By Sima Kumar
In the summer of 2020, as a response to the George Floyd protests, the toppling of confederate statues, and the necessary and timely conversations about antiracism placed at center stage by Ibram X. Kendi’s books (among others), many language arts departments across the nation made a push to not only include more Black voices in the American literature curriculum, which can often be token gestures, but to actually teach these works as mentor texts in the classroom.
But the rise in anti-Asian racism in the spring of 2021 did not have a similar fervent response from language arts departments in most districts.
As a New Jersey educator, I find this alarming given the demographics of our state.
The Asian American population is the fastest growing racial group in the state and comprises 10.4% of the population. Six school districts in New Jersey have tipped to more than 50% of students of Asian heritage, as reported by NJ Spotlight for the 2016-17 school year. (See njspotlight.com/tables/schoolsegregation.) As a friend pointed out, this means that the reality of some Asian American students is that they may live in communities where the majority of the population looks like them, but their school curriculum does not represent their experience in the American literature classroom.
This becomes additionally problematic because nationally, according to the 2020 census data, this generation of young people is the “most racially and ethnically diverse generation” this country has ever produced, according to a 2018 article by the Pew Research Center. (See pewrsr.ch/3jvjH2w.)
According to a recent report by Jersey Promise, a nonprofit policy education and advocacy organization, “The face of education is rapidly changing in NJ. The majority of our 1.37 million students enrolled (56%) in academic year 2017-18 are students of color. There is no longer a racial group that makes up a majority of the enrollment in public schools.” (See bit.ly/3l9qcb7.)
As educators, we are forward-thinking. But when it comes to educational practices, reflecting on past actions becomes essential for productive decision-making in order to move forward. This is especially true since we have an impact on the development and self-conception of young people. So, as educators, we must ask ourselves the question: What is the ecosystem that has allowed for this persistent neglect of the Asian American experience in the high school American literature classroom?
Part of the reason for this oversight is the historical invisibility of Asian Americans that has been informed by the stereotypes of Asian Americans as perpetual foreigners and as model minorities.
Asian Americans experience the perpetual foreigner stereotype in day-to-day interactions in comments such as, “You speak English so well,” or when they tell someone they grew up in this country, they are frequently asked the bombshell question, “Where are you really from?”
Here are a couple of anecdotes I’ve heard from teachers and students. One teacher who works in a school district that has tipped majority students of Asian heritage recounted a story of a colleague who, looking through her student rosters at the beginning of the school year, said, “God, how about some normal names.”
A student recounted a story of a friend who was having a writing conference and the teacher said to the young man she could tell from his writing that he was an ESL student—the young man was born and raised in this country.
The perpetual foreigner stereotype has its origins in the historical exclusion of Asians in America. When Chinese Americans began arriving on the West Coast in the 1850s during the gold rush and then later to help build the transcontinental railroad, they were often labeled by the press with the offensive term “Yellow Peril.”
In addition, a series of immigration laws asserted the exclusion of Asians in America. The 1875 Page Act prohibited the immigration of Chinese women for “immoral purposes.” Many people attribute this law as the seed to the idea of Asian women as sexualized, exotic, expendable objects, an idea many journalists referenced after the Atlanta shooting of six women of Asian heritage.
In her March article in The Nation, “The Roots of the Atlanta Shooting Go Back to the First Law Restricting Immigration,” Mari Uyehara describes the alarmingly sympathetic and humanizing description by the captain of the Cherokee County sheriff’s office of the white male murderer, saying the murderer claimed “it’s not racially motivated” and that he had a “sexual addiction” and that he had come to the spas to “eliminate” that addiction. The sheriff, however, said nothing about the humanity of the women who had lost their lives.
The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the first law that restricted the immigration of people from a specific ethnic background, made Chinese immigrants ineligible for citizenship. Other legislation such as the Immigration Act of 1917 demarcated a “barred zone” from the Middle East to Southeast Asia.
Two Supreme Court rulings the 1922 Ozawa v. United States and the 1923 Thind v. United States defined Japanese and Indians as being nonwhite and thus not eligible for citizenship.
The 1924 Johnson-Reed Act further restricted immigration. From 1942 to 1945, President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 interned Japanese Americans.
Not until the 1942 Luce-Celler Act did naturalization rights extend to Asians. In 1965, with the passage of the Immigration and Naturalization Act, Asian immigrants arrived in large numbers to the United States. Because this law made preference for immigrants with professional degrees, the majority of Asians who immigrated around this time were professionals—scientists, doctors, and engineers.
