For youth, schools can be sites of both indelible harm and critical possibility. In this moment of racial reckoning, the presence and absence of race-based conversations in schools can play an important role in Asian Americans’ identity development, politicization, and wellbeing. We engage with youth critical consciousness development theories to contextualize Asian American youths’ experiences of racialized invisibility in schools, desires for school structures that facilitate interrogations of White supremacy, and acts of resistance to schools’ complicity in reproducing systems of marginalization.
Drawing on interviews conducted in fall 2020 and spring 2021 with 76 participants in Chicago, we examine the responses of Asian American youth to race-based conversations in their high schools. Participants were recruited via community-based organizations and their associated networks. Our participants were mostly Chinese, cisgender women, and second-generation immigrants/Americans. Data analysis engaged inductive-deductive thematic coding, and emphasized iterative discussion among the team.
Participants commonly reported that Asian American experiences were often overlooked and misrepresented amidst a rise in anti-Asian sentiment throughout the pandemic. Youth emphasized the toll that incidents of anti-Asian violence took on their mental health, and vocalized the need for institutionalized supports for students of color, such as class cancellation and excused absences. Many noted that select teachers facilitated discussions around rising anti-Asian racism. Participants shared a range of responses to these discussions—from feeling supported, to feeling that teachers were not equipped to facilitate such conversations, rendering them hollow.
Schoolwide responses were less common. Youth expressed that their schools' silence sent a clear message that harm towards Asian Americans is not important enough to address vocally. Some mentioned their schools only responding to singular publicized events (e.g., Atlanta shootings), while failing to engage in sustained work towards dismantling the impact of White supremacy on communities of color. Several expressed wishes for their schools to integrate Asian American history in their curriculums, attributing the absence of such learning to the continued erasure and misrepresentation of Asian American experiences.
Many youth were consequently drawn to other spaces for political education. Specifically, social media and Asian American and activism-based youth spaces facilitated learning about the historical and contemporary context of anti-Asian racism. These spaces encouraged youth to critique the responses of their schools and mobilized some to exercise their political agency. A handful of participants approached their administrators to take action and call out ways their schools perpetuate White supremacy whether intentionally or not. Mobilized by the urgency of the moment, some youth also co-facilitated spaces with peers, and engaged in solidarity-based actions with groups like the Black Students’ Union.
Conclusions and implications:
Our findings align with others that highlight the importance of politicizing mechanisms, particularly involvement in affinity and organizing spaces, in fostering youth critical consciousness. When their schools failed to address their desires and needs, many sought out alternative spaces—engaging in critical resistance efforts to educate themselves and others about anti-Asian racism and advocate for their needs and build solidarity with other students of color.