As crimes against the Asian American Pacific Islander community increase, nationwide calls to combat hate and teach Asian American history in schools have followed. Anti-Asian bias is not new to American history and one of the ways to dismantle racism is teaching children why it’s wrong. As states across the country discuss adding race to their curriculums, Illinois has taken the plunge in becoming the first state to mandate that Asian American history be part of its public school curriculum.
According to CNN, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a bill Friday that requires elementary and high schools to teach a unit of Asian American history beginning in the 2022-23 school year. The legislation, the Teaching Equitable Asian American History (TEAACH) Act, a historic win for Asian American groups nationwide, is scheduled to go into effect Jan. 1. The governor hopes to dismantle false stereotypes and discrimination against the AAPI community through the bill.
“Today, we are reaffirming our commitment to creating more inclusive school environments. We’re making Illinois the first state in the nation to require that Asian American history will be taught in public schools, including a unit about the Asian American experience,” Pritzker said in a statement. “We are setting a new standard for what it means to truly reckon with our history. It’s a new standard that helps us understand one another, and, ultimately, to move ourselves closer to the nation of our ideals.”
Once in effect, the bill will require schools to add a unit studying the “events of Asian American history,” to their curriculum including the contributions of Asian Americans in advancing civil rights since the 19th century, and “contributions made by individual Asian Americans in government and the arts, humanities, and sciences, as well as the contributions of Asian American communities to the economic, cultural, social, and political development of the United States,” the bill read. What each school should specifically teach is not dictated and is up for the school to decide.
Moves to sign the bill into law were led by advocacy group Asian Americans Advancing Justice in Chicago. While the organization and supporters were advocating for its passage since early 2020, the bill garnered attention in the state legislature after the Atlanta shooting, in which six Asian women were murdered. That and the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes has had a drastic impact on youth and other children especially. Additionally, misinformation on Asian Americans and how COVID-19 has spread has contributed to an ideology of Asian Americans being classified as “foreign” or “other,” Daily Kos reported.
“So many students don’t get a chance to learn about the contributions of their communities or the migration stories of their families, contributing to feelings of being ‘othered’,” Grace Pai, Executive Director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice in Chicago, said in a statement.
The bill will benefit more than 100,000 Asian American students from kindergarten through high school in the state, according to a statement by Illinois State Rep. Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz, a third-generation Chinese American who co-sponsored the bill. The bill “helps create a more inclusive and comprehensive understanding of American history for all students in Illinois and helps fight anti-Asian racism and xenophobia,” she said. “Asian American history is American history.”
While this is the first bill to require the history of Asian Americans and their contributions to the country to be taught in schools, similar bills have been passed for other cultures nationwide. According to CNN, California adopted a model for ethnic studies for K-12 students in March. That bill included instruction on teaching Asian American history however made the curriculum voluntary for schools and served as a guide.
“A lot of the legislation around these kinds of curricular decisions are often symbolic. They are signals by legislators of priorities and where they stand and about what’s important to the state,” Natasha Warikoo, a scholar of racial and ethnic inequality in education at Tufts University told NBC News. “What really happens on the ground is going to vary tremendously,” depending on “local politics, depending on the staff and the feelings of capacity on who the student body is.”
Like others, Warikoo noted the importance of including Asian American history in school curriculums as critical to changing discriminatory perceptions.
“There’s research on Asian Americans, and it shows that a majority of people are more likely to see Asians as foreign. You see an Asian face, you assume they’re foreign. And I think that’s in part because we don’t know the history of Asians in the United States,” she said. “I think that it can attenuate those kinds of biases towards Asian Americans by making them part of U.S. history.”
Illinois State Rep. Theresa Mah, the first Asian American elected to the Illinois General Assembly in 2016 and a sponsor of the bill, shared similar sentiments. She noted that teaching Asian American history allows for Asian Americans to feel more at home and dispels the stereotype of Asian Americans as foreigners. “Asian Americans tend to experience this othering,” she said. “People see us as not belonging to the country, not ‘real’ Americans.”
How cultural and racial history is taught in schools has real-world implications. According to research conducted by Sohyun An, a professor of social studies education at the Kennesaw State University, history lessons about Asian Americans in the U.S. tend to focus almost exclusively on early Chinese immigrants and Japanese internment camps during World War II. These lessons, An told NBC News, further instill stereotypes about Asian Americans as “forever foreigners,” and teach students that Asian Americans are “an economic and military threat to the United States.”
“What’s being written in class, what’s being included or not included—or when they’re included, how they’re being represented—it’s not just a scholarly or academic debate,” An said. “It’s a life-and-death issue.”
According to Stop AAPI Hate, at least 3,800 anti-hate incidents have been reported in the last year. The number is likely to be higher, the organization said, due to the number of those crimes that go unreported. Alongside anti-hate incidents, Asian students across the country have been subject to increased bullying following misinformation around the coronavirus. The use of xenophobic language to describe the COVID-19 virus has been directly connected to a surge in hate crimes and bias nationwide.
Since the bill comes at a time where critical race theory is the target of GOP officials nationwide, its significance is even greater. Here’s to hoping other states follow in Illinois’s steps of mandating inclusive curriculums.
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