What Asian American Educator Stories Reveal About Racial Nuances Within...

Research Commentary | Diversity and Equity

What Asian American Educator Stories Reveal About Racial Nuances Within ‘People of Color’

By Mi Aniefuna     Jun 2, 2023

What Asian American Educator Stories Reveal About Racial Nuances Within ‘People of Color’

As part of our Voices of Change research project, EdSurge Research talked to dozens of educators who identify as Asian or Asian American. These conversations occurred a year after the anti-Asian hate crimes in Atlanta, Georgia, in 2021, and two years after George Floyd’s murder sparked a wave of racial solidarity uprisings in 2020.

We often use catch-all acronyms and shorthand like “POC,” “BIPOC,” and “Black and brown people” to describe experiences of discrimination and oppression of people in the U.S. who are not white. But within those blanket terms to describe “minorities” are dozens of cultures with unique heritages, ethnicities, and geographic locations. People from those cultures have nuanced histories, perspectives, and experiences in the U.S. and in its schools.

Within these group designations, why does it matter to understand the unique experiences of people of each individual race and ethnicity?

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) contains markers like socioeconomic status, financial security, educational attainment, and life expectancy, all of which tells a story of Asian American progress and achievement. For example, NCES reported that in 2021, Asian students earned 13.6 percent of STEM undergraduate and 17.4 percent of STEM master’s degrees.[i]

Yet research on Asian Americans’ perceptions of belonging tells another story. Excerpts from our interviews with Asian American K-12 teachers shed light on some of these nuances.

“Growing up being multiracial [Asian and white], I kind of lived a white-adjacent life, because I guess people didn't know what to treat me as. So they're just like, ‘Well, you live an upper-middle-class life, and you're richer than everybody else here, so we're just going to treat you like you're white and you didn't speak any other language. So there you go.’"

“I think of my [school] as such a progressive place that I often neglect the small microaggressions that happen. And it's not from people that I work with closely, but we have two South Asian teachers, one in the math department, one in the science department. And when the math teacher's father died, I got a lot of condolences, and so it was shocking to me. Because these were some people that I'd known for a long time and so I was like, OK, I guess they really don't know what I teach and who I am. I've also had a teacher's aide come up to me and ask me about teacher's aide stuff. So I didn't necessarily deal with it because it wasn't so overt and I said, OK, they were having a bad day.”

“My boss is white, older … and has told me, on multiple occasions, that I am not Asian enough. Let me rephrase, I'm not Asian-looking enough for her to believe that I am Asian. … Instead of acknowledging that I'm Asian, there was a person on our team who is Latina, and [my boss] decided that she was more Asian-looking than me. And so, she said, ‘We'll consider her the Asian educator and not you.’”

What Does Research Tell Us About Asian American Educators’ Experiences?

Jung Kim, Ph.D., and Betina Hsieh, Ph.D., offer succinct conceptual frameworks in their 2022 book: “The Racialized Experiences of Asian American Teachers in the US: Applications of Asian Critical Race Theory to Resist Marginalization.”[ii] Kim and Hsieh describe the following “polarizing binaries of Asian American representation”:

  1. yellow peril
  2. perpetual foreigner
  3. model minority

Erika Lee, Ph.D., describes in her 2015 book “The Making of Asian America: A History”[iii] that the model minority stereotype has roots in World War II and the Cold War, then was proliferated in the 1980s in newspapers and magazines. Asian Americans were often celebrated “for holding the formula for success” (p. 374). Lee describes the utility of the stereotype as a method to disconnect Asian Americans from other people of color, namely Black folks. Lee cautions, “African American poverty has been increasingly explained as the by-product of a dysfunctional culture and delinquent family values” (p. 375). Claire Jean Kim, Ph.D., explains that “racial triangulation” is a tool that has embedded assumptions that Asian Americans are “inferior to Whites and superior to Blacks (in between Black and White) and as permanently foreign and unassimilable (apart from Black and White)” (Kim, 2000, p. 16).[iv] Candace J. Chow, Ph.D.'s, research [v] offers nuanced insights in her examination of how racial identity construction processes impact Asian American teachers’ classroom strategies. Chow imparts that some Asian American teachers may call on multiple approaches, like downplaying their identities, acting as cultural role models, or resisting stereotypes.

