(From left to right) Grace Lee Boggs, Larry Itliong, Yuri Kochiyama, and Philip Vera Cruz. All four are important figures in Asian American history. (Illustration by Derrick Dent)

For decades, Asian American advocates have fought to establish Asian American and other ethnic studies programs in schools, galvanized by the fact that most Americans still know very little about the Asian American community. But, as a fresh wave of anti-Asian violence grips the United States, the need to improve public awareness of Asian American identity and history has never been greater—and advocates in New England have been taking aggressive action to ensure students at all grade levels have access to it.

“While the Common Core does provide a social studies and history framework for K-12 education, the history of the Chinese Exclusion Act and its significance to the U.S. is not included in a majority of the U.S. social studies and history curriculum in K-12 education,” said Dr. Judy Yu, founding director of REACH Education Consulting, in an interview with the Center for Asian American Media. 

Indeed, a 2016 study of K-12 state education standards across 10 states found that all required teaching on Japanese American incarceration during World War II, and seven discussed the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. But no other events in Asian American history were widely required to be taught, and only one state—Washington—required the mentioning of Southeast Asian Americans at all.

The decades-long fight for Asian American curriculum

The fight to incorporate Asian American studies into school curricula is as old as the Asian American movement itself. In 1968, a diverse multi-racial coalition of students at San Francisco State University formed the Third World Liberation Front and staged what remains the longest student strike in U.S. history to demand the creation of a multi-racial ethnic studies program at the school. Among the strike’s organizers were members of the newly-formed Asian American Political Alliance, which brought together people of diverse Asian ethnic backgrounds for the first time under the pan-ethnic “Asian American” term. For Asian Americans, this five-month strike would lead to the creation of the country’s first Asian American studies programs at SFSU, as well as at the University of California-Berkeley and University of California-Los Angeles the next year.  

Fifty years later, the fight for Asian American studies continues, and this time it has been fueled further by the recent climate of anti-Asian racial animus. Many activists have highlighted the absence of Asian American history and contemporary politics from most high school or college-level classrooms as a contributing factor in the continued racism against Asian Americans. When it is taught, Asian American history is limited to only a few historical events. 

“Only two events of U.S. history hardly provide a decent understanding of Asian American experience in the story of the United States,” writes Sohyun An, the author of the 2016 study.

For many, Asian American and other ethnic studies helped to fill in those gaps. 

“Ethnic studies saved my life,” said Dr. Allyson Tintiangco-Cubales, an Asian American studies professor at SFSU, in an interview with PBS. “All of a sudden my family became alive. My family became a part of my education. All of a sudden, I mattered.”

Asian American studies at the college level

Currently, only 46 colleges and universities offer a dedicated Asian American studies major or minor program, and virtually all of them were established only through prolonged advocacy efforts by student activists, according to a crowdsourced Google map created by Dr. Diane Wong, professor of political science at Rutgers University. An additional 77 schools offer Asian American studies courses through a larger ethnic studies department. 

Where Asian American studies are still lacking, students continue to lead the fight to create such programs at their schools. In 2017, students joined forces with staff and faculty at Duke University to create the Asian American Studies Working Group (AASWG)—the latest in a decades’ worth of student efforts to demand the creation of an Asian American studies program. Students demanded that the school offer courses in Asian American studies as a way to address racism faced by the nearly one-third of Duke students who identify as Asian American. AASWG cited several incidents, one of which occurred in 2013 when a fraternity was permitted to host an anti-Asian party on campus. The efforts by AASWG were ultimately a success: In 2018, Duke launched its first Asian American studies program. 

“[Asian American studies programs] are intellectual projects to educate the entire university, about the history of Asians in America … and how these histories have been an integral part of America’s history and society from inception,” said Dr. Nayoung Aimee Kwon, the founding director of the new Asian American & Diaspora Studies program at Duke, in an interview with The Chronicle, Duke’s school newspaper.

In New England, the fight for Asian American studies at the college level remains challenged by several factors. Some schools such as Tufts offer a dedicated minor in Asian American Studies, while Brown and Harvard offers a selection of Asian American studies courses as part of their broader ethnic studies departments. At Dartmouth, students launched a petition this year demanding establishment of an Asian American studies program in the wake of recent anti-Asian racial violence. Meanwhile, students at Yale University organized a town hall in 2018, also to demand formation of a formal Asian American studies program at the school. Undergraduate student Katherine Hu, who helped to organize the event, also conducted a campus survey that found that 42% of 2,353 respondents would take classes through an Asian American studies program if it were offered at Yale. Yet, three years later, the school still has not established such a program, and Asian American faculty now argue in favor of strengthening the school’s existing Ethnicity, Race, and Migration (ER&M) program rather than offering Asian American studies as a separate certificate program. 

