Today on the podcast we are joined by Bob Kim and Liz Kleinrock for a special conversation.
Bob is a former civil rights attorney and leading expert in education law and policy in the United States. He has served in the Obama administration in the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, and has also served as a senior policy analyst at the National Education Association. He is the author of Elevating Equity and Justice: 10 U.S. Supreme Court Cases Every Teacher Should Know.
Liz is an anti-bias anti-racist educator who teachers middle school in Washington D.C.. In addition to classroom teaching, Liz also works as an antibias antiracist facilitator for schools, organizations, and companies across the country. Her work has gained national recognition through a documentary short produced by Fluid Film, and media outlets such as CNN, The Washington Post, NPR, and BBC. In 2018, Liz received Teaching Tolerance's 2018 Award for Excellence in Teaching and currently serves on the Teaching Tolerance Advisory Board. Liz is the author of the forthcoming book Start Here, Start Now A Guide to Antibias and Antiracist Work in Your School Community.
Bob and Liz join us today in the wake of both a rise in incidents and increased coverage of anti-Asian hate crimes and racism in the past weeks, months, and year. We’re grateful that both Bob and Liz offered to share their personal experience and professional expertise at this moment to bring increased awareness to the impacts of anti-Asian racism and how to take action.
We also want to encourage listeners of today’s show to continue their education around Asian American history and anti-Asian racism in the US, and research ways you can get involved in your own community.
Below is a transcript of this episode.
Liz: Hey, y'all. My name is Liz Kleinrock, my pronouns are she and her, and I am here today with my friend, my colleague, Bob Kim. Unfortunately, the circumstances under which we are coming to talk with y'all today are not the best. I love talking to Bob all the time. I wish it was under a different situation.
Over the past weeks, months, year, we have seen a rise in visibility of anti-Asian hate crimes. I want to really emphasize the visibility part, because the hate crime part is not new. The racism is not new. Some things that folks who follow mainstream media outlets might have picked up on. There was a shooting two weeks ago in three different massage parlors in Atlanta, leaving six Asian women dead. And, even yesterday, there was extremely upsetting footage of a Filipino woman being stomped repeatedly on the curb in broad daylight in New York, while people stood by and just watched. So, this is the context under which we're coming to talk to you today. So, I have to start just by asking Bob, how are you doing?
Bob: Oh my gosh, Liz. Well, thanks. Thanks. It's great to be on here with you to talk about these things. I am not doing all that well, to be honest. Living here in New York City, the incident you were mentioning about the 65-year-old Filipino woman being literally punched and beaten in plain view of security officers. I mean, that happened in kind of our own backyard here. Those of us that live... I live in New York City and that on top of other incidents in New York, there've been several dozens this year. Asian-American man being attacked and kind of rendered unconscious on the subway, in plain view of other passengers. And so all of this stuff is sort of accumulating and it just sort of, to me, my personal reaction is it feels... It triggers all these feelings of being afraid, triggers feelings of when I've been... I have to just put out there and say, I've personally as an Asian-American guy been attacked on the street physically in the past. I've also been verbally attacked many times, probably can't even count the number of times.
So, personally speaking, it triggers all of those memories. And then it also just on a professional level, it also is very confusing on how to react to this because you and I, we both do this kind of work around anti bias and civil rights and so forth. But so suddenly something like this happens and it's sort of jarring, it's sort of like, you feel like you want to spring into action and you feel responsible somehow for doing that, but then you also feel like I'm suffering just what everyone else is suffering of the feeling of powerlessness and fear and just wanting to kind of crawl up in a hole. So, just to kind of those countervailing forces that are really...It's just a lot to deal with. How are you doing, Liz?
Liz: It definitely has been better. I made an emergency therapy appointment for this Friday that I'm very much looking forward to. I'm not good. I think one of the most noticeable things that I can recognize within myself is just how my sleep has been impacted. I don't think I've gotten a good night's sleep in weeks. I've actually been having a lot of really violent nightmares which are I think reflective of a lot of the stress from things that are happening in our communities and it's a challenge just to show up and put on a good face for my students every day and granted, I've been pretty transparent and vulnerable with them this year around mental health and how I'm feeling. I just feel like I can't show up every day and say, "y'all, I'm struggling again."
