Occasional Paper Series #44

Focus on Friendship or Fights for Civil Rights? Teaching the Difficult History of Japanese American Incarceration through ``The Bracelet``

by Noreen N. Rodríguez

“They’re Japanese American,” Luisa1 stated confidently. Alex volunteered, “They look Japanese but they were born in America!” Paty added, “They’re different.” Victor looked directly at the teacher. “It’s like you, Miss. You was born in China?” he asked tentatively.

“Actually, I was born here,” Ms. Ye said gently. “I was born in Texas.”

Victor nodded vigorously. “Yeah! You’re Chinese and you was born in America.”

Ms. Ye explained, “I would consider myself Chinese American.”

This interaction during a read-aloud about Japanese American incarceration in Ms. Ye’s second-grade classroom reveals how young learners rarely have opportunities to understand what it means to be Asian American. In schools and society, race is generally presented through a Black/White binary, and Asian American history is largely absent in P-12 schooling and textbooks. The two Asian American historical events that are most often featured in secondary curricula are Chinese American immigration during the 1800s (during the gold rush, to build the transcontinental railroad, and/or the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882) and Japanese American incarceration during World War II (An, 2016). Similarly, Asian American children’s literature overwhelmingly focuses on immigration (albeit across many ethnicities and into the contemporary period) and Japanese American incarceration.

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About the Author

Noreen Naseem Rodríguez is an assistant professor of elementary social studies in the School of Education at Iowa State University. Her research interests include Asian American education, educators of color, the teaching of difficult histories, and critical uses of diverse children’s literature. Rodríguez was a bilingual elementary teacher in Texas for nine years and is the recipient of the 2019 Early Career Award from the Children’s Literature Assembly of the National Council of Teachers of English. Her work has been published in Theory & Research in Social Education, The Journal of Children’s Literature, School Library Journal, and Literacy Today.