After Atlanta: Teaching About Asian American Identity and History

One LFJ award winner shares the conversation she started with students the day after the attacks in Atlanta and recommends resources anyone can use to teach about Asian American history and identity.
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Since I awoke to the headline “SIX ASIANS SHOT AND KILLED IN GEORGIA,” I haven’t been able to eloquently express my sadness, frustration and rage. As an Asian American educator, how could I face my students in class when my body and voice are noticeably shaking?

When I’m angry, I tend to channel my emotion into my work. In Korean culture, there’s a term called “Han,” which also happens to be my Korean surname. “Han” represents a shared connection amongst Koreans. It’s sorrow, anger, but most importantly, resilience.

I can’t change the past. No one can. But what I can do in this moment is direct these emotions into action to take one step towards ensuring that no Asian child is called “Kung-flu” by a classmate and that my students will not grow up to harass and attack people of Asian descent on the street.

The first step in anti-bias work is to identify the bias. If we truly intend to center our students, we have to ask ourselves, “Am I engaging my students in the inquiry process by allowing their questions to guide their own learning?” and even taking a step back to consider, “What questions am I asking my students?” We can’t fix what we don’t know is broken.

When my sixth-grade students began class today, they were met with a survey including just five questions:

  • I know the difference between the terms “Asian” and “Asian American.” (yes/no/maybe)
    • If you answered “yes,” please explain.
  • I am knowledgeable about Asian American history. (1-5 strongly disagree-strongly agree)
  • I know of and can name at least three Asian Americans, either from history or the present day. (yes/no/maybe)
  • What do you think you know about Asian American history, identities or experiences? 
  • What questions do you have about Asian American history, identities or experiences?

To give some context, I teach at a racially, ethnically and socioeconomically diverse school in a diverse, liberal city with an international and political focus.

Out of 52 sixth-grade students, 37—or 70%—disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement, “I am knowledgeable about Asian American history.” Only four students said they could name at least three Asian Americans from history or the present day. To the question, “What do you think you know about Asian American history, identities or experiences?” 60% of my students replied, “I don’t know” or “nothing.”  

Despite this data, which reflects an urgent need to teach about Asian American history, my students’ responses to “What questions do you have about Asian American history, identities or experiences?” filled my heart.

One student wrote, “Almost everything because I have not been educated on this topic yet, but I hope one day I could be.”  Another said, “Well, I know nothing, so I guess it would be helpful to know more about everything.” And another: “I just want to learn more because we don’t learn about it in school.” 

I encourage educators to remember that racial justice and anti-bias work exist beyond a Black and white binary. The Asian, Indigenous and Latinx communities must be a part of any work labeled “diverse,” “culturally responsive” and “anti-racist.”

As an adult who has gone through the American school system, you might feel stuck because you also realize how little you know about Asian American history and people. It is a huge challenge to teach about what we don’t know. If this is the case, I hope you’ll consider turning your research into a joint learning opportunity that you can share with your students.

Here are some great places to start:

We Are Not A Stereotype
A video series from the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center

The Asian American Racial Justice Toolkit
A collection of resources from grassroots organizations hosted by Asian American Pacific Islanders for Civic Empowerment.

Asian Americans K-12 Education Curriculum
Lesson plans and additional resources from Asian Americans Advancing Justice, Los Angeles.

A Different Asian American Timeline
An online tool for exploring the history of Asians and Asian Americans in land that is now the United States, starting in the 1400s.

Asian Americans
A PBS series exploring “the history of identity, contributions, and challenges experienced by Asian Americans.” Streaming online.

Sikh Coalition
An organization offering resources for teaching about Sikh traditions, history and identity.

Asian/Asian American Children’s Books
A collection of titles from Lee and Low publishers that highlights the diversity of Asian and Asian American identities.

About the Author

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