And it's really, really hard. I have been in community with a number of other Asian, Asian-American colleagues, people from my school, folks who I've worked with, like you, and we're all struggling. We're all feeling similar things and processing in similar different ways, but there's just this level of exhaustion and invisibility, despite the amount of visibility that has now been given. And I think taking a break has been really hard lately because I'm so scared that if this is the only time when people are going to pay attention to anti-Asian racism, if I don't say something, if I don't seize this moment, then it's going to disappear. So I feel like it's just been really hard to turn off.
Bob: Yeah, I could appreciate that. I mean, you are one of the country's most active and visible people on anti-biased education and helping other educators sort of how to address these issues with students and so forth so I can imagine something like this happens and then it puts all the more pressure on you and me, by extension, or just empathizing with you on that position that we're in. You know, I'm wondering what you think of this quote that I read, the movie, we all know that that movie Minari has just come out. And the actor, Steven Yeun said something in a interview that stuck with me. He said, "sometimes I wonder if the Asian American experiences what it's like when you're thinking about everyone else, but nobody else is thinking about you." And then suddenly something like this happens and then it's almost like the issue our community is visible for the first time, albeit for tragic and horrible reasons.
But then we're not used to being in the spotlight or having attention on our community, there's such invisibility. But then, in some ways when it's something horrific or a series of horrific accidents happen or incidents happen, it just puts us, we're all kind of on the spot where we're visible and we need to react, but we also want to sort of self sooth and self heal so, it's just really confusing.
Liz: Yeah. That quote definitely resonated with me and I saw it circulating a lot on social media and I had a lot of reactions to other people's reactions, folks who said things like, "this is such a victimization that poor Asians just want people to feel bad for them." But when we have all of this, all these myths and stereotypes around the model minority and the perception of proximity to whiteness, that people really don't understand what our experience has been. Our perspective really hasn't been included in many, you know, racial justice or anti-racist workshops that I've been a part of. I've spoken a lot about how racial justice and anti-racism often exists along this black, white binary and there hasn't been a lot of intentional inclusion of Asians and Asian-Americans. When I say that, I mean, you see Asian, South Asian, Southeast Asians, the Western Asians, like it's just not there.
I think about the times when even in my classroom, Asian students have asked if we're studying the civil rights movement, where are we? Where have we been? We don't see any books showing people like us, like where we all just like sitting at home while all this was going on? And there's such a need for resources and folks education. And I'm starting to hear more and more from teachers who want resources, but also feel frozen. Like they don't know what to do because they're also products of American education. And so they never learned about this. And how do you teach kids about something you don't know anything about? I think I got really off base of your question, but yes, the erasures.
Bob: No, that's all totally on base. I'm curious. How are you sort of drawing on your own work, your own teaching and anti bias pedagogy to kind of help people explain what's going on or to contextualize our process. What's going on?
Liz: I'm trying not to get frustrated. And I feel myself getting frustrated a lot lately. A lot of companies who I consult for, I have led workshops for, I've had a number of journalists from different publications reach out for quotes and interviews. And the questions are all the same, which frustrate me because I feel like I have already answered these and many other Asian Americans have, too. And it just makes me feel even more like people haven't been listening when folks ask "Is this new?", "Why are people finally paying attention?", "Can you give us a history of what Asians have experienced?" People have literally written books about this. There are podcasts or documentaries. There are so many resources out there. Perhaps you haven't been looking in the right places and it's hard not to feel resentful when people expect you to be able to catch them up over centuries of history and oppression and discrimination in a 10 minute soundbite.
It's been really hard. I've been channeling a lot of it into my work and thinking about, where can I start with my students? Especially since I'm now very aware that they know very little about Asian-American history. Not wanting to center hate crimes and these really awful acts of violence, but how can I hold space for both of these things like what's happening in present day, but also, what is our history?
