Students returning to the classroom in New York City public schools may be learning more about Asian American history this school year with the rollout of a new curriculum that aims to shed light on lesser known histories.
The curriculum, "Hidden Voices: Asian American and Pacific Islanders in the United States," is part of the Hidden Voices project, which seeks to highlight significant figures who have often been left out in historical documentation. The curriculum will be rolled out across the largest public school system in the country, with more than 1 million students.
Educators typically haven’t had the opportunity to explore race and racism, which are difficult conversations that explore harms the U.S. has inflicted on communities of color—including AAPIs.
Kaveri Sengupta, senior policy coordinator for education at the New York-based non-profit Coalition for Asian American Children and Families—which was involved in advocating for the curriculum—says that the rollout doesn't make it mandatory for schools to teach Asian American history in public schools. But the coalition is happy to see the NYC Department of Education's plan to ensure students across the city are exposed to the curriculum.
"We're excited that the DOE is taking really seriously the implementation challenges and wanting to address those," Sengupta says. Among those challenges includes providing professional development for educators and ensuring the lowest possible burden on them so that it’s easy to incorporate the curriculum into their classrooms. “They're already teaching so much,” she says. “It has to be very easily adaptable into existing curricula.”
Vivian Louie, director of Asian American Studies at City University of New York's Hunter College and a lead scholar on the Hidden Voices: AAPIs in the U.S. project, says the curriculum will cover moments in AAPI history like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, and the colonization and annexation of Hawaii.
Asian American and Pacific Islander history has historically been omitted from school teachings. This is due to multiple reasons, Sengupta says, including because curriculum is set by powerful people and institutions that have historically uplifted Eurocentric narratives; because AAPIs have long been viewed as perpetual foreigners in the U.S., so their rich history in the country has often been overlooked; and because educators typically haven’t had the opportunity to explore race and racism, which are difficult conversations that explore harms the U.S. has inflicted on communities of color—including AAPIs.
But states across the country have recently begun requiring that it be taught in schools. Illinois last year became the first to do so in 2021. Connecticut and New Jersey followed suit this year. Several other states have also pushed to require the inclusion of AAPI history in school curricula, including California, Florida, Ohio and New York. (California’s bill has stalled, but a measure making ethnic studies a graduation requirement for high school students was signed into law in 2021.) Earlier this year, Sen. Mazie Hirono authored a bill that would promote the teaching of AAPI history in schools.
In New York, state Sen. John Liu was prompted to introduce legislation amid the rise in anti-Asian hate during the Covid-19 pandemic. "One of the absolutely necessary long-term changes has to be public schools beginning to teach the Asian American experience and history," he says. "That's so necessary because hate and bigotry are rooted in fear and ignorance. It's a lot a lot easier to blame and scapegoat people you don't know or understand."
Liu recalled that he didn't learn about Asian American history until he got to college. There weren't any Asian American courses at the time, he says, but he learned about the history through Asian American student organizations. Learning that history helped him establish an identity for himself, he says.
"I didn't have an easy time in public school. There was a certain amount of bullying that I endured; anti-Asian taunts and epithets," he says. "Honestly, there was a period of time when I wished I was white so I didn't have to deal with being Asian."
Liu’s bill is currently in committee.
Individuals who identify as Asian American and spoke with JoySauce shared Liu's experience: that learning about their history had a positive impact on them.
Cynthia Ye, a rising senior at Baruch Campus High School in New York, says she first began learning about Asian American history when she was in middle school. She remembered being taught about the Chinese Exclusion Act, a law passed in 1882 that barred immigration from China into the United States for 10 years. She also learned about the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. But she said the history she was taught was largely Eurocentric.
"To understand your identity is meaningful. Just knowing the way things are and how you can shape yourself...Just knowing all these perspectives can be really helpful in determining what you want for yourself and how you want to go about in telling others about who you are."
Similarly to Liu, learning about Asian American history equipped Ye with a better standing of her identity. She says she struggled to understand what it means to be Asian or Asian American, and to be Chinese or Chinese American.
"I remember just being very confused, like, why do we have all these terms to identify myself? Is that really necessary?" she says. "To understand your identity is meaningful. Just knowing the way things are and how you can shape yourself; at the same time, how society can shape you. Just knowing all these perspectives can be really helpful in determining what you want for yourself and how you want to go about in telling others about who you are."
Mamoona Hassan, a senior at Brooklyn Tech High School, says she first learned about Asian American history in high school, specifically citing the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII and the Supreme Court case Korematsu vs. United States, where a Japanese American resisted internment. She says she finds that AAPI history taught in schools is limited. In teachings about internment, for instance, there is rarely any mention of how Japanese Americans were dehumanized by whites, she says.
