Freda Lin knows firsthand just how little the average American student is exposed to Asian American history while in school. That’s why this educator and curriculum developer is focusing on creating resources for teachers and middle and high school students so that they can explore the long history of Asians and Asian Americans in the United States and tackle the persistent ‘perpetual foreigner’ myth head on.
Lin and Cathlin Goulding co-direct the YURI Education Project, an education business that develops educational resources and experiences for cultural institutions, educators, and pre-K-12 students. Lin’s goal is to bring the stories of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to life in classrooms across the country. “I want to bring these resources into classrooms because people don’t understand or even know about the long history and diverse stories of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States,” she said.
CAAM and YURI Education Project have partnered to bring ready-to-use classroom materials on how to make sense of anti-Asian racism today by connecting it with history. The educational resources being created for this project consists of distinct parts that discuss the COVID-related hate, how it’s related to the long history of oppression against Americans of Asian descent, and how activists and community leaders are continuing to build and strengthen the Asian American and Pacific Islander community today. Some examples of the history included in the resources are the anti-Chinese movement of the 1800s, anti-Filipino sentiment of the early 1900s, the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, and the scapegoating of Asian Americans during the 1980s that led to the murder of Vincent Chin.
The materials are designed to be a flexible resource for educators. They’re geared toward eighth graders to give educators the ability to adjust teaching strategies depending on grade and skill levels,” Lin explained., Also, these resources can either be taught alongside certain time periods and historical events, or through overarching themes. Teachers can also choose to use as few or as many parts of the resources in their classrooms. They can teach an individual part as a free-standing lesson or a combination of the various components. The curriculum’s inherent adaptability means that teachers can use it for as short as a one-day lesson or as long as or an entire unit lasting over a week. Activities within these resources include examining primary sources, reading essays, analyzing news stories, and creating illustrated poems to counter racism. The educational resources will launch on PBS LearningMedia, an online digital learning platform.
Lin has experienced the impact learning Asian American history can have on a young person. As a student on New York’s Long Island in the 1980s, she doesn’t recall learning much about Americans of color or Asian Americans in particular growing up. It wasn’t until she got to college at Northwestern University that she began learning about Asian American history, such as the Vincent Chin case and legendary activist Yuri Kochiyama and others who have played pivotal roles in the story of the nation. That’s when “I was able to get out of my internalized racism and assimilation,” she said. In particular, leading the student movement for the creation of an Asian American studies program was a transformative time in Lin’s life. “That led me to where I am now.”
YURI Education Project takes its name from the impact of Kochiyama’s legacy. The political activist devoted her life to equity and justice in solidarity with communities of various backgrounds. “We [the founders of YURI Education Project] are both former classroom teachers and are inspired by Yuri Kochiyama’s legacy,” said Lin. Lin adds that while she is a former history teacher of Asian descent herself, she often struggled to find inclusive resources while she was in the classroom. “There was really nothing on Asian Americans in the textbooks. It wasn’t part of the [curriculum] standards in a big way,” she recalled. This was even the case while she was teaching in the Bay Area, a region with one of the oldest Asian American communities in the country. “I definitely had to go into my own archives and find my own resources to then teach to my students,” Lin recalled.
For this new curriculum, assistance from CAAM when it came to finding archival images was critical. That’s why Lin enlisted the help of archivist Alexandra Margolin, who was very familiar with these images and their history because of her work with CAAM on the acclaimed documentary Asian Americans, which covered 150 years of Asian american history and aired on PBS last year. “The archivist would show me some images and I picked which ones I thought would be best for students,” said Lin.
It was a sensitive process. Lin notes that many historic Asian American images were racist caricatures dating back to the earliest days of Asian migration to the United States and often featured exaggerated depictions of East Asian features. Anti-Chinese and Japanese propaganda aimed at demonizing railroad workers and farmers who came to North America for work in the 1800s was common. But that imagery did not end in the 1800s or after World War II. Those same concepts were used through the 80s as some Americans began fanning anti-Asian sentiment in reaction to the rise of the Japanese automotive industry. “We wanted to show people what the sentiment was around different times in history and how Asian Americans have been scapegoated and always been seen as this yellow peril or foreign element that is a threat to U.S. society.”’
Lin adds that at a time when Asian Americans are particularly vulnerable due to stereotypes about the coronavirus, the curriculum is particularly vital. She hopes that teachers and students can have in-depth discussions about the culture of fear and blame the coronavirus has created — and discuss how individual young people can work to stop it. Those conversations can begin in relatively simple ways. “You could ask, ‘when have you been afraid of something and how did it make you react?’ It could be as basic as that,” said Lin. “Then you can talk about how ‘this is what happens when people are fearful.’ ‘This is what happens when people tend to blame certain groups.’”
The best lesson plans can also create strong conversations at home and in the community. “I think the important takeaway is for students to say ‘Wow, this is why this is all happening. This is why this racism is so pervasive and continues to happen,’” said Lin. “‘It’s because there is this fear factor and this element of blaming that has been happening over and over and over again. This is not new. This is a historical pattern.”
As classes discover those patterns and learn how to identify and pushback against that persistent messaging, educators also have the chance to incorporate PBS NewsHour segments that feature Asian American community leaders and academics discussing how this history lives on today. “ We’re showing what this anti-Asian hate is, how it happened in history, and how people have fought against this in history and still are today,” said Lin. “The goal is to show that throughline.”
The Anti-Asian Racism: Connections in History curriculum is available on the PBS Learning Media website.
Lakshmi Gandhi is a freelance writer and editor based in New York City. She often covers children’s literature and arts and culture.