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Asian and Pacific Islander American Studies are Sidelined at BHS

In the first installment of an ongoing investigative series, the Jacket examines the lack of focus on Asian and Pacific Islander American studies at BHS.


Read parts two and three of this investigation here.

Berkeley High School (BHS) has been ahead of its time in its diverse range of ethnic studies. The school offers an African American (AfAm) Studies program, which has garnered much attention as the only one of its kind at a high school level in the United States. BHS also offers an extensive Afro-Haitian dance program, as well as Latinx History and Literature classes. However, the school does not offer any classes that focus on Asian and Pacific Islander (API) or Asian and Pacific Islander American (APIA) history and culture. 

Emily Lao, a sophomore in Academic Choice (AC), expressed that while it is great that BHS offers AfAm and Latinx focused classes, she felt disappointed that there are no such classes for APIA students. “Not having that part of the curriculum or a department at school excludes the API community,” agreed Amanda Sieu, a senior in AC and the president of BHS’s Asian Pacific Islander Club (APIC). 

Asian Americans make up 20 percent of California’s population, one of the highest Asian populations in the country. But the only class at BHS with any focus on Asia or Asian cultures is Mandarin, which is a commonly offered language course. This lack of focus could largely be due to the fact that APIA students have a lower population at BHS, at 8.2 percent, than African American and Latino students, who make up 12.7 percent and 22.2 percent of the student body, respectively.

Despite the low percentage of Asian students, other Bay Area schools still offer more APIA focused classes than BHS. Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) has a program called Asian Pacific Islander Student Achievement, which works to make OUSD curriculums interesting and relatable to APIA students. 

Just a mile away from BHS, the University of California (UC) Berkeley is home to the oldest East Asian Studies department in the US, which was founded in the 1870s and has one of the largest East Asian libraries in the country. 

Professor Andrew Jones, Chair of the East Asian Languages and Cultures department at UC Berkeley, was surprised to hear that BHS doesn’t also offer Asian Studies classes. “I would think that is something that needs to change,” he said. 

According to Jones, departments like his help students develop a global understanding, find empathy for others’ historical experience, and build a career. He explained that UC Berkeley’s program encourages Asian American students to reconnect with their roots. “Many Asian American students are interested [in Asian history] but haven’t been able to study it. … We have a lot of Asian American students who rediscover and reconnect with their roots, and also learn about their cultures in a more intellectual and historically informed way,” said Jones.

Some APIA students at BHS have found themselves wanting those benefits, but not having access to them. Generally, there are few mentions of Asian Americans in BHS’s English and history classes. Rebecca Villagran, a history teacher and co-lead teacher in Berkeley International High School (BIHS), said that although there is ample mention of Asians and Asian Americans in her history course, only BIHS upperclassmen have access to the class. “There’s no plot against Asian American kids,” Villagran said, “but [mention of API history and people] doesn’t show up early enough. I think by senior year, it is [too late].” 

Lao explained her experience: “In my case, I’ve always been really proud of my heritage, and I’ve always wanted to learn more about my family and about my culture, but I don’t know if every kid who is Asian has felt that way. … So I feel like having these classes would make them more open to learning about their history.”

Lao’s family is Chinese, and she attended a Chinese immersion school in Oakland, Yu Ming Charter School, before BHS. This gave her the opportunity to learn more about her own heritage, something that other APIA students may not have access to. 

“I just think a lot of students might feel a little more pushed to the side. … They might find classes more boring, or not feel like they’re connecting to it, if they aren’t learning about people like them,” said Lao. 

BIHS sophomore France Naville said the lack of information about Asian American history can lead to ignorance in students. “It would be nice to hear about what Asian people went through in America, because right now it seems like they went through nothing, because it’s not talked about. But I know, just from what I hear from family, it’s not nothing, and other students don’t know that, because they don’t have Asian family members,” Naville said. 

The US has a history of systemic discrimination against Asian Americans. White Americans have historically feared Asian immigrants, creating stereotypes which labeled Asian people as unclean, diseased, and a threat to the Western way of life. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was one of the first laws to bar a specific ethnicity from immigrating to the US, and in the 1940s, Japanese Americans were forced into internment camps. Even now, in 2020, discrimination against Asian Americans of all backgrounds continues. China has been blamed for COVID-19, launching an uptick in hate crimes towards Asian Americans and causing thousands of APIA people to be attacked or harassed. But these events aren’t commonly discussed. 

“We’re pushed to the sidelines. Especially in today’s society, we’re seen as model minorities, and people just expect that we go with everything,” said Lao. She explained that this could be a reason that few APIA history courses are taught in schools; the struggles Asian and Pacific Islander Americans face are simply overlooked or erased. 

When discussing representation of minorities at BHS, it’s important to remember that these types of programs don’t have to be mutually exclusive. “I think it’s great that the AfAm and Latinx programs exist, I don’t think one group should be represented and another shouldn’t. … Somehow I think all those histories are intertwined in really interesting and important ways,” said Jones. 

Implementing more Asian and Pacific Islander American history into regular history classes is easily one of the first steps towards achieving an APIA focus at BHS. Another step is alerting the BHS administration that their community wants this change. In recent years, students and teachers haven’t protested the lack of education on APIA topics at BHS, and it usually isn’t discussed, even if it is noticed by members of the community. 

Jones advised that work can’t be done without help from administration. “From an administrative point of view, it would require administrators to have been made aware that it’s a very serious shortfall, and then finding the resources to devote to it,” he said. 

Sieu mentioned that diversifying BHS staff and hiring more APIA and people of color (POC) could help diversify the curriculum. She also said that students and teachers specifically should take action to promote APIA student voices, and share their stories. 

“There’s a lot of people at BHS who have knowledge about API history, but just don’t have the space to share it. If teachers give that space, then students would maybe be willing to educate other people about it, and we can just start there,” said Sieu. 

This is the first part of an ongoing investigative series. Return next issue to read more about what creating an APIA Studies curriculum would look like, based on current programs, and what the obstacles are surrounding such a class.