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Unveiling the Invisible

Tony DelaRosa, Ed.M.'18, explores pro-Asian American and intersectional perspectives in the classroom
Tony DelaRosa
Tony DelaRosa
Photo: Courtesy of Tony DelaRosa

Educator Tony DelaRosa, Ed.M.'18, doesn’t think teachers can wait for policy mandating the inclusion of all races — especially Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) — in the classroom. The majority of states do not require curriculum about AAPI. DelaRosa's aim is to support educators on how to do this necessary work on a group that’s historically and systemically invisible in the United States.  

In DelaRosa’s new book, Teaching the Invisible Race, he emphasizes the importance of being pro-Asian American in the classroom, which involves recognizing the intersectionality of Asian American identities and their connection to other racial and social justice movements.

"With my work, I'm challenging educators to think about how do you get Asian American in dialogue now? You're already talking with your kids. That's great. Step two is how do you actually get the community talking and involved? And that's another level. That takes years of practice..." he says. "We need this even more in places where there's not Asian Americans. ... What is your way to build your racial literacy about Asian America if it's not in front of you? It has to be [in] school. School is the place to do those things.”

In this episode of the Harvard EdCast, DelaRosa addresses the challenges teachers can face in implementing Asian American education, the need for racial literacy, and the importance of failure and reflection in the learning process.  


JILL ANDERSON:  I am Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast. 

Tony DelaRosa won't wait for policy to mandate education about Asian Americans in the classroom. The anti-bias and anti-racist educator and researcher knows only 10 states require an Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders curriculum. It shows in how little many of us know about the ways Asian Americans have contributed to the U.S., but the lessons are everywhere in history, art, pop, culture and beyond. 

His book, Teaching the Invisible Race, is part poetry, part memoir and part content to help transform how educators teach Asian American narratives in the classroom. I asked Tony why he calls Asian Americans the invisible race. 

TONY DELAROSA: I call Asian Americans the invisible race because even amidst a 2020 Stop Asian Hate movement, where the rise of anti-Asian hate started really going up after our national leadership gave permission for people to act on their ideologies and their thoughts regarding Asian Americans, whether it's rooted in being a perpetual foreigner or what have you. Like you are not a part of this country, you're trying to be better than us, you don't help us. Whatever reason that they had or it's just deep hatred, people started acting on it. And then the reason why I wrote it is because what I saw that was being written about the movement was a lot of people were very surprised, the reactions ends up like, "Asian Americans experience racism? Wow."


TONY DELAROSA: Right? And as an Asian American scholar, an education scholar, I know that this is an American tradition. Very similar to I would say, how other scholars of race will say like, "Yeah, slavery and anti-Blackness is an American tradition." That is very similar in the same ethos that I have with the president's co-signing bills to incarcerate Japanese folks or to in the Naturalization Act of late 1700s, to exclude our group. There are so many policies at the national level and the local level that I noticed that we were experiencing as Asian Americans leading up to this point. This was like the bubble popping moment, I would say. People will be writing about this moment in history for a while, referencing for researchers, what's the time of analysis? What's the unit of analysis? They're going to use the timeframe of, post-2020, George Floyd and anti-Asian hate rise. They're going to use that frame of reference. 

I am too because that's when people's collective idea and knowledge started to rise collectively around, "Oh, we exist." So to me, to call it the invisible race to say, "Yes, we have been invisibilized for such a long time." And two, I actually, if I go back, I would change it to the omitted race because invisible to me is still a passive, neutral type of term. In my mind, omission is an act. And omission tells me a little bit more about the insidiousness of these policies that were written by people, by ideology and people in the back room saying, "This is great." There's a whole project behind this. This is not like a last minute design. This is a whole project where people came together, made a decision, signed off and said, "Hey, we're going to put money around this," and then boom, this is happening. That's why I call it the invisible race. But if I would go back, I would call it the omitted race. 

JILL ANDERSON: What does it mean to be pro-Asian American in the classroom? 