This act not only changed the demographics of America, but it also laid the foundation for the model minority stereotype.
Because of the 1965 Immigration Act, the children of these immigrants were assumed to have the same skill set and life goals as their parents. The model minority stereotype assumes students of Asian heritage are good at school, particularly excelling in math and science, and that they are quiet, well-behaved and don’t make trouble by questioning the status quo.
A teacher friend recounted a conversation with a colleague who was writing college recommendation letters. Both my friend and her colleague work in a district where students of Asian heritage are the majority. The colleague said it’s nearly impossible to write unique letters for students who are quiet, straight A students, but don’t stand out in any other way.
On the other hand, there are teachers who are cognizant of their implicit bias. A math teacher recounted how he was getting frustrated with a student of Asian heritage who was struggling with math and he admitted that part of his frustration came from the assumption that the boy must be good at math, like Asians are “supposed” to be.
The model minority stereotype harms teacher relationships with students of Asian origin. The perpetual foreigner stereotype is played out in a curriculum that excludes the Asian American experience.
Part of the roadblock in recognizing the need to represent the Asian American experiences in an American literature course has to do with how administrators and teachers understand the word “diversity.” The word “diversity” is conventionally understood to mean taking into account Black, Latinx, and, maybe, Native American and LGBTQ+ experiences, and, possibly, people with disabilities.
Experiences of these groups are better understood by supervisors, administrators and teachers involved with policy and curriculum development, according to the Jersey Promise report. Perhaps not surprisingly, most supervisors, administrators, and teachers are overwhelmingly white. In New Jersey, 84% of teachers are white, according to Colleen O’Dea in an article in NJ Spotlight. (See bit.ly/2X5ep5N.)
The necessity of teaching Asian American literature is further sidelined in the classroom because of the assumption that Asian immigrant families and students don’t really care about language arts; they place more value on the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering and mathematics. This is another example of the model minority stereotype. From my perspective, it is for this very reason we need to pay more attention to courses such as language arts, and Asian American literature in particular.
While all teachers are responsible for supporting the social and emotional development of students, language arts teachers have an added responsibility because our subject matter is the human condition: through our study of literature we explore and analyze human fallibility and the capacity for love and forgiveness.
By showing our students of Asian heritage representations of themselves beyond cultural stereotypes or family expectations in the literature we read in the classroom, we are caring for their psychological health: we are telling them their lives are part of the American literary imagination, they are part of the story of this country. In districts that have a high immigrant population, reading stories of the immigrant experience in America with students helps with their identity formation and social-emotional learning. Immigrant students see that Asian American protagonists are flawed, struggling with family expectations and the process of becoming American, such as in Jhumpa Lahiri’s book The Namesake, which I will discuss below.
If students of Asian heritage stray from family expectations of entering a STEM field, they will have alternative models to forge other paths. A teacher who taught into her 70s said to me that literature is a stage on which students are given imaginative space to practice and think critically about real-life situations.
Asian and Asian Americans are IT professionals, scientists, doctors, professors and they are also poets, painters, filmmakers, novelists, musicians, critics, historians, journalists, actors, chefs, and so much more. Some are both.
In my American literature class I include Amit Majmudar’s poem “Dothead,” a poem in which a middle schooler makes the eponymous racial epithet a mark—with the help of a dollop of cafeteria ketchup—of self-empowerment. I make sure students know that the writer is a poet and practicing physician.
There is a pedagogical approach that addresses the needs of students of this generation across the country: culturally responsive teaching. This pedagogy had an earlier incarnation and was originally called multicultural education. This method is essential for teachers to implement for this generation of students—Generation Z or zoomers—because, as mentioned earlier, this generation is part of the most racially and ethnically diverse generation in our nation.
Multicultural education has its origins in the hard work of the Civil Rights Movement. Civil rights activists and educators recognized that educational institutions were “among the most oppressive and hostile to the ideals of racial equality,” according to Paul C. Gorski of Hamline University. (See bit.ly/2WC5zvW.)
Essential to culturally responsive education is teacher training, and there is no better way than through what language arts teachers love the most: literature. Rudine Sims Bishop, who is considered the mother of multicultural children’s literature, says that books are like windows that allow us a glimpse into the lives of others. Books can also become sliding doors that allow us to imaginatively step into lives different from our own. And when the light is right, Bishop notes, the window can become a mirror.