Research shows that Asian American educators deploy several strategies for navigating racialization and the matrix of hyper-invisibility/visibility. This type of identity agility is emotionally exhausting for teachers, who are already spread thin by the existing and heightened challenges of structural issues within the teaching profession. Overall, research illustrates that Asian American educators and Asian American, Pacific Islander, Native Hawaiian communities, writ large, are not homogenous — which tells us there’s a lot that we don’t know and don’t focus on about their experiences.

“People, even adults, say that to me, forgetting I'm Asian, I act just like I'm a white person.”

“I found when I'm in a space of mainly white folks, it's a little bit easier [to address microaggressions], but in that space I'm expected to represent all people of color. And then when I'm in a space with people of color, but mainly Black and brown people, I'm not really sure where I belong.”

“How do my coworkers see me? How do my students see me? Do they see me more as white than Asian? I try to be very explicit and adamant about, this is who I am.”

Oppression Olympics

During this year’s Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders heritage month, Florida mandated public schools to teach Asian American history — while almost simultaneously banning African American history, criminalizing health care for transgender folks, and being added to travel advisory lists by the NAACP and other human rights advocacy organizations for methodically legalizing discrimination against millions of people.

Does this mean that Florida is safe for Asian folks but not for Black and queer folks? This installment of white supremacy was a strategic wedge, stretching the lifespan of the model minority division tactic.

Research on relations between racial and ethnic groups categorized as minorities in the U.S. shows that Asian Americans have been historically utilized as a racial “wedge” — hence the model minority myth that predicates the hyper-invisibility/visibility matrix many Asian Americans describe.

Bettina Love, Ph.D., conveys how former President Ronald Reagan’s concurrent 1980s War on Drugs and the Department of Education report “A Nation at Risk” emboldened anti-Blackness in education. While Asian Americans were lauded as hard-working high-achievers, despite facing challenges, Black women were labeled “welfare queens,” and their kids were stamped as superpredators. Research underscores the legacy of Reagan administration policies on American social hierarchy, and the racial oppression olympics that have ensued for decades.

How do we divorce these subconscious ideologies that placate anti-Blackness within the collective “people of color” group? With the recent installment of racial division in Florida, how can people of color largely combat the methodical racial wedge in pursuit of intersectional racial justice?

"If we, as teachers, are consistently feeling like our identities are not honored, imagine how our students must feel in these spaces."

What Can Education Leaders Do?

Because there are so many misconceptions and knowledge gaps about the diversity of cultures and identities within Asian American communities, self-education is crucial. It’s difficult to show solidarity and respect for people you don’t know much about.

It’s also difficult to mend the legitimate hurt that the racial oppression olympics has caused between the vast group that makes up the category of people of color.

Our participants generally reflected that they expect their school and district leaders to:

  • educate themselves;
  • understand microaggressions with respect to Asian American identities; and
  • not tokenize them.

To do this, a culture of commitment to self-education may begin to help education leaders of all races and ethnicities understand how anti-Blackness has been embedded into education, how race neutrality is not an option, and how educators’ racial identities inform their professional identities.

"White supremacy does so much to all of us.”

Disaggregating People of Color

As a Black researcher, educator, and professional committed to intersectional racial justice, I observe that learning about the humanness of people with whom I research puts much of the racial division in context of a broader history of Eurocentrism and imperialism.

Our research is consistent with existing research that examines Asian American educators’ sense of belonging in their communities. Because this umbrella term of BIPOC consists of such diverse groups of people, when we listen to individuals’ stories, we learn that racial justice requires a much more nuanced approach.


[i] US NCES: Table 318.45. Number and percentage distribution of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) degrees/certificates conferred by postsecondary institutions, by race/ ethnicity, level of degree/certificate, and sex of student: Academic years 2011-12 through 2020-21.

[ii] Kim, Jung & Hsieh, Betina, 2022. "The Racialized Experiences of Asian American Teachers in the US: Applications of Asian Critical Race Theory to Resist Marginalization.” Routledge.

[iii] Lee, Erika, 2016. "The Making of Asian America: A History." Simon & Schuster.

[iv] Kim, Claire Jean, 2000. "Bitter Fruit: The Politics of Black-Korean Conflict in New York City." Yale University Press.

[v] Chow, Candace J., 2021. "Asian American Teachers in U.S. Classrooms: Identity Performances and Pedagogical Practices. Pedagogy, Culture & Society, Vol. 29, No. 1, pp. 21-41.

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