Caring Means Equity: Asian American and Pacific Islander Students

Author: Valerie Ooka Pang, Ph.D.
Affiliation: Professor, School of Teacher Education, San Diego State University
Valerie Ooka Pang

How did it feel when a teacher ignored you? What if you asked the teacher for help on an assignment and the teacher brushed you aside and said she would get back to you, but never did? Or what if other students “poked fun” at you because of your appearance or habits and the teacher shrugged it off or didn’t even notice it as hurtful? Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) students are often invisible in schools; teachers may not consciously disregard them but often place their needs at the margins of schools (Pang, 2006).

Caring Teachers

As a former elementary school teacher, I believe most students are seeking teachers whose actions demonstrate they care about them as individuals. Children do want fair teachers, but their initial wish is for educators who affirm and believe in them; teachers who recognize their worth. Like others, AAPI youth want teachers who care and respect their cultures and backgrounds. Caring educators are dedicated to providing an equitable education so that all youngsters learn and reach their potential. Nel Noddings (1984) claimed to care to be a foundational principle in our democracy, schools, and communities, even more, fundamental than justice and equity (Pang, 2018).

Our schools are strongest when people fight for social justice because they care about others and hold our humanity sacred (hooks, 2000). I believe in a theoretical framework for schooling that is founded on a Caring-centered framework (Pang, 2018) comprised of the Ethic of Care (Noddings, 1984), Democratic Education (Dewey, 1916), self-empowerment (Freire, 1970; Grande 2015), and social constructivism (Vygotsky, 1978). But what does this look like in practice?

I was taken with the recent scholarship of Cathery Yeh and her colleagues, Reimagining Inclusive Spaces for Mathematics Learning, about how we can be more caring, especially in classrooms that include students with dis/abilities, by being more careful in what we say to our students about their efforts and ideas. For example, during a math lesson the teacher’s questions and comments should express curiosity about students’ strategies, value their engagement, and affirm their contribution to everyone’s learning:

‘I love how Ryan took out his paper to draw. What physical or visual tool helps your sense-making?’

‘I see Juan scrunching his brows, thinking hard. Mathematicians take time to solve problems’ (Yeh et. al., p.713)

Similarly, caring teachers communicate messages of acceptance for AAPI student identities and value their cultural and linguistic funds of knowledge; they want their AAPI students is to be proud of themselves and to feel valued within school. Teachers who care about AAPI students are careful about recognizing that culturally and linguistically diverse students are told every day in many ways to assimilate to dominant norms. Subtle messages that often permeate schools include that AAPIs should stop speaking their heritage languages such as Cantonese or Korean or Hindi; should stop bringing lunches to school that looks and smells “weird;” and should “fit in” with their appearance and mannerisms. Caring teachers appreciate AAPI cultures and develop trusting relationships with students and their families. For example, heritage languages and family immigration histories are seen as assets students bring to the classroom. Caring teachers value student experiences and are committed to guiding AAPI students towards reaching their dreams. As part of that process, they often go to locales and events within the local AAPI community to learn more about their students’ parents and grandparents and to become more familiar with their cultural identities.

Confronting Biases and Stereotypes

Caring teachers examine their own biases. Do teachers expect AAPI students to not struggle in math and science? Do teachers expect AAPI students to be quiet and not question what the teachers say? Do teachers give less feedback to AAPI learners because they assume these students will not have difficulties with the work? Do teachers overlook AAPI students because they believe the Model Minority stereotype? Caring teachers know that stereotypes about performance in math and science and tropes such as the Model Minority myth are harmful beliefs that implicitly position AAPI student achievement against other students of color (Pang et al., 2011); the message is that if AAPIs do well in school then racism is somehow not real. Caring teachers know that there is much social oppression in schools and realize that they must not only examine their own biases but also must call out and confront acts of dehumanization or oppression against AAPI students (despite the term, these are rarely “micro” aggressions to those on the receiving end). Caring teachers work to make schooling a safe, supportive, and compassionate environment for their AAPI students.

As children, students are taught many myths and stereotypes about AAPIs. For example, one typical example of how racist stereotypes are shared in school is the use of the book, The Five Chinese Brothers, published in 1939 by French-born American writer Claire Huchet Bishop. While written over 80 years ago, it remains a popular children’s book today. Unfortunately, the story gives the perception that all Chinese kids look alike, their skin is bright yellow, their eyes are narrow and slanted, they wear funny clothes, and they are not really human. A caring teacher will consider how an AAPI child might feel when seeing such a racist depiction of AAPI people and will search for alternatives.

Teachers looking for stories with positive depictions of AAPI characters do not need to read a book from 1939 since there are many high-quality books available today. One I recommend for younger students is A Different Pond by Bao Phi. This beautiful book illustrated by another Vietnamese American, Thi Bui, portrays Asians as real people. The characters are not caricatures or cartoons. The story shows the warmth between an immigrant father and his son who live in Minnesota. The father shares his experiences of fishing with his father in Vietnam many years ago. Fishing was not a sport for them as it is for many Americans; for the father’s family fishing was a means to put food on the table. The story is told in a gentle manner and gives a different viewpoint about a common American activity.

