Mosaic, Melting Pot, Tolerance…. Which is it?

When I read articles about the UCLA student who uploaded to YouTube her rant about Asians in the Library following the Tsunami in Japan I began to reflect on the stories over the years that have affected my own views regarding issues of race in schools.

Some have written that the central issue of the incident was about free speech, while others have delivered cautions about use of the internet.  However, for me this points more towards attitudes about race and the place visible minority students hold in our school communities.

While some will discount this incident as an isolated event, for me it draws other connections.

Beverly Tatum in Can We Talk about Race? explains that “identity is shaped by the social context in which we learn about ourselves over time.”  I believe that holds true and as a result I wonder about the students with whom we work who are from culturally different backgrounds.

When someone is asked to describe themselves, they might respond, “I am tall,” “I am skinny,” “I am pretty,” “I am smart,” “I am shy,” or “I am good at Math.”  If asked how they know that, the response might often be, “that’s what people tell me.”

There was a Chinese boy in primary school whose classmates told him that their parents said he should go back to where he came from.  Other students would throw rocks at him as he walked home after school.

In intermediate classes students would imitate the Chinese language and reference Asians using derogatory names that they thought were hilarious.

There was also a class at the neighbouring Junior High in which a Social Studies teacher taught a lesson to a class, which included one student who was from a visibly different ethnic background, about the difference between the Cultural Mosaic and the Cultural Melting Pot.  The lesson also explained why we have a superior way of looking at the cultural make-up of our country.  Another teacher in the same school scolded the student because he couldn’t understand why as a Chinese student he didn’t do better in Math and Science.

These were just a few of my personal school experiences.

I was born here.  My parents were also born here.

On TV Asians were represented by Kato, Hop Sing, and Kwai Chang Cain on Kung Fu.  I don’t believe David Carradine was Chinese.

While in University the acronym used for the school was often expanded to the “University of a Billion Chinese.”

Fast forward to 1990…. in a school that was culturally diverse.  Some students were excited to have a teacher who was visibly from a different cultural background….  At the same time, the city was reacting to increased immigration from Asia and the uproar in the media about Asian youth gangs.  I don’t recall references, if any, to Asian youth who were good or references to Caucasian youth involved in illegal acts.

A few years later, in another school, the Caucasian ESL teacher lectured staff, students, and parents about the Chinese culture while at the same time justifying her expertise and knowledge about the culture because of her “years” of experience teaching students from Hong Kong, China, and Taiwan.  Throughout her explanations she would butcher the language as she interspersed key Chinese words.

Moving forward again to 2001, a family from Japan was receiving a tour of a school, as the parents were considering sending their daughter abroad to study and experience our culture.  As they walked through the halls students made comments about the visitors’ appearance and accents.

During that time the City was experiencing a rapid increase in immigration… this time from the Middle East.  In the eyes of many there was suddenly a problem with violent youth from those countries.  Again, no references to the good students who had just arrived or Caucasian youth involved in similar negative activities.

Around 2002 at a retirement party for a senior administrator, part of the “fun” included an improv group that had been hired to re-enact some of the memorable events he had experienced over the years.  One of the tales was about a round of golf in which the Asians on the course behind him continuously landed their golf balls around the members of his four-some.  The retelling of the event included the mimicking of their language and cultural references which had the room rolling with laughter.  There was even more hilarity when his physical response towards one of the Asian golfers was depicted.

In schools some teachers have experienced frustration that some of their students from Italy, Mexico, Iran, or Asian countries persist in speaking their native languages instead of English, but little is said about the challenges these students must be experiencing being new to the community and country.

Last year, a teacher in a secondary school asked that no more students from Brazil be admitted.

There are endless characterizations about First Nations students and their parents, yet the behaviours of Caucasian students are seldom attributed to ethnicity.

I also think about the various conversations I’ve had over the years with students from a variety of cultural backgrounds, as a teacher, counselor, and administrator, about their personal struggles fitting in and the incidents they faced in their day-to-day lives.

Perhaps we sometimes minimize cultural differences and the impact they have on our students or fail to give these issues more attention if we seldom hear about them or don’t understand their effect.  Perhaps these situations touch me deeper having had similar experiences.  However, when discussions with colleagues regarding the issues faced by students from other cultural backgrounds receive a variety of responses, including surprise, denial of their existence in our community, or blame directed towards the students or their parents, I can’t help but feel disappointed and saddened for our students who are confronted with such challenges on a regular basis or even just on occasion.

