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Illinois House committee approves Asian American history curriculum proposal amid xenophobic attacks

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – Less than 24 hours after targeted attacks on Asian Americans in Georgia, representatives in Illinois discussed a proposal to require an Asian American history curriculum in schools. Rep. Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz says this is personal, as she’s a third-generation Chinese American. The bill sponsor said her own family faced discrimination and deportation under the Chinese Exclusion Act.

“I knew nothing of my family’s history or the shared experiences of other Asian American families that are woven into the fabric of American society,” Gong-Gershowitz explained. “I first learned of the Chinese Exclusion Act and studied the constitutionality of incarcerating Asian Americans in the 1940s when I was in law school.”

Gong-Gershowitz wants students to understand Asian American history during a time with anti-Asian racism, discrimination, and xenophobia on the rise. The Glenview Democrat says what school districts decide to teach in classrooms matters since empathy comes from understanding. Her proposal requires public elementary and high schools to teach the contributions of Asian Americans toward advancing civil rights. It also calls for discussions of Asian Americans’ critical roles in government, arts, and science.

“I just want society to understand”

Student advocate Phong Nguyen said he wants society to recognize Asians have made such significant contributions to this nation’s uprising. The Lane Tech High School student said the Asian community shouldn’t “become a monolith,” as that image creates dangerous situations.

“I want society to recognize that Asians hold such diverse cultures and traditions amongst ourselves. I want society to recognize that Asians have made such important contributions to the uprising of this nation. Most of all, I just want society to understand,” Nguyen explained. “I want them to simply understand my community and me, the way I’ve spent almost 13 years of my life trying to adjust to and understand theirs. But, how can people understand if they don’t learn?”

Nguyen said House Bill 376 could allow thousands of Asian students to see themselves represented properly in United States history.

“Inclusion is a choice”

The measure requires the teaching of Japanese Americans’ wrongful incarceration during World War II under former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It also calls for instruction on heroic service of the 100th Infantry Battalion and 442nd Regiment of the US Army.

The bill requires discussions on Japanese Americans’ legal challenges following Executive Order 9066 and resettlement after incarceration. In 1988, Congress provided an official presidential apology and reparations to those who lost their liberty and property during World War II.

“Inclusion is a choice. So is exclusion,” Gong-Gershowitz said. “The drafters of current American history chose not to include Asian Americans in teaching our shared history.”

Democrats hope this proposal will affirm a commitment for students to respect the dignity of all races and avoid discrimination.

Advocating for change

AAAJ-Chicago (Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Chicago) advocated for the legislation to make much-needed changes to history textbooks. Grace Pai, AAAJ-Chicago Director of Organizing, testified Wednesday morning.

“Many students don’t get a chance to learn about the contributions of their communities or the histories and migration stories of their families, contributing to feelings of being othered and making it more challenging to connect with their roots. There are more than 800,000 Asian Americans in Illinois, and we are the fastest-growing racial group in Illinois and across the country,” Pai said.

She stressed that lawmakers should quickly pass the bill amid increased xenophobia since the emergence of COVID-19. Stop AAPI Hate has documented 3,800 first-hand reports of anti-Asian incidents over the last year.

“This number represents just a fraction of the actual number of people who have experienced anti-Asian harassment, discrimination, and physical violence,” Pai said. “Teaching Asian American history as part of American history is an important first step to help combat xenophobia, refute stereotypes, and build bridges of understanding within and across communities.”

The proposal passed out of the House Elementary and Secondary Education: Curriculum and Policies Committee on a 14-9 vote. It now reports to the House floor for second reading.

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Mike Miletich

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