By Alyssa Serrano
Award-winning author and historian Dr. Erika Lee kicked off the College’s celebration of Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month with a keynote speech on the lack of Asian American history in classrooms on Thursday, April 27.
In her talk, “How Come I Didn’t Know? The forgotten history of Asian Americans and Advocacy for inclusive education,” Dr. Lee discussed how Asian American involvement in history is often invisible and goes unlearned by students. She mentioned how after the Atlanta shooting, Biden tweeted that this tragedy was un-American. However, Dr. Lee disagreed with this notion.
“The president’s comments that racism was un-American were certainly made in sympathy but they were poignantly accurate,” said Dr. Lee. “Anti-Asian racism is very American, and racism as a whole. I was angry at the mischaracterization of anti-Asian racism being labeled as anti-American.”
Dr. Lee then mentioned that in the few instances that Asian American history is mentioned, they are rarely seen as agents of change but are portrayed as model minorities or as victims. She talked about how it was not un-American because the shooting was not a random attack, and for Asian Americans, a lot of their history involves lynchings, murders, being forcibly jailed and being removed from cities. By saying it is un-American overlooks all the suffering and struggles Asian Americans have endured for the last 150 years.
“History is not just about the past, history is about equality,” said Dr. Lee. “How we choose which histories we put in education is how we show who is seen as equal. History is activism.”
Sian Brossard, a sophomore English liberal arts major, said this particularly stood out to her.
“When Dr. Lee said that history is activism, I’ve never thought of it as such,” said Brossard. “I obviously believe that it is important to address and think about these issues, but to think of it as a form of activism was quite new to me.”
After Dr. Lee’s keynote speech finished, Dr. Lee and Ms. Sima Kumar, an educator and board member of the Make Us Visible New Jersey Project, hosted a panel that was moderated by Dr. Yifeng Hu, a communications professor at the College. Hu leads the Asian American Pacific Islander Advocacy Campaign that informs students about Asian American history and combats hate and stereotypes.
Kumar also brought up how changes in K-12 education tend to be very slow. She mentioned that in addition to that, whether the teachers are properly educated on the materials themselves is a big factor in what Asian History can be taught in classrooms.
Senior communications major Rachel Dambrot expressed her surprise at how little Asian American History is shown in classrooms.
“I think it’s so interesting that Asian American History isn’t mandatory to be talked about because it’s such a big topic and I think everyone should be learning about it,” said Dambrot.
Dr. Lee emphasized that banning books and diverse education is a war against history, to which Kumar agreed.
“Learning is a process of building your agency,” said Kumar.
Brossard found the keynote speech and panel discussion powerful and felt that she really learned about how to do better as an ally to the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities.
“I’ve heard a lot of great things about Dr. Lee and all she stands for,” said Brossard. “I’m so glad that I came and was able to hear her speak. I feel like I gained a greater understanding of how to be a better ally and increase my role in the campaign itself.”