The Necessity of Teaching Asian American History
As anti-Asian hate and violence continues to terrorize Asian American communities, teaching Asian American history has become critical. This is not just a matter of inclusion; of expanding the narrative of American history to include diverse communities. As teachers of American history, it is our responsibility to share with our students the fullest account of our past as possible. And as the essays in this volume make clear, Asian American history is not only about the experiences of Asian immigrants and Americans of Asian descent. Recent scholarship is revealing new ways of understanding core themes in American history more broadly: imperialism, settler colonialism, freedom, labor, economic and political power, migration and transnationalism, gender and sexuality, race and resistance, citizenship, and the very question of what it means to be an American. Borrowing from colleagues in American Indian history who have proclaimed that “You Can’t Teach U.S. History without American Indians,” I argue that it’s past time that we make another obvious assertation: we can’t teach U.S. history without Asian Americans.
Until recently, U.S. historians largely ignored Asian immigrants and their U.S.-born descendants. When they did appear in scholarly monographs or textbooks, they were little more than footnotes and dismissed as tangential to the making of the United States. A lot has changed in recent decades. There are now award-winning books, documentary films, and historic sites that preserve many aspects of Asian American history. However, the teaching of Asian American history remains largely absent in K-12 classrooms and in many college U.S. history courses. Every year as I welcome undergraduate students and ask them to reflect on what they already know about Asian American history, the most common responses are still “I never knew…,” “I have never been taught…,” “I didn’t realize that…” They are not alone. In a recent online survey of American adults in which participants were asked to name a well-known Asian American, the most common answer was “don’t know.”
The absence of Asian American history in our classrooms has serious consequences, including laying the foundations for ignorance, hate, and violence. History is not just about learning the past. It is also about belonging, and American history serves as our collective memory of “we the people” and binds us together over a shared past. When entire communities and groups have been erased, ignored, or dismissed as significant members and actors in this shared history, we are also erasing, ignoring, and dismissing them as significant members and actors in the United States today. Stereotypes of Asian Americans as spies, terrorists, inassimilable foreigners, or model minorities dominate the ways in which entire communities are viewed and understood. Similarly, without a full and honest assessment of America’s long history of anti-Asian racism, contemporary hate crimes are often characterized as random and isolated incidents rather than an expression of systemic racism targeting Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
This happened in the past and it is occurring again during the COVID-19 pandemic. It began when some of our country’s highest-ranking lawmakers repeatedly used racist characterizations of COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus” or the “kung flu” and urged Americans to “blame China” for the virus. Researchers found that the anti-Chinese rhetoric promoted by leaders directly correlated with a rise in racist incidents against Asian Americans. Former President Donald J. Trump, whose "Chinese virus" tweets were retweeted millions of times, was “the greatest spreader…of anti–Asian American rhetoric related to the pandemic," they argued, and inspired racist acts. While he tweeted, Asian Americans were attacked.
Since March of 2020, over 10,000 anti-Asian hate incidents have been reported in all fifty states and the District of Columbia. The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism reports that anti-Asian hate crime increased by 339 percent in 2021, surpassing record numbers in 2020. One national survey has found that 60 percent of Asian Americans reported that racism against them had increased during the pandemic.
Many have been killed. On January 30, 2021, 84-year-old Thai American grandfather Vicha Ratanapakdee was murdered in San Francisco. On March 16, 2021, an armed gunman entered three Asian-owned businesses in the greater Atlanta area. At one location, he reportedly said that he wanted to “kill all Asians” before he shot his victims in the face and chests. Eight people were killed. Six were Asian American women. Less than a month after the shootings in Atlanta, Sikh Americans were the apparent targets when a gunman shot and killed eight people at an Indianapolis FedEx facility. Four out of the eight victims were Sikh. As I have been writing this essay in the winter of 2022, four more Asian American women have been murdered: Michelle Go and Christina Yuna Lee in New York City and Sihui Fang and an unknown woman of Chinese descent in Albuquerque who were killed during two shootings at two Asian-owned spas. Most of the hate incidents—68 percent—have been directed at women. Along with the murders in Atlanta, this pattern confirmed how racism and misogyny continued to place Asian women at disproportionate risk of violence.
