Charlyse Yang, 10th grade (left), and Andrew Vue, 10th grade, listen as teacher Yer Syhaphom gives instructions to her heritage Hmong class at Park Center High School in Brooklyn Park. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

Most of Erika Lee’s undergraduate students at the University of Minnesota have never learned any Asian American history before they set foot in her classroom.

“It’s almost a complete absence of any knowledge. It is that bad,” said Lee, a professor of history and Asian American studies who also serves as director of the university’s Immigration History Research Center. “That’s what it’s like to be invisible, to feel like your history doesn’t matter or count.”

The lack of real knowledge also creates an “abyss” in the broader society that is too often filled with ignorance and racism—as well as stereotypes about the “model minority” that suggest Asian Americans aren’t subjected to racism. 

As the country faces a reckoning on systemic racism, advocates say a curriculum that better reflects the nation’s diverse history is crucial to molding empathetic citizens who are poised to help solve the country’s complex challenges. They also argue it would help students of color feel valued in the classroom and engaged in their education.

The Illinois House of Representatives passed a bill earlier this week to require public schools to teach Asian American history. The bill, which still needs Senate approval and the governor’s signature, would make Illinois the first state with such a mandate.

In Minnesota, a movement to improve the curriculum about the state’s cultural and ethnic groups has been gaining traction at the state Capitol. The proposed Increase Teachers of Color Act, now in the House education omnibus bill, includes a provision to make ethnic studies coursework available to all students. The Minnesota Department of Education is currently reviewing and revising the state’s social studies standards, a process that happens every 10 years.

But the proposals have been slower to gain steam in the Republican-controlled Senate. Ethnic studies coursework does not appear in its version of the education omnibus bill. And although the legislature does not play a role in the social studies review, the Senate bill also seeks to delay the new social studies standards by two years

The rise in anti-Asian hatred during the COVID-19 pandemic is part of a historical trend–and understanding that history is crucial to addressing the roots of the problem, scholars and activists say.

When a white gunman killed eight people in Georgia last month, including six Asian women, he told law enforcement he hadn’t been motivated by race. Police and some media outlets repeated his story uncritically: He had a “sex addiction” and was having a “bad day.”

Scholars like Lee quickly pointed to a long current in American history: The Page Act, the first law to address Asian immigration to the United States, banned Chinese women from entering the country, claiming they would come only for “lewd and immoral purposes.” American servicemembers abroad often exploited Asian women during World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Hollywood films perpetuate fetishizing stereotypes of Asian women.

This history is often left out of textbooks and classroom lesson plans, Lee said.

“That has real-world consequences when we see police officials easily dismiss racism as a motivation,” she said. Ignorance of the history of anti-Asian racism, she said, can “help to fuel racism even more.”

‘Their schools weren’t talking about it’

When students don’t feel their curriculum is relevant to their lives, they may disengage from their schooling, said Clara King, the youth program manager with the Asian American Organizing Project.

After the spa killings in Atlanta, the high school students she organizes felt fearful for their elders and frustrated not to have a chance to process the trauma in school.

“For a lot of them, their schools weren’t talking about it,” King said. “They were expected to just go about their daily lives and get their work done, go to a meeting, go to their classes, study for finals. And do all of that, which is already hard to do, on top of going through this event that is super painful for them.”

Students want a curriculum that reflects them and connects to their lives, King said. Ethnic studies coursework, she said, “would reignite this passion to learn in them.”

Sylvia De Shazo, a 17-year-old junior at Minneapolis’ Southwest High School, got involved with AAOP and the Youth for Ethnic Studies Coalition after asking a teacher why there were no Advanced Placement classes for Asian American studies or African American studies. (Southwest does sometimes offer an International Baccalaureate Asian studies class, but De Shazo said the course wasn’t what she was looking for.)

In her AP European history class, she’s learning a bit about India–from the perspective of the British colonizers. “The topic only usually comes up if there is colonization or war involved,” she said. “Nothing deep, nothing specifically about any Asian countries.”

In November, the Minneapolis school board voted to implement an ethnic studies graduation requirement starting with the class of 2025. De Shazo, who testified at the state legislature, wants to see ethnic studies statewide. 

She sees parallels between historical racial injustices, like the mass hanging of Native Americans in Mankato, and the racial violence facing people of color today.

“For me thinking about that and what’s going on now, we’re kind of repeating history all over again,” she said. “I want to help stop that.”

The legislative push

For Representative Fue Lee (D-Minneapolis), chief author of a bill to implement ethnic studies as a graduation requirement statewide, the issue is personal. He never learned about his own identity as a Hmong American when he was attending Minneapolis Public Schools, where he graduated in 2009.

“It is crucial for us as a state that is so diverse, for us to really understand each other as neighbors and as friends,” he said. “We need to really have that as a core component inside of our classrooms.”

