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)


Cashing in on Opportunity = Responsibility

In preparing for the beginning of each school year my attention always turned to considering students new to the school, in particular new International students.

As school districts continue to look for ways to generate revenue in the face of under-funding, International Education programs in many areas continue to grow.

However, in our efforts to attract students from abroad to pay for the experiences our education system and communities offer, what kind of services and support should we then provide in return?

Having been involved in International Education in one way or another for over 20 years, I was surprised at what I found earlier in my career.

I recall being at schools in which International students were seen as an inconvenience and treated as such. Yet, taking on International students provided extra staffing and additional financial resources directly to those schools.

International students were not considered in planning and assigning staffing or building timetables. International students were given the leftover classes after the “regular” students were programmed, and often International students were withdrawn from full classes if a local student wanted to transfer in. Little tolerance was shown for students who could not express themselves well in English, and personal-emotional support barely existed.

A Principal I worked with had the opportunity to participate on a marketing trip. For years, colleagues had been “rewarded” with these trips, and they would return with tales of sight-seeing, late night socializing, and all the joys of travelling abroad… but little about the work involved.

However, he returned with a much different mindset.

While meeting with agents and, in particular, parents, he realized that parents of International students were not much different from us in regards to their concerns for the well-being of their children. The parents he met were exploring incredible educational and cultural opportunities knowing that they would have to place the care of their children in the hands of complete strangers.

He returned with a new-found appreciation for the weight of the responsibility we hold in taking on International students.

At student assemblies and in conversations he began emphasizing the need to be welcoming and supportive of International students. He began making that extra effort to engage them in conversations in the halls and classrooms. He described International students as being among the bravest students we will ever meet, for they had left their families and friends, their communities, the cultures they know, and the comforts of their own homes to travel abroad for new experiences.

Our own travels during holidays differ so much from the experiences of our International students. When we vacation we know that we are visiting for a short time. We know we will soon return to family, friends, and the lifestyles to which we are accustomed. We know as tourists there is often ample support when travelling to new countries. We often have the maturity, independence, and interpersonal skills to manage the challenges of being in new places.

The International students with whom we work come to us for a variety of reasons. For many of them, they are leaving family and friends for an extended period of time to live with strangers. They must use a language that is not their mother-tongue in an education system much different to what they are accustomed. For many, they do not know when they will have a chance to return home.

These students are participating in incredible opportunities, but with numerous challenges.

When our own students travel abroad for cultural exchanges and language immersion programs with only the language skills developed in the courses we provide, what kind of support and experiences do we want for them?

What would be our expectations if we had the means to provide similar opportunities for our own children?

Are the experiences and support we provide International students commensurate with the expectations we would have for our own students and children when travelling abroad?

And here is where the challenge lies:

The need to reconcile the marketing/entrepreneurial side of the “business” with the education and support for the students we have invited to join us. At the very least, the assurance that we are providing value for the dollar.

We have so much to offer, and in return there is so much we can learn about the cultures from which our International students come. This can’t just be about the dollar, but perhaps an opportunity to learn from each other in a reciprocal relationship in which there is value both ways.

The work we do as educators is not easy and has many challenges. I can only begin to imagine the challenges our International students face in leaving so much behind to travel around the world for the incredible experiences they’ve been promised.

A Future Post: Missed Opportunities All Around?

Image Source: shared by Hellobo on Flickr (CC)