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THE GREAT DIVIDE

Why is Asian American history barely taught in Mass. schools?

Katie Yue-Sum Li, the ethnic studies coordinator at Boston Public Schools, said the onus is often on individual teachers to ensure Asian American history is covered.
Katie Yue-Sum Li, the ethnic studies coordinator at Boston Public Schools, said the onus is often on individual teachers to ensure Asian American history is covered.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

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Tiffany Luo’s teachers have covered Asian American history exactly twice since her freshman year. Buried in a few PowerPoint slides were brief mentions of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the forced internment of Japanese Americans 60 years later.

“It’s practically nonexistent,” said Luo, 17, a rising senior of Chinese descent at Boston Latin School, about her exposure to Asian American history in her coursework. “All we learn about is other people — not ourselves.”

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Asian Americans and their contributions to US history and culture are largely missing from social studies curricula and textbooks, in Massachusetts and across the country. If and when they do appear in classroom history lessons, experts say, Asian Americans often are portrayed as outsiders, enemy aliens, or victims of xenophobic racism. Rarely are they shown as heroes in the sweeping arc of the American story, or as change-makers who battled systemic injustice and advanced the cause for civil rights. And for Asian American students, inculcated with a Eurocentric history from which they’ve been erased, the psychological ramifications are profound.

“The message is that either you are a foreigner or a dangerous threat or you’re a passive victim,” said Sohyun An, a professor of social studies education at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, who studies how Asian American history is taught in schools. “It tells you that you don’t belong here. Your people don’t belong here.”

Teachers and scholars say the absence of Asian American history in schools helps explain why anti-Asian racism and violence have persisted, especially amid the pandemic. But a new movement is gaining ground to introduce a more thorough telling of the Asian American experience to students. Illinois is poised to become the first state to mandate the teaching of Asian American history in public schools with the recent passage of the Teaching Equitable Asian American Community History Act. Lawmakers have floated similar bills in New York, Connecticut, and Wisconsin.

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In Massachusetts, a group of parents from Needham are petitioning the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to add Asian American history to the core curriculum. The Legislature also is considering a bill to establish a commission that would work with the Education Department to ensure that “ethnic studies, racial justice, decolonizing history, and unlearning racism” are taught to Massachusetts students.

“We need to change the curriculum . . . so that students learn the humanity of other people,” An said, “not just white people of this country.”

According to An’s preliminary research on state-level US history curriculum guidelines, inclusion and representation of Asian Americans vary considerably across the country. The incarceration of Japanese Americans at internment camps during World War II is the most commonly taught subject of Asian American history — appearing in K-12 curriculum standards for 25 states — followed by anti-Chinese or anti-Asian immigration laws, which are included in 14 states’ standards. References to other events or figures in Asian American history are included only sporadically in curriculum guidelines. And Asian Americans almost never appear in the context of civil rights activism, she found.

New York, according to An’s research, has the most robust curriculum guidelines featuring Asian American history, with 14 mentions of Asian American events or historical figures, followed by Minnesota with nine, and Hawaii and Oregon with eight. Her analysis of curriculum standards in Massachusetts, Maryland, and Tennessee found seven references to Asian American history. In the guidelines for 18 states, including Rhode Island and Maine, Asian American history did not merit a single mention.

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An cautioned, however, against drawing comparisons among state standards. In most of the states with zero Asian American content, she noted, their standards were theme- or skills-based rather than content-specific.

Massachusetts’ History and Social Science Curriculum Framework cites a smattering of topics in Asian American history, including Asian migration to the West and Northeast, the internment of Japanese Americans, and the role of Asian immigrants in the country’s industrialization. Jacqueline Reis, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said in an e-mail the agency “does not have plans to revise the Framework again in the near future.” Which instruction materials and curricula are used in classrooms, she noted, are determined at the local level.

Katie Yue-Sum Li, the ethnic studies coordinator and coach at Boston Public Schools, said the onus is often on individual teachers to ensure Asian American history is covered, but that’s challenging in this era of high-stakes testing and accountability, in which teachers have little time or flexibility to introduce subject matter that isn’t required for passing state assessment exams.

“We’re taught to teach to the test,” said Li, who previously taught immigrant students at Charlestown High School. “There’s almost no time to do the other stuff.”

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Li worries about the omission of Asian American history in schools and its impact on Asian American students’ psyches. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey Assessment of Boston middle schoolers, prior to the pandemic, 14 percent of Asian students reported that they had attempted suicide, compared with 4 percent of white students, 10 percent of Black students, and 12 percent of Latino students. What’s more, 82 percent of the city’s Asian middle schoolers said they rarely, if ever, get the help they need when they are struggling with their mental health. Boston Public Schools’ student population is about 9 percent Asian.

“That’s the kind of effect it has on children — you literally erase yourself physically and mentally,” Li said. “You don’t see yourself in the classroom. You don’t see yourself in the curriculum. You don’t see yourself in the society. . . . You’re told that you’re not important, that when you speak up, that you just need to shut up and deal with it.”

The consequences of Asian American erasure in schools are far-reaching: While Asians are the fastest growing racial or ethnic group in the United States, a comprehensive survey released last month of 2,766 American adults found 42 percent could not name any well-known Asian Americans.

Luo, the Boston Latin student, knows firsthand how Asian American invisibility harms self-esteem. She grew up with her grandmother in Chinatown, where she attended Josiah Quincy Elementary School. The majority of her classmates were Asian American, she said, and her teachers and administrators celebrated Asian American culture and holidays, like Lunar New Year.

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Luo’s transition to Boston Latin School, where nearly half of the student body is white and less than a third is Asian, was difficult. She and other Asian students were teased about the food they brought for lunch. Boys made comments to her about liking “submissive” Asian girls. At first, Luo said, she worried about being “too Asian” and resisted joining Asian American extracurricular clubs or events.

“I feel like a lot of us lose kind of our identity in the process,” she said. “With Asian American history being erased . . . no one really understands the racism we experience and they kind of brush us off.”


Deanna Pan can be reached at deanna.pan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @DDpan.