By Kyle L. Chong (he/him/his)
Doctoral Candidate: Curriculum, Instruction & Teacher Education
Michigan State University
It took me 22 years to learn how to write my name.
No, not the name attached to this article. I mean the name a California court stripped me of when I was “naturalized” as part of my adoption and immigration to the United States from Taiwan.
After I was adopted by my Chinese American parents, I was raised and educated in San Francisco, California: a city celebrated for its rich history, connections to Asia and strong Asian and Asian American communities.
But I never learned to pronounce or write my name.
Gallery above: Chong teaches a class for College of Education students
I don’t blame my parents for not teaching me. In fact, I’m not sure they knew at the time how to pronounce or write my name.
My experience tracks with research about Asian, Pacific Islander, Desi American (APIDA) and Asian (APIDA/A) families where children are often pushed to assimilate into white American culture. As a result, sometimes kids learn to sever their connections to their family’s languages or cultures (Hsieh et al., 2020; Yeh et al., 2022).
So much so that some in my family and community don’t even accept us to be people of Color. (To be clear, we are.)
I also don’t blame my parents or teachers for not teaching Asian or APIDA histories, my histories, which I had to seek out in my education. Speaking of names, remember that the APIDA/A label, while acknowledging the geographic and experiential diversity in our community, is still a single label — one that refers to most of the global population.
I especially don’t blame my teachers because the few APIDA teachers I had navigated the complex layers of racism and xenophobia. I saw my teachers navigate anti-APIDA stereotypes, such as the model minority or forever foreigner, which position APIDA/A people as hardworking and obedient, but also foreign (Kim & Hsieh, 2022).
But I do think the education system is responsible. The ideologies in curriculum normalize “white social studies” (Chandler & Branscombe, 2015), and what Cridland-Hughes and King (2015) and An (2020) refer to as a curriculum of violence — the psychological injury against communities of Color, in which kids like me were socialized to believe that erasure and invisibility are normal (Rodriguez, 2020).
We need to push for more cultural multidimensionality and commit to decentering whiteness across teacher preparation program experiences (Carter Andrews, 2021).
I’m a doctoral candidate in MSU’s College of Education doing research in educational foundations and curriculum theory using Asian critical race theory and decolonial analyses. Basically, this means I extend the tools of critical race theory to support the unique and collective needs of APIDA/A peoples, and how racism impacts our lived experiences in education (broadly defined) and how they are informed by global power structures. My dissertation project considers how Chinese identity, across time and borders, becomes a proxy and bellwether for the entire APIDA/A community in curriculum.
These lenses foreground the experiences of APIDA/A peoples in the United States, and how those experiences have been shaped by western imperialism in Asia.
This focus has led me to work in the college’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (renamed the Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Community Partnerships), the Office for International Studies, and to teach social justice courses in our Teacher Preparation Program.
My research reminds me how important it is to share all my names on everything I write because it helps students see how the names they bring into schools are part of their cultural identities that need to be visible and lifted up in education.
WHAT WE’VE DONE SO FAR
What made me somewhat more fearful to share my names, however, were many incidents of anti-APIDA racism, xenophobia, discrimination and violence since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
I am eternally grateful to the other communities of Color who have stood in solidarity and showed up with APIDA/A peoples to call urgent attention to student, faculty and staff experiences of anti-Asian racism at MSU. A few examples follow.
In 2020, my doctoral student colleagues, many from the College of Education, prepared the Coalition of Racial and Ethnic Minorities’ (CoREM) report that made an explicit call for “the recognition of the varying identities among the APIDA/Asian community,” (Surla, Bhangal, Phun, Shirley & Baier, 2020, p. 13), and for critical learning “opportunities to better understand the diverse narratives and histories among the APIDA/Asian community” (p. 13). In particular, the report identified the “1) conflation of data of who APIDA/Asians are and 2) the tension between being both hyper-visible and invisible” (p. 9).
After the 2021 shootings in Georgia and Indiana, the Asian Pacific American Studies (APAS) program, led by Naoko Wake, held the first campus-wide summit on Asian American issues. Following the summit, I co-authored a white paper with other doctoral students (Christine Choi [M.A., 2022 – Student Affairs], Reyila Hadeer [student in the Curriculum, Instruction and Teacher Education, or CITE, program] and Nicolei Gupit [CITE, ‘22]) and presented it to then-President Stanley, demanding university-wide action in support of APIDA/A faculty, students and staff.
The white paper spoke to central areas for our community to learn:
- knowledge of unique experiences of racism and xenophobia APIDA/A communities face;
- knowledge of the multiple diversities within the APIDA/A community leading to the essentialization of APIDA/A identity;
- knowledge of the different experiences of racism faced by different APIDA/A groups on campus; and
- addressing weak solidarity with ongoing, Black-led anti-racist work (Chong, Choi, Hadeer & Gupit, 2022).
After I served as one of the first Asian Pacific American Studies Graduate Fellows (College of Social Science), I joined the College of Education’s DEI office. With Associate Dean for DEI Terry Flennaugh, I led the college’s 2022-23 APIDA/A Justice, Solidarity + Coalition initiative and facilitated our common read, Gene Luen Yang’s “American Born Chinese” (2006). We invited speakers to lead workshops and created affinity spaces and opportunities to learn skills about disrupting racialized harm. These initiatives addressed demands within the white paper and beyond to build greater solidarity and knowledge of APIDA/A issues and to combat anti-Asian violence in solidarity.
