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Why Teach Asian American* History

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*Note: “Asian American” is often included in a larger umbrella term, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI). I chose to focus on Asian Americans to make clearer connections with anti-Asian racism today and my own experience as a second-generation Taiwanese American. 

Asian Americans have been a crucial thread within the fabric of our nation since the first people from Asia came and settled here many centuries ago. As early as the 1500s, centuries before the U.S. was even formed, Filipino sailors and indentured servants settled in parts of what is now Louisiana. Many of these “Manilamen” came to fight alongside the U.S. during the War of 1812.  

From Chinese railroad workers, Japanese farmers, Filipino labor organizers, Indian shipbuilders, Hmong business owners, and Vietnamese and Cambodian fisherfolk, Americans of Asian descent have shaped our society. Significant developments were made as a result of many Asian American leaders. As the first woman of color was elected to Congress in 1965, Japanese American Patsy Mink co-authored Title IX to prevent gender discrimination in education. Filipino American Larry Itliong led the struggle for farmworkers' rights by initiating the Grape Boycott of 1965 and building a coalition with Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and Mexican farmworkers. Korean American Navy Lieutenant Susan Ahn became the first female gunnery officer during World War II. The innovation of Bangladeshi American architect and structural engineer Fazlur Rahman Khan was instrumental in developing skyscrapers. His design of the Sears Tower (now Willis Tower) became the world’s tallest building in 1970.

These are just a few of the many stories that have come to light through the research of scholars and communities. 

Stereotypes of Un-belonging

Even though Asian Americans are an integral part of the U.S., we are often seen as not belonging to this identity. Many have been viewed as “perpetual foreigners” by being told to “go back where you came from” and assuming that they don’t speak English. 

Some consider Asian Americans a “model minority” or “honorary whites” who are not people of color. In this way, they are a homogenous group of high achievers living the so-called American dream. However, by looking more closely at specific Asian American communities, this imposed invisible minority status is clearly a fallacy. Asian Americans are a diverse group of more than 30 nationalities and ethnicities. Depending on various factors, be it class or geographic location, not all Asian Americans have this successful story dominantly portrayed in society.

The anti-Asian violence that escalated since the pandemic began illustrates these stereotypes. Asian Americans were blamed for causing the virus. Since the first case of Covid was believed to come from China, people viewed anyone who appeared to be Chinese as the source of all their problems. Further, prominent government officials and media outlets who voiced this exacerbated the situation.

Another example is how Olympic gold medalist and snowboarder Chloe Kim was vilified for taking away opportunities from Americans during her younger competitive years. After winning a medal at the 2014 Winter X Games, people told her “to go back to China and to stop taking medals away from the white American girls on the team.” This led her to hide her Korean heritage in public.

A Story of Internalized Oppression

The internalized oppression that Chloe Kim felt is common among Asian Americans. I myself grew up conflicted about my racial identity throughout my youth. Growing up in a predominantly white Long Island suburb, I had little idea of my true self. I didn’t know that it was racist when kids called me a “chink” and “ching chong” while slanting their eyes up and down with their fingers. This all came from growing up in an environment where the Asian American perspective wasn’t recognized in schools. I was afraid of looking too Asian and took pride in being able to blend in when my friends told me they would sometimes forget I’m Asian. It gave me relief to know that I assimilated so well. 

Learning From Anti-Asian Racism and Becoming a Teacher

Curiosity about my cultural heritage led me to come into my identity.  As an undergraduate at Northwestern University, I joined an Asian American student organization and took a student-organized seminar, “The Asian American Experience.” It was here where the story of a brutal murder fueled by anti-Asian hate shifted my outlook on soceity and where I fit in it. 

As with many Asian Americans, watching the documentary, Who Killed Vincent Chin? was a life-changing experience. In 1984, Vincent Chinwas killed by laid off auto workers who scapegoated him for economic decline caused by competition against Japan. They beat him to death and never served time in prison. This case galvanized a nationwide Asian American movement to seek justice for Chin and influenced hate crime laws. Learning about this was a seminal moment. It was as if a switch went off inside me, signifying that I am a person of color and Asian Americans like me are treated differently because of our race. This light within me turned to anger for never learning stories like this in my schooling, even in college. There were no academic courses on Asian American history at Northwestern, and if it weren’t for the student organized seminar, I would have continued to live in a world where I internalized the unattractiveness of being Asian.

Once I discovered Asian American Studies had been in existence for decades, I was astounded. This energized me to lead efforts to push for an Asian American Studies program on campus. Throughout this experience, I realized how lacking my schooling was. Everything I learned from kindergarten through high school was through a white male lens. I believed that educating marginalized stories should start earlier than college, and becoming a teacher would be how I could incorporate this into the curriculum. Throughout my teaching career, this served as a core goal. I believed that if all students were taught Asian American history, there would be less hostility and more understanding.

Asian American History is US History

To understand who we are as a nation, Asian American history must be taught. Teaching this demonstrates how our nation developed and dispels the narrative that Asian Americans are not an inherent part of the U.S. Unfortunately, most of this history is little known or taught. While teaching history in a diverse range of middle and high schools for 16 years, I never saw any mention of Asian American history in textbooks. According to studies by education researchers, two events in Asian American history are mainly taught, if at all - the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and WWII Japanese American incarceration.

Also, these missing narratives of the curriculum can counter misconceptions of Asian Americans. This includes Asian Americans like my younger self, who was in the dark for so long, ashamed of being Asian. It's important to be seen in your nation's history, but the reason for teaching Asian American history isn't about making people feel better. It’s about having a truthful understanding of the U.S.

I eventually left my teaching career to fill in these gaps within the curriculum and co-founded YURI Education Project, a business that develops curriculum and professional learning. And when the pandemic hit, I felt so many parallels - between anti-Asian racism in history and today, between my activism as an undergrad and the curriculum I began writing to combat the horrific attacks against Asian Americans. Partnering with the Center for Asian American Media allowed me to make these lesson plans into a new PBS LearningMedia collection, Anti-Asian Racism: Connections in History. I developed this with my teacher self in mind, and hope this will be helpful for other teachers too!

Freda Lin

Freda Lin Co-Founder/Director, YURI Education Project

Freda Lin is the Co-Director of YURI Education Project, a business that develops curriculum, professional learning, and youth workshops. With a focus on Asian American stories, YURI works with PK-12 teachers and schools, cultural institutions, organizations, and creatives. Being a student activist leader for Asian American Studies at Northwestern University led her to become a middle and high school history teacher in Chicago and the San Francisco Bay Area. After leaving the teaching field, she facilitated social movement history tours with Freedom Lifted, and consulted with the Center for Asian American Media and UC Berkeley History-Social Science Project. Freda also served as the Education Program Director of the Fred T. Korematsu Institute, where she implemented programming to promote awareness of the World War II Japanese American incarceration experience and its connection to current issues.

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