Both Ye and Hassan say they've learned more about AAPI history through a youth leadership program called Asian American Student Advocacy Project. Hassan credits it for her knowledge on lesser known figures and moments in AAPI history, including that Filipinos were the first Asian American group to settle in North America and the significant contributions of Chinese Americans to the first Transcontinental Railroad.
"As a South Asian American, it makes me proud to hear about the contributions of Asian Americans in general, but also it makes me happy to see how South Asians were also crucial figures for instance during the late 1900s in building our services economy," Hassan says.
“It makes me happy to see how South Asians were also crucial figures for instance during the late 1900s in building our services economy.”
As New York City begins rolling out curriculum that includes AAPI history in public schools, educators and advocates in Illinois are also gearing up to implement the TEAACH Act that requires AAPI history to be taught in public schools across the state.
Laura Houcque Prabhakar, an educator at a public charter school in Chicago and community leader with the Cambodian Association of Illinois, was involved in advocacy work to pass the TEAACH Act and is active in efforts to implement the law.
Some moments of Asian American history highlighted in the curriculum include the involvement of Filipino workers in the farm workers movement, the racism South Asian Americans—particularly the Sikh community—experienced after 9/11, and the struggle of maintaining Pacific Islander culture while dealing with westernized society in modern day Hawaii, Prabhakar said.
Smita Garg, an educational consultant, has been facilitating professional development sessions through Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Chicago, a nonprofit that led the initiative to pass the law. She has also been involved in rolling out Asian American history curriculum at an elementary school in Chicago, where there has already been a welcoming response to the efforts.
The curriculum has featured interactive ways to teach students about Filipino American heritage, including having them read theater scripts and watch videos about labor leader Larry Itliong, who led a group of Filipino American farm workers to strike in what marked the beginning of the Delano Grape Strike in 1965. Students have also learned about a Filipino cultural dance called tinikling by dancing it in gym class, and learned about Sikhism through a virtual presentation by Deepika Kaur Pujji, the author of the children's book What Color Is My Patka?
Given America's rich diversity, it's important for different communities to understand each other, Garg says. "In this case in particular, Asian Americans are part of the fabric of this country, and understanding stereotypes that have led us to think otherwise," she says. "And just try to offer more content to kids, or lessons, that really supports this understanding that Asian American history is American history."
The impact of teaching AAPI history extends beyond those who identify with the group. Prabhakar, who has predominantly taught students who identify as Latino and Black, says they have been able to connect that history to their communities and cultures.
“It'll provide students of all identities cross-cultural education,” she says. “It'll instill empathy, and promote empowerment in students—AAPI or not—to really be able to just fight for that advocacy, the visibility, the justice, that needs to be happening. And education is one of those tools that we can use to help make that happen.”
She says that while there has been a significant increase in anti-Asian hate throughout the past few years, that sentiment isn't new. Prabhakar cites a lesser known civil rights case, Tape v. Hurley in 1885, which challenged a principal's refusal to enroll children of Chinese descent in a San Francisco school. The case occurred seven years before the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. There was also the murder of Vincent Chin in 1982 Chinese Massacre of 1871 in Los Angeles.
The prevalence of anti-Asian hate has raised visibility for Asian Americans, Prabhakar says, and has given students of all backgrounds the opportunity to learn how everyone's histories are interconnected—that the struggles different communities face aren't in competition with each other.
"Trying to work for the better means being able to have a more functional society,” she says. “But in order to do that, we've got to work together—not against each other. It's not who's upping the other."
She adds, "The U.S. is shifting in terms of how it looks demographically, and this is really just addressing and being proactive about making sure this rising population is really able to now feel more included and more seen.”
Published on September 5, 2022
Words by Agnes Constante
Agnes Constante is a freelance journalist whose byline has appeared in NBCNews.com, Los Angeles Times, Women's Health, KCET, Inquirer.net, Prism, TimesOC and Asian Journal. Her work has been recognized by the Los Angeles Press Club and Philippine American Press Club. Agnes is currently a Carter Fellow and board member for the Los Angeles chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association.
Art by Ryan Quan
Ryan Quan is the Social Media Editor for JoySauce. This queer, half-Chinese, half-Filipino writer and graphic designer loves everything related to music, creative nonfiction, and art. Based in Brooklyn, he spends most of his time dancing to hyperpop and accidentally falling asleep on the subway. Follow him on Instagram at @ryanquans.