Equity & Diversity

Anti-Asian Violence: What Schools Should Start Doing About It

By Stephen Sawchuk & Catherine Gewertz — March 25, 2021 9 min read
The crowd at Hing Hay Park responds to speakers calls to "fight hate"and against the attacks, physical and verbal on Asian Americans during a rally to speak out against anti-Asian hate and violence on March 13, 2021 in Seattle.
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The shootings of Asian people at three Atlanta spas earlier this month have set up a unique test for K-12 schools: Will they step up and grapple with anti-Asian racism, offering crucial supports to students and seizing the chance to teach about anti-Asian violence? Or will they overlook it?

In the racial reckoning sparked by police killings of unarmed Black people across the country, many schools have begun to examine their own racism. But too often, educators say, that work pays little or no attention to the long history of anti-Asian violence, or to the current experiences of Asian students with anti-Asian racism.

The history of violence toward the Asian community, like that towards Black people and people of color in general, “has been the underbelly of this country,” said Michael Matsuda, the superintendent of the Anaheim Union High School District in Orange County, Calif. The county has documented a recent, soaring rise in anti-Asian harassment.

“This is another teachable moment for all of us to ask ourselves: What’s going on in our society where a group of people are being targeted and scapegoated for something they had nothing to do with?” Matsuda said.

There’s nothing new about violence or racism targeting Asians and Asian Americans. But the Atlanta shootings have suddenly thrust those dynamics into the national spotlight, fueled by heated rhetoric about the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. Research has linked former President Trump’s racist tweets, referring to the pandemic as “the China virus” and “Kung flu,” to spikes in the use of other anti-Asian hashtags on social-media. Many communities have experienced big increases in recent years in anti-Asian violence, especially against women and the elderly.

That flammable backdrop creates something of a mandate for K-12 schools to face anti-Asian bias head-on, educators say. They must create safe, supportive, and empowering environments for Asian and Asian-American students and facilitate dialog and learning about the issue for all students, they say.

Of the many challenges in that work, three in particular stand out. First, Asian Americans and their experiences are treated as monolithic, when they make up a complex community, with language and cultural differences rooted in the geopolitical history of Asia.

Second, many Asian and Asian-American families arrived in the United States relatively recently. (Rates of Asian immigration to the United States increased after Congress’ 1965 reform of immigration policies, and were fueled by American involvement in two wars in East and Southeast Asia.) That means there can be cultural and language barriers for school and district leaders who are working to build relationships with newly arrived or first-generation students, parents, and kin.

Finally, the “model minority” myth perpetuates the idea that Asian-American students don’t need special help or attention.

Education Week interviewed five educators who are working to support Asian and Asian-American students in the aftermath of the shootings in Georgia earlier this month. Their suggestions move from more immediate responses to longer-term reforms to curriculum and coursework. Here’s what they said:

Create safe spaces now for students and staff.

It’s crucial that when traumatic events happen, especially those that might resonate with particular pain for students in historically marginalized groups, schools do more than simply make counselors available.

Oregon’s Beaverton school district hosted Zoom discussions for Asian and Asian-American staff and students the week of the Atlanta shootings. Nearly 20 percent of the district’s 41,000 students are Asian or Asian-American, with many Nepalese, Indian, Vietnamese, and Filipino students in the mix.

Miranda Trullench, an elementary school counselor who is Filipino-American, sat in on the session for middle school students and staff. Organizers expected maybe 15 participants, but more than 100 logged on, she said.

“These students and staff wanted to be heard, to share their stories,” Trullench said, choking up as she recalled the session. “The kids were speaking about their own experiences, not feeling like they belong, the dynamics at school, not feeling understood. We talked about how the kinds of microaggressions they experience can escalate, and we get these shootings. The kids knew we were there, and that we understood and were supporting them.”

The Anaheim Union district has had a longstanding partnership with OC Human Relations, an Orange County nonprofit that helps local governments develop conflict-resolution and violence-prevention programs. The group recently held a community processing circle for adults, and Jeff Kim, an instructional coach and history teacher in the district, adapted some of its tools for the students in his virtual class.

The exercise included such prompts as: What do you need from others to participate today? What are you feeling about what is happening? What fears do you have about the future of what’s happening? What are your next steps?

“We had a really good discussion with those questions,” Kim said.

Not all students will feel comfortable processing the same way, cautioned Liz Kleinrock, a middle school teacher in the District of Columbia, who is Korean-American. In the past, she has also used journal prompts to draw out students who are wary of speaking up in groups, as well as a system where students who want to talk to her privately can leave a colored Post-It note on her desk.

Sustain supports for these students.

Districts can tend to be reactive about traumatic events. But some are taking steps to ensure that their supports don’t go away once the news media moves on.