So, when complaints arise about students using their home language in classrooms and halls, or that all the First Nations, Korean, Chinese, Iranian, or Brazilian students stick together and don’t socialize with other students, often the first thing that comes to mind is…

“Why wouldn’t they?”

This is not to say that I feel all students from other ethnic backgrounds face difficulties associated with race.  Nor do I believe every student issue is due to cultural difference.  However, like the variety of issues we deal with as administrators, educators, and community members it is important to look at and challenge our own beliefs and to consider the experiences of our students through a variety of lenses.

To take the approach that we “treat all students the same” or “do things the way we’ve always done” doesn’t address or resolve the issues.  It just perpetuates, reinforces, or increases the pre-existing challenges that are often systemic, and perhaps continues to marginalize some students.

With racial issues it is valuable, I believe, to consider sense of identity when dealing with students from different cultural backgrounds, whether they are International students, immigrants, or local born.

Not all individuals from a specific culture are the same, and we need to continue to avoid making generalizations based on race.

Sue and Sue in Counselling the Culturally Different put forth that there are 5 stages which help understand different attitudes and behaviours.  The five stages of this model are Conformity, Dissonance, Resistance and Immersion, Introspection, and Integrative Awareness.

      1. The Conformity Stage is a state in which the minority individual prefers the values of the dominant culture.  The individual rejects the physical and cultural characteristics of his or her own cultural heritage in favour of the values, attitudes, and beliefs of the dominant culture.
      2. In the Dissonance Stage, the individual tries to deny his or her own culture, but encounters situations which conflict with personally held beliefs, attitudes, and values based on his or her own heritage.
      3. The culturally different individual in the Resistance and Immersion Stage embraces the cultural values and identity of his or her own heritage and spurns the values of the dominant culture.  One who is in this stage is motivated towards reacting against oppression by the dominant culture.
      4. In the Introspection Stage, the individual begins to see that the anger towards the dominant culture constructed in the Resistance and Immersion Stage is wasted negative energy and does little to help promote understanding and a positive connection with one’s own heritage.
      5. Finally, the Integrative awareness stage characterizes an individual who has an inner sense of security.  The individual is able to appreciate aspects of his or her own culture as well as aspects of the dominant culture.  The individual is able to see that there are desirable and undesirable aspects of every culture, and recognizes the need to accept or reject these negative features.

While designed specifically for use by counsellors, this understanding can be valuable in the work we do as educators.  It further defines the differences we may find among some of the young people with whom we work and it extends our concept of identity issues which may have an impact on them.

Personally, I find myself continuously moving through the various stages depending on the environment or the issue with which I am faced.

So, what can be done in our work with students from a variety of ethnicities?

I often hear people speak about the need to be racially tolerant.  However, for me “tolerance” refers to something one has to put up with.  I’m not sure that is the message I want to advance.

Tatum refers to the “ABC’s of creating inclusive learning environments”:

            A – Affirming identity

            B – Building community

            C – Cultivating leadership

In developing a sense of identity (A) students need to see themselves reflected in their environment, the curriculum, their classmates, and the adults who work with them.  Who do they identify with, and who are their role models?  It can be difficult for students who have been historically marginalized in our culture to see themselves positively in school without those connections.

A community (B) must be created in which each person feels a sense of belonging and purpose that unites everyone.  It is easier for students to be willing and able to engage with others when their own needs are being addressed.

Leadership (C) comes from all parts of the community in preparing students to interact effectively with people from backgrounds different from their own.  While developing the ability to think critically and communicate effectively is essential in education, the ability to interact with others from different backgrounds is also important.

I often think about the work we do with our students from cultural backgrounds that are different from the way our schools are organized, and I continue to challenge myself to look for ways to help them feel more connected and better prepared for life outside of school.  I also hope that as my own children, who are currently innocent about the differences of race, grow-up, other educators will continue to do the same.

Image Source:  shared by Carol VanHook on Flickr (cc)

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One Comment on “Mosaic, Melting Pot, Tolerance…. Which is it?”

  1. […] early in my childhood would shape the focus and purpose of one of my missions in schools {Mosaic, Melting Pot, Tolerance…. Which is it?}; the issues that became priorities {What got our students there?, We are not cookie-cutter kids.}; […]


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