TONY DELAROSA: I had to really lean into this when thinking about where does this idea of pro-Asian American come from? And people are already pro-Asian American, already from Asian American standpoint were investing in our communities. We're putting dollars into Asian businesses, we're amplifying Asian voices. There's people already doing that. I'm putting a name to some of that now, and I'm putting a name to it in education from that standpoint, and I'm doing it with a critical lens tied to a pro-Black lens. So to me, I know that Asian American liberation is tied to Black liberation and that collective solidarity needs to be known and to define pro-Asian American being tied to pro Blackness, being tied to pro indigeneity, being tied to pro LGBTQIA2S+ in an intersectional lens, lets us know that Asian Americans are just not a monolith, and we don't just exist in a funnel. We are existing amongst people, which is a whole chapter in and of itself. I teach people about Asian American activism rooted in cross racial coalition. Because when people talk about Asian American, they feel like they can just put us in May, October or at the sideline of a curriculum. It's separate, but to me, it's embedded. So pro-Asian American is a lot of things. It means that we're embedded, we're intersectional, we're tied to cross racial liberation movements and more. 

JILL ANDERSON: One of the things you want educators to focus on is goodness versus success of Asian Americans. What does that mean? 

TONY DELAROSA: There are definitely points of success that I highlight. That's also part of being pro-Asian, but that's the surface level. I think the goodness is kind of rooted in abolition. How do we center Asian American joy? What does that even look like? People don't know. Because if we're invisibilized, that's a great selling part. People don't know. So I get to have a chance to help to codefine that at a national level. 

Now, my Asian American artist, an arts activist, they know this stuff. Asian Americans know this stuff. But for me, writing to an audience that is primarily non-Asian, people need to understand that we have our own ways of joy as well. What do we find joy in home place? What is a home place? A place where we can feel authentic, where we feel safe, and we can feel brave at the same time, where we can practice our art. Asian Americans art, they do art. They don't just do STEM. To be expansive as opposed to just this humble, meek, automaton robot that I think the stereotype falls on to describe us as. So that's what I mean with defining pro-Asian American and understanding the joy around Asian America. There's just so much more to be discovered and written about and explained. 

I guess one last one, like rooted into pop culture is that we recently had a big wave of pop culture. People have been following the movies, the movie industry, everything, everywhere all at once was a big, joyful celebration of us. Her, the queen of it. Coming from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. If you know that film, she's not just in the Kung Fu film, she's in this very Asian futurist film. What is Asian futurism? People don't think about that. We can exist in the future and seeing an all Asian American cast, that's joy. That's us saying that, "Oh wow, people are willing to put money and resources into our community. As opposed to being invisibilized, we matter and we're quite visible." 

JILL ANDERSON: So where do you think teachers get stuck in doing this? 

TONY DELAROSA: I feel like one thing is the shame that people will feel of not knowing. I think we need to get over that aspect of like, "Oh, I'm supposed to know everything." I don't know everything about Asian America, but I'm writing about it. I'm a scholar on this. And we just got to do the thing. We got to commit and actually do the thing. So I think part one is that teachers are going to feel a little bit ashamed. That's not the purpose, but I feel like inevitably not knowing it, it's going to have some guilt and shame related to it. That's not the purpose of it. 

I want them to understand it's not a gotcha moment, but it's kind of gotcha moment. It's kind like, hey, this is a way to assess yourself and navigate the book. And it just is a good feeling in your body to be like, "Okay, it's not just me." Because when you're having this conversation outside of you and this book, you are going to be talking to your friends about this and saying, "Oh, I did not hear about Lao. I can't name a Lao leader. I can't name a Sikh leader. I don't know the difference between brown Asian and non-brown Asians." And to me, this is a starting point for people to assess that. 

So number one, that's going to be a challenge. Two, the translation, the embedding in your curricula. I think that's the hardest part. So I actually just gave some lesson plans straight up in the book itself where you can literally copy the arts spoken word and hip hop one is specifically something someone can just embed in their classroom to learn history, to learn English narratives. It aligns to those standards of identity, social development, the history of Asian Americans and the contributions. That aligns really well with those standards, and people can just implement that. But the more difficult ones around intersectionality, around cross-racial coalition building, how do you embed that into an English humanities or social studies curriculum? 