The Oakland Unified School District, in California, has developed some of its supports as part of its overall anti-racism work, and while the causes of anti-Asian violence and racism and the needs of those students differ from those of Black students, the district is finding creative ways to knit them together.

This week, the district hosted a “solidarity dialog” via Zoom for high school students of Asian/Pacific Islander, Black, and Middle Eastern and North African descent. The Asian student club began planning the event earlier in the year, in response to violence against Asian people in the Bay Area and nationally, said Lailan Huen, Oakland Unified’s program manager for Asian student achievement.

Trullench hosts a weekly affinity group discussion at her elementary school for children of Filipino descent, and she used it to raise the Atlanta shootings.

Only one of the children knew about the violence. For the others, she said, she described what happened, explained the legal definition of a hate crime, and discussed why the event frightened her and why she experienced itas a hate crime. She invited children to ask questions and share their feelings, but few did. Still, Trullench said she felt the session was an important way for students to get information and support as they process a traumatic event aimed at their community.

Question the historic erasure of Asians from the curriculum.

Kleinrock, the Washington, D.C. teacher, said one of the challenges about responding to the events in Atlanta is that there’s often no common basis of understanding among teachers or students about Asian Americans’ experiences in the United States. The community is often all but absent in curriculum, even from lessons about civil rights.

And students notice.

“I remember teaching 3rd grade in L.A., and I had a lot of Latinx and Southeast Asian students and got a lot of questions from them about: ‘Where are people who look like me? Where are Asian people?’ So often when we talk about race and racism we’re talking about a Black-white binary … but really young kids were noticing there was a lack of representation,” Kleinrock said.

The erasure of Asian Americans is likely a product of who’s working in K-12 schools—Asians are underrepresented among school and district leaders and among the overwhelmingly white teaching force. (Just 2 percent of teachers identify as Asian compared to 5 percent of K-12 students, according to federal data.) But Kleinrock believes it’s also the product of textbooks that gloss over Western imperialism and how that directly impacted migration.

These students and staff wanted to be heard, to share their stories.

“We might learn about the Opium Wars, but not about how they impacted the influx of Asians to the West Coast. Or the influx of Korean Americans during the Korean war,” she pointed out.

It’s often hard for teachers who themselves don’t know the history to know where to begin, but she encourages them to start with some inquiry-based activities, even some simple questions to gauge students’ perceptions.

“When you ask kids what they think you know about a topic, or a community, or an event in history, getting the bias out there is often the most uncomfortable part. But you can’t fix what you can’t identify,” Kleinrock said. “When they say, ‘I only know about anime or sushi,’ I can start to see what they come with, and what stereotypes they’re coming in with, and how we can engage in unlearning as much as learning information.”

Kleinrock has also curated a collection of resources for teachers on the website of Learning for Justice, a curriculum project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. And the Oakland district created an elementary and secondary curriculum that explores the history of anti-Asian violence, with resource guides that have now been shared nationally.

Do your homework if you’re considering ethnic studies courses.

Calls for more Asian-American ethnic studies courses could grow, and California recently approved a long-in-coming (and controversial) set of course standards for ethnic studies. But there are some special pitfalls to avoid.

For one, noted Matsuda, even experienced teachers sometimes let a dangerous implication seep into their courses—that Asian Americans aren’t really American.

“You constantly see these mistakes by well-intentioned educators who, when they talk about ethnic studies for Asian Americans, they start bringing in examples of Asians,” he said. For example, he said, he’s heard of teachers referencing the Chinese diplomat Ho Feng Shan, who issued thousands of exit visas to Jews in Vienna during the second World War, in their courses.

“That would not be [appropriate for] Asian-American [studies]. Stuff like that happens a lot,” he said.

There’s also a problem when themes in ethnic studies are relegated to stand-alone courses that students may or may not ultimately take. Oakland high schools offer ethnic studies courses, but Huen is also working to embed that subject at all grade levels, from early childhood on up.

Kim, the Anaheim teacher, will be among the teachers launching an ethnic studies course next year. Some of his ideas include beginning the class with an ethnography project, where students trace their own history and their families’ journeys to the United States.

He’ll also weave in a history component that looks at laws that, for decades, excluded Asians from the United States or perpetuated discrimination against those who did settle and have students conduct oral histories to capture the experience of AsianAmericans who emigrated after 1965.

Finally, he wants the course to conclude with a kind of civic action, in which students will get to work with some local Asian-American civic organizations. The district, which has partnered with the nonprofit civics program Mikva Challenge and has won state awards for its civics work, offers several different avenues for engagement that could underpin that part of the course.

“For young people to see role models of Asian Americans who are able to articulate their views is really important,” he said. “Speaking up, sometimes that’s not completely natural, and it’s especially not with the first generation who have language and cultural barriers.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 14, 2021 edition of Education Week as Anti-Asian Violence: What Schools Should Start Doing About It


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