At many colleges, the lack of administrative support remains a major obstacle for Asian American studies. One reason Asian American faculty at Yale favor strengthening the school’s existing ER&M department over creation of a separate Asian American studies program is because they feared such an initiative would weaken a department already struggling from the school administration’s failure to properly invest funding and teaching space in the program and to retain its faculty. Only after 13 faculty threatened to withdraw from the school’s ER&M program in 2019 did Yale commit to increasing its support for the program. Meanwhile, students at Wesleyan University in Massachusetts were so frustrated by their school’s inaction on demands to establish an Asian American studies program that in 2015 they created a syllabus and ran a student-led Asian American studies course for themselves. 

Asian American studies in K-12 schools

Some activists have turned their attention toward the K-12 classroom, where they hope that better early education in Asian American history and other ethnic studies will do more to promote tolerance, inclusion, and representation. To date, the teaching of Asian American history in K-12 classrooms has not been mandatory, and has instead relied upon the initiative of individual educators. In the last several years, interest in teaching Asian American history has been increasing, perhaps spurred on in part by the recent rise in anti-Asian violence. An analysis of Google search term trends finds a dramatic increase since 2015 in users searching for the term “Asian American history,” and interest has tripled in the last year alone. Much of that interest comes from New England: According to Google, most of the users searching for “Asian American history” were from Massachusetts. Some activists have hoped to take advantage of this interest by creating open-access lesson plans for the teaching of Asian American history at the K-12 level. 

Meanwhile, to create broader access to public education in Asian American history, Asian American activists are pursuing a state-by-state strategy to formally establish Asian American and other ethnic studies requirements in K-12 classrooms. In a hard-won victory by ethnic studies advocates, California’s state Board of Education earlier this year approved the country’s first statewide high school ethnic studies curriculum, which includes lessons on Asian American and Pacific Islander communities among other groups. A bill requiring the teaching of Asian American history in K-12 classrooms passed the Illinois state Senate in May, and is expected to be signed into law. Such efforts to integrate ethnic studies at the K-12 level are likely to face steep opposition elsewhere. In Arizona, state officials passed a law in 2010 banning Mexican American studies classes offered as an elective in four Tucson public schools. The ban was eventually ruled unconstitutional in 2017, but only after several lengthy court battles. Currently, while activists have successfully won the establishment of a new Asian American studies minor at the University of Arizona in Tucson, any efforts to establish Asian American studies at the K-12 level have been stymied by the prolonged court battles over the 2010 ethnic studies ban.

Nonetheless, several New England states are poised to potentially follow in California’s suit. Last year, Connecticut passed a law requiring high schools to offer classes on Black and Latinx studies by fall 2022. Connecticut’s state Senate is currently considering a bill that would add a similar requirement that public high schools offer Asian American studies classes, an initiative that its supporters argue is particularly necessary in the wake of increasing racial violence targeting the Asian American community. Other states aren’t far behind. Vermont established a working group in 2019 to study how to make the state’s public schools more inclusive, and is likely to lead to reforms of classroom curricula to better address the histories of marginalized peoples. In Massachusetts, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is reportedly developing more resources to support teachers in addressing race and prejudice in the classroom. 

At the city municipal level, activists in Providence, Rhode Island, and Boston, Massachusetts, have gained significant ground toward permanently establishing ethnic studies in city public schools. In Boston, that effort has the support of most of the city’s councilmembers, who last year signed a joint letter supporting the incorporation of ethnic studies classes into the city’s public school curriculum.  

“Our students deserve an education that honors their identities, critiques the systems of oppression that structure our world, and creates opportunities for them to build community and make real, impactful change,” said Cecil Carey, a member of the Ethnic Studies Now! Committee in an interview last year with the Boston Sun.

Asian American and other ethnic studies provide cultural acknowledgement and relevance for students of color, and so have been shown to significantly increase student engagement and to cultivate a strong sense of personal empowerment. Even more relevant to today’s climate of anti-Asian racial hostility and violence, ethnic studies promotes interracial tolerance and empathy in its students, and dramatically reduces racial prejudice and hostility—particularly when taught to classrooms of students with diverse backgrounds. For these reasons, Asian American and other education activists are continuing to vigorously push for the broad establishment of Asian American and other ethnic studies at all levels of education, in the hopes that these classes might serve as a long-term and sustainable solution to help prevent the racial violence and hate that Asian Americans and other people of color still endure today.  

This article is part three in a series about the racial reckoning in the public education system in the past year. Read the first two articles here, and check back the rest of this week for more coverage on this topic.

Jenn is a proud Asian American feminist, scientist and nerd who currently blogs at Reappropriate.co, one of the web’s oldest AAPI feminist and race activist blogs. Follow her on Twitter @Reappropriate.