In that reflection, “we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience,” Bishop said in an article by Robin Chenoweth on Ohio State University’s website. (See bit.ly/2WBJ7T8.)
Pamela Mason, senior lecturer in Education at Harvard University, explains, “When you add in the fact that teacher training hasn’t always included work about race and identity, or even about addressing cultural assumptions, it becomes easy to see how adding diverse books to the curriculum can seem like treacherous territory.” (See bit.ly/3zwUevd.)
Professional development workshops where teachers read and unpack diverse texts using an anti-racist lens will allow teachers to see Asian students as neither invisible nor as quiet and obedient model minorities nor in the racial language and stereotypes the teacher grew up with and never examined.
Only from a well-trained, conscientious teacher will students be able to develop in the classroom the educational groundwork to understand their history and how they can create space for themselves in the story of this country.
You might find it surprising that this way of thinking about education predates even the Civil Rights Movement and, according to Lawrence Blum, professor emeritus of philosophy at Boston University, was expressed in a 1933 book called The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Woodson, who planted the seed that flourished into what we know today as African American History Month.
Woodson’s educational philosophy shows us that there have always been conscientious educators in this country, but their influence has often been relegated to academic conversations. It is time teachers change this and implement these American ideals directly in the classroom.
The solution for any American literature curriculum revision is to start with the needs of your own district. Look at your demography and choose literature that represents the students you teach—this is not hard in American literature.
In my teaching, it is important to make sure I include the South Asian and Chinese experiences. This also means that since there is a small percentage of students whose parents recently immigrated from Kenya, Uganda, and other parts of Africa, as well as students whose parents recently immigrated from the Caribbean, the Black American experience needs to take into account this added complexity to Black identity. Teachers need to also recognize that white identity, too, is complex. For example, there is a small population of students from Ukraine, Romania, Germany and other European countries in my classroom. A question worth exploring with students is: What happens to cultural identity when students of European background enter the white mainstream?
High school students want to talk about identity. And wouldn’t it be remarkable if we could bring in works by multiracial Americans? This inevitable mixing in our nation of immigrants was recorded in an early book of the republic, Letters from an American Farmer. In the book, America’s first bestseller, the author Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur describes the intermarriage among European settler colonizers. He goes on to say, “The American is a new man, who acts upon new principles; he must therefore entertain new ideas and form new opinions.” As American teachers, we too must form new ideas and opinions because the student population in our classroom is changing.
Finally, once the demography of students is recognized, bring in voices not represented by the student body so that the young minds in your classroom gain a fuller picture of a multicultural America.
Teaching literature thematically
Teach American literature thematically rather than chronologically because the blooming of multicultural literature begins post-1970s. Avoid inadvertently teaching American literature in a segregated manner: a unit on the Black American experience, a second unit on the Native American experience, a third unit on the Latinx experience. Instead, bring multiple perspectives together around a central theme.
A wonderful combination to explore the theme of ignominy would be Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter with Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and the first chapter from Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, “No Name Woman.”
Another wonderful combination would be F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby with Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake to expand the conversation about the American dream.
Include images that dignify early Americans. That means in addition to including images of Crèvecoeur, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, include images of Phyllis Wheatley, William Apess, Tecumseh, Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois. I am only now beginning to find images of early Asian Americans that give them dignity—the images are there but finding them takes some digging.
Teach American literature by reminding students of the context in which the material was written. For example, when my students were comparing Booker T. Washington’s 1895 “Atlanta Compromise” speech and W.E.B. Dubois’s “Of Our Spiritual Strivings,” the first chapter from his immensely influential 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk, I reminded them that at the beginning of the 20th century, there were immigrants arriving from Italy and Eastern Europe, there were Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia, there were Irish and Chinese immigrants helping build the transcontinental railroad and making lives for themselves, and Punjabis were beginning to arrive in California to work as farm laborers.
It is time for high school students to see the stories of Asian Americans as part of America’s multicultural literary heritage. The George Floyd protests and the rise in anti-Asian racism because of the ongoing COVID pandemic make a multicultural approach to teaching American literature more necessary than ever. Let’s make this our resolve for this second pandemic school year.
For a list of titles in various genres recommended for high school students feel free to see my list titled “Ms. Kumar’s Curated List of Asian, Asian American, and Pacific Islander Literature for High School Language Arts Curricula.” You’ll find it at https://bit.ly/kumar-list.
Sima Kumar is a language arts teacher at West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South and an adjunct professor at Mercer County Community College. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.