Bob: Yeah. That's so powerful. And just this need to contextualize these hate crimes and dig deeper into why they happened and tie them into a long history of subjugation, racism, exclusion, marginalization in our country. I think that's something that's so needed, don't you? In our classrooms and in, in teaching and in our curriculum is just having visibility for Asian Americans as historically important as culturally important to our country. I think when you have visible figures, people that you can relate to, role models who are from the community, then it starts to... That's a long-term answer to reducing bias and hate is just having visibility and just understanding the commonalities between Asian-American Asian and Pacific Islanders and other folk, and there's just so sorely lacking. I can totally appreciate the need for us to do more work in schools around that and how it's not going to be a 10 minute thing, to your point.
Liz: When you think about your experience in school and you have kids, do you remember learning anything about Asian American history and based on the things that your kids say about what they're learning in school, do you see any change in representation or inclusion there?
Bob: Nothing. I mean, nothing. I have a blank in my own education, certainly K-12 and even it wasn't until later, not even in college too much. I actually majored in Asian studies as one of my majors in college, but it was all East Asian, in nature. There wasn't anything about the Asian American experience and history that was part of that sequence of courses that I had to take. So, it wasn't really, until I started to try to, as a lawyer and a civil rights litigator, had to deal with Asian-American related discrimination cases, that I became more interested in learning more about our history and history of exclusion and marginalization, and certainly the legal history in this country with Asian-Americans when you learn about that, wow.
You learn so much about how the exclusion of Asian-Americans in the United States is intentional as you know, going back to the 19th century and decades of intentional exclusion in our immigration laws, starting with the Chinese Exclusion act, which really lasted for 50 years in our country, all the way to intentional school segregation of Asian-American students being separated from white students in a similar fashion to how black and white students were segregated, as we know, pre Brown vs Board. And then, and all the other examples of inequality from, from our legal history. I learned all that stuff in law school. So, no. Did I learn about how Fred Korematsu and other Japanese Americans were interned just because of their Japanese American heritage that they were put in concentration camps during world war II? No, I never learned that. That never came up once in any of my learning in K-12.
So, I just powerfully think that we need to start learning about these moments because not only is it important history about the development of our country, but it's also like... You need to start seeing people and stories about real people who are Asian-American that can seep into our brains and then that affects behavior and attitudes. And I just think it's so important, and certainly it doesn't help when our political figures of our modern day are just sort of taking advantage of people's... I don't even know how to say it, but just, as you, as we all know, when our politicians, specifically ex president Trump, was sort of trying to induce both having racist policies and laws, trying to enact those, but also fan the flames of racism and bias against Asian Americans against Muslims against the Latin X community.
It's no surprise that that in combination with the lack of awareness and visibility of our community in K-12 education could lead... I'm not saying that that leads to something like Georgia or the attacks on streets, but it's hard not to draw those parallels, right?
Liz: I mean, I have been saying that Trump is certainly not the root cause of all of this. He's certainly a symptom of sentiment that has been around for as long as Asian people have been in the United States, as we know it. I wouldn't want to give him that much credit for everything that's been happening, but also to, to plug the webinar that you did for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American center, Bob did this really incredible talk on history of the legal landscape within the Asian American Pacific Islander lens, and it is fantastic. And you all should look that up for sure. When I was thinking back on my experience in K-12, the two picture books I came up with that had Asian characters were like Tikki Tikki Tembo and the Korean Cinderella, and both of them are written by a white women. There were folktales that have been adapted or appropriated for other audiences.
And then even in high school, I think I remember a little bit about how Chinese immigrants helped build the railroads, but it sounded like they were very happy doing so. And I remember reading the book, The Good Earth and thinking that it was Asian, but it's not like that book was also not written by anyone Asian, and that's the closest thing that I can think of and it's infuriating. And I just want to make sure that my students don't have that same experience and already, this year they don't, but there's a lot to be angry about, too.
