A ‘History of Exclusion, of Erasure, of Invisibility.’ Why the Asian-American Story Is Missing From Many U.S. ClassroomsHistorians in the News
tags: racism, education, teaching history, Asian American History
On the morning of March 17, Liz Kleinrock contemplated calling out of work. The shootings at three Atlanta-area spas had happened the night before, leaving eight dead including six women of Asian descent, and Kleinrock, a 33-year-old teacher in Washington, D.C., who is Asian-American, felt the news weighing on her heavily.
But instead of missing work, she changed up her lesson plan. She introduced her sixth graders over Zoom to poems written by people of Japanese ancestry incarcerated during World War II. Her lesson included “My Plea,” printed in 1945 by a young person named Mary Matsuzawa who was held at the Gila River Relocation Center in Arizona: “I pray that someday every race / May stand on equal plane / And prejudice will find no dwelling place / In a peace that all may gain.”
“I feel like so many Asian elders have been targeted because of this stereotype that Asians are meek and quiet and don’t speak up and don’t say anything, and therefore that makes our elderly easy targets,” Kleinrock said to TIME by phone, speaking of the purpose of the lesson. “And so it’s so important to be loud and to bring attention to this. Education is so important. If we don’t know our history, then we’re doomed to repeat the same thing over and over again.”
Kleinrock was not the only educator rushing to fill that gap. On March 19, Katie Li, 37, the Boston Public Schools Ethnic Studies coordinator, described a “panic” among higher-ups trying to put out statements and provide resources in the wake of the shootings, but not knowing how to make sense of what happened in the Atlanta area themselves.
“Many people who are in power trying to address this right now have no idea how to interpret it,” Li tells TIME. “Many people are saying, ‘It’s just happening now. This past year has been such a hard time for Asians.’ If people actually understood the history of Asian America, they wouldn’t be so short-sighted in their statements addressing this moment…[The shooting] amplifies hundreds of years of history of exclusion, of erasure, of invisibility.”
The spa shootings in the Atlanta area represent, to many, the grim culmination of a year in which anti-Asian violence has increased across the United States. But this year is also part of a history that began long before 2020. And in fact, educators and historians tell TIME, anti-Asian racism is directly linked to history, and how members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community are often depicted in U.S. history lessons: as foreigners or national security threats, as opposed to people who have lived and worked in America and have challenged it to live up to its ideals of equality for all.
Scholars agree that one of the reasons a full history of Asian Americans has not been incorporated into core U.S. History curricula in K-12 schools is because it doesn’t portray America in a positive light.
“K-12 American history texts reinforce the narrative that Asian immigrants and refugees are fortunate to have been ‘helped’ and ‘saved’ by the U.S.,” Jean Wu, who has taught Asian American Studies for more than 50 years and is a senior lecturer emerita at Tufts University, said in an email to TIME. “The story does not begin with U.S. imperialist wars that were waged to take Asian wealth and resources and the resulting violence, rupture and displacement in relation to Asian lives. Few realize that there is an Asian diaspora here in the U.S. because the U.S. went to Asia first.”
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