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Combatting Anti-Asian Racism

Equipping educators with restorative justice techniques to upend discrimination and stereotype
Wood figures in circle connected with string

In light of the anti-Asian racism that has risen in the wake of the pandemic, curriculum developers at the Immigrant History Initiative (IHI) have created historically informed resources to help educators counter the harmful rhetoric and foster empathy and allyship in the classroom.

“We had in the back of our heads a growing concern about what was going to happen to students as the school year started up again,” says Kathy Lu, who, with her IHI co-founder Julia Wang, has partnered with restorative justice educator and curriculum designer Sarah Appelbaum, to create an accessible, restorative justice-informed lesson plan. This facilitation guide helps educators begin the conversation about anti-Asian discrimination, violence, and harassment in the COVID-19 pandemic and links these current events to broader themes of racial injustice.

The guide uses a dialogue circle, a restorative justice practice that encourages honest and compassionate discussion. Their advice on holding a dialogue circle  can be particularly useful for educators who may be new to the practice of restorative justice.

  • Make sure group members know what their objective is, why they are meeting, and hold one another accountable for addressing raised issues and concerns. “The goal of the teacher is to provide an environment to talk about race and racism,” Wang says. “Holding a safe space is key to making sure students are comfortable doing that.”
  • To ensure students feel empowered during this time, the instructor can participate but shouldn’t intervene after each person shares. “You want that empowering spirit of an activity to not just be in the content, but also in the form,” Appelbaum says.
  • Be mindful of student experiences with racialized violence, both in and out of schools. A dialogue circle may not be the best place for a student to work through that trauma and educators should be sure they are not introducing content or graphic material without a warning. 
  • While much of the hard work is done within restorative justice dialogue circles, class time outside the circle can also be critical. Having fun helps build and strengthen trust between classmates and the instructor.

Continue the Work

Appelbaum, Lu, and Wang all note that a dialogue circle facilitator needs to continue to think critically about their role as the instructor and the supports and historical context they can provide to students to help ground conversations. Here are a few of their favorite sources:

  • A Different Asian American Timeline: An interactive timeline that looks at Asian American history through the lenses of imperialism, capitalism, race, and migration.
  • The Problem: Hindus Too Brunette to Vote Here: A series exploring the background and consequences of the landmark Supreme Court Case, U.S. v. Bhagat Singh Thind, which found that the South Asian petitioner did not qualify as "white" and so could not become a naturalized U.S. citizen. The series is full of primary sources for students to practice analyzing.
  • IHI's COVID-19 Video Series: A short video series that sketches out the parallels between contemporary violence and past historical events, including Chinese Exclusion, the Justice for Vincent Chin Movement, the history of Filipinx healthcare workers, and Wong Kim Ark & birthright citizenship.
  • Transformative Justice Curriculum Guide: Structured activities to help students think about and consider justice and punishment in an American context.

Key Takeaways

  • Model for students that you hear their concerns and take them seriously by following up or giving them an opportunity to speak further. This will set the tone and an example for the rest of the group to follow.

  • Be explicit about what you see happening in the world and in the group. Bring these issues up for discussion and engage students in them directly.

  • Give space to process their own experience and recognize that everyone has their own limits. Students may need breaks or may need time to feel comfortable before sharing.

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