Some of his nieces and nephews are learning about Hmong heritage and language in charter schools.

“I think that’s something we should offer for traditional K-12 public schools,” he said. And it will need to be locally driven, he said, to meet the needs of Minnesota’s diverse communities.

Groups like the Asian American Organizing Project and the Coalition of Asian American Leaders support Lee’s bill. It did not receive a hearing this year, but a proposal to offer ethnic studies coursework as an elective in all schools advanced to the House education omnibus bill. A conference committee will decide whether the divided legislature will include it in the final education bill.

“I’m hopeful that even if we can’t do anything legislatively, that through the administrative process we can get ethnic studies into our social studies standards and really move forward on that front,” he said.

Yer Syhaphom helps Thidalarat Vang, 10th grade (left), with the Hmong pronunciation of a passage from a book. “We don’t just teach them how to speak and read and write,” Syhaphom told Sahan Journal. “They learn a lot about their culture and who they are, their history. That’s part of our class, and that’s essential to them building confidence and being successful.” Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

‘I want to transform them’

On a Wednesday evening in early April, students from Pang Yang’s third year Hmong language and culture class are presenting their research on toxic family relationships in an online meeting. It’s a “hot topic,” Yang says, after three Hmong women across the country, including Bao Yang of St. Paul, were killed by current or former partners in recent weeks.

Nearly 50 people fill the Google Meet, including representatives from the Hmong 18 Council, which works with the 18 Hmong clans in Minnesota to promote Hmong culture, the Minnesota Department of Education, and students from other Hmong classes in the Osseo Area Schools. The slides are in English, but the students speak in practiced Hmong as they share the results of their surveys and focus groups. After the presentation, they lead a bilingual community discussion on how pressures at home and stigma against divorce can fuel domestic violence, and how schools and parents can change those dynamics.

“I felt like doing this could help change the world, and even our community, and maybe even other people’s community,” student presenter Ariya Chang said. 

Yang developed the heritage Hmong program as a teacher at Park Center High School in Brooklyn Park at the request of students, who wanted to know why Hmong classes weren’t available for native speakers the way Spanish classes were.

“Hmong students said, what about us? We want something,” Yang said. “We don’t feel like we have a home. And all through our lives we’ve been in this educational system that has whitewashed us of who we are.”

Yang, then teaching English language learners, saw a number of needs in her Hmong students that a heritage class could address. Many Hmong students were stagnating in English learning programs, never quite getting to fluency despite being born in the United States. While students enroll in college after high school, the dropout rate for Hmong students is high. And mental health needs were not being met, which became painfully clear to Yang after she lost a student to suicide.

Students tell her the heritage Hmong classes have been life-changing, Yang said.

“It goes beyond reading and writing and speaking language,” she said. “It’s actually a program to get students to feel good about themselves, to love themselves.”

Some students have seen improvements in their grades. Others have finally exited the English learning program, as the Hmong language skills they’ve learned transfer to their English.

Yang, now at Osseo Area Schools’ Distance Learning Academy, teaches her Hmong 3 class through an “ethnic studies lens.” Beyond language and culture, they learn about social issues and how to make change. Students learn to understand their Hmong identity in the context of Asian American identity more broadly. They learn about cultures of other people of color, and how the struggles of different groups relate to their own. And they connect their learning to the community–like the presentation about toxic relationships. 

She also provides space for them to process issues that are affecting them–like the spa killings in Georgia, and the domestic violence killings of Hmong women nationwide. After a police officer killed 20-year-old Daunte Wright on Sunday in Brooklyn Center, the home of some of her students, Yang took two days off the curriculum to help her students process the news, check in on their mental health, and provide context to the history of police brutality in the United States.

Yang is in the process of developing a heritage Hmong curriculum to be shared with other schools, as well as a heritage Vietnamese program. She’s also hoping to expand the Hmong curriculum to reach students from other cultural backgrounds. Next year, the program will be offered both online and in person, and may expand to a third high school as well.

“I just don’t want them to have cultural knowledge, but I want to transform them,” she said. “By the end of the year, they’re different students than when they first came in.”

Ending a long invisibility

For now, this level of exposure to Hmong culture or Asian American studies in Minnesota schools is the exception. But it could provide an example for the rest of the state.

Adding this often-forgotten history into schools will take deliberate effort on a number of levels, said Erika Lee, the historian: From textbooks to Advanced Placement curriculum to individual teachers to the districts supporting them. And since many teachers never learned this history in their own schooling, they often have to learn it themselves before they can teach it.

For Asian Americans, their omission from lesson plans can reinforce a feeling of being invisible. And that omission can also reinforce how others see them–or don’t see them.

That’s why teaching this history in schools is so important to Clara King, the AAOP youth organizer.

“If you’re in an education system where your family and your history are made to be invisible,” she asked, “how are you going to love yourself?”

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.