Restorative Justice as a Tool for Addressing Anti-Asian Racism

Q: What is the mission of the Immigrant History Initiative, and what kind of resources do you have for educators?

Kathy and Julia: We started the Immigrant History Initiative because we realized there was something fundamentally broken about how America thinks about race and immigration. We founded the organization shortly after the 2016 election, at a time when we saw renewed anti-immigrant and xenophobic rhetoric. This rhetoric was amplified by people in power, and unfortunately echoed by many immigrant communities themselves. It became painfully clear, for example, how much the histories of our own Chinese American communities, the first immigrants made illegal by law during the era of Chinese Exclusion, had been forgotten or never learned. Not learning the history of immigrants, particularly immigrants of color, enables us to ignore parallels to injustices today and, in the worst cases, it enables us to stand for and perpetuate those injustices against other groups of people...we started off by teaching Chinese American history in Chinese language schools, and we now create educational resources like lesson plans and facilitation guides on a broad range of topics related to racial justice, equity, and student-empowerment. Our latest resource uses restorative justice dialogue to tackle anti-Asian racism during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Q: What is restorative dialogue? What were you seeing, and not seeing, in education spaces that led you to create this resource for educators?

Sarah: Restorative dialogue gets its power and distinctiveness from its community ritual elements, and how those elements can flatten power and lead to authentic conversation. The talking piece and sitting in a circle are probably the most recognizable parts, but there are a number of others that can all lead to an intentional and thoughtful space. The biggest goal in a restorative dialogue is that people are able to speak honestly, and truly listen when others share. 

Restorative dialogue can challenge traditional classroom structure where the teacher is implicitly or explicitly in control of the conversation. It’s an opportunity to reassemble the power dynamics so that participants (including the instructor) can show up in a more genuine way. I was excited when Julia and Kathy reached out about this project because, so often, these conversations in classrooms aren’t had at all, or they’re approached in a way that doesn’t consider what kinds of silent norms and expectations are shaping the conversation.

Kathy and Julia: The guide we created is meant to provide a highly scaffolded resource for educators to begin broaching these topics with their students in a compassionate and restorative way. The guide is not meant to address specific incidents between students, though we link to several other resources if that is the particular need. Instead, it guides educators to introduce these topics in the classroom so that it can be discussed through community dialogue. Talking about race can be a minefield for educators, especially right now. In the resource, we include a detailed facilitation agenda and examples of how to troubleshoot different forms of problematic or disruptive student behavior during the dialogue circle.

Q: Since the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic began, we have seen, and continue to see, anti-Asian racism and violence across the country. What do you think are the unlearned lessons of Asian American history in the US that violence against Asians and Asian Americans persist?

Kathy and Julia: Two deep-rooted historical stereotypes are key to understanding today’s violence against Asians and Asian Americans: the Perpetual Foreigner stereotype and the Yellow Peril stereotype. These stereotypes represent two distinct ideas about Asians, but they reinforce and are inseparable from each other. Since the time of Chinese Exclusion in the 1800s, Asian immigrants and Asian Americans generally have been seen as outsiders, regardless of where they were born or what languages they may speak. This exclusion from American national identity, reinforced in law and in popular perception, gives rise to the related stereotype of the “Yellow Peril,” where Asians are seen as a foreign threat and invading force. For example, justifications for Chinese Exclusion and later other exclusionary laws against other Asian immigrants play upon the fear of an “Asiatic invasion.” 

These stereotypes have played out to devastating and fatal effects throughout history. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, public officials’ presumptions of Chinese immorality and lack of hygiene led to scapegoating of the Chinese during a series of disease outbreaks in San Francisco. The Chinese were blamed as the source of contagion without evidence and faced involuntary confinement and fumigation of their supposedly dirty homes. Hospitals also refused to treat Chinese patients.. During World War II, Japanese Americans were accused of treachery and sabotage, again without evidence, and corralled into incarceration camps without trial or any other kind of due process. More recently, Vincent Chin was murdered in the 1980s as a symbol of Japanese competition with the United States, and Muslim Americans were terrorized and killed following 9/11. 

We’re already seeing the harmful effects of these stereotypes on Asian Americans during COVID. A recent report done showed that of 1,000 Asian American youths interviewed, 25% of them have experienced racialized bullying connected to COVID. We have seen many instances of violence, including some horrific acts of cruelty, levied against Asian Americans. Rhetoric about the “Chinese virus,” coupled with repeated refrains of “go back to X country” and even conspiracy theories about the virus’ origins, play on existing powerful narratives about Asian communities. 

It all boils down to race and belonging. Who is American, and who is not? Those who are not have been repeatedly scapegoated and targeted. Unfortunately, in times of crises, many people still fall back on these old stereotypes and place blame on Asians and Asian Americans, who have to deal with both virulent racism and a pandemic.

Q: We have seen an increased interest from educators to learn about and practice anti-racist and trauma-informed frameworks in education spaces. What do you hope educators will gain from doing this restorative dialogue activity with students, and what do you hope educators will continue to practice once the activity ends?

SarahBroadly, we hope that this activity will provide a foundation for future social justice conversations and action. By doing the exercise, educators may be able to gain deeper insight into how their students are thinking about and experiencing these issues, which can inform future classroom choices. It’s also a chance for educators to make clear that anti-Asian racism is not acceptable, in a way that encourages students to consider what their roles are in these issues. 

After the activity, we hope that educators will continue to think about how to thoughtfully “let go” in conversations and shift power to students, even when it is uncomfortable or scary. Ideally, educators can use this as a jumping-off point to continue tackling difficult topics in order to create safer spaces for students, and begin to normalize student discussions about power in and out of the classroom. In addition, we hope that educators continue to underscore to students that we all have the ability to act in socially just ways every day.

Click here to download the Immigrant History Initiative’s Restorative Justice Dialogue resource.