Update (June 1): The Illinois House passed the TEAACH Act on May 31 with a bipartisan vote of 108-10. The bill has been sent to Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s desk for approval.
Illinois is poised to become the first state to require that public schools teach their students the history of Asian Americans, who have endured an increase in anti-Asian hate crimes amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Illinois Senate passed the Teaching Equitable Asian American Community History Act, known as the TEAACH Act, by a unanimous vote of 57-0 on Tuesday. The legislation, introduced in January by Illinois State Rep. Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz, D-Glenview, passed the state House in April. The House has to approve a Senate amendment before it will head to Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s desk for his signature.
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The bill would require every elementary and high school in the state to devote a unit of curriculum to the history of Asian Americans in the United States, including in Illinois and the Midwest. School districts would have until the start of the 2022-2023 school year to comply.
The TEAACH Act requires schools to include in U.S. history courses the role that Asian Americans have played in advancing civil rights and highlight their contributions to the country’s development.
State Sen. Ram Villivalam, D-Chicago, who sponsored the bill in the Senate, said education is one part of a “multipronged” strategy to tackle the rise in discrimination against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Addressing the issue will also require better hate crime reporting, more representation in government, and training people to be better bystanders who intervene when they witness anti-Asian harassment, he said.
“We are also minorities,” said Villivalam, who is Indian American. “We need to make sure that our issues are also being taken in that same lens [as other minorities] and we stand together in solidarity.”
The TEAACH Act’s backers expressed hope that the legislation could help combat stereotypes and ignorance about Asian Americans that they said dehumanize and marginalize the group and create an environment in which acts of hate and violence against Asian Americans are accepted.
The bill gained momentum in the aftermath of a series of mass shootings, first at several Atlanta-area spas in March that killed eight people, including six Asian women, then at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis in April that killed four members of the Sikh community.
“Unfortunately, this really stark rise in anti-Asian violence has played a role in people’s willingness to take action,” said Grace Pai, director of organizing at Asian Americans Advancing Justice | Chicago, which helped draft the legislative language, worked closely with the bill’s sponsors, and coordinated outreach efforts.
If the TEAACH Act is signed into law, the superintendent of the Illinois State Board of Education could prepare free teaching materials for local school boards to use in developing curricula about Asian American history. But the bill leaves most of the details up to individual districts and schools.
One of the bill’s sponsors is Illinois State Rep. Theresa Mah, D-Chicago, who became the first Asian American elected to the Illinois General Assembly in 2016. Mah was also one of the first Asian American studies professors at Northwestern University, after students went on a hunger strike to demand the creation of an Asian American Studies Program in the 1990s.
Mah said she hopes teaching Asian American history in schools will help dispel the stereotype of Asian Americans as perpetual foreigners. During debate about the bill, she shared a story about sitting outside the Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston, when a group of middle-school-aged kids passed by and one of them asked, “Who are the Ching Chongs?” while the others laughed.
“Asian Americans tend to experience this othering,” she said. “People see us as not belonging to the country, not ‘real’ Americans.”
‘Forever foreigners’ or a ‘model minority’
Sohyun An, a professor of social studies education at the Kennesaw State University whose work is grounded in critical race theory, said the way that schools teach Asian American history has real-world implications.
In 2016, An examined how Asian American history is taught in 10 states and found that history lessons about Asian Americans tend to focus almost exclusively on early Chinese immigrants and Japanese internment camps during World War II. These lessons reinforce stereotypes about Asian Americans as “forever foreigners” and teach students that Asian Americans are “an economic and military threat to the United States,” An said.
These racist stereotypes of Asian Americans fueled the rise in anti-Asian violence during the pandemic, she said.
“What’s being written in class, what’s being included or not included — or when they’re included, how they’re being represented — it’s not just a scholarly or academic debate,” An said. “It’s a life-and-death issue.”
Albert Chan, a history teacher in Skokie, a Chicago suburb, said a close read of American history shows that events such as the Atlanta-area shootings or the anti-Asian hate stoked by former President Donald Trump are nothing new. Since the 1800s, Asian Americans have been depicted as dirty and carrying diseases, and Asian women as sex workers, Chan said. Such characterizations have been used to stoke resentment against Asians living in America that has erupted into violence before.
