Social Studies Q&A

How Should Asian American History Be Taught? A Scholar Explains

By Ileana Najarro — August 04, 2022 7 min read
Young Asian Americans take part in a AAPI Youth Voices for Change Rally against discrimination and racism, in Pasadena, Calif., Saturday, June 26, 2021.
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As Texas leaders work to update the state’s social studies curriculum standards, known as the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills or TEKS, one proposed change is the approval of a high school elective course in Asian American studies.

Scholars, activists and nonprofit leaders are looking to build off the national momentum for such a course. States including Illinois and New Jersey have passed laws requiring Asian American history be taught in K-12 schools, said Mohit Mehta, the assistant director for the Center for Asian American Studies and PhD candidate in curriculum and instruction at the University of Texas at Austin.

(Texas already offers Mexican American and African American studies as elective courses, and a Native American course is also under review for approval this year.)

Mehta is among those drafting the framework for the proposed course. And though other states are farther along in their support for Asian American studies, their course frameworks haven’t been made public yet, so Mehta and others are mostly developing the framework from scratch, he said.

Mehta spoke with Education Week about what Asian American studies would cover, why the course is needed at a time when anti-Asian violence is on the rise, and unique challenges involved in its creation and implementation.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How is Asian American history taught in Texas schools today?

This is pretty standard across any state curriculum: if there’s any mention of Asian American history it happens in two areas. One is mentioning the Chinese Exclusion Act, and the second is the mention of Japanese American incarceration. And most social studies standards still call it Japanese American internment, which is a false term because internment happens in a context of war to an enemy population. But of the 120,000 Japanese Americans who were incarcerated, two thirds of them were US citizens. So they were imprisoned against their will by an executive order passed by [President Franklin D. Roosevelt].

What would an Asian American studies course in Texas cover?

What we tried to do is structure the course as if a college level intro to Asian American studies course would be taught, which is usually structured in chronological fashion in the following time periods. One is the early period of arrival of Asians, before the Chinese Exclusion Act was put into place in 1882. The second period of time that we think about is from 1882 all the way up until World War II, which is the exclusionary period. The United States passes a series of laws that restrict immigration for one group after the other. Then we move to the Cold War and the changing configurations of how Asian Americans are seen. They’re all of a sudden seen from outsiders to loyal and patriotic citizens.

Because of the Immigration Act of 1965 there’s a demographic restructuring of the United States. Doors are open to selected emigration of professionals from certain countries. And so the population grew from less than a million in 1960 to 22 million today. We focus on those periods and the contributions of Asian Americans in the civil rights movement, the arrival of Southeast Asian American refugees as a result of the American intervention in Southeast Asia, and then we get to the present moment which covers the history after 9/11. And all the way to the present day, including the COVID-19 pandemic.

We have tried to be mindful of making sure that there is mention of, of course, the major groups of Asian Americans. And the six major groups are Chinese Americans, Korean Americans, Filipinx Americans, Indian Americans, Vietnamese Americans, and Japanese Americans. And then also making sure that we have inclusion of other stories that are marginalized, like Hmong Americans, Cambodian Americans, Lao Americans. If we have an opportunity to revise, there’s still histories that are missing from there.

And part of the challenge is to develop a product that’s going to be passed by the state Board of Education. And they’re not going to say, ‘This is too wordy. There’s too much language. There’s too many objectives here.’ That’s one thing. And then Texas also passed these restrictive laws, the so-called anti-CRT laws. In speaking to a lot of folks who are working on committees, there’s almost self censorship. You have to talk about race when you talk about ethnic histories, and there’s uncertainty around what you can say and what you cannot say in Texas classrooms.

How is Asian American history part of Texas history?

One thing that we’re trying to get written into the 8th grade social studies TEKS is a contribution of what’s called Pershing’s Chinese. This is a group of Chinese Mexicans, about 530 men, who because of the exclusionary laws to the United States immigrated from China to Mexico. And within Mexico, they were hired by General John Pershing during the Mexican Revolution, to sort of assist in the U.S. Army’s search for Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata in northern Mexico. So this group of Chinese Mexican cooks, then laborers, set up camp for the U.S. Army and followed them along in their mission at a time when Chinese were not allowed entry into the United States. As a result of their service, General John Pershing advocates for their entry and residency into the United States.

And so, what’s become known historically as Pershing’s Chinese, come and settle in Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, and they’re given permanent residency. Many of the descendants of Pershing’s Chinese go on to become illustrious figures, including opening restaurants here in Austin along Congress Avenue. Some historic restaurants started in the 1920s and 1930s that served the Texas Legislature for many, many years. That’s one example.

Second, during World War II, Japanese Peruvians are expelled from Peru and brought to the United States where they’re incarcerated in Crystal City, Texas. And when the war is over, they’re sort of nationless so these Japanese Peruvians are represented by a lawyer of the ACLU who fights to give them residency in the United States. And many of the Japanese who are in Crystal City then go on to settle into Texas cities. The Botanical Gardens in Austin are created by one of the descendants of these Japanese Peruvians.

Finally, our second biggest Asian American community in Texas is Vietnamese Americans and Vietnamese Americans have a history of settlement after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Many of them go to Gulf Coast cities like Seadrift, like Beaumont, so that they can practice fishing, because many of them come from an economic and labor background of fishing. They settle and contribute to the cities and economies in these places. In the early 1980s we had a horrible incident of a Ku Klux Klan member who targeted a Vietnamese American man and set fires to fishing boats. And so these are just three of many, many examples of the interface of Texas history with Asian American history.

Mohit Mehta

Why work to get Asian American studies approved for Texas?

Asian Americans are the fastest growing demographic segment in many states across the country, including in Texas. That’s the easiest entry point for a lot of people. But if you dig a little deeper, part of this is the history of U.S. imperialism and colonization of the Pacific islands of Hawaii, of the Philippines, military intervention in Korea and Southeast Asia. This idea of U.S. Manifest Destiny, which in the 20th century extends to the Pacific sphere, is a big reason why so many Asian groups come to the United States.

But it’s not always sellable to sell Asian American studies in that way. Usually, we focus on argument one, and not two.

The third reason is that there’s a complete ‘invisibilization.’ Asian Americans, because of the absence of our histories, there’s still a huge misconception of why we’re here in this country, how we came to be, and how our stories also are a reflection of bigger processes like, U.S. Cold War competition with the Soviet Union and the recruitment of highly professional engineers, scientists, doctors, etc., in order to compete with foreign powers, communist powers, or what have you.

There’s just bigger ideological processes that are at play. Once you see this critical history, that’s beyond just festivals and let’s celebrate Chinese Lunar New Year, you get students to critically understand their place and their family’s history in this country today.

What are the consequences of not approving the course?

I was a classroom teacher for seven years, I’m a graduate student of education. And I am still an idealist in a lot of senses and I still have to believe that our public schools are the democratic foundation of our country, and what’s taught in our schools has a great impact on students and their families. When you have the absences of certain histories, you’re essentially sending a message to students about who’s important, who’s not.

And therefore, if you have a lack of understanding of certain groups of people, then they’re easily disposable, or easily targets of violence, or easily expendable in multiple ways.

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