Updated: Jan 8
The Chinese Exclusion Act.
As these glaringly bold words flashed onto the SmartBoard, I could feel my peers’ brazen stares on my back.
To be completely honest, this entire unit had been quite uneasy for me to sit through. However, it wasn’t at all because we were focusing on racism and discrimination towards Chinese Americans, or even that I had to occasionally deal with my classmates’ curious yet unsettling glances; in fact, I was actually glad that we were talking about such issues for once since I’d never learned about Chinese American history before in school. Rather, it was due to the way that my teacher, who wasn’t Chinese, was choosing to explain and teach us about these topics.
My teacher fiddled with her keyboard before pasting several images of discriminatory slogans and signs relating to the Chinese Exclusion Act onto the screen under the text already present. “Alright. Now, let’s talk a little bit about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Issues such as natural disasters as well as the California Gold Rush led to a large amount of Chinese immigration to America. However, conflict arose, and in 1882, a law known as the Chinese Exclusion Act was signed. This law essentially banned Chinese people from being able to immigrate to and enter the U.S., specifically the states on the West Coast like California, for ten years.”
One of my classmates appeared perplexed throughout my teacher’s entire explanation, and at the end, I watched her tentatively raise her hand. “Wait, what was the conflict? Why did they decide to ban Chinese people from entering in the first place?”
“Well, Chinese people were coming to America and taking jobs away from the Italians and everybody else,” our teacher casually replied before turning back to the lesson and moving on to the next slide as if nothing had happened.
Though I was only 9 years old, my teacher’s questionable response was enough to add to the discomfort I’d already been feeling. What exactly does she mean by that? I thought uneasily. Were Chinese people…bad? Were they causing problems? Did they really take away other people’s jobs? Though I hadn’t been alive during the 1880s, I couldn’t help but feel a bit targeted and personally wounded by her words. It almost felt as if my teacher was specifically trying to call me a job stealer.
I was recently asked about whether or not I’d ever learned about Asian American history in school, and I had only one experience to speak on; not from my high school or middle school years, but rather my time in fourth grade. The memory of my teacher talking to us about the Chinese Exclusion Act, which I’d nearly forgotten about after almost 6 years, immediately found its way to the front of my mind. Though my teacher’s answer to the girl’s question certainly hadn’t sat right with me, it left me more confused than upset because at the time I wasn’t quite old or mature enough to completely understand the gravity of what she had said. Only now did I realize that my teacher had painted Chinese Americans in an incredibly negative light, portraying them as greedy immigrants who just came to the U.S. to snatch away other people’s jobs as if they weren’t deserving enough of it or as if Chinese Americans didn’t work just as hard to be at the same place as everybody else.
Not only had she been racist, but my teacher’s explanation was quite inaccurate as well. She neglected to mention one of the most important aspects of the Chinese Exclusion Act: that it was rooted in racism, hatred, and discrimination. My teacher had conveniently omitted several important details, including how Chinese Americans faced frequent racial discrimination and violence from white workers, a tax was implemented by the California government that mainly affected and targeted Chinese workers, and how the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Chinese Americans could not testify in court meaning that virtually nothing could be done against the horrible racism and bigotry they often had to endure.
My teacher, who had poorly explained AAPI history to my fourth-grade class, was white. Her ancestors likely didn’t have to go through the troubles and horrors that Asian Americans had to experience back during the 19th and 20th centuries, such as being referred to as the “yellow peril,” being forced into harrowing concentration camps, having the area they lived in referred to as a “barred zone” from where they could not immigrate to the U.S., or being brutally massacred and lynched due to the overwhelming amount of anti-Asian racism and hate that was rampant throughout the country. Though I’m sure my teacher has certainly had her own share of struggles and hardships throughout life, and has likely had to deal with misogyny and discrimination as a woman, her failure to acknowledge the oppression Asian Americans faced in the past and still experience today was extremely disappointing and unacceptable.
My teacher, my white teacher, will probably seldom have to worry about experiencing even a fraction of the discrimination that is constantly being directed toward POC. And shockingly, I discovered that a whopping 72.3% of teachers in the United States were white.
And while most teachers in our society are white, a lot of students actually aren’t; in fact, students of color greatly outnumber teachers of color in school districts across America. This means that numerous white teachers are unable to educate children of color about race in an authentic way that the students can connect with, because these teachers haven’t actually experienced the same kind of racism that they are talking about. On the contrary, having more non-white teachers speaking on topics concerning race will lead to a much more engaging, impactful lesson, and will generate more meaningful and genuine discussions among the class because both the teacher and students of color can actually relate to what is being taught.
Clearly, it’s imperative that we work to increase diversity among educators to prevent teachers from having to speak on and teach students about discriminatory issues that have never affected them or their ancestors; while of course this does not always lead to problems, the encounter between my fourth-grade teacher, my peers, and I is enough to elucidate the potentially disastrous effects and misinformation that can be spread. While a large portion of the world will never experience the discrimination and injustice inflicted upon Asian Americans and POC in general, it is important that all children are properly educated on this inequality so that they can learn how to contribute to, support, and promote inclusivity in schools, the workplace, and anywhere across the country, as prejudice is found in many forms and not always identified correctly and efficiently.
It is the job of our generation to show the incoming leaders of this world that everyone’s voice deserves to be heard and has the power to make a change; if everyone learns to treat people with equity and equality, maybe there exists a chance that the future will be better.
About the Author: Elizabeth is a member of the Children’s Reading Program as well as a writer and blog manager for the “What’s Up?” blog. She enjoys reading mystery novels and taking walks along the beach.
History.com Staff. “Chinese Exclusion Act.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 24 Aug. 2018, https://www.history.com/topics/immigration/chinese-exclusion-act-1882.
“Teacher Demographics and Statistics : Number of Teachers in the US.” Teacher Demographics and Statistics : Number Of Teachers In The US, 9 Sept. 2022, https://www.zippia.com/teacher-jobs/demographics/.
Leon, Adrian De. “The Long History of Racism against Asian Americans in the U.S.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 9 Apr. 2020, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/the-long-history-of-racism-against-asian-americans-in-the-u-s.
“Immigration Act of 1917 (Barred Zone Act).” Immigration History, 1 Feb. 2020, https://immigrationhistory.org/item/1917-barred-zone-act/.
Meckler, Laura, and Kate Rabinowitz. “America's Schools Are More Diverse than Ever, Yet Teachers Are Still Mostly White.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 27 Dec. 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2019/local/education/teacher-diversity/.