January 2022

One of the most important historical developments in the United States over the past year has been the continued growth of the #StopAAPIHate and #StopAsianHate social justice movements. Anti-AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) hate incidents jumped 150 percent from 2019 to 2020 and remained disturbingly common in 2021. While this upswell of anti-AAPI hate and violence has come as a shock to many, scholars and researchers of Asian American and Pacific Islander history insist that this racist hatred and violence has a long history within the United States.

In this lesson, students consider why it is important to study “difficult histories” as they work in small groups to examine primary and secondary sources that reveal the long history of anti-AAPI racism in the United States and the equally long history of AAPI anti-racist resistance, community building, and social justice activism. This lesson is designed both to deepen students’ knowledge of AAPI history and social justice activism and introduce a method and rationale for studying “difficult histories.”

Objectives

Students will: 

  • Explore the reasons and methods for studying difficult histories;
  • Examine the long history of anti-AAPI racism in the United States; 
  • Examine and the long history of Asian American anti-racist resistance, community-building, and social justice activism;
  • Work in small groups to identify key arguments in secondary sources and analyze similarities and differences across primary sources;
  • Assess the connections between current and historical events and patterns.

Resources

Source Set A
Source Set B
Source Set C
#StopAAPIHate Protest Collage
NBC News Video: Rallies across the U.S. honor victims of Atlanta shootings (optional)

Note on Teaching about Immigrant Experiences, Xenophobia, Racism, and Violence

Remind students that conversations about the material contained in this lesson will raise issues related to racism and power, which can be emotional. As you discuss these issues with your class, remind students that it is important to be respectful of the experiences of others, to think before they speak, and to be prepared to support their statements with facts. Please be advised that some of the sources in this lesson contain descriptions of violence. Be sure to preview the sources carefully to be sure that they are appropriate for use in your classroom.

We encourage teachers to consider carefully the dynamics of their classrooms as they prepare to use these materials. For example, students with different racial or ethnic identities may experience this lesson differently. Students with different political views may offer contrasting perspectives. Discussions can take unexpected turns. Students may unwittingly offend each other. The process of exploring unequal power dynamics can lead students to lash out in anger or to suffer in silence. Teachers need to be aware of these possibilities and act to make their classrooms a safe place for all students. While we cannot offer a formula for dealing with all situations, being prepared for many possible outcomes will go a long way to helping students consider these critical issues. For more resources, see our free lesson on Teaching About Controversial Issues: A Resource Guide.

In the Classroom

1. Activate Prior Knowledge

Project the “#StopAAPIHate Protest Collage” image onto the board at the front of the classroom. Ask students what they know about the social justice movements and social media hashtags #StopAsianHate and/or #StopAAPIHate. (You may wish to clarify for students that AAPI stands for Asian American and Pacific Islander.) Have they seen or heard about these movements over the past year? Do students know any of the reasons why Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, and their allies throughout the United States have been using the hashtags, holding protests and vigils, and engaging in social justice activism? 

Depending on students’ level of prior knowledge, you may wish to briefly review the increasing number of violent hate incidents directed toward Asian Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic. You may also wish to briefly discuss the March 2021 Atlanta mass shooting in which six Asian women were killed in what many view as a racially motivated hate crime. You may choose to show this short NBC News video to review the increase in hate incidents and the Atlanta shooting. However you decide to review these incidents, make sure students understand the origins of the #StopAsianHate and #StopAAPIHate movements.

2. Introduce the Lesson

Tell students that many of the people who have taken part in protests, vigils, and social justice activism in response to the increase in hate incidents against the AAPI community have emphasized that this violence has a “long history” in the United States. Encourage students to explore the term “long history.” What do they think it means to say that something has a “long history”? What do they think it means to say that anti-AAPI racism and violence has a “long history” in the United States? 

Tell students that many teachers and scholars refer to “long histories” of racism and violence as “difficult histories” because they can be hard things to study. Be honest with students about how studying these histories can be uncomfortable, emotionally draining, and difficult to process—especially for students whose personal and family experiences have been deeply affected by racism and violence. Acknowledge that some people also feel that focusing on difficult histories can lead to overlooking positive historical developments. 

Tell students that historians emphasize it is important to study these difficult histories for many reasons. Tell students they are going to explore some of those reasons while they examine the long history of anti-AAPI hate and violence, the historical experiences of AAPI community members, and the ways in which the AAPI community has sought to draw from this history to educate others and inspire social justice activism to build a better future.  

Divide the class into small groups of three to four students. Assign each group one of the Source Sets (A, B, or C) and distribute the set to each student in the group. Make sure each of the three Source Sets is represented evenly across the groups. 

Note: This lesson is structured as guided small group work with three teacher-led short classwide discussions reviewing the key points from each Part. You may choose to structure the lesson differently. For instance, you may choose to assign Part I as homework and complete Parts II and III in class during the following session (or complete Parts I and II in class, and Part III as homework). Another alternative is to review the three reasons for studying difficult histories at the beginning of the lesson and instruct students to complete Parts I, II, and III prior to a single classwide discussion at the end.

