Your Turn: America will not know what to do with Asian Americans if their history is not taught in schools

The Stop Asian Hate rally on March 27 was organized by the Princeton Chinese Community and supported by 18 additional groups.


By Kyler Zhou

According to the FBI’s hate crime statistics updated in late October, anti-Asian hate crimes have risen an alarming 73%, with more than 9,000 incidents reported in the past year.

Social media movements and hashtags like #StopAsianHate have brought attention to several gruesome hate crimes, among them the Atlanta spa shooting and the murder of 84-year old Vicha Ratanapakdee in his own driveway.

Such attacks have caused 1 in 3 Asian Americans to fear physical assault and a mental health disaster among the Asian American community.

But anti-Asian racism is nothing new: in fact, attacks like these have been happening since Chinese immigrants first landed in America more than 170 years ago.

But we will never be able to understand this rise in anti-Asian hate if school curricula do not include Asian American history.

American history curricula tend to cover two milestones involving Asian Americans: the influx of Chinese immigrant laborers who helped construct the Transcontinental Railroad and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. While these two events are critical to the development of our nation, they fail to accurately represent what Asian American life was like, and do not account for the historical marginalization that the community has faced. It does not include the famous picture of the Golden Spike that marks the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, and how Chinese American laborers were forced out of the frame. Nor does it include the stories of Asian American struggles during the wave of anti-Asian laws passed in the late 19th century, the riots and destruction of Chinatowns and the largest lynching in the history of the U.S. when 16 Chinese men were killed in 1871.

Racist laws and events cannot be taught without explaining the devastating consequences they have had on communities. Without the narratives of those who have been impacted by oppressive laws like Executive Order 9066, like Fred Korematsu, history courses will miss a critical part of the Asian American story and remain inaccurate and incomprehensive.

The reason why Asian American history is largely excluded from history curricula is that school systems do not want to reflect America in a negative light. In Nebraska, Georgia, Colorado, and a handful of other states, Japanese American internment is not mentioned at all, yet the attacks on Pearl Harbor were required to be taught by fifth grade. In other states like Michigan, not even the Chinese Exclusion Act is mentioned in social studies classes.

By whitewashing and overlooking critical parts of history, educators are withholding the shortcomings of our country from our students.

Some people, including opponents of critical race theory, will argue that our education system should not teach about the oppressive laws that people of color have faced in America and should instead focus on their success stories. If Asian American students, like me, are not cognizant of the history of marginalization that has preceded them, then we will never know who they are and why our community is spiraling from the attacks they have faced. We will not comprehend why insults of “chink” and “yellow man” thrown around in the hallways of schools go unpunished and disregarded amongst myriad other ethnically derogatory terms. We will not understand why the “model minority myth,” which portrays Asian Americans in a seemingly good manner, has been exploited as a racial wedge between different communities of color, and why Asian Americans suffer from the largest wealth disparity amongst all other racial groups.

Instead, students of all races are taught material that upholds American exceptionalism and reinforces the stereotype of the “perpetual foreigner.”

Students will not be able to grapple with the question of what American identity is, one that is central to the existence of communities of color in the United States, and Asian Americans will forget that they have been in this country even before many White Europeans immigrated through Ellis Island.

Asian Americans have been living in America’s blind spot ever since they first immigrated here up until this past March, and now, many of us do not know what to do with the spotlight. We have been invisible as we are not talked about in conversations about race, not featured in movies or books, and not taught about in schools.

But what we can do to move forward is to embrace our unchronicled yet tremendous history, and learn about our history through resources provided by organizations like the Zinn Education Project and the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.

But our fight for visibility is not just up to one community. It is a fight for all Americans to stand united with Asian Americans through learning, supporting and teaching about the struggles of all communities that fall victim to systemic oppression and White supremacy. Above all, it is a call for educators around the country to use their classrooms as an instrument of solidarity and unravel the dusty scroll that is Asian American history before “Asian American” becomes an oxymoron.