If all students learn is how Chinese workers built the railroads and how Japanese Americans were interned in World War II, they’re missing a lot.
When I was a kid growing up in the Central Valley of California, Asian Americans were mentioned only once in my social studies classes, and that was in a paragraph about Japanese American internment during World War II. Besides that, Asian Americans were completely left out of our history books. Even when we learned about the internment camps, we never learned about the individual stories of heroism, like the young Japanese men who enlisted in the army to fight for a country that had imprisoned their parents, or about people like Fred Korematsu, who took his case all the way up to the Supreme Court to ensure that Japanese Americans would be given their constitutional rights under the law.
Educator and scholar Rudine Sims Bishop once wrote, “When children cannot find themselves in the books they read, or when the images they see are distorted, negative, or laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society of which they are part.” We have a lot of work to do to ensure that our history books reflect all people and their contributions to this great nation. However, we are making some progress.
Recently, Illinois became the first state in the nation to mandate teaching Asian American history in public schools. My younger self would be so happy to finally learn about the contributions of Asian Americans in this country. However, the fact that it needed to be mandated by law tells us that there is still much work to do. The good news is that we can start now (even if you don’t live in Illinois).
4 WAYS TO ADD MORE ASIAN AMERICAN PERSPECTIVES
1. Learn the immigration history of Asian Americans. America has more than 20 million Asian Americans, and it’s important to know where they came from and understand the circumstances of their immigration.
For example, when studying the Gold Rush, students should learn about the waves of Chinese immigrants who came to America to find a better life and eventually helped build the American railroad system, becoming a vital part of American culture. Students should understand the immigration of Vietnamese and other Southeast Asian communities after the Vietnam War ended in 1975.
And they should realize that not all Asian American Pacific Islanders immigrated to America. In the case of Hawaiians, America came to them. After the islands became a U.S. territory in 1898, Hawaiians born on the islands were American citizens without ever leaving their motherland.
It’ll also be important for you to research and investigate the immigration history of any Asian American communities that are a part of your school or district, as understanding their history is critical in building and sustaining relationships. To find out more about immigration patterns of Asians to America, check out Immigration History.
2. Explore the important events of Asian American history. There are many historical events involving Asian Americans that have been left out of classroom lessons. Now is a good time to add some important events to the American timeline. A good place to start would be the Chinese Exclusion Act, which limited the immigration of Chinese people to America. This was one of the first times a law was passed to limit entry into our country based on race.
Of course, the Japanese American internment may be taught in schools, but the topic warrants a deeper exploration of the Japanese American perspective—from families losing their businesses and homes to the impact of the internment for generations. History.com can be helpful for those educators interested in teaching these and other historical events in their classrooms.
3. Learn about important Asian Americans. Students need to know about Asian American people who have made significant contributions to America and the world. From Dr. David Ho, the pioneering Taiwanese American HIV/AIDS researcher, to Dalip Saund, the first Indian American and first Sikh to serve in Congress, in 1957, to Kamala Harris, the first woman, first Black, and first Indian American vice president of the United States, there are many notable figures who have helped shape America. The Zinn Education Project can be helpful in researching and exploring the lives and contributions of these extraordinary individuals.
4. Celebrate the important cultural contributions of Asian American communities. Whether we realize it or not, American culture cannot be defined without the Asian American influence. From celebrations such as Lunar New Year to food and fashion, the cultural impact of Asian America is significant. If we look at the arts, there are many people we can celebrate, from musicians like Yo-Yo Ma to actors like Awkwafina and Mindy Kaling. When we look at the world of sports, we can list trailblazers like Tiger Woods or Hmong Olympic-medal-winning gymnast Suni Lee.
In every case, having students reflect on the impact of Asian Americans on the American landscape can help them understand the importance of this community. For more resources, you can explore the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.
We can reach equality in society only when we all have a place at the table. For far too long, the important events and contributions of Asian Americans have been left out of American history books. As we look toward a more respectful and inclusive society, we will need to ensure that our textbooks tell the full story of Asian America.
By Don Vu