“It’s a resurgence of those old stereotypes,” he said, “that now explode into these acts of violence against Asian people.”
An said what’s often missing in school curricula are lessons highlighting the history of Asian Americans fighting for civil rights, including the 1965 Filipino farmworker unionization, the 1885 California Supreme Court decision in Tape v. Hurley that desegregated schools for Chinese Americans, and the Yellow Power Movement of the 1970s. Instead, Asian Americans are depicted as a “successful, hardworking, law-abiding, compliant minority,” which serves to erase their long history of resisting oppression, An wrote in an article in the journal Theory & Research in Social Education.
Education scholars call the lack of representation and accuracy in curricula “curriculum violence.” An said the phrase refers to the ways that lack of representation in school “kills the spirit and humanity of nonwhite youth” and sends a message to white students that others are racially inferior and unworthy of this country.
“The dominant white group [is] using the model minority myth to control minority groups who are suffering under a white supremacist system,” An said. “They are pitting minority groups against minority groups, so they are fighting each other when they should be united to fight against this whole system.”
Skokie teacher offers a model for Asian-American history
Though the TEAACH Act doesn’t dictate exactly how Asian American history must be taught in Illinois schools, Chan’s class at Niles North High School could be a model.
Starting from the first Filipinos who set foot in America in 1587, Chan covers the mass migration of immigrants from various Asian countries, looks at laws that discriminated against them, and ends with Asian American activist movements. In his lessons, he unravels how Asian Americans have struggled to assimilate and survive in America, covering identity, stereotypes, and critical race theory.
Chan first proposed an Asian American studies course in the north suburban school district in 2005, but it took until 2017 for Chan and a fellow teacher to generate interest and convince school administrators to approve a pilot class.
Since then, the class has become a staple, with 40 students at Niles North taking the course this school year. Since 2019, Chan has also taught the course at Niles West High School.
“If you don’t have access to people, knowledge, culture, all of the things that make you ‘foreign’ become normalized,” Chan said. “The same is true when [students] see a lack of representation and invisibility of themselves and their people in the curriculum; they internalize that.”
Betty Huynh, a 17-year-old student at Niles North, said taking Chan’s Asian American studies course helped her contextualize and validate her lived experience of feeling like an outsider while simultaneously feeling the need to assimilate and stay within a box of Asian stereotypes that society imposed on her.
One time in summer school, she remembers other students asking why she was taking extra math classes—because “Asians are supposed to be good at math.”
In high school, she has felt an immense pressure to be a good student. There were moments in which students hovered over her shoulder because they thought she had the right answers to an assignment and yanked the paper from her hands, Huynh said.
She ignored these microaggressions growing up because her parents would say, “Don’t talk about it, don’t tell anyone about it because we’re in America. And it’s not really our country. And so we have to obey by their rules because we’ve been given this opportunity,” she said.
“When I started taking Asian American studies, I finally realized that I’ve ignored a lot of things growing up,” Huynh said.
Hunyh and other students who took Chan’s class organized with the HANA Center, a community organization focused on empowering Korean American and multiethnic immigrant communities, and lobbied to help get the TEAACH Act passed. They spoke to different student groups about the bill, collected witness slips, and successfully encouraged some of their state representatives to sign on as co-sponsors of the bill.
Zaina Anarwala, a senior at Niles North, said she thinks the bill will reduce anti-Asian bias by teaching students about different groups of Asian Amerians and “humaniz[ing] them.”
“I think it’s really easy to direct your hate towards a group of people that you don’t know about,” Anarwala said.
Huynh said she advocated for the TEAACH Act because she wants to educate others about how Asian Americans have been placed on a pedestal as exemplary minorities, when the reality is that they don’t fit into that stereotyped image. Since organizing, she said, she is no longer afraid to voice her opinion.
“I never understood why I always felt different or like I didn’t belong,” Huynh said. “Now I know how to be in control of my life and understand what it means to be Asian American.”
This article was produced in partnership with Report for America.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated Zaina Anarwala’s grade in school.