The series culminated in the 2023 Gunnings-Moton Lecture in Urban Education (read about the lecture’s namesake). OiYan Poon shared her work on affirmative action and the APIDA/A community in the weeks leading up to the Supreme Court of the United States ruling that affirmative action in higher education admissions is unconstitutional — which will hurt all students.
The work needs to continue in every way it can.
As construction continues on the new MSU Multicultural Center, I hope those who will find community there will take up the goals of those who envisioned it as a site of social justice work, like that we outlined in these two reports.
The College of Education owes a collective debt of gratitude to the Asian Pacific American Studies and Asian Studies programs and to campus groups for showing up to think through these difficult questions and to imagine futures.
WHAT WE GOTTA DO NEXT
Statements aren’t enough.
In January 2023 alone, the U.S. had APIDA/A-related shootings in Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay, California, and violence in Bloomington, Indiana. We must be committed to action.
The field of education needs to do more— which means engaging in self work (myself included).
We need to sustain conversation and lift up complex, difficult stories of navigating our experiences within the U.S. and beyond that facilitate multiracial coalition against racism. Doing so shows the power of our stories and the glaringly under-researched/understudied experiences of the APIDA/A community.
So let me tell you why this matters…
As a field, we need to commit to challenging the invisibility of APIDA/A folx in education at a minimum of challenging the model minority myth and forever foreigner tropes. That is, education researchers/teachers/administrators/counselors/students need to challenge tropes that position APIDA/A folx as either hardworking and obedient (the “correct” way to be a person of color), or as a contagious foreign invader that are grounded in 19th and 20th century stereotypes (Liu, 2020).
Once we can collectively stop hearing harmful stuff like “they’re good at math,” or “go back to China,” can we get to the work of holding space for the complex negotiations within our community. These negotiations Are what bring us to show up together as “Asian Americans,” and work to combat anti-Black racism within and beyond the APIDA/A community (Bhangal & Poon, 2020, January 15).
What this does not mean is more “Global DEI” but taking a hard and honest look at the ways we talk about Asia, Asians and APIDAs in K-12 and higher education and disrupting stereotypes.
To address this means that we need to two important things.
First, we need to provide resources to our colleagues from all parts of the world who come to our college to help them know they have a contribution and seat at the table in conversations about justice and equity.
Second, the rhetoric’s gotta change.
- We need more ethnic studies education, and we need better words to talk about the APIDA/A community. It’s gotta come from us because bipartisan anti-Chinese fears (which is called Sinophobia) has fueled racist rhetoric.
- We also need to think more about APIDA/A students and teachers in how we think about urban education. Welsh and Swain (2020) remind us: “urban education can be defined as a continuum of conditions dependent on the characteristics, challenges and context” (p. 97).
- We must continue to challenge racialized assumptions about urban education and consider how all communities of Color are individually and uniquely impacted by anti-Black assumptions in schools, and about schools.
- Most importantly, address seemingly benign phrasing that reinforces a problematic assumption that China (country) = Chinese (people) = Asian/Asian American (people). This rhetoric usually comes from what some politicians refer to as a new Cold War or “strategic competition” with “the Chinese,” which almost always really is referring to the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
I’ve seen this phrasing in my research and teaching from how generations past and present sometimes talk about how “the Chinese” built the Great Wall.
What’s particularly harmful is that talking about “the Chinese” as a single group ignores the many Chinese folx in communities all over the world, many of them highly critical of the genocidal Chinese Communist Party regime in the PRC.
And, this matters especially for education because if we talk about one of the most populous APIDA/A communities as a monolith, it normalizes other APIDA/A communities being flattened into a single group, which impacts the support that students, teachers and administrators receive in schools. What’s more, so much anti-APIDA/A racism and xenophobia is born out of anti-Chinese stereotypes and American laws and policies — we gotta be careful about how we talk about the APIDA/A community.
SO, WHAT’S IN A NAME?
It’s important for you to know that, for all the work we’ve done in the last few years at MSU, it really matters what we name things.
Even calling my home country of Taiwan a country is a hugely political statement.
#StopAsianHate is, too. It ain’t just “hate;” it’s systemic racism and xenophobia.
We gotta get away from using the catch-all term “Asian” to refer to all APIDA/A peoples because we come together as a coalition of multiple ethnic communities in a shared struggle against white supremacy — but doing so doesn’t mean we’re all the same. Some communities receive vastly different levels of support in schools and universities, and future educational research needs to continue to strive for nuance. Remember, the APIDA/A label refers to more than half of the global population.
We in the APIDA/A community gotta hold each other accountable to name the harm we commit, and work to be in solidarity with Black peoples who have always shown up in solidarity for us.
I am but one voice in this important work of justice and equity in education. Please allow me to say that while my name is the one attached to this article, there are so many people who nurture and push me, and whom I credit for supporting me as a whole person.
I started this article by talking about my names, and how it took me over two decades to learn to write and pronounce my own. What I learned in the process is how much work we all must do to know our histories and cultures because, like other communities of Color, our stories and experiences aren’t visible or included in the curriculum.
To do that, we (me included) have more work to do to root out anti-APIDA/A racism and xenophobia in how we prepare folks who will work in educational contexts. The way we continue this difficult work is to keep listening to people of Color, continuing to reflect on what work needs to be done, and be conscious of the names and labels given to people, places and things.
While my calligraphy is still a little messy, learning how to write and pronounce my name meant I had to seek out the historical context that caused my family to flee to Taiwan, and the hopes and dreams my birth mother has for me contained within those four characters. My hope is we can help our students discover their names and support them in achieving all the hopes their families and communities have for them because, trust me, there’s a lot in a name.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Michigan State University or the College of Education.
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