Illinois Becomes First State to Mandate Teaching Asian American History in K-12

On July 7, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed HB 0376 — the Teaching Equitable Asian American History Act (TEAACH Act) into law, making Illinois the first state in the nation to mandate the teaching of Asian American history in K-12 public schools. Championed by Illinois State Rep. Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz and State Sen. Ram Villivalam, and co-sponsored by Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Chicago and members of various community organizations and educational institutions, the legislation responds to the call for inclusive curricula as a strategy for addressing the spike in anti-Asian racism and violence in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the legislation is more than that. As an educator at a public university where I serve as a founding director of Global Asian Studies, an academic program that was a product of an almost two-decade, student-led movement to create an ethnic studies program, this legislation uplifts the student demand for learning about Asian American histories and reaffirms that Asian American students’ communities and lived experiences matter. It recognizes how ethnic studies allows students to engage with their education while affirming their sense of belonging in academic spaces; a suturing that directly leads to student success.

Following Arizona’s ban on the teaching of ethnic studies in 2010, the Illinois TEAACH Act reflects ongoing statewide efforts in the nation since then to address the importance of ethnic studies in K-12 curricula such as in Oregon, Indiana, Nevada, Texas, Vermont, Connecticut, Washington, Virginia, Washington D.C. and California. The TEAACH Act specifically pushes for the inclusion of a unit of Asian American history while highlighting the diversity of experiences for this community.

University of Illinois Chicago students like Cyril Dela Rosa remind us of the importance of recognizing the “large plurality of Asian American students in Illinois” and the diversity of this category, as well as the intersectionality of race, gender, ethnicity class, sexuality, religion and many other aspects of identity that shapes our experiences as Asian Americans. This is also at the core of why it is important to disaggregate Asian American racial data so that we can see such plurality, as well as resist the false “model minority” frame that has often projected this community as one that is not in need of resources.

In fact, specific communities within this larger category of “Asian American” are shown to experience the largest income inequality. It is also a community that has been heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Disaggregating the Asian American racial category likewise requires being attentive to the specificities of histories and politics of every community, not simply conflating Asian American with Pacific Islander experiences, for example.

Importantly, the Illinois legislation uplifts the importance of reframing the narrative of exceptionalism that is often used to articulate the representations and experiences of Asian Americans, recognizing the complexities of the positionality of Asian Americans within the U.S. racial imaginary, as poet and essayist Cathy Park Hong powerfully describes.

This narrative of exceptionalism materializes in the longstanding view of the “model minority” myth that has falsely depicted Asian Americans as a monolithic category of high-achieving and economically mobile individuals, but also has been used as a racial wedge to forge an anti-Black agenda. It also materializes in how anti-Asian racism and violence in the aftermath of the pandemic have been interpreted by the public as an anomaly, when in fact, it only reveals a much longer history of anti-Asian violence that is a product of white supremacy in this country.

This understanding is at the core of what critical race theory offers — a lens for seeing the roots of racial violence. As abolitionist teacher, writer and scholar Dylan Rodríguez rightly points out, “anti-Asian violence is an expression of the white nationalist domestic warfare totality, not a momentary exception to it.” It is a form of violence that has advanced white nationalism by targeting minoritized communities.

But perhaps the dual position that Asian Americans occupy in the U.S. racial matrix as both the “model minority,” and in times of economic or public health crises, the “yellow peril,” contributes to differences in how Asian Americans experience this violence. Yet as so many others have pointed out, there is nothing new about the anti-Asian violence we have witnessed, given that the long history of racism directed at Asians dates back more than a century — from the 19th century Chinese Exclusion Acts, the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans, the deportation of Cambodian Americans, the murder of Vincent Chin at the height of economic nationalism, the post-9/11 racial profiling and violence directed at Muslim and Sikh communities, and the gendered violence committed by the U.S. military overseas, to name just a few targets.

Thus, to teach about Asian American history is to teach against white supremacy including histories of slavery, settler colonialism and Orientalism, specifically centering the U.S. empire in this analysis. To teach about Asian American history is also to resist the narrative of exceptionalism that often presumes Asian American communities are a “quiet” and passive body who are disengaged from social movements or activist work.

In fact, this is a community who have long resisted, and done so by forging cross-racial solidarities — whether it is the alliance between Filipino-American labor organizer Larry Itliong and farmworker champion Cesar Chavez during the Delano Grape Strike, the multiracial and student-led coalitions that launched the Ethnic Studies movement in the 1960s, various Afro Asian solidarities, or the current campaign for a National Domestic Workers Bill of Rights.

To be sure, it is important to teach about the varied economic and social contributions of Asian Americans. However, more than ever, to teach this history means resisting the twinned frame of liberal multiculturalism and heritage education, instead emphasizing critical race theory, intersectional feminism, and abolition as frameworks for understanding Asian American experiences and identities while seeing their connections and solidarities with other communities.

It is important to remember the sentiments of University of Illinois Chicago students like Meenakshi Parihar, whose experiences in the post-9/11 U.S. remind us of the presence of Islamophobia within Asian American communities. This is coupled with taking note about how the curricula we develop must center an anti-racist, decolonial and liberatory pedagogy if we are to teach about the root causes of social inequalities and notice what happened with the ethnic studies model school curriculum that passed in California, which abandoned these critical frameworks, and instead, privileged politicians and lobbyists in determining the curriculum’s content.

As the country grapples with understanding the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on Indigenous and communities of color, anti-Asian violence, police brutality and racialized capitalism, the passage of Illinois’s TEAACH Act is a watershed, but more importantly, a necessary corrective, and an opportunity to rewrite and remake how we teach U.S. history from a framework of social justice and a robust understanding of diversity.