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October 11, 2021
Vol. 17
No. 3

Anti-Asian American Racism Didn’t Go Away: Educators' Support Is More Important Than Ever

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Within all school environments, we must make active efforts to listen to and include voices of Asian American educators in authentic and informed ways.

EquitySchool Culture
Betina-hsieh-express-image-oct-2021
Credit: Michelle Ding / Unsplash
Last March, after the killing of six Asian and Asian American women in spas in Atlanta, I felt completely invisible. In a meeting with fellow educational leaders, no one said a word of acknowledgment and continued business as usual. The shootings only heightened the trauma that I had felt throughout the previous year as the COVID-19 virus spread worldwide, bringing with it virulent racist and xenophobic attacks on Asian Americans (particularly elders) across the country that were broadcast nearly daily via social media channels.
When I finally spoke up and voiced how deeply painful, frightening, and exhausting the year had been for many Asian American students, families, and educators, my colleagues apologized and voiced their support. But I continued to wonder why it took my reminder for them to even acknowledge the current traumas Asian Americans in education are facing. I assumed they just weren’t sure what to say, so they said nothing at all rather than risk getting it wrong.
During a new school year rife with pandemic-related complications, much of the spotlight has faded on anti-Asian violence. Like many educators, the Asian American teachers I know are exhausted from the last 18 months of uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 global pandemic. But they’re also still dealing with continued reports of hate incidents against Asian Americans and fears of anti-Asian scapegoating around the origins of COVID-19. From March 2020 to June 2021, more than 9,000 reported hate incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders occurred in the United States, including verbal harassment, shunning, physical assault, civil rights violations, and online harassment. 
Given my research on Asian American teachers and advocacy for incorporating Asian American perspectives into educational conversations, I often get asked how educators and educational leaders can best support our Asian American colleagues. I recently asked Asian American teachers on Twitter how educator colleagues might support them. Their responses reminded me that Asian Americans’ sense of invisibility, dismissal, and erasure began far before we had ever heard of COVID-19. The last 18 months may have highlighted to the broader public the race-based marginalization experienced by Asian Americans, but it is certainly nothing new. 
Drawing from their ideas, I’d offer the following recommendations for support:

Don’t Make Assumptions

What resounded from Asian American educators’ Twitter responses were the numerous assumptions they face. Asian Americans are often assumed to all be the same and interchangeable. Many of these assumptions are based on the “model minority” myth, or the idea that Asian Americans are universally high achieving (particularly in math and science) due to cultural values, including hard work and deference. Buying into this stereotype fails to recognize and support Asian Americans who do not fit into this trait, collapses varied Asian American experiences, and positions Asian Americans against other people of color and marginalized groups when, in fact, they may also have experienced systemic discrimination and marginalization.
Teachers mentioned educational discrimination and racial microaggressions, such as people regularly thinking they teach a stereotypical subject (“You’re a math teacher, right?”); being confused with other Asian staff members (“Aren’t you Ms. Li?” “No, that’s the other Asian American female teacher”); being asked to translate for all Asian language-speaking students (regardless of common ethnicity or language competency); or people assuming they were an aide, TA, or even a student (Sue et al., 2007).
A first step in supporting your Asian American colleagues is to understand and avoid making these prevalent assumptions that erase Asian American educators’ individual experiences and identities. Educate yourself about common and uncommon stereotypes, unconscious biases, and microaggressions (like the ones named above). Notice and apologize when you make these assumptions or perpetrate these microaggressions, and step in, when appropriate, if you see someone acting on these assumptions (for example, Ask, “Why would you assume Eunice speaks Vietnamese? She’s Korean American”).

Learn About the Histories and Diversity of Asian American Experiences

Along with combating stereotypes, investing time to learn about diverse Asian American experiences avoids placing additional educational labor expectations on Asian American colleagues. My experience with my own coworkers made me realize how little they knew about Asian Americans. I, too, had learned virtually nothing in my K-12 education nor profession training about Asian Americans’ historical legacies, including differing immigration circumstances of subgroups and influential Asian Americans involved in civil rights and educational cases. I could not remember a single time Asian Americans were brought up in professional contexts, except when we needed translators for the emergent bilingual population at the middle school where I taught.
This work to learn about Asian Americans’ varied and diverse history can start with learning alongside students. Don Vu, an author and former school principal, has put together a helpful resource on incorporating more Asian American perspectives into the curriculum. Noreen Naseem Rodriguez, an assistant professor at University of Colorado Boulder, has also created a website containing curriculum suggestions for incorporating Asian American histories. 
In addition to incorporating more resources for students, consider expanding your own understandings through popular media, like John Oliver’s segment on Asian Americans from Last Week Tonight; data from the Pew Research Center and AAPI data that recognize different experiences of Asian American subgroups; texts like Erika Lee’s The Making of Asian America and Ronald Takaki’s Strangers from a Different Shore; and open events and trainings from local Asian American community groups and local branches of larger national organizations like Asian Americans Advancing Justice, the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, and the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council
One word of caution to educators as you learn more: It’s important not to use this newfound knowledge to assume or dismiss the unique lived experiences of your colleagues, whose experiences might not always reflect what you have read. 

Challenge Asian American Erasure

Finally, consider asking your Asian American colleagues about their experiences and being open to hearing their feedback. These questions should ideally be asked within the context of an authentic relationship, after you’ve already done the self-reflection and the self-education previously mentioned. Many Asian Americans have had experiences with racist microaggressions around language proficiency (“You speak English so well!”), age (“You’re so young looking, I thought you were a student”), and culture (“I forgot you were Asian! You act just like a white person”) dismissed as not harmful.
And, based on interview data for a forthcoming book I’m coauthoring with Lewis University Associate Professor Jung Kim on the racialized experiences of Asian Americans, many South and Southeast Asians report feeling as if they are positioned as “not the right kind of Asian” by both other Asian Americans and non-Asian Americans. 
Acknowledge that Asian Americans have and continue to face racism and xenophobia, but know that this may affect them differently depending on their ethnic identities, immigrant generation, gender, and class status. As instructional coach May Vang, who responded to my tweet, wrote, “Listen to me when I voice my concerns about race, assumptions, microaggressions, and valid PD for me.”
However, sometimes you may feel hesitant to place more emotional taxation on your Asian American colleagues, or they may not want to share their experiences of racialized violence with you. In these cases, consider listening to podcasts focused on Asian American experiences and stories like The Bánh Mì Chronicles, following social media accounts like The Parenting Asian American Project, or participating in monthly Twitter chats like those put on by miseducAsian. Going further, you can find workshops focused on authentic conversations around support of Asian American and AAPI educators, such as those offered by Educate to Empower or the Yuri Education Project. These organizations move beyond racialized trauma toward empowerment through curricular change.

Authentic Affirmation

Within all school environments, we must make active efforts to listen to and include voices of Asian American educators in authentic and informed ways that acknowledge and affirm their place in our school communities. 

Betina Hsieh is a professor of teacher education at California State University, Long Beach, and a former K-12 educator. She is current president of the California Council on Teacher Education and will be the next Boeing endowed professor of teacher education at the University of Washington in 2024.





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