CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — When the Asian American Student Union at a Connecticut high school organized a Zoom call following the killing of six Asian women in Atlanta, senior Lily Feng thought maybe 10 or 15 classmates would attend. When she logged on, more than 50 people from her school were online. By the call’s end, nearly 100 people had joined.
Seeing her peers at Farmington High School turn out for the conversation — one piece of a student-led effort to explore Asian American identity issues — made her realize how much they wanted to listen and learn about a topic that is often absent from the curriculum.
“Our Asian American and Pacific Islander community members, they want their voices to be heard,” said Feng, co-president of the student group that also has brought in speakers, hosted panels and created lessons about Asian American history. “They are almost desperate to be speaking about it. This is so heavy, this is heartbreaking and it was a space for them to really voice that.”
As students push for more inclusive curriculum, some lawmakers, educators and students themselves are working to address gaps in instruction and fight harmful stereotypes by pushing for more Asian American history to be included in K-12 lesson plans.
Illinois would become the first state to require public schools to teach Asian American studies if the governor signs a bill that cleared the state Legislature. Lawmakers have proposed similar mandates this year in Connecticut, New York and Wisconsin.
Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz, an Illinois representative, said she sponsored the bill in response to the increasing anti-Asian violence and rhetoric. Growing up, she said she knew little of the discrimination her family had faced in earlier generations because it wasn’t taught in school and her family did not openly speak about it.
“I think, like a lot of Asian families, their response to that discrimination was to endure, to survive,” she said. “And that meant moving past it, not talking about it, not educating the next generation about the struggles faced by a first generation.”
It wasn’t until law school that Gong-Gershowitz learned about the Chinese Exclusion Act, an 1882 law that prohibited Chinese workers from immigrating and the only law to exclude a specific ethnicity from entering the country, and the deportation threat it represented for her grandparents. Understanding that history is central to addressing the violence today, she said.
“When people talk about what are we going to do about racism, hate, violence, otherization, my answer is always look at the root cause of that,” she said. “Empathy comes from understanding, and we cannot do better unless we know better.”
On the federal level, U.S. Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., has reintroduced legislation intended to promote teaching Asian American history. The bill would require Presidential and Congressional Academies, which offer history and civics programming to students and teachers, to include Asian American history in their grant applications. It would also encourage state and national assessment tests to include Asian American history.
Asian Americans are largely excluded from textbooks, shown as stereotypes or framed as model minorities, said Nicholas Hartlep, an associate professor at Berea College in Kentucky who authored a book on those depictions in instructional materials. He said it is encouraging to see the legislation, but funding to support the requirements is necessary for them to make a difference.
“Is that an unfunded mandate where they just say, ‘Yes, it has to be covered?’” Hartlep said. “Or does it come with funding? And what quality assurances do we have for what’s being taught? Because if it’s just glossing over, that can be equally damaging.”