The growing community effort pushing for the requirement for Asian American and Pacific Islander history to be taught in K-12 schools has had several legislative successes within the last few years.
This month in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis, now a Republican presidential candidate, signed into law a requirement for AAPI history to be taught in the state’s K-12 schools, with specific mention of Japanese internment camps and the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.
It marks the sixth legislative bill to become law for the national coalition of state chapters known as Make Us Visible, which is part of a broader movement across the country for better inclusion of AAPI history in K-12 curricula.
But advocates and researchers say it also poses a major question at the heart of demands for more AAPI history: How should schools teach the full breadth of AAPI experiences in the country through more than a superficial lens? And what does this look like in the context of states such as Florida where legislation restricts how topics of race and LGBTQ+ issues can be taught in both K-12 and higher education institutions, and where courses such as AP African American history have been banned?
“We see the challenges that are happening in our state, and recognize that it will continue to be a struggle, but we take progress one step at a time,” said Mimi Chan, state director of Florida’s Make Us Visible chapter.
The need for more AAPI history instruction
The new Florida law took about two years of grassroots community organizing to come to fruition, Chan said.
Individuals such as Jose Keichi Fuentes, a senior governmental relations consultant with the Becker and Poliakoff law firm in Miami, got involved in supporting the legislation’s passage because they personally know the importance of more Asian American stories being told.
Fuentes’ grandparents, great-grandparents, uncles, and mother were interned during World War II in the Gila River camp in Arizona.
As a child, he didn’t know this part of his family’s history. Fuentes, who serves on the Miami-Dade County Asian American Advisory Board, didn’t put the pieces together until after his grandfather died and he went through his information.
“I thought that was a very important part of my family’s history that I should’ve known,” he said. “They were extremely ashamed of it. But it’s important for us, as the next generation, to have that history and be wary that we don’t make those mistakes or allow our freedoms to ever be compromised.”
Chan hopes more schools can cover Asian Americans’ contributions to Florida specifically, with topics such as how farmer Lue Gim Gong changed the Florida citrus industry in the early 1900s in part by producing an orange more resistant to cold weather.
She estimates that it’ll take about three to five years to craft and implement curricula and plans to work with the Florida department of education on developing a task force for this.
But the implementation piece, some community leaders say, will be all the more complicated in a state like Florida.
The political climate complicating more inclusive history
The new law requiring AAPI history exists in a restrictive political environment that has some organizations and individuals worried about how exactly AAPI history will be taught.
For instance, while Florida also requires instruction of African American history, new legislation added a caveat that the instruction and curriculum cannot indoctrinate students—which experts, including those in the textbook publishing world, have found to be vaguely defined. Earlier this year, DeSantis banned schools from offering a new Advanced Placement African American Studies course for allegedly defying state law.
It’s difficult to imagine this being a genuine effort of AAPI studies being taught in schools, when other communities of colors’ history experiences are not being uplifted as well, said Gregg Orton, national director for the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans, a coalition of multiple civil rights organizations.
Orton and others don’t see the new Make Us Visible-led legislation on AAPI history as a true success when there is also legislation in the state restricting instruction on sexual orientation.
There are also now legislative limits on instruction and diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives at colleges and universities where the bulk of the academic research that would inform AAPI history curricula is done, said Jason Oliver Chang, an associate professor of history and Asian and Asian American studies at the University of Connecticut.
Chang worries that the pursuit of requiring AAPI history within the context of such legislation harkens back to government-led efforts to uphold Asian Americans as a “model minority” at the expense of other minority racial and ethnic groups.
For instance, after time spent in the internment camps, Japanese Americans grew wary of what political voice they should have, especially when placed in opposition to the emerging civil rights movement within African American communities, Chang said. Many preferred the route of cultural assimilation and didn’t build out cultural enclaves in neighborhoods.
Yet the very concept of the Asian American label rose out of the civil rights era of the 1960s with Black and AAPI histories deeply connected over time—something that should be explored in AAPI history courses, Chang added.
Chang is currently working on crafting a statewide curriculum on AAPI history after Make Us Visible-led legislation passed in Connecticut last year. He’s keenly aware of how passing legislation is the easy part.
And in a state such as Florida, he wonders how implementation will go—especially when weighing the importance of teaching not just contributions to history and cultural celebrations such as the Lunar New Year, but also AAPI history through a critical lens, such as the role U.S. intervention abroad played in global migration patterns. And how would instruction in Florida on the interconnected history of the AAPI and LGBTQ+ communities work?
“It does feel like the pursuit of AAPI inclusion was a single issue campaign in Florida seemingly unresponsive to the other issues at hand that Asian Americans face,” Chang said. “It’s very confusing, and it feels manipulative.”
Chan, of the Florida Make Us Visible chapter, said she recognizes the value of teaching everyone’s history and hopes that the new law is a first step in the right direction.
“It’s a continuous conversation and discussion to ensure that our histories are represented accurately,” she said.