Hard Classroom Conversations About Anti-Asian Racism
How a teacher and her colleagues are taking on racism and violence against Asian Americans.
When Dawoun Jyung, a sixth-grade math teacher at Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School in New York City, heard about the Atlanta spa shootings that took the lives of eight people—including six women of Asian descent—she felt a mix of “fear and devastation, lament and disbelief,” she recalls.
At the same time, the violence wasn’t entirely unexpected—the recent surge in xenophobia and brutality against Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, and against Asian American women in particular, builds off a long history of such racism in America. And so, Jyung says, “this is not new pain. This has precedent.”
Then she began thinking about how to address the news with her students, who are, says Jyung, “very racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse.”
We sat down recently with Jyung over Zoom to talk about how she and her colleagues at the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School, a public middle and high school run in partnership with NYC Outward Bound, are responding in the classroom to the escalating attacks and violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islander communities.
Sarita Khurana: Right now, Asian Americans are facing a double pandemic: It’s not just coronavirus, it’s also anti-Asian racism and violence. So I want to start by asking how it’s been for you as an Asian American woman, bringing these difficult conversations into the classroom.
Dawoun Jyung: When the Atlanta mass shooting happened, there were two things going on in my mind. One was: I need to have conversations with my students about this. I need to bring this to my classroom. The other thing was me processing what’s been going on and the fear and disbelief. And so I think as an Asian American woman, as an Asian American educator, I was wearing those two hats.
The victims in Atlanta, Georgia, are mostly women of my mom’s age. And so when I heard the news, I felt fear and devastation.
But when we think about what has been going on in the past year and what Asian Americans have been experiencing, it’s actually no surprise. Asian Americans have experienced a year of rising hate crime, racist rhetoric, and violence. This is not new pain; this has precedent. And this week in New York City, the devastating reports about people being attacked and beaten, pushed onto subway tracks, harassed on the streets—people who are on their way to work or on their way to church.
Khurana: You’re absolutely right, this is not the first time we’re seeing this; there is a much broader historical perspective here. But racism against Asian Americans has been made invisible. And people often don’t see it as a hate crime.
Jyung: There is a history in our country of refusing to call it a hate crime when [violence is] done against Asian Americans. And unfortunately, in our schools, that history has also been missing in our curriculum. We have been deprived of this Asian American history, and we are depriving our students of this history that is so important, yet so invisible and forgotten.
What we are seeing is not something new. It builds on a history of violence and racism and white supremacy. And for us to really understand why mass shootings and anti-Asian hate are happening today, we have to go back to the root of it.
There are deep roots of blaming Asian Americans, scapegoating, othering, and taking away the rights of Asian Americans to participate in our government and in our democracy. And so a lot of what we are seeing and what Asian Americans are experiencing today has deep roots in the history of our country, the racist and white supremacist culture and history.
Khurana: Let’s talk about what’s been happening at your school. After the Atlanta shootings, how did your school respond?
Jyung: So a few colleagues and I got together and planned lessons to share with the rest of the middle and high school teachers at my school.
The first lesson (lesson and slide deck) really focused on humanizing the Atlanta victims, raising awareness about what happened there, and giving students space to make sense of what happened. And so we shared photos of the victims: They were mothers, daughters, neighbors, sisters. So the students got to see the victims visually and connect and empathize.
We also felt it was very important to suggest to teachers that they take special care with the pronunciation of victims’ names. There’s a lot of [mocking] of Asian names, and so by taking special care to pronounce the victims’ names, it helps humanize them.
We also wanted to make it very clear that even though law enforcement did not declare this a hate crime, we wanted to be clear that this was a racially motivated hate crime against Asian Americans.
Khurana: Can you tell me a bit more about the first lesson?
Jyung: Yes, so we set norms for having difficult conversations. We borrowed these from the courageous conversation norms: I will stay engaged, I will speak my truth, I will experience discomfort, and I will expect and accept no closure.
We showed two videos (video 1 and video 2) for students to better understand what happened, and students were invited to respond to prompts like “What are your thoughts and feelings after watching this video?” and “What are two things you learned from this video?”
After the conversation, we asked students to share on a Google Forms survey what’s on their minds, in their hearts, and what they want to know or learn more about. Their responses really showed a range of emotions. They were upset, angry, disappointed, and lots of wondering.
Khurana: What about the second lesson—what did you do there?
Jyung: In the second lesson (lesson and slide deck), we examined the historical context of anti-Asian violence by watching a video from the San Francisco Chronicle. As students watched, we asked them to think about: What do you notice? What connections can you make—connections to your life, to things you have been learning in class, or to things you have heard in the media? And then what are some questions that you still have? And so we invited students to share out in the Zoom chat—we are still doing remote and hybrid learning—or share out loud.
Khurana: What’s your hope about what these lessons can accomplish? Why is it important to be planning these, taking this on in the classroom?
Jyung: Our students are raising the difficult questions, and we are giving them the facts and the history, and we’re telling them about the contributions of Asian Americans, and the treatment of Asian Americans in our country (additional lesson and slide deck). And all of this gives our students the background information they need to deal with the feelings [that come up around what’s happening]. These lessons are giving students tools to navigate and make sense of the truths that are difficult to reconcile, but with the message of freedom and democracy and equity. And I think advocacy would be a natural result of these lessons. We’re creating environments where students are asking really difficult questions, and I’m learning with my students as we have these conversations.
Khurana: And for you, a lot of this is falling on your shoulders. It’s a lot to handle.
Jyung: I believe that as teachers, we’re teaching to change the world. We’re helping our young people, our next generation, to think about: Hey, where do I fit into this racism and all these things that are happening? Where am I in relation to that, and what’s my place here, how do I use my voice? How do I use collective power to do something about this?
But also, creating lessons about Asian American history and identity should not fall on just Asian American teachers. I’m really excited about the opportunity to work with other educators at my school—it’s a very diverse group of teachers—to really grapple with how to start these conversations with our students about the Asian American experience and history.
Khurana: For schools and teachers just getting started, what’s your advice?
Jyung: As an Asian American educator, there are parts of Asian American history that I do not know about, that I did not learn growing up. But I cannot wait to become an expert before I have these conversations with students. It needs to happen now. It needs to happen as we are learning. So we’re learning with our students. These stories and experiences have to be shared and enter into the conversation at our schools and in our classrooms.