Friday, June 28, 2019

Is Stereotyping a Form of Racism?

If you're like many people, you may have found yourself assuming a person's food, language and/or religious preferences based on their ethnicity or race. While you may not think these assumptions are racist, your blanket, stereotypical assumptions that may not be accurate. And just like we buy in to positive stereotypes, we likely believe some of the negative ones as well (even if we don’t want to admit it). But what is most damaging about stereotypes (positive or negative) is that they interfere with our ability to connect and form relationships with individuals.
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Is stereotyping a form of racism?

Just like racism, stereotyping carries a negative connotation. But is stereotyping always negative or ill-intentioned? Before we answer that question, let's look at the definition of a stereotype.

According to Webster, a stereotype “represents an oversimplified opinion, prejudiced attitude or uncritical judgment.” While you may not consider yourself prejudice, you may hold oversimplified opinions about groups of people that are stereotypical in nature. And if we pretend to know things about an individual based on our knowledge or experience about their group, we are giving in to stereotypes. 

Stereotyping, just as casual racism,"is as much about impact as it is about intention." Australian Human Rights Commission. Even if you may not intend to harm, pander or patronize, or even if your assumption is accurate, stereotypes are offensive nonetheless, and there is no place for them in schools.
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I entered the education profession as a CTE Business Education teacher when my husband and I moved to the town of Sparta, North Carolina in 1996. Prior to our move, we lived in Miami, Florida. Sparta and Miami are drastically different - demographically, geographically, socioeconomically and in every which way. Despite being fluent in English, well-educated, having traveled throughout the United States and vacationing in the Sparta area many times, I soon realized that I had no idea what it was like to live outside of Miami. Growing up Cuban in a predominantly Cuban community, I had never experienced racism or stereotyping of any kind. That is until I left my hometown.
"Are you a Spanish teacher?"

The first time someone asked me that question after introducing myself, I chuckled and thought, “How crazy, why would they think that.” But then I heard it time and time again. At one point, I talked about this with a colleague and they responded, well it's because you have a Spanish last name. My response was, "Well, if my last name was Jones would you assume I am an English teacher?" At that point in time, Sparta was not very diverse. However, it's 20 years later and despite living in a much more diverse community, I occasionally get the same question. I also hear comments about my features and my accent. I happen to be racially Caucasian and green-eyed, so I often hear, “but you don’t look Mexican" when they learn that I speak Spanish. I usually respond by reminding those individuals that Spanish is spoken in over 20 countries.Thus, not all Hispanics and are Mexican and we come in all colors, shapes and sizes. Even those that know I've lived in the United States since I was a toddler,often comment on my lack of Spanish accent. It's clear that in the mind of those persons, Hispanics are Mexican, olive-skinned, speak with a Spanish accent, and who knows what else they may be assuming.
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Let’s look at some examples of widely held stereotypes about Hispanics.
  • Spanish Language Skills. Not all Hispanics are fluent in Spanish and if they speak Spanish, they may not be literate in Spanish. Do we assume that Americans of German descent are fluent and literate in German? Generally, we would not.
  • Food. If the only Hispanic food you’ve eaten is Mexican, you have no idea what you’re missing. I love Mexican food, I actually like it better than Cuban food, frankly, but they are quite different. Most Hispanic foods are not spicy, although it’s safe to say most recipes call for exotic spices and condiments, similar to French and Italian cuisine.
  • Religion. We can't assume that the predominant religion of a given territory is observed by everyone in that area. Not all Hispanics are Catholic, not all Middle Easterners are Muslim, not all Asians are Buddhist…and so on. And even if they identify with the predominant religion, they may not observe it the same way. For example, Day of the Dead is a Mexican holiday celebrated on All Soul's Day. It is not a Hispanic holiday.
  • Socioeconomics. Not all Hispanic immigrants are poor and/or uneducated. While many families do immigrate for economic opportunities, many immigrants are professionals from upper or middle-class backgrounds. And while some families may be struggling financially, it may be a temporary situation and most importantly, not indicative of their educational background. Which brings me to the next point.
  • Educational Background. I've had students whose parents are blue-collared workers, but in their home country they were doctors and lawyers, currently unable to practice due to licensure requirements. English language proficiency level, or perhaps they are transitioning to a new career. On that note, we can’t assume literacy skills either. English language proficiency is no indicator of intellect.
  • Physical Features. I always say that Hispanics come in all colors, shapes, and sizes. And this applies to all ethnic groups. The world is a very small place and we have ancestors from all over. The Americas - North, South, Central and the Caribbean - was conquered by Europeans settlers and many of them (sadly) brought African slaves.
  • Family Dynamics. Some students may live with only one parent, but they are not necessarily a broken home. It’s not uncommon for one immigrant parent to move to the United States prior to the rest of the family or send their kids to live with an older sibling or extended family. Sadly, some families are separated due to immigration issues or incarceration and while we can't pry, we should never assume the level of support available at home if you assign homework regularly. For some you may be pleasantly surprised, but don’t be quick to assume students are lazy or apathetic when their home life includes childcare and housekeeping responsibilities.
  • Academic Interests and Potential. Blanket academic achievement assumption or work ethic, even if positive is unfair, just as it is to assume level of intellect. High achievers come in all colors, shapes and sizes. And as you know, members of the same family can be as different as night and day.  
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While I address this issue from a Hispanic perspective, most notably my personal experience, one can find parallels across all subgroups. Bottom line, there’s no room for stereotyping at schools. But how do we combat our own personal biases and perspectives? First and foremost, never, ever assume. Maintain an open mind and give everyone a blank slate. In doing so, consider the following:
  • Read up and listen before you ask. Note that order. Listen and take note before asking, so we avoid unnecessary, inappropriate questions. There are certain questions that are illegal for educators to ask, such as regarding immigration status.
  • Think carefully before asking questions. For example, instead of asking, “Are you Mexican?” ask them where they (or their family) are from? Rather than assuming that a parent doesn’t speak English, ask if they prefer documentation in another language. For example, Brazil is located in South America, but their official language is Portuguese and while it's a bit similar to Spanish and many Brazilians understand Spanish, it is a completely different language.
I could go on and on. I do believe that most educators are good at heart and have students’ best interest in mind. If you remember nothing else, just remember that everyone is unique, regardless of genetics or upbringing. All students deserve a fair chance – every single day. Most importantly, educators are there to empower students and their families and enhance their educational experience. We can't allow our assumptions or prior experiences keep us from giving our learners the educational excellence they deserve.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Teaching Is Like a Sushi Roll

