New Jersey governor Phil Murphy signed a law requiring public schools to include lessons on the history of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Kani Ilangovan felt bittersweet after Phil Murphy signed legislation that required public schools in New Jersey to teach history about Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
“I was a child who was one of the only Asian Americans in my school,” says Ilangovan, who was instrumental in getting the law passed, “and it would have been very helpful for me to see how Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders helped contribute to this country, helped build this country.”
Now, Ilangovan feels better knowing that other children—including her own—will learn what she wishes she’d learned about the history of Asian Americans, who make up about 6% of the U.S. population and are the fastest-growing racial or ethnic group in the country.
<strong>“If we teach about Asian Americans, that means that we need to talk about race and racism.”</strong>Asian Americans (AAPI), Pacific Islanders, and others have faced violence and racism for years. This includes a rise in hate crime related to the coronavirus pandemic. This is the truth. Anti-Asian violence is on the riseIlangovan was motivated to create Make Us Visible NJ in March 2021, and advocate for compulsory Asian American history education in schools.
The nationwide effort is bearing fruit, albeit slowly, and at a time when calls to introduce diverse perspectives into history lessons and to more honestly address racism in America face fierce pushback that could clash with efforts like Ilangovan’s.
“If we teach about Asian Americans, that means that we need to talk about race and racism,” says Sohyun An, a professor of social studies education at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, arguing that it’s impossible to discuss the internment of Japanese Americans, the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Vincent Chin’s murderFor example, it does not address systemic racism in America.
After Illinois, New Jersey became the second state to require teaching of AAPI History. A majority of AAPI parents stated that their children have been the victims of hate incidents at school over the past 12 months. National surveyPublication by Stop AAPI Hate in November Ilangovan, who was born in Illinois and is one of the advocates, believes that new school curriculum requirements will help to change that. They aim to raise awareness about anti-Asian stereotypes as well racism and prevent bullying and violence at school.
“There’s so much history that’s unknown that I would love for people to know, and especially for AAPI children to know, and also for their classmates to know because kids pay attention to whose histories are being taught in school,” says Ilangovan. “It teaches them who’s important and not for society, and we’ve felt invisible for so long.”
Concerns of a ‘chilling effect’
Similar legislation is currently being studied in other states. A bill that required instruction on AAPI history was introduced by Michigan Democrats this month. Make Us Visible (a group which advocates for the inclusion AAPI history in public schools) has members not only in New Jersey but also in Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Georgia.
As these efforts continue, though, An worries that campaigns against Critique of race theory will have a “chilling effect” on educators. In New Jersey, in fact, Republican lawmakers who voted in support of the AAPI bill also introduced legislation that would prohibit the “teaching of critical race theory in public schools.”
The bill defines critical race theory as content that teaches that a person is “inherently privileged, racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously” because of their race or gender, or that the United States “is fundamentally or irredeemably racist or sexist.” It also allows for “the impartial instruction on the historical oppression of a particular group of people based on race, ethnicity, class, nationality, religion, or geographic region,” which could include many examples of racism against Asians in the United States.
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Critical race theory, unlike K-12 history, is an academic framework at the graduate level that examines racism in institutions. K-12 educators all over the country claim they don’t teach it. But, critics have made it a common term to describe any lesson that addresses systemic racism. They argue that it will cause division in children and create guilt for white students.
An was not surprised to see the rise of legislation seeking to make history education more inclusive, and legislation banning critical race theory. She expects resistance from people who want to keep the status quo, as schools work towards becoming more fair and anti-racist. “When there’s some racial progress, then there’s a backlash,” An says.
It is also her belief that anti-critical race theories backlashs reflect a fundamental misunderstood of their nature. Some pundits incorrectly assert it has been integrated into K-12 education. This will make students fight each other.
A concerted effort to challenge stereotypes
Recently, a study was done that looked at the distribution of Asian Americans across U.S. history curriculum standards. While there are 2.6 million Asian students in K-12 public schools, about 5.4% of all students, An found that Asian Americans and their experiences “are largely invisible in the official storytelling of the United States.”
“When included, Asian Americans are primarily depicted as an oppressed group lacking civic agency or new immigrants with little contribution to the building of the nation,” An concluded. A new curriculum incorporating their nuanced stories could help confront stereotypical perceptions of Asian Americans as “forever foreigners and the model minority” and lead to greater recognition of their experiences and contributions throughout U.S. history, she wrote.
<strong>“It’s about time that an Asian of American heritage is viewed as an American.”</strong>Russell Fan is a Senior at Livingston High School, Livingston, N.J. He was frustrated to learn about Patsy Mink and Larry Itliong, both Filipino-American civil right activists. “It was a shame that we could not learn about them in school,” he says.
His high school has about 25% Asian American students, however, Asian American history only makes up a tiny portion of his curriculum. “When you look at what we’ve learned, it’s definitely not proportionate to the student body makeup,” Fan says.
In her own state of Georgia, An isn’t optimistic that legislation promoting Asian American history would pass, even after the killing of eight people, including six Asian-American women, in Atlanta in March 2021 served as a devastating reminder of The long history of anti-Asian violence. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp has said he aims “to protect our students from divisive ideologies like critical race theory.”
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With this in mind, An and others involved in Make Us Visible’s Georgia group have opted not to pursue legislation and instead have focused on reaching out to teachers directly to offer professional development and to encourage them to incorporate Asian American history and literature into lesson plans.
That’s how New Jersey high school teacher Sima Kumar approached her language-arts classes well before the new law. Sima Kumar teaches. The Great Gatsby to sophomores, she pairs it with Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The NamesakeThe book, which chronicles Indian immigration to the U.S.A., explores the American dream through both books.
Kumar hopes that the law will encourage more teachers to include experiences of Asian Americans in their lessons and to recognize the contributions they make to literature and history.
“It’s about time that an American of Asian heritage is viewed as an American, not questioned [about]Their origins or their country of citizenship. And that sense of belongingness has got to begin at the K-12 level,” Kumar says. “This is when young people are understanding themselves and their world and their history, and their sense of place.”