Opinion: Asians are as American as the Mayflower

I grew up in Massachusetts. I’ve made the pilgrimage to Plymouth Rock. I’ve stood where the Pilgrims landed, believing there was something sacred about standing where the first non-indigenous people landed in America.

Turns out, I was standing in the wrong place.

Thirty-three years earlier, on October 18, 1587, Filipino sailors set foot on Moro Bay, California. When my daughter is old enough, I’ll  take her there.

My daughter should learn this in school. Asian American history shouldn’t be relegated to just Asian American Pacific Island Heritage Month. She deserves more. Texas needs to make Asian American studies part of our state’s curriculum.

H-Mart opened its first Austin store in 2018 with shoppers flocking there in droves to find thousands of Asian food products.
H-Mart opened its first Austin store in 2018 with shoppers flocking there in droves to find thousands of Asian food products.

We can make this a reality in 2022. The Texas Education Agency and State Board of Education are waiving the lengthy process of adding new courses to our children’s curriculum. They’ve unanimously agreed to allow for an Asian American Studies course to be written covering the contributions our community has made in the US.

Currently, Texas students are only required to learn two things about Asian American history: The Chinese Exclusion Act and Japanese Internment, both examples of Asians being “othered” and persecuted.

No mention of Larry Itliong, who organized alongside Cesar Chavez for workers’ rights. No mention of Wat Misaka, the first non-white person to play professional basketball. No mention of Min Chueh Chang, who co-developed the oral contraceptive pill.

These omissions aren’t benign. A study in Cultural Diversity & Ethnic Minority Psychology shows this kind of othering can lead to depression and low self-esteem. It also perpetuates stereotypes like name-calling and physical intimidation.

Ethnic studies classes can reverse those negative impacts.

Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that students who took an ethnic studies course in 9th grade had a higher probability of graduating from high school, increased attendance, and earned more credits than the control group. Students in Texas stand to see similar gains and drastically change the trajectory of their lives.

Sadly, there has been pushback against ethnic studies courses claiming they don’t  benefit all students.

Experience proves them wrong; ethnic studies enrich all students. When Arkansas launched its Multicultural Reading and Thinking Project targeting grades 4-6, it found that students who took part in the program had higher achievement levels, better writing ability, and read more at home.

I know an Asian American studies class would have made a difference for me.

In the years following the 9/11 attacks, the racism, bullying, and social isolation I experienced wrecked me. My GPA plummeted, I dropped out of extracurricular activities, and I was disengaged from my future. At my bottom, I used to stand in the shower scrubbing myself with a pumice stone trying to get rid of my brown skin.

I don’t want my daughter to ever feel like I did. I don’t want any Asian child to experience it. In the wake of rising anti-Asian hate crimes, we should try to make our schools a refuge for children feeling like they don’t belong.

Thankfully, grassroots organizers are working hard to make Asian American studies a reality. As Texas undergoes Social Studies TEKS review, Asian Texans for Justice is organizing students, parents, and community members to make their voices heard, connect with each other, and demand this expanded curriculum.

You can’t be what you can’t see. Until Asian kids understand that people who look like them and share their culture helped shape America, it will be an uphill battle to remove othering stigmas from their minds.

Ahluwalia is the digital director at Asian Texans for Justice. He is also a Public Voices Fellow of the OpEd Project.

This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Opinion: Asians are as American as the Mayflower