In the spring of 2016 as two of my English learners were about to graduate high school, their classmates and I planned a "Sushi Party" to celebrate their rite of passage. They had immigrated to the United States four years prior, not knowing a word of English and despite their limited English proficiency, they had made great academic gains and their graduation was cause for celebration.

The students are originally from Laos, and while sushi is Japanese, it happens to be their favorite food - and mine. Sushi was often a topic of conversation whenever we discussed food in class, so when a classmate suggested a sushi party, she didn't exactly need to twist my arm. All of their ESL classmates were invited, as well as their parents and brother. Some of the students ate sushi for the first time and loved it, others not so much.

Aside from a delightful evening of fun and fellowship, this celebration culminated in a job offer for both students and they are still employed at this restaurant, one is a sushi chef and the other is a server.

As I reflected on this night, I began pondering the many ways teaching is like a sushi roll. Here are just a few:

Raw - Though there are endless varieties of sushi rolls, most of them contain raw seafood. Webster defines raw as "being in or nearly in a natural state." The most effective teachers are authentic and natural - not afraid to admit when they're wrong or when they've failed. Kids see right through us anyway, so why not be upfront and "raw".
Fresh - Teaching, like raw seafood, is best when it's fresh. Teaching is continually changing, and we can't be effective teachers if we recycle our lessons and strategies year after year. Just like sushi, we must keep our instruction fresh or it will go bad and therefore, stifle growth (ours as well as our students'). From emerging research to shifting perspectives to innovative technologies, change is constant despite the perception that many areas remain relatively unchanged.

Not For Everyone - To some, sushi is a delicious delicacy, while others find it nothing short of repulsive. Teaching is about heart and soul, not paycheck or prestige. Despite it being a difficult, draining, and often thankless job, most teachers can't imagine themselves doing anything else, while many outside the profession wouldn't do it for a million dollars.

Sticky - You can't have a good sushi roll without sticky rice. From classroom management to grading policies to parental conflicts, teachers can potentially find themselves in some really sticky situations. While we dread being in an uncomfortable spot, these tough situations are essential to our personal and professional growth. It's important that we handle issues with diplomacy and grace, always asking ourselves what we can learn from these circumstances. Hopefully, one day we can look back at those times and laugh. 
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Chopsticks - Most sushi eaters I know use chopsticks. Rather than using silverware, chopsticks are the utensils of choice because sushi pieces are intended to be consumed in one bite, and chopsticks help keep the pieces from falling apart. Like chopsticks, the best teaching tools are those that enable us to keep our instructional delivery from falling apart, helping our learners take in knowledge piece by piece. Furthermore, learning to use them can be tricky, especially at first, but they are fun to use. While some people are natural at using the utensils, it takes practice for most of us to master the art. Same goes with teaching tools. The most effective tools and strategies can be tricky to implement but when utilized effectively they can add lots of fun to our practice.

Expensive.  Sushi rolls are expensive, and you don't get a lot of food for the money, but to a sushi lover, there's lots to appreciate. Teaching is no different. We spend countless hours planning, grading, reflecting, in spite of the fact that it's not exactly a lucrative field. But if we love it, just like sushi, we will savor every bit.

Roll - A good teacher has to roll with punches and not get discouraged when things don't turn out exactly as planned. We can't stress too much, especially about the aspects of our job that we cannot control. Quick thinking and an optimistic outlook are as invaluable as sharp pedagogical skills.

Like a good sushi roll, I find education to be enormously fulfilling and satisfying. Having the opportunity to inspire young people and make a positive impact on their lives and their choices is truly an honor and a privilege. Sure, some days are grueling and exhausting, but most days I feel like the luckiest girl in the world.

Below are some photos of our sushi party at Fusion Bowl.

*This post was adapted from the original post published on my former blog "ESL Musings"