Bob: Yeah, absolutely. How are you? I'm sure you're being flooded with different requests of good intentioned people wanting to do something. Is it hard to try to recommend one direction or one thing that an educator could do or that we all need to do? Or are you just mentioning lots of things? Are you saying, "well, this is a longer conversation. Why don't you start by educating yourself on our history" or are you giving more practical things where people might get started?
Liz: I mean, a lot of the work that I do with students is all based on like an inquiry lens. So, asking kids what they think they know about a topic, if it's Asian-American history, if it's anti-Asian hate crimes to figure out how they're entering the conversation, if they have misconceptions about certain people or topics, and then just asking them what they're curious about. I always think that is the easiest, most accessible way to begin a conversation with young learners. I'd also ask teachers to take the low hanging fruit. You have books in your classroom, check them out, do a little audit. Do you actually have Asian and Asian-American representation? And if you do have it, is it actually representative of the diversity of the Asian continent and the Asian diaspora, too. And other, a lot of teachers out there who have books around Lunar New Year and things like that.
But it's important to remember that East Asians don't represent all of Asian culture and Asian history. So, places like that, I think, are really easy to start. I wrote a short story for Learning for Justice, for their story corner called Min Jee's lunch about a Korean-American girl who faces some problematic comments made by a classmate about what she's eating and it isn't her fault that people are getting sick because she's eating something that looks different than what the other students are eating for lunch. So, also offer that as a tool for educators to use in their classrooms to begin dialogue.
Bob: Yeah, that's amazing. I've heard you say over and over again about listening to your students and asking them what their needs are, what their interests are and having that be as a basis for developing curriculum or developing exercises or units for the classroom. So, I think that's amazing. It also makes me think about our Asian-American Pacific Islander students and I don't know what they're experiencing right now, trying to process current events of absorbing the worries of not only from themselves and their classmates, but their parents, their relatives, and so forth. It must be really tough, and so many of our API students are isolated, too. So they're not with a lot of other students who look like them. And so that must be even more difficult, I think for them to just kind of go quiet and not raise an issue about... Or I'm suffering, which is not to generalize or stereotype, but it's like I know that when I grew up, I was not going to bring up anything that I was feeling that related to isolation or getting teased or bullied for who I was at school, even though I was. So...
Liz: What about you? What are the questions that folks are asking you given your field?
Bob: I think people are asking me less questions because I come from a legal and a civil rights and a policy background, but I think... So it's maybe not the first place people would turn, but I would say, and you know me, I think that legal and political and policy related matters fit really well into curricula and K-12 and what educators might... How they might utilize information and materials from law, from policy to inform and to inform both adult circles around how to improve teaching and learning, but also to use as rich curricular sources with students in the classroom. So, I think my advice in this situation is really think about some of the historical moments in our history that, of which there are rich materials, like the Japanese American determined, like the Chinese Exclusion Act there's equality cases in education that relate to Asian-Americans students, the Lau v. Nichols case, which I've written about in my book on civil rights cases in K-12 education. That case dealt with Asian-Americans, who were English learners in San Francisco and were being excluded from education.
And just to learn about how those Asian-American students fought for their rights and set a precedent that applies to all English learners, no matter what background they are in our country, now that they have rights to be educated and to receive services just as non-English learners, students have those rights. That's a powerful contribution to our history from the Asian-American community. And just so learning about those things, I think, would be great for students at all levels. You're really good at sort of making sure that we can teach these types of materials to students, regardless of whether they're in high school or middle school or even elementary school kids. But, I think that's a good place to start. And then certainly also in K-12 communities, just thinking about representation and visibility for Asian-Americans, whether it's teachers in the classroom who are AAPI, whether it's in our local politics, our school boards, you can see how important it is in a time like this for API leaders to exist.
And for us to, to think about representation. I think those are things that a series of horrible incidents like this seem to call in mind as responses or things that we need to start thinking about.
Liz: Thank you for that. I know we're pretty much out of time. So to wrap up, would you mind sharing something that is bringing you joy these days? Take a break from all the depressing stuff.