I don't think people think that long in advance, having been a coach, instructional coach. I know this because I assessed scoping sequences. I looked at when people were planning these processes, and I know to a fault that people just, if they don't do it on the front end in the summer when they're planning, they have the planning times, during the year, it's really difficult to implement something new. It's so difficult. It's like a habit that we're trying to break, and that habit combined with a lack of time or battling time, it's almost impossible. So for me, giving readily available resources and then offering to people, "Hey, we're doing a free drop in workshop to translate this work, to translate it more. The book in the resources are one thing, the actual how to is another thing. If you don't go to mine, you can go to this other community doing this work who can show you exactly how to embed this." 

With my work, I'm challenging educators to think about how do you get Asian American, that dialogue now? You're already talking with your kids. That's great. Step two is how do you actually get the community talking and involved? And that's another level. That takes years of practice. That takes practice. That takes you knowing asset mapping where your Asian Americans are in your community. Does Indianapolis have Asians? Yes, we do. We have Asian Americans, and I think when I talk to orgs in Indianapolis, they're like, "Oh, I don't know if your work is going to resonate because it's not that many Asian Americans." I'm like, "That's the purpose though. You're kind of indicting yourself in the fact that you don't know that there's Asian Americans in Indianapolis or Indiana." And also a second level is that we need this even more in places where there's not Asian Americans. 


TONY DELAROSA: Much more important because if you're not going to get exposed to them by people, what is your way to build your racial literacy about Asian America if it's not in front of you? It has to be that school. School is the places to do those things. 

JILL ANDERSON: How much do you encounter fear of those educators who are living in communities where they say, "Oh, there's not a lot of Asian Americans." Or, "Why should I teach this because there's no Asian Americans in my class?" 

TONY DELAROSA: Yeah. I really like this question because it's the question that every educator, for the most part, 80%, which is like the feminist labor market of white women in the education field are going to feel. They're going to feel this way. And my first recommendation is to try to abandon that idea that you are not meant to be the person to teach it. Because logistically and logically, if you're 80% of the teaching force, we can't depend on Asian Americans to teach all of this stuff. That's a neoliberal ideology that the work fall on Asian Americans. No, everyone needs to be teaching this, Black, white, Asian, Arab American, all that and more. 

My resource for people is to help have racial literacy and racial talk, and that's why my book is different than history books that are existing out there right now. After I did an asset map of the type of resources that were available, most of them were written by professors, research-based, heavy content-based. Mine is a mixture. Having coached people, teachers, and the like, I knew that there needed to be cognitive moments of pause and to reflect on these moments because this work has to live in your body. Because when you teach about something that's uncomfortable as a whole, whether it's race or disability or gender fluidity or whatnot in your classroom, which all should be taught, if you're not socialized to teach that or socialize to understand that and are comfortable with the content, it's going to feel like a challenge. 

I do want people to wrestle with it. I think that's part of the learning process. I want people to feel they have a starting place. And then from there, they can just practice. I just feel like teachers don't even have that foundation. We just need to get it out there. And that's why I say in the beginning, let's not wait for policy because policy is going to probably create some standards of how to teach this stuff. And some of this stuff is the standards from different policies, are written from policymakers and not necessarily policymakers who have been educators, who haven't been fluent in racial literacy. 

Right now, I'm saying from a constructivist learning point, after building some foundational tools, you're going to fail, you're going to mess up, and that's part of the process of engaging in education, engaging in racial literacy development. It's like, I'm going to teach it, I'm going to fail. It's going to be an experience. I also know that there is a way to do this with nuance, with care, with consensuality, but then I don't want perfect to be the enemy of good. That's never what I want this to be. I want you to just start and then learn and with humility, reflect back and say, "If I made a wrong, that's part of abolition." You are repairing that harm. And I think people just don't do that as a whole. 

When you commit a wrong teaching racial literacy or trying to strengthen racial literacy, especially if you're not good at it, there's a shaming that goes with it. I don't think from the world of racial literacy, from the world of Asian America, from the world of education, that we've done a great job of holding space for failure as a whole in these topics, and failure is very essential because that's just part of the learning process. So I want people to fail. I want people to reflect, and I want you to do it better the next time around, because this work is also iterative. If you know that Asian American isn't invisible, it'll take you seven times, that seven time rule to get a name into a student's head. So I want you to be teaching this seven times throughout and referencing. 

