Schools are starting to mandate Asian American studies. More could follow suit.
Mina Fedor, of East Bay, California, recalled classmates on the first day of fourth grade bombarding her with racist comments like, “Are you Chinese? Why do you look like that?”
“They kept asking a bunch of rude questions, and it was hurtful,” Fedor, who is now 13 and in eighth grade, said.
The founder of the advocacy group AAPI Youth Rising, Fedor said she thinks there is a specific way to combat this: Asian American and Pacific Islander history being taught in schools. Now that some states have made strides in introducing mandates, others could be following suit, experts say.
“Adding more AAPI history curriculums would solidify the fact that Asians are Americans and Asians belong here,” Fedor said. “Had a lot of my classmates learned about AAPI being called ‘yellow peril’ in the past or about the Chinese Exclusion Act or the plague outbreak in San Francisco’s Chinatown — had they learned about that, maybe they would have thought back before they said these insensitive comments.”
New Jersey is slated to become the second state to mandate Asian American history as part of its public school curriculum, after Illinois did so in July. Ohio, California, New York, Florida and Connecticut have ignited similar pushes for curricula that are inclusive of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Last year, lawmakers in California passed legislation requiring ethnic studies, which focuses on Asian Americans and other racial groups, in high school.
According to California’s Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum, the lessons include dismantling the model minority myth, xenophobia, bigotry and other forms of institutional privilege.
“It presents a false narrative that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) have overcome racism and prejudice,” the lesson plan read. “Students will understand how this label for AAPIs becomes a hindrance to expanding democratic structures and support, and worst how it creates a division among the AAPI community and places a wedge between them and other oppressed groups.”
Elsewhere, Ohio state Sen. Tina Maharath, a Democrat, who is Laotian, proposed an Asian American history bill in her state. U.S. Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., who is Asian American, introduced national legislation.
These pushes for Asian American studies coincide with a national backlash to the teaching of race in public schools. Texas, South Carolina and North Dakota are among the states that have passed legislation banning critical race theory, a decades-old academic concept that discusses the history of racism in the country.
Nearly 52 years ago, the University of California, Berkeley; University of California, Los Angeles; and San Francisco State University adopted the nation’s first Asian American studies curricula.
Make Us Visible — an advocacy coalition in Connecticut, New Jersey and Florida that focuses on Asian American studies — is pushing the country to adopt a K-12 curriculum that’s more inclusive of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Advocates say the passage of the Asian American history bill in Illinois motivated them to keep pushing for the policy in their states.
“It was a light for all of us that that’s possible,” Kani Ilangovan, the founder of Make Us Visible New Jersey, said.
“We feel education is one of the most effective tools we have against racism,” she added. “It’s important for us to raise the voices of marginalized people and tell those stories and show that those lives and histories matter, too.”
Though advocates have mounted similar campaigns for ethnic studies at the college level, experts say growing anti-Asian racism has advocates focusing on school-age students.
“Now, we are seeing a new push especially at the K-12 level, which certainly didn’t exist in the '60s and '70s,” John C. Yang, the executive director and president of the advocacy group Asian Americans Advancing Justice. “Unfortunately, racism and implicit and explicit bias is learned very early on.”
Fedor organized her group’s first "stop Asian hate" rally last year following a spate of anti-Asian hate crimes in California’s Bay Area. She said the Covid-19 pandemic has added fuel to these racist attacks, noting, as an example, that she has been bullied and peers taunted another youth board member from AAPI Youth Rising over the shape of her eyes.
This type of racist bullying that Fedor experienced isn’t unusual. A Stop AAPI Hate national report released in 2021 found that 31 percent of Asian American and Pacific Islander parents said their child experienced a hate incident at school in the past year. Having access to anti-Asian hate data has given advocates a boost when amplifying their concerns to legislators.
“Having this data really helps,” Ilangovan said. “It just makes everything more visible — the extent of the problem more visible.”
Yang said support for teaching Asian American history is supported by a boom in Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the U.S. The Asian population nationwide grew 81 percent between 2000 and 2019, which is approximately 10.5 million to 18.9 million, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau population estimates.
Yang added that the push for Asian American curricula comes at a time of racial reckoning in the U.S., following the police killings of George Floyd and Daunte Wright and the fatal shootings of six women of Asian descent at three spas in the Atlanta area.
“We need to address all of this together, and Asian Americans want to be part of this solution, standing in solidarity with the African American community and other communities of color,” Yang said.
Without Asian American education in schools, harmful stereotypes about Asian Americans persist, he added.
“In the last two years, with all the anti-Asian hate that we have seen … there is still a great ignorance about Asian Americans here in the United States,” Yang said. “People fall into the perpetual foreigner myth — this notion that Asian Americans are foreigners, are threats and somehow disease-carrying and must be treated with suspicion. The importance of education is to make sure that people understand that Asian Americans have been a part of the fabric of this country.”
Throughout history, Asian American communities have faced violence and discrimination in the U.S., including the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Japanese American prison camps during World War II and the killing of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American man who was beaten to death by two white men who blamed Japanese car manufacturers for the loss of their jobs.
Ilangovan, who is Indian American, launched Make Us Visible New Jersey last year amid a spate of anti-Asian crimes in the U.S. As advocates make strides, Ilangovan said she still worries about the lasting effects of this lack of representation.
She said that on back-to-school night, she noticed drawings of students with Indian names on the walls of the classroom. However, the images were not colored with a brown crayon.
“Even though they were in a school with so many kids that look like them, they still choose to draw themselves with a peach crayon,” she said, noting that the school district is mostly comprised of Asian American students. “And I feel like it’s because our curriculum is not diverse enough and doesn’t show people of different backgrounds.”
CORRECTION (Jan. 18, 3:30 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the scope of a bill proposed by Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., to teach Asian American history in school. Her bill would mandate teaching it nationwide, not just in New York state.