NJ may require Asian history for all students. Here's why that helps all of us

We must continue to encourage our future generations to learn about the various facets of humankind and promote diversity and tolerance in our society.

Growing up outside Flint, Michigan, as a Korean American adoptee, Amber Reed had little exposure to her native culture. In school, the only reference to Asian history she recalled was a mention of the 19th-century Opium Wars between Great Britain and China.

"I had to seek out the information myself," said Reed, 39, a mother of two who now lives in Montclair.

But it shouldn't have to be that way, say Reed and other Asian Americans in North Jersey — especially in the wake of increased harassment and violence against the community. 

With the rise in hate crimes since the pandemic began, now is the time to mandate more study in New Jersey of Asian Americans and their contributions, according to Kani Ilangovan, founder of Make Us Visible NJ, a nonprofit dedicated to that cause.

Montclair's Amber Reed, a Korean American, said she had little exposure to her own heritage while growing up in Flint, Michigan.

More than 1,500 people have signed the group's petition calling for the inclusion of Asian American and Pacific Islander history in New Jersey public schools.   

State Sen. Vin Gopal, a Monmouth County Democrat of Indian descent, has introduced a bill to do just that in the Legislature, and is picking up support in the Assembly as well. Realizing that only 10% of bills introduced in Trenton become law, Ilangovan set a goal of support from at least 10 state senators and 20 Assembly members. 

She also has an army of Asian American parents writing and calling their representatives.

"It's really important to launch this," Ilangovan said. "Asian Americans are seen as 'forever foreigners.' "

The 46-year-old grew up in the suburbs of southwestern Illinois, where she was often the only Asian child. Her physician parents emigrated from India in the 1970s as a new federal law, the Hart-Celler Act, removed restrictions on immigration from Asia. The 1965 law gave preference to highly skilled emigres and family unification regardless of country of origin. 

In her youth, Ilangovan felt conscious of her background and would draw herself with peach-colored crayons instead of brown. Now a psychiatrist living in West Windsor, she doesn't want her two children or any other students to feel stigmatized due to their race. While her school district is majority Asian, Ilangovan noticed that Indian American children are still coloring portraits of themselves with peach hues instead of their natural skin color. 

Microaggressions such as "go back to where you came from" and racial slurs are being thrown at Asians, she said. This has affected the mental health of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, who report anxiety and depression due to racism, Ilangovan said.

In New Jersey, bias incidents against Asian Americans rose 82% last year, from 39 in 2019 to 71 in 2020, according to state figures. Almost 25% of reported incidents happened in K-12 schools, more than in any other location. Given that attacks and harassment often go unreported, the numbers likely represent only a fraction of the true total, Ilangovan said.

That's why she believes changing the public school curricula is an important place to start with anti-racist training. School curricula in the state don't do justice to the history of Asians and other underrepresented Americans, she said, leaving all students poorly prepared for a multiracial world. 

Change is already happening. Earlier this month, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a law requiring public schools to teach a unit of Asian American history, the first such requirement in the nation.

The Teaching Equitable Asian American Community History (TEAACH) Act mandates "a unit of instruction studying the events of Asian American history, including the history of Asian Americans in Illinois and the Midwest, as well as the contributions of Asian Americans toward advancing civil rights from the 19th century onward." The studies are required by the start of the 2022-2023 school year. 

In the New Jersey Senate, a bipartisan group including Teresa Ruiz, Kristin Corrado, Shirley Turner, Nia Gill, Holly Schepisi and Joseph Cryan joined Gopal in signing on to a similar measure, Senate bill S4021. In the Assembly, Raj Mukherji, Mila Jasey, Britnee Timberlake, Thomas Giblin, Carol Murphy, Angela McKnight and Valerie Vainieri Huttle have pledged their support to Make Us Visible NJalthough no bill has been introduced in the chamber yet.  

The bill requires a board of education to include instruction on the history and contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the curriculum of students in grades kindergarten through 12.

'Public schools should be evolving'

Huttle, whose 37th District covers Bergen County towns with a large Asian American constituency, said she would support such a bill once it is introduced.   

"Due to the rise of hate crimes towards our Asian community, there is a need now more than ever to incorporate AAPI curriculum in our public schools," she said in a statement. "Asians are the second fastest growing demographic in the nation. Our public schools should be evolving with that in mind."


Tenafly resident Cecilia Chan, a co-founder of the new Bergen County Diversity Coalition, has been pushing for the inclusion of Asian American history and ethnic studies in her the curriculum of her local district, where her two children attend school.  

"AAPI history, along with Black history and the history of other immigrants in this country, is American history and should be integrated into the curriculum throughout the school year, not just during one heritage month," Chan said. "Our children should not have to seek out the history of their own communities in the United States through websites and YouTube videos."  

As I spoke to Asian American moms about this issue, a common thread came about. We all had to learn about our heritage through our own means. The contributions of Chinese workers to building America's railroads or ugly periods such as the Chinese Exclusion Act and internment of Japanese Americans during World War II were never taught in high school. I took courses in college to understand the history of Asian Americans as well as African Americans. Inclusivity should not be a privilege for those who can afford higher education. 

That's why the newly formed community group AAPI Montclair erected a wall at Edgemont Memorial Park — to remind people of chapters of Asian American history, said Linda Kow, a founding member and mother of two children. In high school, Kow was fortunate to have an Asian American history teacher who encouraged her to explore her own heritage. Community organizers in New York City's Chinatown, where she spent part of her youth, helped her understand that history at a local level as well as civil rights and social justice movements. 

When children grow up seeing themselves represented in class lessons, they feel included and therefore more confident. As a student who attended a majority white elementary school and then a very diverse high school, I saw school curriculums that were always Eurocentric. That does not reflect the rich mosaic of this country.

More than three decades out of high school and reviewing my daughter's curriculum during a high school open house in upstate New York three years ago, I was saddened to see the similarity to what I read in my youth. Her language arts curriculum included "A Separate Peace" and "The Catcher in the Rye." While those are great works, there are other literary gems from around the world, such as the Chinese classic "Dream of the Red Chamber" or Spanish favorite "Don Quixote." 

We work and communicate in an interconnected global community. It is important we understand other cultures. All children could benefit from diverse education that encourages creativity and curiosity.

Mary Chao 趙 慶 華 covers the Asian community and real estate for NorthJersey.com with a bi-monthly column on Asian American issues. To get unlimited access to the latest news out of North Jersey, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

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