My daughter has an entirely different collection of children’s books than what I grew up with. Some of her favorites include, “I Am Golden” by Eva Chen, “A Big Mooncake for Little Star” by Grace Lin, and “Amy Wu and the Perfect Bao” by Kat Zhang. These books not only have characters that look like her, but tell stories specifically about the Asian American experience.
As an Asian American who grew up in Florida in the 1990s, I desperately grasped at any character in the media with black hair, and some were truly reaches: Claudia Kishi of the Babysitters Club, Aladdin and Princess Jasmine of Disney’s animated Aladdin, and Wanda Li in The Magic School Bus. Media representation of Asian Americans looks very different today. The recent acclaim of works like Everything Everywhere All at Once and Beef demonstrate our incredible progress since The Joy Luck Club 30 years ago. While media representation is one way to highlight the rich tapestry that is the Asian American experience and influences how Asian Americans are perceived and treated in the real world, it cannot be the only lever.
The history and experience of Asian Americans receive little attention in formal K-12 or even college and university level education both when I was in school and today.
Imagine my surprise in seeing the headline that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has signed into legislation a new requirement that AAPI history is taught in K-12 schools in Florida. This is the same Ron DeSanti who a year before, also signed the Individual Freedom Act also known as the Stop WOKE Act.
In his own words, “In Florida, we will not let the far-left woke agenda take over our schools and workplaces. There is no place for indoctrination or discrimination in Florida.” While I celebrate another state, my home state, to join the other few who require AAPI studies in K-12 curriculum, I also fear how DeSantis is leading a culture war against Critical Race Theory and prohibiting how public schools and businesses discuss race and gender.
Would DeSantis police how Asian American history is taught or what students can watch and read?
My first exposure to Asian American history came in the form of a PBS documentary, Bill Moyers Becoming American, The Chinese Experience, that I happened to stumble on while flipping through TV channels in high school. It was not in my AP U.S. History class, but in this documentary that I learned about the case of United States v. Wong Kim Ark, a seminal case of birthright citizenship. The school module on the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. never mentioned the roles Asian Americans played or the relationships across ethnic groups to speak out and advocate together for ethnic studies programs at universities.
The murder of Vincent Chin, which occurred in the backdrop of massive layoffs in the American auto industry in the 1970s, was also something only illuminated through this documentary. If history is the study of how societies behaved in order to understand challenges we face today and acts as data to inform decisions we need to make today, then the study of U.S.. history demands comprehensiveness and inclusion to create a shared understanding of the common struggles all people in the U.S. have. Asian American history is American history.
Would we have seen a dramatic increase in anti-Asian hate crimes since the COVID-19 pandemic if Asian American history was more visible to all?
Critical race theory, as the Brookings Institute explains, states that our social institutions (e.g. criminal justice system, housing market, healthcare) are embedded with racism. As legal scholar, Natalie Masuoka summarizes, “If we are to find solutions to this inequality, then we have to understand how race asserts its power. Critical Race Theory offers a useful way to trace the roots of race and inequality.” Opponents of Critical Race Theory have reframed its basic tenets to mean that white people are being positioned as the oppressors against non-white who are the oppressed. The fear is that by infusing this into K-12 education will cause further divisiveness among students.
State legislation like Florida’s Stop WOKE Act places a ban on the discussion and/or training that the U.S. is inherently racist, making concepts of conscious and unconscious bias, privilege, discrimination, and oppression difficult for educators to introduce or even discuss. A full understanding of U.S. history will be limited with these pieces of legislation in place. If not through enforcement, but through self-censorship from educators for fear of consequences or other forms of retaliation.
So, when DeSantis uplifts AAPI history while also condemning Critical Race Theory, he is perpetuating the model minority stereotype by aligning Asians as “white adjacent” and further contributing to divisiveness among ethnic minorities in the U.S. My daughter is not old enough for formal schooling yet, but if this is a glimpse into the future of her curriculum, how can AAPI history be taught in the absence of the tenets of Critical race theory?
As AAPI Heritage Month comes to a close, I urge everybody to reflect back on the Civil Rights era and the positive progress we have made with Asian representation in the media. Let’s stay united with each other if we want to see progress in the teaching of American history. AAPI history is critical to American history, but not in the absence of critical race theory.
Eva M. Luo, MD, MBA is Director of Care Innovation at Cityblock Health and PD Soros Fellow and Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project