Bob: Take a step back and really think about that. I think what does bring me joy and maybe this is also the pandemic, a year plus a pandemic speaking to me is... It really makes you sort of appreciate and cling tight to things that really matter like your family, like friends that really do support you and just things that we took for granted, but in the past. But, I think for me, it's just knowing that even in midst, a lot of horrible, violent things happening and a worldwide disease that is still affecting so many, that I'm lucky to have good people around me that I can rely on. And I know that not everybody has that, so I just feel fortunate and sort of feeling more reliant on that as a source of kind of joy and comfort. How about you?
Liz: Very similar. I moved from LA to DC during the pandemic last July, and now I live like a mile from my parents instead of 3000 miles. So, being able to see them every week, we got to have in-person Passover together this past weekend, which was really nice. And family is slowly getting vaccinated, I'm very grateful to have a super supportive partner who lets me have epic meltdowns and feeds me and stuff. So I'm just very, very grateful also for the people in my life and how they're showing up right now.
Bob: That's awesome. I'm glad to hear it.
Liz: Well, thanks for chatting today. Next time, it will be under better circumstances, but it's always nice to talk to you.
Bob: You too. Take care.
Robert (Bob) Kim is a leading expert in education law and policy in the United States.
A former civil rights attorney, Bob is the co-author of Education and the Law, 5thed. and Legal Issues in Education: Rights and Responsibilities in U.S. Public Schools Today (West Academic Publishing, 2019 & 2017). He also wrote Let’s Get Real: Lessons and Activities to Address Name-calling & Bullying (Groundspark, 2004) and has advised thousands of educators on civil rights and school climate issues in public schools. He is also the author of Elevating Equity and Justice: 10 Supreme Court Cases Every Teacher Should Know.
Bob currently serves as an education adviser and consultant on civil rights and equity issues. Through 2019, he was the William T. Grant Distinguished Fellow at Rutgers University, where he conducted research on school finance and education equity in U.S. public schools.
From 2011 through 2016, he served in the Obama Administration as Deputy Assistant Secretary in the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, which enforces federal civil rights laws in K-12 and postsecondary institutions nationwide.
He has also served as a senior policy analyst at the National Education Association, where he advised school personnel on human and civil rights issues and worked to replace the No Child Left Behind Act.
Earlier in his career, as a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, Bob engaged in litigation and advocacy pertaining to race, criminal and juvenile justice, bullying and harassment, LGBT rights, and student rights.
Bob holds a BA from Williams College and an JD from Boston College Law School.
You can find Bob on Twitter @bob__kim
Liz Kleinrock (she/her) is an antibias antiracist educator and consultant based in Washington, DC. A transracial adoptee, Liz was born in South Korea and grew up in DC before attending Washington University in St. Louis, MO. After graduating, Liz moved to Oakland, California, where she served as an AmeriCorps teacher with Girls Inc. and Super Stars Literacy for two years. Following her service, Liz moved to Los Angeles and earned her M.Ed from UCLA's Teacher Education Program. After a year student teaching a 5th grade class in Watts, Liz joined the founding faculty of a startup school in East Hollywood where she spent seven years teaching 1st through 4th grades.
In addition to classroom teaching, Liz also works as an antibias antiracist facilitator for schools, organizations, and companies across the country. Her work has gained national recognition through a documentary short produced by Fluid Film, and media outlets such as CNN, The Washington Post, NPR, and BBC. In 2018, Liz received Teaching Tolerance's 2018 Award for Excellence in Teaching, and currently serves on the Teaching Tolerance Advisory Board. Liz is proud to share her 2019 TED Talk from "Education Everywhere" on building foundations of equity with young learners, and is the author of Start Here, Start Now: A Guide to AntiBias and AntiRacist Work in Your School Community with Heinemann Publishing.
She currently resides in Washington DC with her two bunnies, and teaches middle school.
You can connect with Liz on her website, TeachAndTransform.org, on Twitter at @teachntransform, or on Instagram at teachandtransform