In the hours and days after the Atlanta killings, the shooter reportedly denied any racial motivation, claiming instead that he was motivated by "sexual addiction." Authorities seemingly accepted this claim and repeated the suspect’s claim that the spas were "a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate." Some journalists and media commentators accepted this explanation. Asian American historians and advocates, however, were quick to point to the ways in which the historical sexualization of Asian women in the U.S. has resulted in racist and sexist stereotypes and structures, including ongoing racial and gender-based discrimination and violence. When the Congressional House Judiciary Committee held hearings on discrimination and violence against Asian Americans two days after the Atlanta shootings, Asian American advocates and scholars joined lawmakers to explain the deep roots of anti-Asian racism in the United States, condemn the use of racist terms linking the coronavirus to Asian peoples, and urge Congress to take action. As the only professional historian asked to testify, I used my allotted five minutes to present a brief but pointed lesson in the history of anti-Asian racism and discrimination. I suspect that it was the first time that many lawmakers had been exposed to Asian American history, including discriminatory federal laws that their predecessors had passed.
As teachers of American history, we must ask ourselves what we can and must do. Why is American history incomplete without Asian Americans? How can teaching Asian American history prevent hate? How can it be part of an anti-racist education? Here, I offer a few suggestions.
First, we can support state efforts to mandate the teaching of Asian American history in public schools. On July 9, 2021, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker signed the Teaching Equitable Asian American History Act (TEAACH) into law in Illinois, becoming the first state to require public schools to teach a unit of Asian American history. One of the aims is to prevent prejudice and violence targeting Asian Americans today. In January of 2022, New Jersey became the second state to require K-12 schools to include Asian American and Pacific Islander history in their curriculums starting next school year. Make Us Visible NJ, a coalition of students, parents, educators, and community members who led the efforts in support of the bills, said the new laws are "a concrete way to prevent anti-Asian hate and support the mental health of Asian American children." We can support ongoing efforts in these and other states and work with educators to create new lesson plans and activities that reflect the latest scholarship, research, and pedagogy in American history.
Second, we can support community and student-led efforts calling on cities and institutions to apologize for their histories of racism and discrimination targeting Asian Americans. In November of 2021, San Francisco became the fourth city in California, (after Antioch, San Jose, and Los Angeles,) to apologize to its Chinese American community for “systemic and structural discrimination, targeted acts of violence, and atrocities.” These included discriminatory statutes that prohibited Asian students from attending public schools with white students and others that targeted Chinese laundries, racially profiled and segregated the Chinese America community, and restricted their civil liberties. The effort was led by local college and high school students who saw a direct connection between the attacks on their community today and the history that they were beginning to learn. “The same thing was happening again, and I felt compelled to do something about it,” said high school student Dennis Casey Wu, one of the students leading the effort. For Wu, the past is not past. Historical injustices still haunt and inform the present, and confronting anti-Asian hate and violence today begins with confronting the root causes of ongoing discrimination found in the past.
Lastly, we can continue to integrate Asian American history into our own classrooms, encouraging our own students to create, explore, and research even more deeply. What follows are some resources that help us do just that:
A Brief History of Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, & State-Sanctioned Violence (National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum)
Asian American & Pacific Islander Historical Timeline
(Stop AAPI Hate)
Asian Americans (PBS, 2020)
Asian Americans is a five-hour film series casting a new lens on U.S. history and the ongoing role that Asian Americans have played in shaping the nation’s story. The website includes an interactive gallery and educator resources, including short video clips, access to the full film, and lesson plans.
Community-based Archives, Collections, and Educational Resources
Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation
The Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation (AIISF) preserves the rich stories of Pacific Coast immigrants and shares them through educational initiatives and public programs. The foundation’s website includes a digital exhibit, videos, a guided tour, a 3D explorer of the immigration station, lesson plans, and a growing archive of personal stories of immigrants to the Pacific Coast, including former detainees at the Angel Island Immigration Station.
Densho preserves and makes accessible primary source material on the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans, presenting materials and resources for their historic value and as a means of exploring issues of democracy, intolerance, wartime hysteria, and civil rights. The Densho Archives include a digital repository of thousands of historic photographs, documents, newspapers, and oral histories, an encyclopedia with essays about the key people, places, and events that played a role in the forced removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII, an interactive map, timeline and site locator to explore the national network of WWII-era detention facilities, and curriculum, short films, a podcast, and other resources for teaching WWII incarceration history geared towards the secondary and undergraduate classrooms.
Immigrant Stories (Immigration History Research Center, University of Minnesota)
The Immigrant Stories Digital Storytelling Project works with recent immigrants and refugees to create, share, and preserve their migration stories. The digital collection is searchable and contains nearly 400 stories representing over 50 different groups, including many Asian Americans. The free digital story-making website allows anyone to write, create, edit, and share their own digital story and is supported with curricula to help high school, college, ELL learners, and organizations make their own stories using the website.
