As a social studies teacher and a Chinese American immigrant, I find myself subconsciously asking the following questions: How are Asian Americans viewed by the American public? What stereotypes and misperceptions still abound?
Even more importantly: How can policies and education help improve our status in the U.S.? And — since the 2020 national reckonings about racial injustice, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and ongoing debates about critical race theory — how can we reimagine the U.S. history and civics curriculum to be more inclusive and equitable?
Now, a new annual report about attitudes toward Asian Americans from the advocacy organization LAAUNCH has provided some disturbing answers to some of these questions. The report, released in May during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, surveyed over 5,000 Americans from diverse backgrounds and includes findings about Asian American stereotypes, visibility and acceptance.
As an Asian American, my lived experience and this research make me firmly believe that we must do a better job of teaching Asian American history and culture in the U.S. — not only to foster more understanding and tolerance, but also to show the beauty and complexity of cultures often neglected.
Several findings in the report have direct implications for Asian American safety. For example: Over 1 in 5 Americans believe that Asian Americans are at least partially responsible for the pandemic — a percentage that has increased since 2021.
Meanwhile, nearly 1 in 3 Americans are unaware of the rising number of hate incidents against Asian Americans, even as nearly 1 in 6 Asian American adults reported experiencing a hate crime or incident in 2021.
These findings only validate the pain that has been felt in the community since the coining of the term “Chinese virus.”
Other survey results have implications for young Asian Americans’ sense of not being seen or represented in American society. When asked to name one prominent Asian American individual, over half (58 percent) of Americans replied, “I don’t know,” followed by 7 percent responding “Jackie Chan.”
Meanwhile, among Asian Americans themselves, only 29 percent completely agreed that they feel like they belong and are accepted in American society — with that number decreasing to 19 percent for respondents ages 18-24.
The report did offer some hope, however: 72 percent of respondents said that anti-Asian American racism “is a problem that should be addressed.” Among them, many agreed that “more education and information about Asian American history and experiences” is the best way to combat racism.
We must do a better job of teaching Asian American history and culture in the U.S.
Here’s what anti-racist Asian American teaching should look like in practice:
First, I believe it requires more teaching of the subject, period. We cannot create new understandings and narratives without recognizing the relative absence of Asian Americans from school curricula. This requires several steps: an audit to see how Asian Americans are represented; the use of more Asian American primary sources; and a willingness to lean into an expanded canon of Asian American thinkers and writers, from Grace Lee Boggs to Ocean Vuong, to Cathy Park Hong.
There are signs of progress. In 2021, my own state of Illinois signed into law the TEAACH (Teaching Equitable Asian American History) Act, mandating that Asian American history become a part of the K-12 Illinois state curriculum by the 2022-23 school year.
Since then, also at the state level, New Jersey has followed suit, while California has mandated an ethnic studies requirement that requires lessons about many different intersectional identities, including ones that specifically tackle the myth that Asians are a model minority.
Nationally, in 2021, U.S. Representative Grace Meng (D-NY) reintroduced legislation that would promote the teaching and learning of Asian Pacific American history in schools.
Second, Asian American history content requires not only more breadth, but also depth. Growing up, the people like me that I saw in the media were often represented with reductive and stereotypical depictions or limited to single textbook paragraphs about Chinese exclusion, WWII Japanese internment or the Vietnam War. Rarely, if ever, were we encouraged to complicate these stories or seek out new ones.
This tokenism — or relegation of Asian American history to one lesson or the month of May — robbed me and my peers of a nuanced understanding of ourselves and how we fit into the greater American tapestry.
Luckily, things have changed since I was a student. Today, it has never been easier for students to see themselves represented outside of the classroom. From music such as K-pop and Mando-pop to Asian-produced TV shows and movies, our cultures are gripping the imaginations of my students.
In education, national groups such as The Asian American Education Project, Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center and Immigrant History Initiative and local groups such as the Yale-China Association and Asian Americans Advancing Justice Chicago have invested resources to create accessible curriculum materials.
Meanwhile, mass social movements have made the ideas represented by hashtags like #StopAAPIHate and #RacismIsAVirus visible in the media — topics worthy of discussion in all social studies classrooms.
Just as the very term “Asian American” encompasses a rich tapestry of different ethnicities, Asian American education has endless room for creativity when discussing our unique cultures, figures and stories of resistance.
As educators, we need to make sure our stories are told and heard.
I believe that more widespread teaching of Asian American history will transform our country’s understanding of American history, while also sending the message to Asian Americans that they belong.
Like the stories of Black, Latino, Native, disabled, queer and trans people, Asian American stories are American stories — and are more important to teach now than ever.
Wayne Zhang is a graduate student at Northwestern University who will be teaching social studies next year at Amundsen High School in Chicago Public Schools.
This piece about Asian American history and education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.