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February 1, 2022

Countering Asian-American Invisibility in Schools

How schools can address the often-hidden equity issues facing Asian American educators and students.
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February 2022 Hsieh cover image
Last March, after the killing of six Asian and Asian American women in spas in Atlanta, I felt completely invisible. The shootings had only heightened the trauma of the previous year as the COVID-19 virus spread worldwide, bringing with it virulent racist and xenophobic attacks on Asian Americans (particularly elders) that were broadcast nearly daily through social media. Yet, in meetings with fellow education leaders, no one said a word of acknowledgment and people continued business as usual.
The invisibility I felt reminded me of my first year of teaching, when I was "voluntold" to lead the Asian Pacific Islander Club without anyone asking if I felt I could take on a club advising role. That invisibility stretched back even further to my time as a student, in classes that were predominantly full of white students and almost exclusively taught by white teachers. The only time my cultural heritage was ever acknowledged was when I was asked to bring egg rolls for the class for "Chinese" (Lunar) New Year.
After the shootings, I finally spoke up for my younger selves and my current needs. I voiced to my colleagues how deeply painful, frightening, and exhausting the year had been for many Asian American students, families, and educators. My colleagues apologized and expressed their support. But I continued to wonder why it took my reminder for them to acknowledge the current traumas Asian Americans in education are facing and to see that my identity as an Asian American woman deeply impacts my experiences in education. Perhaps they just weren't sure what to say, so they said nothing at all, rather than risk getting it wrong.

A Spotlight on Anti-Asian Violence

During another school year rife with pandemic-related complications, much of the spotlight has faded on anti-Asian violence. Like many educators, the Asian American educators I know are exhausted from the nearly two years of uncertainty. But they, along with the Asian American students they teach, are still dealing with continued reports of hate incidents and fears of anti-Asian scapegoating around the origins of COVID-19 as we approach the one-year remembrance of the Atlanta spa shootings. According to statistics from Stop AAPI Hate, a national coalition that addresses anti-AAPI violence, more than 9,000 hate incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders were reported in the United States from March 2020 to June 2021, including verbal harassment, shunning, physical assault, civil rights violations, and online harassment.
Given my research on Asian American teachers, advocacy for incorporating Asian American perspectives into education conversations (Sintos Coloma et al., 2021), and my roles as an Asian American mother of school-aged children and current teacher educator, I often get asked how educators can best support our Asian American colleagues and students. Since Asian Americans are a hugely diverse group, made up diasporic people who come from more than 30 different ethnic groups/nationalities, the answers aren't one-size-fits-all.
The last two years may have highlighted to the broader public the race-based marginalization and erasure Asian Americans experience, but it is certainly nothing new. So, what can we do to prevent further marginalization and bias across educational contexts and move toward greater recognition, affirmation, and equity of the diverse experiences of Asian Americans?

1. Don't Make Assumptions About Asian American Colleagues and Students

A first step in supporting your Asian American colleagues and students is to understand and avoid making prevalent assumptions that erase Asian Americans' individual experiences, identities, and agency. Based on interview data for a book I coauthored on the racialized experiences of Asian American teachers (Kim & Hsieh, 2021), many South and Southeast Asians report feeling positioned as "not the right kind of Asian" by both other Asian Americans and non-Asian Americans. What resounded from the responses were the numerous assumptions Asian Americans face over the course of their educational experiences.

Learning about Asian Americans requires engaging with curricular resources and listening to Asian-Americans' lived experiences—not just one of the other.

