In April 2020, we interviewed Liz Kleinrock, an anti-bias educator and consultant based in Los Angeles, California. We interviewed Liz to learn more about how addressing or ignoring anti-Asian racism in our classrooms and communities can impact student learning:
Q: In your TED Talk, “How to teach kids to talk about taboo topics,” you talk about your curriculum unit on race and racism with your 4th grade students, and share how some students were afraid to ask questions about race. What are the main tenets of addressing hard topics like race in the classroom? How would you recommend we apply or amend those tenets to address anti-Asian racism during COVID-19?
A: The most important thing I tell folx is that you have to know yourself. If you're an educator and want to talk to your students about race, spend some time reflecting on your own identity and understanding of race and racism. If you're not comfortable talking about these things with your friends or colleagues, you're probably not ready to talk to kids. If you are comfortable talking about these topics with your friends and colleagues, then ask yourself if you notice anything about the identities of these peers. Are you only comfortable talking about race with people who share your racialized identity? (I use the term "racialized" to emphasize that race is a socially constructed idea, and that race is something that has been done TO people.) Are you comfortable having discussions with people across lines of difference?
From my personal perspective, I think the amount of anti-Asian racism we're experiencing is a result of erasure of the Asian American community from conversations about race, as well as general ignorance about Asian American history and individuals. Conversations and lessons about race are too often presented along the Black-white binary, and add on the bias held against East Asian Americans as a result of the "model minority" myth and assumption of proximity to whiteness. To combat anti-Asian racism, I'd ask that people educate themselves about the diversity of Asian American identities, and where these stereotypes and biases are born by researching topics such as "Yellow Peril," and the list of anti-Asian policies in the United States. It's also important to keep in mind that ruminating in oppression and racism will only get us so far, and we also need to think about what liberation means for Asian Americans. We can study the Yellow Power Movement and instances where Asian American activists have advocated for justice in our own communities, and acted as accomplices for other communities in need.
Q: What would you talk to your students about if you noticed some students were being bullied because they are, or are perceived as being Asian? How would you approach the situation?
A: With students, I believe in calling them into conversations to address this type of behavior, rather than calling them out and publicly shaming them. In my classroom, we used restorative justice practices so that there's an understanding of the damage that has been created, all community members have the opportunity to be heard, and the focus is on repairing the harm done. I would begin by telling these students something along the lines of, "You might not be aware of this, but there is a lot of painful history behind the words or behaviors you chose," and would explain how their choices harmed our classroom community, rather than helped. I would also ask the students in question to identify where they heard or received these messages about Asian people, so we can begin to unpack and dismantle their racial biases.
Q: For teachers who might feel uncomfortable addressing anti-Asian racism with their students, what advice would you give them, especially for teachers who don’t identify as Asian American? What would be at risk if the topic was avoided?
A: I've always appreciated the quote, "What you permit, you promote." A lot of people seem to forget that staying silent on certain issues sends a message on its own. If teachers or adults center their own comfort by ignoring or minimizing anti-Asian racism, they're sending the message that these words and behaviors are acceptable, and kids will follow their lead. If teachers are uncomfortable addressing anti-Asian racism, the first question I have is where that discomfort comes from. Is it because they simply don't know about the issue? Are they worried about saying the wrong thing, or not having the right language? We are at a point where there is so much free information readily available. Listen to the podcasts, "Asian Enough Podcast," or "Code Switch." Check out the free Asian American Racial Justice Toolkit. Read books by diverse Asian authors and activists. Ignorance is not an excuse to disengage.
I would caution teachers to be aware of how they're representing Asian individuals and Asian American history. Far too often, lessons and inclusion of people of the global majority are presented from a deficit-based lens, or through examples of injustice and oppression. All students need to form positive self-identities and respect those of others. I'd recommend beginning with books or lessons that hold up Asian American individuals or history for their culture, contributions, and resilience before diving into anti-Asian racism.
Q: We learn in your TED Talk that your students became deeply engaged in conversations about race and equity. What can adults learn from your students?
A: My students are some of the most incredible humans, and there is so much adults can constantly learn from youth. They love to ask questions to further their understanding. They are open to learning and adjusting their language and behavior to be respectful towards others. They care deeply about justice and equity. In anti-bias and anti-racism work, there's an emphasis on creating brave spaces and accepting and expecting non-closure, and I love that my students are unafraid to engage with the unknown.
We are also in the beginning stages of creating a parent resource for talking to children about Asian American identity and anti-Asian racism. This discussion guide will provide age-appropriate conversation starters and specific strategies for parents to navigate issues from intergenerational trauma to identity-based bullying in schools.