Reenvisioning How U.S. Textbooks Tell South Asian Stories

A new ethnic studies curriculum for California’s public schools was poised to become a national blueprint; instead, it is now a mere recommendation.

South asian textbooks feature
Imaan Sheikh for The Juggernaut

Aarti Virani


May 10, 2021


13 min

Noreen Naseem Rodríguez, an assistant professor of elementary school studies at Iowa State University, can pinpoint the precise moment she nearly wrote off American History. “In 10th grade, my teacher asked me and only me, ‘where are your people from?’” recalled the educator, a Texan born to a Pakistani father and a Filipina mother. “And right after that, she asked my Vietnamese American friend if her family ate dog,” she added, recapping a gut-punch of an exchange in a San Antonio classroom about 25 years ago. 

It wasn’t until Rodríguez attended college that she saw fragments of her heritage reflected in course material: an Indian history class breathed much-needed context into the fuzzy Partition-era anecdotes her father had once relayed. “I worry about the dissonance created in schools when you have two or three generations of [immigrant families] whose history is not present in what is taught,” she admitted. “I never learned that, but I don’t know that things are much better today.”

Without national standards for social studies curriculums, for decades, Asian American mentions have been relegated to historical cameos, such as supplementary chapters on Chinese laborers in the construction of the transcontinental railroad and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1822, or suggested readings on the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. In response, over the past five years, legislators and grassroots organizations have been introducing policy proposals to make K-12 curricula more inclusive. Of the proposed academic revamps, none have been as closely scrutinized as California’s Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (ESMC), which took four drafts and over four years before it was adopted this March. The ESMC was envisioned as a first-of-its-kind curriculum that could serve as a countrywide blueprint for capturing South Asian American history. Yet, it remains a mere recommendation and not a requirement, thanks to a veto by California Governor Gavin Newsom, who claimed the draft was “insufficiently balanced.”

“There’s a push nationwide to look at diversity and equity more broadly,” said Lawrence Paska, executive director of the National Council for the Social Studies. “Are we ensuring that our kids are not only seeing themselves in what they’re learning, but that they have a chance to celebrate, honor and learn that this country, just like this world, is reflective of so many diverse communities and voices?” 

Across the country, policy changes are afoot: Illinois is set to pass a bill that would require teaching Asian American history in public schools. In Connecticut, senators, citing the recent surge in racist attacks against Asian Americans, are steering a similar effort to mandate that public schools offer electives in Asian Pacific American studies. The Asian American Foundation (fueled by corporate titans such as Bank of America and the N.B.A.), established just this month, has an ambitious plan to develop new school curricula to “reshape the American public’s understanding of the Asian American experience.” 

California’s ESMC is a 900-page prototype, focused on the histories and experiences of African Americans, Latino Americans, Native Americans, and Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. In its final iteration, the voluntary curriculum offers about 70 pages on the South Asian American community, devoting three lesson plans to outlining historic migrations, in addition to exploring subjects like xenophobia and discrimination. But critics of the ESMC have accused the draft of downplaying anti-Semitism, and offering a lopsided take on America’s racial shortcomings — they fear the curriculum’s use of critical race theory, which uncovers the reasons behind racist government policies, could impede “racial progress.” The ESMC also doesn’t address how textbooks depict the histories of the homelands of immigrants. 

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