How defenders are rewriting Asian American stories in the history books


Julia Wang and Kathy Lu were shocked at the level of anti-immigration rhetoric they heard during the 2016 presidential election.

This prompted them to take action: after the election, they developed a curriculum on Chinese-American history and created a non-profit organization, the Immigrant History Initiative, dedicated to educating communities on American immigrant stories.

Lu and Wang hope that by learning the history of immigrants, students will reflect on current anti-immigrant attitudes.

The program also allowed them to educate others about a facet of American history that they hadn’t really realized before going to college.

“I think maybe a lot of Asian Americans grew up feeling a bit detached from America, feeling almost unhealthy because we have no idea who came before us,” he said. Lu said. “What we hope to do through this organization is to provide a space for students to get to know these stories that are hardly talked about at all.”

A photograph of Fred Korematsu was presented at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington on February 2, 2012.Mandel Ngan / AFP – Getty Images File

Lu and Wang are just two of the many United States that strive to bring some Asian American history to classrooms. The story is largely ignored in textbooks, these groups say, despite the fact that Asian Americans are one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in the country.

“The story of Asian Americans is a story that many people don’t know,” said Karen Korematsu, founder and executive director of the Fred T. Korematsu Institute, named after her father, a rights activist. civics who challenged the incarceration of Japanese Americans. “And because there is obviously this misconception of being the model minority, people don’t realize the contributions Asian Americans have made to this country – and also the struggles they have had.”

In the struggle to ensure that history is taught in schools, several organizations have created lesson plans and programs, providing them free or at low cost.

Lu and Wang, graduates of Yale Law School with a background in history and international relations respectively, designed their program to highlight examples of coalition building that have empowered Asian Americans to overcome challenges. systemic barriers. Topics covered include the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 and the story of Vincent Chin, a 27-year-old Chinese-American who was beaten to death by two white men in Detroit in 1982.

The program was piloted at a Chinese school in New Haven, Connecticut, and reached about 30 to 40 students, Lu said.

President Bill Clinton presents Fred Korematsu with the Presidential Medal of Freedom during a ceremony at the White House.Dennis Cook / AP folder

Korematsu’s organization, which she founded in 2009 to carry on her father’s legacy, developed a program to teach students about Fred Korematsu and the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. The program has been distributed to educators in all 50 states and in more than a dozen countries and has been taught to over 2 million students, she said.

Creating and presenting lesson plans to schools seems like a good way forward in the digital age, noted Karen Korematsu, especially since changing textbooks comes at a cost to schools – many of which are suffering budget cuts. constant – as they would be necessary. to purchase updated versions.

But for states that purchase large amounts of textbooks, it can be effective to bring the history of Asian America into schools through a top-down approach.

The Sikh Coalition, which defends the interests of American Sikhs, has fought to include Sikhism in school standards by working with state school boards. After more than a decade, he has successfully campaigned in eight states, including Tennessee and Arizona, and is working on the remaining 42.

Satjeet Kaur, executive director of the coalition, said working with school boards allows the organization to work directly with those responsible for the education system. The approach works well for states that are large buyers of textbooks, she added, as textbook companies will adapt their content to those standards.

Kaur added that the best way to include Asian American history in schools may vary from state to state.

In some cases, it is necessary to change the law.

California has seen some of these legislative victories. In 2013, he passed a bill requiring schools to teach about the role of Filipino Americans in the farm worker movement. Another law signed last year requires schools to teach Cambodian, Hmong and Vietnamese history.

In Illinois, the legislature is considering an amendment to a bill that would require its board of education to develop a curriculum that school districts could use to teach Cambodian, Laotian and Vietnamese history.

But in other cases, the process of introducing state law can be arduous and resource intensive.

In Wisconsin, advocates have fought for more than a decade to pass a bill that would require schools to teach students about the role of the Hmong people in the Vietnam War, the persecution of the Hmong people after the war and the reasons for their migration to the United States. The state is home to one of the largest Hmong populations in the United States.

The latest version of the bill was introduced in 2017, but it died early last year.

Maggie Xiong, director of social justice at Cia Siab Inc., a Wisconsin organization serving the Hmong community, said advocates were working to bring the measure back to the legislature by redrafting the text to possibly demand that the Hmong history is only taught in areas where there are large Hmong populations.

But even if they overcome these hurdles, advocates still do not know where they would find funds to create education programs if the bill were to pass.

“This whole process has been really stressful because it’s a lot of back and forth, it’s a lot of failures,” Xiong said. “We know it’s not going to be given to us right away, and it’s still going to be a lot of work.”

LaoSD members at a Lao boat racing festival.Courtesy of LaoSD

In California, Laotian Americans are supporting an education bill introduced this year that would require the inclusion of Laotian history and cultural studies in California schools. The bill follows the passage of a 2018 bill making the teaching of Southeast Asian history in schools compulsory.

Some members of the Lao community have formed a group called Lao Advocacy Organization San Diego, better known as LaoSD, as the contributions of Laos and the history of Laos during the Vietnam War were not mentioned in this draft. law.

“Americans of Lao descent are part of the fabric of America,” Pida Kongphouthone, member of the LaoSD organizing committee, told NBC News earlier this year. “This is why it is important that not only the story is complete, but also to highlight the immigrant history of our fellow Americans.”

In classrooms where Asian American history has been taught as a result of inclusion efforts, advocates are reporting positive results.

Phitsamay Uy, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell who helped develop a curriculum in Lao American history and pilot it in Seattle, said students of South Asian descent were delighted to be able to talk about their story.

This prompted them to ask their parents why they hadn’t been told about the story before, she added, while those who were not of Laotian descent were surprised to learn that the country had been bombed and expressed a desire to defend the community.

Channapha Khamvongsa, founder and executive director of Legacies of War, the group that worked with Uy on the program, said learning their history is an experience that validates students’ histories. “The absence of this in her school reinforces their invisibility as if it doesn’t matter,” she said.

At Southern Connecticut Chinese School in New Haven, students who completed the Immigrant History Initiative program demonstrated a high level of engagement in discussions on topics such as race and resilience, said Read.

As advocates continue to push for the inclusion of Asian American history in schools, some groups, including those in Lu and Korematsu, aim to develop an additional curriculum to cover the entire Asian American community.

Karen Korematsu, Founder and Executive Director of the Fred T. Korematsu Institute.Bob Hsiang / Courtesy of the Fred T. Korematsu Institute

Lu said she and Wang would like to create materials to teach communities about the history of Southeast Asian America. Korematsu said his goal is for the institute to eventually have a program that connects several American civil rights stories, including those of Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and her father, Fred Korematsu.

“At the end of the day, we want the students to realize that they are American, and we need to step out of our silos and focus on that,” she said. “One way or another, I hope for the next generation we can teach them that to make a difference, we must all work together.”

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