We Need To Be Teaching Asian American and Pacific Islander History:

Image Not Found

In May of 2023, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law a bill requiring the teaching of Asian American and Pacific Islander history in K-12 curriculums in Florida public schools. This came right on the heels of DeSantis barring public schools from participating in a pilot of the College Board’s course on African American Studies.

In response to the Florida Governor’s decisions, many activists were rightly outraged and spoke out in opposition to the educational and social-emotional harm this decision would have on Black students in Florida, not to mention the rippling effects it could have on local and state policies in other parts of the country.

While the pair of policies may appear contradictory to many observers, this would not be the first time unsavory political actors have attempted to pit Asian Americans against other minority groups in the US.

The model minority myth was invented and continues to be perpetuated to block those seeking to end the educational, economic, and social disparities facing marginalized communities and hurts everyone including Asian American students and community members.

Unfortunately, often lost in the intentionally drummed up outrage is space for conversations about the harm being used as political pawns has on Asian American communities, along with the near complete lack of Asian American History or Pacific Islander history being taught in public schools. Just 11 states require K-12 students to learn any AAPI history. Clearly, we have a real need for a thorough and accurate Asian American History and Pacific Islander Education in our schools.

First popularized amid the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, the model minority myth was created to define Asian Americans in opposition to other racial/ethnic minority groups.

Relying on stereotypes and out-of-context data, this myth paints Asian Americans collectively as financially well-off, hardworking, and socially and politically docile. The model minority myth creates a monolithic story of over 26 million Americans with family ties to nearly 50 countries, erasing the vastly different backgrounds, histories, and lived experiences of dozens of different communities.

Like many marginalized communities in the US, most of us could sum up what we learn about Asian Americans into a few pages in our US history textbooks— if we’re lucky. For most American public school students, that might look like a brief discussion of Japanese internment during WWII, the red scare and rise of communist China, a blip about the Vietnam war, and for current students and recent graduates, possibly a lesson on the War on Terror. That is, if they make it that far before the end of year exams.

In these limited conversations, the stories, contributions of, and impacts on Asian Americans are rarely mentioned, if at all. In all these historical moments, Asian Americans are painted as “the foreign other” to be suspicious of, never as fellow Americans. This serves to isolate Asian American students and educators in the classroom and Asian parents and families in the broader community.

Discussions of the histories of Pacific Islanders in the US are even rarer. Few students in the US learn anything about the histories of the state of Hawai’i, US territories of the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, and American Samoa, and millions of Americans with ancestry from the islands of the Pacific. These gaps in our textbooks end up disappearing the voices and contributions of Pacific Islander communities in the US.

The way we currently teach AAPI histories (when we do) leads to real world harm. When Asian American and Pacific Islander students see their community members exclusively painted as a threat when mentioned, and otherwise disappeared from the rest of their textbooks, that causes serious mental and emotional harm. And it has major impacts on these students’ social and educational outcomes.

Paired with the pressure of unattainable standards perpetuated by the model minority myth, Asian students report experiencing adverse mental health conditions, including alarmingly high reports of thoughts of or attempted self-harm. Pacific Islander communities similarly experience erasure of their histories from textbooks along with high rates of young people reporting mental health issues.

This also manifests into violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders from people who have spent their whole lives being taught to distrust their peers and neighbors.

Image Not Found

When we teach an inaccurate and incomplete American history and refuse to be honest about the ways that shapes the present, all students are harmed as they are robbed of a quality education and the opportunity to learn about the contribution of Asian American communities. And Asian American and Pacific Islander students take the brunt of this harm— mentally, socially, and academically.

1. Resist the Bait.

Politicians have long used Asian Americans and Pacific Islander as a wedge between communities of color looking to advance goals of equity and freedom. We must avoid allowing ourselves to be distracted by these attempts to separate those of us pushing for change, and instead form relationships and find spaces of shared struggle and solidarity with everyone in the fight for educational equity for all students.

2. Get Educated.

It is critical to educate ourselves and the people in our lives on the impacts Asian Americans have had on this country, issues facing Asian American and Pacific Islander students and communities today, and the need to join in the fight for safe, equitable education for every child.

3. Push for Change.

We have to continue to push for more opportunities for teaching Asian American and Pacific Islander history both in specialized classed but also as mandatory parts of a comprehensive US history and civics education.