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Panelists speak alongside panelist Tony DelaRosa at the Nov. 27 event.

‘Not a zero-sum game’: UW-Madison panelists discuss teaching Asian-American history alongside other identities

Panelists shared thoughts and challenges about Asian-American representation in schools and how they feel its presence could create a brighter future in education.

A panel of Asian-American educators of different ethnic backgrounds came together to discuss teaching and representing Asian-Americans in schools on Nov. 27 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Teacher Education building.  

The panel was led by Tony DelaRosa, an educator and UW-Madison PhD student currently touring for his book “Teaching the Invisible Race.” The book addresses the lack of Asian-American histories in most K-12 curriculums in the U.S.   

“America still renders Asian-Americans invisible by gaslighting their oppression, excluding them from social justice education and conversations, and homogenizing their experience,” DelaRosa wrote.  

DelaRosa said historical conversations should include perspectives of multiple ethnic groups as opposed to discussing only Black social movements “in reference to whiteness.”

“What happens in between? Maybe they’ll sprinkle in a little bit of Latinx and Indigenous narratives, but with Asian-Americans, they don’t know what to do,” DelaRosa said.

According to a 2023 Columbia University report, 20% of Asian-Americans in New York City live in poverty. That statistic nearly matches the percentage for African-American and Latinx New Yorkers and is 13% higher than whites in the city.  

DelaRosa said lack of conversations about Asian hardship in American history has caused people to think of Asian-American groups as more well-off compared to other minority groups and creates a false narrative that they are “not oppressed people”.  

UW-Madison associate professor Nicole Louie discussed challenges in finding space to teach about Asian-Americans in schools. Louie said discussions about expanding curriculum coverage often result in conversations about how it would require teaching less Black history, something she feels is not the only solution. 

“When we talk about teaching Asian-American history, I think it’s very easy to get into that zero-sum game,” Louie said.  

Louie said curriculum representation is crucial for students to feel they belong in their school communities. 

“Having our histories taught in schools is a really important piece of how we learn that we're all valuable and that our pasts, our presents and our futures are interconnected,” Louie said. 

DelaRosa said the solution to representing Asian-Americans in curriculum is to teach an “intersectional” history focusing on the relationship between multiple races and ethnicities.  

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Expanding representation in Wisconsin

In October, the Assembly Committee on Education unanimously passed a bill that would require Hmong and Asian-American history to be taught in Wisconsin public schools. 

Current law requires Wisconsin schools teach African-American, Indigenous and Hispanic histories and human relations. Asian American and Pacific Islander Coalition of Wisconsin representative Lorna Young said during the panel that current law renders Hmong and Asian Americans “totally invisible” in Wisconsin schools. 

The bill hopes to amend the current law to include Hmong and Asian Americans in its wording and currently awaits a floor vote in the Assembly.

Panel’s experience with Asian history

The panel shared their own revelations and perspectives on the rare Asian representation in history curriculums taught at their schools.  

Louie discussed a time in her undergraduate studies when she uncovered an important court case relating to Asian American history.  

In Tape v. Hurley, the California State Supreme Court ruled the San Francisco School District could not exclude Chinese-American student Maimie Tape from enrolling in their all-white elementary school.  The case preceded the well-known U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education. 

Louie said they were never taught this event in history, despite growing up in the same school district Tape went to in San Francisco.   

“I always thought [Asian-American] history happened on the East Coast and that Asian-Americans were really incidental to history,” Louie said.  

Next on the panel, UW-Madison Ph.D. student Miso Kwak talked about growing up as the only Korean kid in their small town of Rome, New York.  

Kwak recalled their experience in an American middle school after moving from South Korea.  Asian American history was “non-existent” in curriculum, she said, adding that much of her knowledge of East Asian history came from attending elementary school in Korea.

Kwak said conversations about teaching Asian histories are “really important” and that people are seeking representation “whether they know it or not.”

Editor's Note: This article was updated 4:57 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023 to correct that DelaRosa is a UW-Madison PhD student, not an alum, and add context to a remark DelaRosa made about portraying multiple ethnic groups in education. 

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