Author Image

Betina Hsieh

Asian Americans' experiences are often assumed to be both universal and interchangeable. Many of the assumptions are based on the "model minority" myth (Chow, 2017), or the idea that Asian American students are all high achieving (particularly in math and science) due to cultural values like hard work and deference. Buying into this stereotype fails to support those who do not fit into it and positions Asian Americans against other people of color and marginalized groups when they may also experience systemic discrimination. Even more insidiously, this stereotype may deny Asian American students who require various forms of support the help that they need. Educators may characterize such students' challenges as "laziness," encouraging them to work harder and make their families proud, rather than offering support services. When immigrant Asian American families have children who need support, they are often expected to defer to school officials regarding their children's options, without being offered appropriate language translation services.
Teachers also mentioned racial discrimination and microaggressions (Sue et al., 2007), such as people regularly thinking they teach a stereotypical subject ("You're a math teacher, right?"); being confused with other Asian staff members ("Aren't you Ms. Li?" "No, that's the other Asian American female teacher"); being asked to translate for all Asian language-speaking students (regardless of different ethnicities or language competencies); or people assuming they were an aide, teaching assistant, or a student. On Twitter, Popsy Kanagaratnam, a former K–12 teacher, shared, "Don't assume I am a teacher's aide when I am a certified teacher. Don't assume I am unqualified."
Educate yourself about common and uncommon stereotypes, unconscious biases, and microaggressions like the ones named above. Notice and apologize when you perpetrate these microaggressions, and step in or advocate, when appropriate, if you see someone acting on assumptions (e.g., "Why would you assume Eunice speaks Vietnamese? She's Korean American").

2. Learn About the Diversity of Asian American Experiences

Along with combating stereotypes, investing time to learn about diverse Asian American experiences avoids placing the burden of educating about these issues on Asian American colleagues and students. My experience with my own coworkers made me realize how little formal U.S. education covers about Asian Americans. I could not remember a single time Asian Americans were brought up in my K–12 education or in professional contexts, except when we needed translators for the emergent bilingual population at the middle school where I taught.
It's important to integrate Asian American-focused curriculum throughout the year (not only during Asian American Heritage Month in May). When historical moments involving Asian Americans arise, like the Atlanta shootings or COVID-19-induced anti-Asian violence, acknowledge what happened, find resources to support students and educators affected by these events, and explain how these are ongoing efforts to feed into prevalent Asian stereotypes. Developing antiracist schools includes a willingness to create brave spaces to take responsibility for and confront racialized violence (whether it be curricular, emotional, or physical) when it occurs. Integrating diverse perspectives and histories also counters the foreignization that many Asian American students experience, helping them to see themselves in the curriculum and foster greater belonging and engagement. In addition, all students gain a fuller understanding of the contributions and stories of Asian American individuals and ethnic groups.
The work to learn about Asian Americans' varied histories—whether in the classroom with students or on one's own—should include multiple Asian American and Pacific Islander community voices. Author and former school principal Don Vu suggests moving beyond key events such as the Chinese Exclusion Act and Japanese Incarceration during WWII to highlight influential Asian Americans in history (such as the virologist Dr. David Ho, Congressman Dalip Saund, and Vice President Kamala Harris) or the history of Asian immigration (including immigration waves and legislation specifically affecting Asian immigration), migration (including settlement in ethnic enclaves and regional histories), and colonization (particularly in the Philippines and Pasifika communities) (Vu, 2021). The University of Colorado Boulder's Noreen Naseem Rodriguez also has a website with curriculum suggestions, covering topics such as Asian American cultural contributions.
Educators can also consider expanding understanding through popular media, like John Oliver's recent segments on Asian Americans or Taiwanese sovereignty from Last Week Tonight; data from the Pew Research Center and demographic data publisher AAPI that disaggregate experiences of Asian American subgroups; texts like Erika Lee's The Making of Asian America: A History (Simon and Schuster, 2015) and Ronald Takaki's Strangers from a Different Shore (Back Bay Books, 1998); and events and trainings from local Asian American community groups and national organizations like Asian Americans Advancing Justice, the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum, and the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council. For more personal perspectives, consider listening to podcasts like "The Bánh Mì Chronicles," following social media accounts like The Parenting Asian American Project (@twoasianparents), or participating in monthly Twitter chats like those put on by @miseducAsian. Organizations like Educate to Empower and the Yuri Education Project offer workshops focused on authentic conversations around the support of Asian American and AAPI educators. These organizations move beyond racialized trauma toward empowerment through curricular change.
One word of caution: It's important not to use newfound knowledge to dismiss the unique lived experiences of colleagues or students, whose experiences might not always reflect what you have read. Remember that experiences, even within specific Asian American cultural groups and immigrant generations, still vary because circumstances of immigration, socioeconomic class, access to education, gender, and other factors.