Intersectionality: Layered Oppression

AAPI students are more than members of an ethnic or cultural community. Think of yourself. Are you a teacher or much more? Are you a dancer with immigrant parents or a skier and DJ for a local nightclub? Like you, your students are complex individuals and members of many subcultures. In his chapter “Asian Americans and Education,” Benjamin Chang reminds us that intersectionality is a major force in AAPI communities and discusses the multi-layered nature of AAPI oppression in the United States including gender, dis/abilities, sexual orientation, class, and immigration status. Chang’s article “Voice of the Voiceless?” chronicles his work as a fourth-grade teacher in Chinatown, Los Angeles. He knew his fourth-grade students needed a refuge from the bombardment of oppression they faced as children from immigrant, working-poor families and helped them develop strong relationships with one another, leading them to form a peer group they called “The Sensational Students” that stayed together through college. One of the students, Daniel, like his culturally diverse peers, had many cultural and linguistic assets. He was born in the United States to an undocumented Chinese father and a Mexican mother. He called the language he spoke “Chin-exican Spanglish” and was proud of his linguistic abilities in Spanish and Chinese. When Daniel was in middle school, his father was injured and could no longer work; Daniel felt the pressure that lack of financial resources brings. When the landlord of the apartment complex tried to illegally evict his family, Daniel found mentoring and advice from his peers, The Sensational Students. This story illustrates how as a caring teacher who understood the realities of students’ lives and valued their identities, Chang helped his AAPI students develop a strong social network that aided them in navigating the obstacles of racism, struggles of not having much money, and the depression that comes with dealing with food insecurity and possible homelessness.

Current Issue: Anti-AAPI Racism

In 2020 in Newport Beach, California an 18-year-old Asian American was shopping at a grocery store with his brother when an older White couple yelled, “Chink” several times at them and told them to go back where they came from. This incident is just one of a multitude of findings shared in the Stop AAPI Hate Youth Report based on interviews with over 900 AAPI youth documenting their experiences during the COVID pandemic in 2020 in the United States. The report, and others shared by Stop AAPI Hate, demonstrates how AAPIs are often seen as foreigners and not Americans even though AAPI people have lived in what is now the continental United States since 1763 when Filipino sailors on Spanish galleons jumped ship and hid in the bayous of what is now Louisiana and settled in the area (Pang, 2018).

Racism against AAPI people in the United States has also existed for hundreds of years. Chinese immigrants were the first community identified by ethnicity to be barred from entry into the United States with the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act (Pang, 2018). Among the many other examples of racial bias, one of the most damaging to Asian Americans was the unconstitutional incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II even though not one instance of espionage was ever found. Their removal to concentration camps in their own country was due to anti-Asian racism. Caring teachers know about the history of all Americans and have reflected on how institutional racism is reflected in our national policies and historical record. This article by Adrian De Leon in The Conversation provides a starting point to learn about this history.

During the COVID pandemic, there has been a huge rise in anti-Asian racism (Idris, 2020). The Stop AAPI Hate research group documented an increase in name calling, shunning, online harassment, and physical assaults after former President Trump referred to the illness as the “Chinese virus” or “Kung Flu.” Not surprisingly, AAPI high school students have reported being fearful of and disappointed in their fellow Americans. This is where caring teachers must step in and stand up. The Stop AAPI Hate report recommends that teachers address anti-Asian bullying immediately when it occurs at school. Another way for teachers to address racial hate is to teach about AAPI civil rights activists. There are numerous individuals who have fought for equality for all, people including Dith Pran, Philip Vera Cruz, Patsy Mink, Fred Korematsu, Norman Mineta, Yuri Kochiyama, and Bill Lan Lee (Pang, 2006; 2018). You can learn about some of them on this site from the Zinn Education Project as well as from the Young Organizer’s Guide to Asian American Activists site created by San Francisco student Simon Tam. Be proactive. I hope you will include several of these AAPI influencers when you teach about the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.

Reflecting on Your Practice

Caring teachers are there to support their AAPI students. They listen to them. They take time to get to know them and their families. Caring teachers create opportunities for AAPI students to engage with other young people and develop a network of empowerment. Think about your responses to these questions and, better yet, discuss them with a close colleague.

  • How do your AAPI students know that you care about them?
  • How do your AAPI students respond to the question, “What makes you feel that a teacher cares about your identity?”
  • What steps can you take to learn more about the AAPI students and communities served by your school?
  • How can you validate and build on AAPI student identities—and confront stereotypes and oppression toward AAPIs—in your classroom and in your lessons?

References

Chang, B. (2017). Asian Americans and education. Oxford research encyclopedia of education. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED577104.pdf

Chang, B. (2013). Voice of the voiceless? Multiethnic student voices in critical approaches to race, pedagogy, literacy, and agency. Linguistics and Education, 24, 348-360.

Grande, S. (2015). Red land, White power. In S. Grande (Ed.), Red pedagogy: Native American social and political thought (2nd ed., pp. 93-119). Rowman & Littlefield.

Hooks, B. (2000). How do we build a community of love? Shambhala Sun, 8(3), 32-40.

Idris, O. (2020, September 17). New Report shows rising racism against AAPI youth. Stop AAPI Hate, Asia Pacific Policy and Planning, Chinese for Affirmative Action and San Francisco State University Asian American Studies.

Noddings, N. (1984). Caring: A feminine approach to ethics and moral development. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. Pang, V. O. (2018). Diversity and equity in the classroom. Cengage Publishers.

Pang, V. O. (2006). Fighting the marginalization of Asian American students with caring schools: Focusing on curricular change. Race, Ethnicity, and Education, 9, 67-83.

Pang, V. O., Han, P. P., & Pang, J. M. (2011). Asian American and Pacific Islander students: Equity and the achievement gap. Educational Researcher, 40 (7), 378-389.

Stop AAPI Hate (2020). They blamed me because I am Asian: Findings of youth reported anti-AAPI hate. 

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Yeh, C., Sugita, T., & Tan, P. (2020). Reimagining inclusive spaces for mathematics learning. Mathematics Teachers: Learning and Teaching Mathematics, 133(9), 708-714.

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