Are we truly seeing all of our AAPI students?
Guest Column by Isaac Huang & Steve Kong
November 1, 2021
In March 2021, Tsong Tong Vang was walking his 5-year-old grandson to the school bus stop in St. Paul, Minn., when a woman pulled up in her car and started yelling anti-Asian comments at him and his school-aged grandson. This is one incident of many that have been occurring all throughout the United States.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, reports of anti-Asian incidents have grown exponentially as Asian American Pacific Islander groups have seen an unprecedented rise in hate crimes. Our collective tendency has often been to dismiss these incidents and the wounds they inflict on AAPI communities, students and their families from a lens of individualism or as non-racial in nature. However, questions about whether these responses to AAPI discrimination overlook and perpetuate systemic issues and how they play into the “model minority” trope have gained greater traction in the national conversation.
An analysis released by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino found anti-Asian hate crimes increased by 150 percent in 2020. While this past year’s wave of anti-Asian violence has shocked many people, anti-Asian racism is not something new in the story of the United States. The past 150 years are littered with examples:
  • The Page Act of 1875 banning Chinese women from immigrating to the U.S. because they were seen as prostitutes and disease carriers,
  • The colonialism of the Philippines and the assault on the Filipino farmer community during 1930’s Watsonville Riot,
  • Japanese internment camps during World War II, and
  • Executive Order 13769, a “Muslim Ban” in 2017.
There is a general misconception that Asian Americans have successfully assimilated and fulfilled the “American Dream.” Advice to work hard, be grateful for our opportunities, and not to question authority figures or cause waves when it comes to injustice are familiar to many in the AAPI community. The resulting lack of voice on pressing issues and pull of the model minority myth have led to the needs of the AAPI community becoming invisible and disappearing from the consciousness of school policymakers. A telling example was one Washington state school district’s move to lump their AAPI data with white students.
But it is not enough to acknowledge AAPI students as having needs that are different from their peers. School systems often view AAPI students as a monolith with “East Asian” used as the standard for all. Asians are the fastest-growing racial group in the country with ancestry that encompasses more than 20 countries, many different religions and cultures, and more than 2,000 languages and dialects. Schools using the amorphous label of “Asian American” as a catchall fail to acknowledge the richly diverse and complex collection of our communities. The monolithic Asian categorization can obscure the diverse educational needs of different AAPI groups who may face economic hardship and English language challenges to significantly varying degrees. In fact, despite misconceptions of Asian American wealth and success, Asian Americans have the nation’s largest wealth gap with income inequality within the community doubling between 1970 and 2016.
So how can we as educators acknowledge, honor and support our AAPI students? We know that AAPI families are the most hesitant to send their kids back to school with fears of harassment and physical assault. AAPI students are the most likely to learn remotely than any other racial or ethnic group. According to a U.S. Education Department school survey from February 2021, 69 percent of Asian American fourth graders were enrolled in online learning, compared to 57 percent of Latinx students, 54 percent of Black students, and 24 percent white students. Additionally, as schools and districts prioritize SEL with students, we know how important it is to support AAPI students, as suicide is the first leading cause of death among our young adults.
The most important thing educators can do is talk to our students about race, and spend time reflecting on our own identities and understanding of race and racism. If we truly intend to center our students, we must ask ourselves, “Are we engaging our students in the inquiry process by allowing their questions to guide their own learning?” and just as importantly, “What questions are we really asking our students?”
Similar to the history of anti-Asian racism, AAPI advocacy for equity that benefits all students is not something new. Like many other important events affecting our community, the history books overlook the importance of cases such as Lau v. Nichols (1974) which solidified bilingual education and support for English learners; and Tape v. Hurley (1885) which challenged segregated schools in California before the national landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education (1954). In fact, we have a rich history of AAPI men and women who have fought for the rights and liberties of all. From Yuri Kochiyama partnering with Malcolm X, Larry Itliong marching with Cesar Chavez, and Ai-jen Poo passing the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, AAPI members continue to advocate for all.
This advocacy also extends to education with organizations such as ACSA, CAAASA, and CALSA continuing to spotlight the need for equity, diversity and inclusivity within the education sphere. The California Association of Asian and Pacific Leaders in Education looks to join in with its sister organizations in closing the equity and diversity gap in the field of education by providing a space for AAPI educators to network, collaborate and expand our professional capacity, and support the needs of AAPI students. CAAPLE seeks to sustain a collective voice for AAPI educators to speak in support of equity, to act as an ally, and advocate for an educational system that serves all students.
CAAPLE is just another step in actualizing the sentiments of Mary Matsuzawa, who was impacted as a young girl by Japanese internment: “I pray that someday every race/ May stand on equal plane/ And prejudice will find no dwelling place/ In a peace that all may gain.”
Isaac Huang, Ed.D., is CAAPLE board president and principal of Conejo Valley Unified School District. Steve Kong, Ed.D., is a CAAPLE board member and Coordinator Digital Learning Initiatives at Riverside Unified School District.
Isaac Huang, Ed.D., is CAAPLE board president and principal of Conejo Valley Unified School District.
Steve Kong, Ed.D., is a CAAPLE board member and Coordinator Digital Learning Initiatives at Riverside Unified School District.
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