That's why one of my chapters has literally frames of people and portraits that you can reference in your classroom all throughout the year. I don't care what topic or what part of history or English lesson, I want you to ask, "What does Rohan Zhou-Lee's perspective on this random topic? What could that be?" Now, you're familiarizing yourself with a Asian American leader in the U.S. who is also multiracial and also trans identifying. You're doing so at multiple bats more than seven times, and your kids are doing that at the same time. And now the fluency of talking about Asian Americans is built as a structure, and I think that's powerful. 

JILL ANDERSON: I do want to hear from you a little bit about intersectionality and the role that has in moving beyond this binary we live in of Black and white. 

TONY DELAROSA: Yes. Asian Americans are not a monolith, so we have to go from an intersectional framework to understand the identities of, if I just say Filipino, my lived experience is very intersectional in and of itself. We think about socioeconomic status, and its influx. So like grew up low income, now reaching a middle class socioeconomic status because of all the education, and I think that's important to understand or education intersected that. Plus from a brown Asian perspective, what does that even mean? There's so much nuance that can be talked about. Filipinos are often seen as Latinos of Asia. What does that even mean? Based on the colonial project of Spain to the Philippines over the last 300 years, so our identity development has been shifted and changed very differently. 

If we don't talk about intersectionality, then yes, as a race scholar and a coach on anti-bias and anti-racism, I already know because I've seen it happen that people will talk about race within that Black and white binary frame of history exists and history of race exists between white people and Black people. That is an oversimplification, but that's what people will go to because they oversimplify this oftentimes. So to me, using the intersectionality framework and the cross racial framework of isang bagsak is a Filipino term of cross racial solidarity, isang bagsak. Those two logics really help the reader understand, wow, identity on a personal level, we all have multiple identity markers. 

Great. Step one, step two, oh, on a group level, self and group level, Asian Americans have been fighting with the Black community and vice versa. And the Blasian community, the multiracial community, which the Blasian community often gets left out. I'm talking about that nuanced racial literacy talk here is that even when scholars talk about Black and Asian solidarity movements, that multiracial identity gets lost. And that's why I included it, because the multi-ethnic aspect of things gets lost, which is invisible within the invisible, and there's a lot of concepts of the invisible within the invisible in my book, from layers of disability, layers of gender and sexual orientation.

Once we layer the different identity markers, that's when the layers of invisibility start to manifest. 

JILL ANDERSON: Do you worry at all about just the paradox of what we see happening in some parts of the country where there's a push against efforts to incorporate learning about other races and other people's identity? 

TONY DELAROSA: Our public leaders want to do things for show sometimes. Sometimes they want to do things performatively, and it's both explicit. It's both intentional, and sometimes they just don't know what they're doing. They're just doing it haphazardly. And I'm noticing both things are true. To me, with the case of Florida, for example, Asian American education gets passed. Rah, rah, awesome, yeah, we got coalitions around fighting for it. I know them because I was a coach in Miami fighting for those same things. And then AP African American history gets denied, right? 


Tony DelaRosa: Whoa! And then DEI, there's anti-woke laws. So there's that tension right there. So to me, I call performativity on that all. It begs the question around why Asian Americans out of this whole thing? And it makes me question, what are my Asian American folks who fought for that bill going to do when they knew that AP African American history got denied? Are they going to be in coalition and fight and say, "Hey, we got ours. Let's help you get yours"? That's collective liberation, and that's cross coalition building. Or are they going to say, "No, we got ours. Thank you. We're going to just stick in our lane and that's how we do it."

That's my big question right now. That's my paradox that. I want to do it as a case study because there's only so much I can do with those leaders who made those sharp decisions, but I know from my Asian American communities who I was in community with, my locus of control is actually there, and I can actually challenge them and say, "Hey, go on and talk with the NAACP and do something about this so you can still fight and advocate for African American AP history or African American studies in K-12, and this is how you do it, right? You share resources."

JILL ANDERSON: Right. Well, Tony, thank you so much. Tons of great stuff to share and talk about today. 

TONY DELAROSA: Yes, it was such a wonderful time to be able to speak at Harvard EdCast, to be a part of this legacy and part of a great people who are bringing one, racial literacy to the forefront. 

JILL ANDERSON: Tony DelaRosa is an anti-bias and anti-racist educator and researcher. He is the author of Teaching the Invisible Race: Embodying a Pro-Asian American Lens in Schools. I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening.


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