3. Guided Small Group Work—Part I

Write the following three phrases on the board, leaving space underneath for additional text: 1) Connect the past and present; 2) Develop historical empathy; 3) Inspire activism.

Introduce the first reason for studying difficult histories—the importance of understanding the connections between the past and present. Ask students to brainstorm answers to the following questions: How can studying the past help us understand the present? How can studying past incidents of racism and violence help us understand present incidents of racism and violence? Record students’ answers on the board and direct students to do the same in the box at the top of page 1 of their Source Set.

Review the instructions to Part I of the Source Sets and direct the groups to read their source and answer the questions that follow. You may wish to assign one student as group leader. When all the groups are done with Part I, lead a discussion of the groups’ findings. Encourage students to identify similarities and differences between their sources, as well as consider what the scholars say about the connections between the past and present.

4. Guided Small Group Work—Part II

Introduce the second reason for studying difficult histories—the importance of developing historical empathy. (“Historical empathy” is the ability to understand how historical figures viewed and experienced the world in which they lived and how those views and experiences are similar or different to our own.) Ask students to brainstorm answers to the following questions: What can we learn from studying different personal experiences of people from the past? Why is it important to learn about people with both similar and different histories and experiences to our own? Record students’ answers on the board and direct students to do the same in the box at the top of page 3 of their Source Set.

Review the instructions to Part II of the Source Sets and direct the groups to read their source and answer the questions that follow. You may wish to assign a different student as group leader. When all the groups are done with Part II, lead a discussion of the groups’ findings. Encourage students to identify similarities and differences between their sources, as well as consider what they learned about the personal experiences and viewpoints of people in the past.

5. Guided Small Group Work—Part III

Introduce the third reason for studying difficult histories—to inspire historically informed activism for justice, equity, and human rights in the present. Ask students to brainstorm answers to the following questions: How can studying the past inspire us to act in the present? How can learning about racism and violence in the past inspire activism in the present to build a better future? Record students’ answers on the board and direct students to do the same in the box at the top of page 5 of their Source Set.

Review the instructions to Part III of the Source Sets and direct the groups to read their source and answer the questions that follow. You may wish to assign a different student as group leader. When all the groups are done with Part III, lead a discussion of the groups’ findings. Encourage students to identify similarities and differences between their sources, as well as consider what they learned about how understanding difficult histories can help inspire social justice activism to build a better future.

6. Concluding Discussion

Reconvene the class and lead a final discussion. Ask students to recall the discussion of “long histories” at the beginning of the lesson. What did they learn about the long history of anti-AAPI racism and violence in the United States? What did students learn about the long history of AAPI anti-racist resistance, community organizing, and social justice activism?

Ask students to reflect on the three reasons for studying difficult histories and what they learned from the lesson. What connections between the past and the present stood out to them the most? What did they learn about the historical experiences and viewpoints of AAPI community members that they did not know before? What did they learn about how AAPI social justice activists have drawn on their communities’ histories to inspire their efforts to build a better future? Can students think of any other “difficult histories” to which they could apply this model? If so, what are they?

Extra Challenges

1. Conduct Local Research

Have students research the history of a specific Asian American or Pacific Islander community, institution, or influential individual in your city, state, or region. You may wish to work with your school’s librarian to identify primary and secondary sources that students can use to begin their research. If possible, you may also wish to encourage students to attend Asian American or Pacific Islander cultural events that are open to the public, visit museums or memorials associated with Asian American and Pacific Islander groups, or meet with Asian American and Pacific Islander community activists. Students should prepare and deliver short presentations that introduce the community, institution, or individual’s history and discuss their current activities or relevance. Encourage students to connect their research to the themes and topics covered in this lesson.

2. Create an Educational Archive

Lead a class project in which students locate and organize primary and secondary sources to serve as an educational archive on Asian American and Pacific Islander history for future history and social studies classes. Begin by instructing students to create a list of all of the historical events and developments mentioned in the secondary and primary source readings from this lesson. Share best practices with students for conducting online and/or library research. Then assign pairs or small groups of students to conduct research to identify primary and secondary sources for each of the events or historical developments identified by the class. You may wish to encourage students to find additional sources that cover topics or events not covered in this lesson as well. Work with students to identify their best primary and secondary sources, record their bibliographic references, and edit them or prepare them for use by students in the future. When the archive is finished, work with students to write a brief introduction to the archive that explains when, why, and by whom it was created. Then make both digital and hard copies of the educational archive and share them with the other history and social studies teachers in your school and/or district.

Thank you to Michael Aoki Deruelle for his work in developing this lesson.

Photo credits (clockwise from top left): Paul Becker, (CC BY 2.0); Paul Becker, (CC BY 2.0); Evert Barnes, (CC BY-SA 2.0); Paul Becker, (CC BY 2.0); Miki Jourdan, (CC BY-NC 2.0); Miki Jourdan, (CC BY-NC 2.0); Miki Jourdan, (CC BY-NC 2.0); Paul Becker, (CC BY 2.0).

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