Like so many Asian Americans, I was not surprised when I heard the news that the mass shooting in Atlanta targeted six Asian American women. I was angry—angry that we have to be gunned down to get the attention of this country. We have been calling for help since the former president started referring to COVID-19 as the “China Virus,” but few people believed us and even fewer cared to stand with us.
Every day for the past year, my community has lived in fear of falling victim to either the virus or an angry white person. Our invisibility is carefully designed to support the myth of meritocracy and white supremacy in this country. Model minority sounds like a compliment, but it’s not, because we are not being accepted as Americans. At best, Asian Americans can be the more tolerable target of hate.
The media did not initially cover anti-Asian hate crimes during the pandemic because Asian Americans are not expected to experience racism. I mean, we are the model minority. Often, we hear things like, “Your English is very good,” “Where are you from?” and “You must be good at math.” These are not harmless jokes or misunderstandings. These are products of anti-Asian racism. Racism doesn’t need to be overt; it doesn’t need to be physical. The most painful effect of racism is that it questions whether you belong. Asian American students report these types of racist incidents at school often. A recent report from Stop AAPI Hate found that 8 out of 10 Asian American youth reported being bullied or verbally harassed during the pandemic.
As school leaders start to welcome students back to school buildings, our nation cannot go back to the pre-pandemic “normal,” because, like Black and Latino students, “normal” education excludes the experience of Asian American students. Advocates for justice demand that students that look like me be seen and heard. We want our history and story to be reflected throughout the curriculum beyond the occasional performative gesture of Chinese New Year.
If the hard and critical history of Asian Americans is taught to all students, then this country would know that the scapegoating of Asian American women in the Atlanta killing is not new. Chinese women were prohibited from immigrating to the U.S. in the late 1800s because their sexuality was considered a great danger to white men. Our story is a story of exclusion and resistance. In the 1960s, Asian American student activists worked with Black and Latino activists to establish ethnic studies programs in California. It’s time for Asian American students to learn that our contribution to this country goes beyond fortune cookies and General Tso’s chicken.
Pre-pandemic “normal” education ignored inequities in Asian American student academic achievement. Although Asian Americans as a whole have performed well academically, there are significant within group differences. Southeast Asian American students, for example, experience significant inequities in education. According to AAPI Data, 34.3% of Laotian Americans, 38.5% of Cambodian Americans, and 39.6% of Hmong Americans do not have a high school diploma. Without disaggregated data, schools cannot identify Asian American students who need additional resources and support. The inability to identify gaps and needs in Asian American students perpetuates the model minority stereotype, which continues the vicious cycle of inequities.
The recent physical assault against our elders is particularly painful for us because elders hold a sacred place in many of our communities. Asian Americans are most likely to live in multigenerational homes. Our family often includes grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and sometimes family friends. School leaders and educators have an opportunity to improve their family engagement strategies by expanding the reach to include more than parents and by including culturally and linguistically relevant practices. School leaders and educators should welcome grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, and cousins as well. School leaders and educators should also ask Asian American family members about their linguistic preferences because some Asian American family members may feel less comfortable using English. It’s time for school leaders and educators to decenter white norms around nuclear family structure and welcome multigenerational and multilingual families in our schools.
When Asian American students return to school buildings, they can wear a mask to be safe from the pandemic, but there is nothing they can put on that keep them safe from racism if school leaders do not take active steps now to build a more inclusive and just learning environment.