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Requiring Asian American History In Schools: A Win In Illinois, A Challenge In Georgia

Students walk past a display for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month at Farmington High School in Farmington, Conn on May 10, 2021. The year of anti-Asian violence has led students and teachers to advocate for reexamining how Asian American studies and history are taught in public schools. (Jessica Hill/AP)
Students walk past a display for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month at Farmington High School in Farmington, Conn on May 10, 2021. The year of anti-Asian violence has led students and teachers to advocate for reexamining how Asian American studies and history are taught in public schools. (Jessica Hill/AP)

In a historic move last month, Illinois became the first state to require that Asian American history be taught in public schools.

The Teaching Equitable Asian American Community History (TEAACH) Act “will paint a more complete picture of our shared history by adding Asian American history to the Illinois School Code,” according to Asian Americans Advancing Justice Chicago.

The legislation comes as an increase of Asian Americans across the country have become targets of hate crimes during the coronavirus pandemic.

Activists in Georgia are hoping for a similar measure to pass in their state, but they are already facing resistance from lawmakers and school boards.

One of those activists is Weonhee Shin, a Korean American organizer and 36-year-old mother with three children in Georgia’s public schools. In May, she helped launch a new group called the Georgia Asian American Coalition For Equitable Education.

Growing up, Shin says she wasn’t taught any history about people who look like her.

“My goal for my children — any children really — is that they get a wider scope of history that’s not Eurocentric,” she says, “but tells the histories of many people and all fabrics of this country.”

Interview Highlights

On not learning about Asian American history until she was out of school

“I didn’t learn about Asian American history until I was an adult, until I was a mom. So that’s how unknown it was. I didn’t even know that there was Asian American history, other than little understanding of exclusion acts and Japanese American internment. I don’t remember hearing about it in the large university that I attended [or] in public school. It was just nonexistent. I didn’t even know that I could be fully American. I mean, that’s a concept that I didn’t know that this country would allow me to have until I became an adult.”

On the Georgia State Board of Education’s recent resolution stating schools should not teach that “an individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex.”

“Well, you know, that’s a really hard question to answer because the resolution — no matter how many times I read it — it’s so subjective. So what can we not teach them then? Then do we have to take out civil rights movements out of history books? Do we have to take out everything? I mean, I just don’t understand the resolution as to how that would affect us, too. I think it really depends on how people would want to interpret it. I mean, people can find anything threatening as if they can be blamed and find guilt in it. And I think guilt is natural. When I heard about the Virginia Tech shooting … and it was a Korean American person who did it, I had guilt because I am Korean American. So I don’t know how that can be prevented. I think the key is: That’s not the goal to give people guilt. It’s just we want facts.”

On the history she would like to see talked about in schools

“So Asian American history starts with finding of America. If you think about why did Europeans settle and first of all, why did they try to colonize the U.S. [and the Americas]? It’s to look for India, right … and that was the exotification of Asian culture and the people and the goods. So it starts with that, too, and it goes deeper also. It doesn’t just start with Chinese migrant workers. It also goes into the colonization of the Philippines and territories in Guam. I mean, we have to dive into all of those things that are never spoken of in U.S. history classes.”

On why she thinks she never received an education on Asian American history and the danger of not correcting it in schools today

“First of all, to start with the teachers, they didn’t know. I think currently educators don’t know, too. And secondly, I think because Asian Americans specifically are not viewed as Americans. We’re always viewed as and connected to the country of our heritage. So I think that’s a big reason why it’s never taught or not even thought of to teach.

“The danger, I see it as twofold. Personally, as an Asian American, I see the danger that my children will never feel like they’re part of this country, no matter how long they’re here. Secondly, history is interconnected — and it’s interwoven. When I study Asian American history, I understand my Black community neighbors, I understand my Indigenous neighbors, I understand my Latinx neighbors, I understand everybody more because we see how everything is connected. Once I learn history, I can see, oh, that’s how it’s related. And that’s why it matters to me. It has to be personal.”


Kalyani Saxena produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku RaySerena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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