I grew up in the US never learning in-depth about AAPI history. I was instilled with the model minority myth. It wasn’t until the COVID-19 Pandemic hit that I began to discover the anti-Asian sentiment. Through this, I began delving further into AAPI  history that hadn’t been taught in schools. I had become so brainwashed by western society that I realized it was not only detrimental to myself but to others part of the  Asian-American community. ”

  • Samuel Hua Hui Vogel (He/They), Writer for DAY [@pandafamous_Samuel]


“My teacher taught us a lot about colonization in China (I.e the British opium wars) and [...] bombings in Japan during WWII. We talked a lot about all the anti-Asian hate that arose during that time. It was really nice just hearing my teacher not giving us the whitewashed and white savior story we always hear in history class and kind of getting a sense of what my grandparents and parents grew up in.”

  • Darena (She/Her), Chapter Lead at DAY [darenaho_]


“Without more teachings about our local AAPI history, it’s starting to fade away, leaving Asian students like myself without representation and feeling less ‘American’. For example, only one history teacher in my district teaches students that our fairgrounds was a Japanese detention center in 1942; those historic buildings are used as vendor stands or business exhibits every year.”

  • Vien Santiago (He/Him), Writer for DAY


“[Not being represented] has motivated me to represent myself and educate others if the school system won't. My peers made poems and posters regarding Asian hate to hang around school. We also have an Asian-American association, and I plan on starting a DAY chapter to further the efforts.”

  • Safora (She/Her), Chapter Lead and Projects Manager at DAY[@safora._.aaa]


“[AAPI history] is part of who my parents and I are; it’s important not to lose sight of who we are. We can’t lose our sense of self, as that is what has happened to many in our community.”

  • Jeanna Gonzales (She/Her), Reader of DAY


For more information on the education of Asian-American history in America, please visit The Asian American Project.