High school senior Christina Huang, 17, center, stands with supporters of a bill that would require schools to teach Asian American history. They testified Nov. 8, 2021, before the state Senate Education Committee at the Statehouse in Trenton in support of the bill. (Photo by Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)
For Christina Huang, racism isn’t an abstract concept. She still remembers her classmates erupting in laughter as their school bus approached Huang’s grandmother, practicing her zaocao, or morning exercises, as she waited for her granddaughter at the bus stop.
“I will never forget walking off the bus past my classmates as they stretched their eyes at me and mocked my grandmother’s movements,” said Huang, then just 7 years old.
Now 17 and a senior at Ridgewood High School in Bergen County, Huang trekked to the Statehouse in Trenton this week to share her story — and implore lawmakers to support a bill that would require schools to teach students the history and contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
“From the recent surge of anti-Asian violence we’ve seen recently to the hate crimes against our community after 9/11, Asian Americans have been attacked because they are seen as ‘foreigners’ and ‘not really American,’” Huang told the Senate Education Committee. “Not having Asian Americans seen in our curriculum sends a message — it sends a message to me: I’m invisible. That I don’t matter.”
Committee members unanimously agreed Monday to advance the bill, which was sponsored by Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth). Assemblyman Raj Mukherji (D-Hudson) said Tuesday he plans to introduce an identical bill in the Assembly this month.
Not having Asian Americans seen in our curriculum sends a message — it sends a message to me: I’m invisible. That I don’t matter.
– Christina Huang, high school student
The bills come as New Jersey’s Asian American population is growing: More than 1 million people statewide identify as Asian, either entirely or in part, according to the 2020 Census. New Jersey’s Asian population grew faster in the past decade than any other large ethnic or racial group, increasing 44% since 2010, census figures show.
They also come as pandemic frustrations are fueling anti-Asian racism, nationally and in New Jersey.
Both of those trends show why it’s so important to include the contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in school curriculum, Huang said.
“Facilitating conversations and learning this history is so important, because I firmly believe in the power education has in shaping the attitudes and perspectives with which we approach society as adults,” she said. “My hope is that this bill will not just open people’s minds but also open people’s hearts.”
Amber Reed, a mother of two elementary-age students from Montclair, also testified Monday. She recounted childhood memories of classmates calling her an “alien” and said excluding Asian Americans from class lessons doesn’t give students a full education of America’s history.
“We too are part of the great American story,” Reed said. Teaching the contributions of Asian Americans in schools would “help fight this dangerous falsehood that somehow we are not fully American, despite having a history here that goes back nearly 200 years.”
New Jersey is one of several states around the country mandating curriculum as a way to fight anti-Asian hate and increase cultural sensitivity. In July, Illinois became the first state to require schools to teach Asian American history.
New Jersey lawmakers also have passed separate measures to make school lessons more inclusive of the state’s diverse population, including laws that require schools to teach about diversity and inclusion and the history and impact of LGBTQ people.
Gopal hopes New Jersey will follow Illinois’ lead.
“Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have made great contributions to American history and our children’s curriculum should reflect this,” Gopal said. “By expanding the cultural enrichment that is taught in our classrooms, students can have a better understanding for their peers and others.”
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