Memory  /  Explainer

Why the Asian-American Story Is Missing From U.S. Classrooms

Educators say that anti-Asian racism is directly linked to how the AAPI community is often depicted in U.S. history lessons .

The spa shootings in the Atlanta area represent, to many, the grim culmination of a year in which anti-Asian violence has increased across the United States. But this year is also part of a history that began long before 2020. And in fact, educators and historians tell TIME, anti-Asian racism is directly linked to history, and how members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community are often depicted in U.S. history lessons: as foreigners or national security threats, as opposed to people who have lived and worked in America and have challenged it to live up to its ideals of equality for all.

There are more than 22 million Asian Americans (about 6% of the U.S. population), representing nearly 50 ethnic groups and speaking more than 100 languages, and they make up the fastest growing racial or ethnic group among eligible U.S. voters. Yet little of their story is taught in K-12 U.S. schools. But, as the events of recent years—from the Black Lives Matter movement to former President Trump’s racist statements—inspire educators and activists to call for more teaching of the history of marginalized groups in America, that may be changing.

What Asian-American history is—and is not—taught

The U.S. has no national curriculum that requires the teaching of any kind of history, let alone Asian-American history. But individual states’ social studies standards, which influence what will be included in standardized tests and textbooks, only scratch the surface of Asian-American history. Though there’s no central database of how Asian-American history shows up in those standards, curricula tend to focus on a few milestones, including Chinese immigration in the mid-19th century, Chinese laborers’ role in building the transcontinental railroad, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and the incarceration of nearly 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry—including American citizens—during World War II.

But those moments hardly tell the whole story. And, educators say, they don’t give an accurate picture of the Asian-American experience.

A more complete version of the history might include a deeper look at anti-Asian discrimination, with lessons about the mob violence faced by immigrants from Asian countries. It would also include milestones in U.S. history achieved by people of Asian descent, from labor leader Larry Itliong’s role in organizing the landmark Delano Grape Strike to Patsy Mink becoming the first Asian-American woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. And it would go beyond the boundaries of the United States. With that in mind, on March 19, Moé Yonamine, 43, a high school social studies teacher in Portland, Ore.—who teaches five minutes from where 3,676 Japanese Americans were held before being transported to internment camps—reminded her students that Asian-American history can’t be understood fully without considering the consequences of foreign U.S. actions and how those actions shaped circumstances that led people to flee Asian countries. Yonamine said she will be spending her spring break putting together a lesson plan about Asian-American history-makers to know.