Developing antiracist schools includes a willingness to create brave spaces to take responsibility for and confront racialized violence (whether it be curricular, emotional, or physical) when it occurs.

Author Image

Betina Hsieh

3. Proactively Listen to What Your Colleagues and Students Need

Learning about Asian Americans requires engaging with curricular resources and listening to Asian Americans' lived experiences—not just one or the other. In interviews I conducted with Asian American educators about their experiences, many shared experiencing racist microaggressions around language proficiency ("You speak English so well!"), age ("You're so young looking, I thought you were a student"), and culture ("I forgot you were Asian! You act just like a white person"). I also heard stories of the racially targeted bullying educators experienced when they were in school, such as other children pulling their eyes at the corners, doing fake martial arts moves, or sing-song syllables simulating Asian languages to taunt them. Individuals reported telling teachers about these incidents only to be ignored or to have their concerns dismissed as their classmates "just being silly."
These stories are important to pay attention to. Consider asking your Asian American colleagues (and possibly your students) about their experiences and be open to hearing their feedback. These questions should ideally be asked within the context of an authentic relationship, after you've already done the self-reflection and the self-education previously mentioned. If your Asian American colleagues and students do want to share any experiences like these, listen.
This kind of open listening can help educators be proactive in addressing common forms of racial "teasing" or bullying that may occur in the school communities. My daughter's kindergarten teacher began the school year with a story about diverse ethnic foods that students might bring for lunch and how important it is to be respectful of everyone's food. Food is often reflective of culture, and it never feels good to have your culture disrespected. After the Atlanta shootings, she did a read aloud of Liz Kleinrock's "Min Jee's Lunch" from Learning for Justice to show the importance of speaking up when friends are targeted for the food they eat or the way they look. I was at home with my daughter during these lessons and saw how powerful and accessible they can be to students of all ages.
Unfortunately, being proactive may not stop all racial targeting. If students approach you to talk about microaggressions they've experienced in your class or in places such as playgrounds, acknowledge and address the racism that has occurred without normalizing or dismissing these experiences. Instead, consider whether it's appropriate to address concerns with the individual students involved, in a whole-class setting, with families, or as a school community, and make sure to follow up with the student who has been targeted. Several of the educators I interviewed for my book remembered feeling betrayed by educators who dismissed their experiences as oversensitivity.

Listen, Learn, and Act for Change

Within all school environments, we must make active efforts to listen to and include Asian American educators and students in authentic and informed ways that acknowledge and affirm their place in our communities. These recommendations offer an important start, but a truly inclusive and actively antiracist educational space for Asian American educators and students in K–12 settings—one where they can be their most authentic selves and do their best work wholeheartedly—requires ongoing, intentional work.

Chow, K. (2017, April 19). 'Model minority' myth again used as a racial wedge between Asians and Blacks. NPR.

Kim, J., & Hsieh, B. (2021). The racialized experiences of Asian American teachers in the US: Applications of Asian Critical Race Theory to resist marginalization. New York, Routledge.

Sintos Coloma, R., Hsieh, B., Poon, O., Chang, S., Choimorrow, S. Y., Kulkarni, M. P., et al. (2021). Reckoning with Anti-Asian violence: Racial grief, visionary organizing, and educational responsibility. Educational Studies57(1), 1–17.

Sue, D. W., Bucceri, J., Lin, A. I., Nadal, K. L., & Torino, G. C. (2007). Racial microaggressions and the Asian American experience. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology13(1), 72–81.

Vu, D. (2021, September 2). "4 ways to incorporate more Asian American perspectives into the curriculum." Edutopia.

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