Teaching Asian American and Pacific Islander History (Teaching with Historic Places), National Park Service
Created by National Park Service interpreters, preservation professionals, and educators, these lessons use historic places in the National Parks and in the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places for use by students in history and social studies classes.
South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA)
SAADA is the largest publicly accessible archive of South Asian American History. It includes over 4,500 items in its collection, original essays about South Asian America in its online magazine, stories from its “First Days” project of immigrants’ first days in the United States, an audio walking tour of Philadelphia through the lens of South Asian American history, and more.
Southeast Asian Archive (University of California, Irvine Libraries)
The Southeast Asian Archive at UC Irvine has several digital collections and exhibits documenting the Southeast Asian American experience through hundreds of audio/video oral histories with transcripts and thousands of images and textual documents.
Erika Lee is a Regents Professor of History and Asian American Studies, Director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota, and President of the Organization of American Historians. She is the author of four award-winning books including America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in America and The Making of Asian America.
Susan Sleeper-Smith, Juliana Barr, Jean M. O’Brien, Nancy Shoemaker, Scott Manning Stevens, eds., Why You Can’t Teach United States History without American Indians (2015).
LAAUNCH Foundation, “Status Index Report 2021”; Shirley Leung, “Asked in a Poll to Name a Prominent Asian American, the Top Answer was ‘Don’t Know.’ Wake Up, America,” Boston Globe, May 10, 2021.
Stop AAPI Hate, “The Return of the ‘Yellow Peril’: Anti-AAPI Rhetoric and Policies Leading Up to the 2020 Election,” Stop AAPI Hate Website, Oct. 21, 2020.
Kimmy Yam, “Anti-Asian Hate Crimes Increased 339 Percent Nationwide Last Year, Report Says,” NBC News, Jan. 31, 2022.
Karthick Ramakrishnan, Janelle Wong, Jennifer Lee, Sara Sadhwani, and Sunny Shao, “Tip of the Iceberg: Estimates of AAPI Hate Incidents Far More Extensive Than Reported,” AAPI Data Blog, March 30, 2021.
Janie Har, “US Cities Mark 1st Anniversary of Thai Grandfather’s Killing,” AP News, Jan. 30, 2022; “Unpacking the Surge in Violence Against Asian Americans," NPR, Feb. 10, 2021.
Cassidy McDonald, “Victims in Atlanta Spa Shootings Include Business Owner, Army Veteran and Grandmother,” CBS News, March 23, 2021.
Sakshi Venkatraman, “Sikh Americans Highlight Historical, ‘Invisible’ Racism After Indianapolis Shootings,” NBC News, April 21, 2021.
Nicole Chavez, “Michelle Go’s Death Hasn’t Been Labeled a Hate Crime But It Adds to the Fear that Asian Americans Feel,” CNN, Jan. 20, 2022; Ashley Southall, Ali Watkins, and Jeffrey E. Singer, “Screams That ‘Went Quiet’: Prosecutors Account of Chinatown Killing,” New York Times, Feb. 14, 2022; Kimmy Yam, “Shootings at Two Asian-Owned Businesses in Albuquerque Leave Community ‘Terrified,’” NBC News, Feb. 25, 2022.
Kimmy Yan, “Racism, Sexism Must be Considered in Atlanta Case Involving Killing of Six Asian Women, Experts Say,” Today, March 17, 2021. In May, 2021, the Fulton County (GA) district attorney classified the shootings as a hate crime. Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, “Atlanta Spa Shootings Were Hate Crimes, Prosecutor Says,” New York Times, May 11, 2021.
"House Judiciary Subcommittee on Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties Hearing: Discrimination and Violence Against Asian Americans,” March 18, 2021, House Committee on the Judiciary Website; Chloee Weiner, “On Capitol Hill, Asian American Leaders Say Community Has Reached ‘Crisis Point,’” NPR, March 18, 2021.
Deepa Shivaram, “Illinois Has Become the First State to Require the Teaching of Asian American History,” NPR, July 13, 2021.
Nicole Chavez, “New Jersey Becomes Second State to Require Asian American History to Be Taught in Schools,” CNN, Jan. 18, 2022.
Shwanika Narayan, “S.F. could become 4th California city to apologize to its Chinese community. Three students are the reason why,” San Francisco Chronicle, Nov. 9, 2021.