I grew up in an area with a large Asian American population, including 25 percent of the students in my high school.
And yet, I have never had the opportunity to discuss anti-Asian racism in the classroom, learn about Asian American history or engage with educators who understand my experiences.
After the shootings in Atlanta put a spotlight on anti-Asian hate crimes around the world, not a single one of my teachers mentioned it. The silence was deafening, and it made me feel like there was no space for me to share my reactions and concerns.
Without this kind of dialogue, Asian American student voices will continue to be unheard, and our experiences will be invisible. And non-Asian American students, parents and teachers will remain ignorant about the racism we face every day.
Until recently, many non-Asians had never heard of widespread anti-Asian racism, even though there were over 3,800 reported hate incidents in the past year.
While Asian elders and women have been targeted for bias and violence, students are also having to deal with xenophobia and racism. As a high school senior who has faced countless microaggressions and racist incidents from peers during my school career, I can only sympathize with younger students who may face even worse bullying from their peers as we return to in-person learning.
To address this uptick in anti-Asian American violence, some school districts are already taking action to support the Asian American community by putting out statements and sharing guidance for educators about how to support their students.
These are commendable steps, but it shouldn’t take acts of violence for schools to pay attention to their Asian American students. Even before the pandemic, many educators did not take our concerns seriously, in part because of the inaccurate but widespread belief that we are a “model minority”: highly educated, high-income and “basically white.”
These faulty assumptions prevent educators from addressing the frequent racist comments we must tolerate from peers — and negate the experiences of low-income Asian Americans who have been hit harder by the pandemic.
School districts should enact broad systemic changes to affirm and include Asian American students and make space to listen to our voices, starting within our classrooms.
It shouldn’t take acts of violence for schools to pay attention to their Asian American students.
Efforts to diversify schools’ text choices still overlook the experiences of Asian American students, who remain disproportionately underrepresented in curricula. In all my schooling, I have read just one text in English class that features an Asian American character.
This gives Asian American students the message that our experiences as people of color do not matter, and that our schools do not value our perspectives.
We need to read texts by Asian American authors in English classes and learn about Asian American history and community leaders in social studies classes. We need books other than the The Joy Luck Club and history beyond the Chinese Exclusion Act.
This raises a necessary question: Who is going to teach these classes?
Our school district is currently developing an Asian American Studies course that would provide an opportunity to grapple with misconceptions about our community and the civil rights issues we continue to face. When planning for this course, I met with a group of 12 peers from six different high schools. Of these students, only one had an Asian American high school social studies or humanities teacher.
While Asian Americans appear to be well-represented in education, most Asian American teachers in our district either teach Asian world languages or STEM subjects. This prevents Asian American students from discussing their experiences with racism in the courses that are most suitable for doing so.
In addition to hiring Asian American teachers, schools must hire counseling staff from Asian American communities. Though young Asian Americans are disproportionately affected by mental health issues, we do not see ourselves reflected in counseling staff when we need help.
Schools should commit to hiring Asian American counseling staff as well as educators across a range of disciplines who can be responsive to Asian American student needs.
Schools must also provide cultural training and resources to non-Asian American educators, so that they become more aware of the diversity within the Asian American experience and can incorporate our histories and struggles in their lesson plans and interactions with us.
Asian American students need support in other ways, too. For example, schools should support the development and leadership of Asian American organizations that raise awareness about racial justice and equity.
My peers and I have created an Asian American student organization in our school district that has been organizing healing spaces for and town hall discussions about anti-Asian hate. On top of this, we also campaign for Asian American curriculum inclusion and hiring diversity.
We also collaborate with groups that include other students of color because the fight for an anti-racist education must include all perspectives or risk representing none at all.
While I’m graduating this year, I hope that we have set a foundation for younger Asian American students at my school. All Asian American students deserve the attention and engagement of school administrators, teachers, parents and other students to feel supported and heard.
Amy Zhai is a senior at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Maryland.
This story about addressing anti-Asian racism in schools was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.