Combating Anti-Asian Racism in the Classroom

Tracy Poon Tambascia on how educators can address xenophobia amid the COVID-19 pandemic

By Tracy Poon Tambascia

People marching with signs and banners

A rally that took place in San Francisco’s Chinatown in February called for communities to unite in the fight against COVID-19. (Photo/Associated Press, Y Ichuan Cao)

As the COVID-19 pandemic swept through the country and the world in early 2020, a sharp increase in discrimination against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) mirrored the spread of the virus. Fueled by racist rhetoric, the characterization of COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus” or the “Wuhan flu” has created an environment of blame and xenophobia. Students have now returned to school, and whether classes are held in person or online, it’s important for educators to be aware that such rhetoric can create traumatizing, unsafe and damaging environments for AAPI students.

There are a number of things educators can do to address anti-AAPI racism. First, educators should acknowledge the use of biased language. It is important to recognize the damage of such language without shaming students. Terms like “Wuhan flu” and “Chinese virus” are intentionally used to signal othering and blame, and they need to be directly addressed and disavowed. Educators cannot be neutral and need to develop the ability to turn a phrase into a learning moment. For example, instructors can say: “We have heard such slurs and phrases used, and they are hurtful and damaging to the AAPI community. Why might people choose to use language like this?” They can then “unpack” or deconstruct how the use of words can intentionally signal blame. This is also an opportunity to discuss allyship and the importance of having non-AAPI people from all backgrounds engage in social justice by calling out bias and racism.

Terms like “Wuhan flu” and “Chinese virus” are intentionally used to signal othering and blame, and they need to be directly addressed and disavowed. Educators cannot be neutral and need to develop the ability to turn a phrase into a learning moment.

In addition, educators should deliberately normalize the presence of non-White authors, researchers and other contributors in teaching materials, such as course syllabi, assigned readings or online lectures. Educators should use examples, case studies and other learning materials that include identities that reflect the full spectrum of American society, including AAPI individuals. This strategy is not necessarily about teaching culture or histories, but about including AAPI people when we talk about teachers, entrepreneurs, innovators and people in our community.

Educators may need to learn about AAPI communities and unlearn common misperceptions. They can also bring their own knowledge of the AAPI community to classes, making sure to recognize the diversity of experiences, values, cultures and languages among people of Asian descent. This conversation is not just about national origin, but also about the impact of migration, the diaspora, intersecting identities (race or ethnicity and gender identity, for example) and the complex histories of colonization and geopolitics. Educators can highlight the different practices and languages of various AAPI groups, just as no one assumes everyone of European descent shares a common language, history or cultural practices. The bottom line is that educators need to push against the common perception that Asian Americans represent a monolithic whole.

This story appeared in the USC Rossier Magazine Fall/Winter 2020 issue as “Combating anti-Asian racism in the classroom.”