Culturally responsive teaching is a concept that is playing an increasingly important role in the training of K-12 educators and refers to an orientation that equips educators to work skillfully with students, parents, and colleagues from differing cultural backgrounds. Though culturally responsive teaching encompasses a host of components, one is the notion that it is critically important for educators to cultivate curious, expansive ways of thinking about others. It is also immensely important to invite others to define themselves for themselves. Doing this helps to curtail the ascendancy of harmful “single stories” that flatten complexity and render people’s true experiences invisible. Though the danger of a single story can be seen across American society, one community that has certainly been affected by this phenomenon is the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community. In two new works of media, AAPI thought leaders shed light on some of the “single stories” that have shaped their experiences and model what it can look like to push back against restrictive narratives.
In a new web-based video series produced by PBS titled “A People’s History of Asian America,” ethnic studies scholar Adrian de Leon and documentarian Holly Li deliver a unique history of Asian American people that enlists the insights of a diverse cast of AAPI people to explore the roles of microaggressions and stereotypes, among other phenomena. The brief series (comprised of four 10-minute episodes) addresses an array of topics including the purported proximity of Asianness to whiteness and the racist, xenophobic association of Asianness with contagion in American history. Perhaps most relevant to the danger of a single story, however, is an episode in the series that considers the pros and cons of disaggregating Asian Americans as a statistical category. Below are some of the words of the series’ hosts:
“‘Asian American’ has its roots in political organizing so, at its core, it’s a political identity… but as this community grows in number, geographical diversity, and migration history, this term starts to fall a little short… Another shortcoming is the way that statistics get aggregated under the broad term ‘Asian American.’ ...On paper, it seems like we’re doing pretty well economically but when you expand on that data, you’ll see that the wealth is concentrated among select…groups, mainly Indian, Filipino, Chinese, and Japanese Americans. And when you look at the other end of the spectrum, you’ll find Burmese, other Southeast Asian, and Pacific Islander communities.”
These insights are developed further in journalist Jay Caspian Kang’s book The Loneliest Americans (2021) which has been generating considerable discussion since it debuted last October. Reviewed in publications ranging from The New Yorker to the Los Angeles Review of Books, Kang’s book explores the contemporary experiences of Asian Americans and challenges the coherence of “Asian Americanness” itself. Kang delivers this cultural critique alongside an account of his own family’s journey from Korea to a housing project in affluent Cambridge, Massachusetts to a college town in the southern United States as the demographics and internal politics of Asian America underwent rapid transformation. Over the course of the book, Kang raises fundamental questions about what binds the AAPI community together, the impact of various strategies community members have used to cultivate a shared sense of identity, and what steps may be required to disrupt an unjust status quo shaped by restrictive narratives about Asianness.