Overcoming "Otherism": Thoughts on Race and Cultural Differences in the Classroom
My mother’s first language is Spanish. As the daughter of an immigrant, I grew up living a life nuanced in foreign customs and cultures. Not that these nuances felt foreign to me: it was just “life” in my home. Plus, I had the privilege of living in communities that saw my family as vibrant, exciting and beautiful — not foreign or unwanted.
It is because of my mixed background that I have always been intrigued by the different value sets that drive us. As I grew older, I realized that not everyone looks at cultural differences as assets; some view them as a threat. This realization became a driver for me to enter education as a Special Education Teacher.
My experience teaching students with special needs taught me that our current factory model for school does not meet the needs of students who are not “typical learners.” Whether out of convenience or negligence, we often disregard the diverse backgrounds, abilities and experiences that make students unique — even though this disregard comes at the cost of delivering to students the quality education they deserve. My teaching experiences in Special Education ultimately led me to view education through a social justice lens; where students should get what they need to put them on an equitable playing field with their peers.
The recent political climate has highlighted the issues that divide us, creating a situation in which we see each other as, well, “other.” This is concerning to me as an educator because often we are in positions of shaping the lives of students who are so very different from ourselves. As teachers, we are in positions of power-- we have a responsibility to create an environment where everyone is cared for. As such, I believe it is our duty to be diligent and curious learners, seeking to understand how to support a diverse classroom.
Since I am in the business of personalizing learning, I have been moved to do some self-reflection of my own on teaching and social justice. Here are a few tips that I found helpful for how to appreciate the distinct learners in our classrooms.
- 1. See your students; acknowledge and celebrate their differences.
When I was a coach in a Culturally Responsive Teaching model, I was tasked with interviewing students with different questions to determine their understanding of their identity and its relationship to their peers at school and to the world. I remember walking toward a first grade classroom filled with doubt that six-year-olds could provide profound answers. And yet, I'll never forget one student who offered truly thought provoking responses.
I asked her a series of questions that amounted to “Who is a friend in your class that is different from you? How is he/she different from or the same as you? Is it good to be different?” She looked at me, her head tilted to the side, and said “Well my friend has black hair, and I have yellow hair. She has brown skin and mine is white. But we are the same because we like the same games. I think it’s good we are different.”
Kids see color at a young age. They just don’t attach meaning to it until other societal influences impact them. How we, the adults, react to each student’s differences has a profound impact on how they perceive themselves and their place in the world. Just listen to how some celebrities discuss the first time they realized they were black. Beverly Tatum, author of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria: And Other Conversations About Race, shares that instead of discouraging awkward questions from young children, we should respond to their curiosity and highlight differences as assets. When we do this cultivate stronger, curious and responsible citizens of the world. Consider how The Human RIghts Campaign suggests that teachers create welcoming classrooms from day one.
- 2. Learn about the systemic choices made by our ancestors that marginalized entire groups of people. It’s real.
The fault lines between groups in our society seem to be expanding. This makes it increasingly hard to be curious about others’ values when so many are frustrated and discouraged.
If you are not ready to engage in difficult conversations about people who are different from you, consider doing a little research on your own. In America, we are a part of intersectional systems that have historically oppressed groups of people. Even the current political and social climates still threaten the safety and security of many. Consequently, every person faces their own struggles. Make an effort to learn about experiences that are different from your own.
- 3. Support your students in combating intolerance. They are looking to us for direction.
The good news about systemic racism is that it is just that, a system. It is created by humans and can be dismantled by humans. In our work at Education Elements, we approach problems with Design Thinking from the Stanford d.school.
The first step is always to empathize with the people for whom we are designing. What are their needs, desires, emotions and actions? It seems obvious that the unique backgrounds of individuals are essential to being able to empathize with them! Medium contributor EquityXdesign recently explored how racism and inequity are actually products of design, arguing that inequity and systemic racism can also be redesigned.
Approaching large systemic issues by yourself can be intimidating, but consider how you can impact these structures from your unique vantage point. Having grown up in a binational home, I have a unique perspective on how to support first-generation Americans and the struggles they face.
The harder question is, can you build in the time for students to share about who they are? At the end of the day, the next generation, our current students, listen and observe everything we say — or don’t say. We can’t remain silent.
The simple act of asking students about their identity might be what they need to feel empowered to make their own change in their communities. Our kids are ready to face the challenges in our society, so let’s do the absolute best we can to support them.