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As a visible minority educator

I took the Tony Robbins 2021 Challenge and one of the challenges is to do something that will make me feel uncomfortable. Here it is, sharing to everyone about my views on being a visible minority educator. 

 

Our society has undoubtedly changed from the time I was a student (some 20-30 years ago) to how it is now. When I first came to Canada in 1988, my brother and I were the only Asian, never mind Chinese, kids at the school. My fellow peers have never seen or interacted with anyone that didn’t have blonde or brown hair. We were what they thought Chinese people would be, kung fu masters with small slanted eyes. As I survey my classroom student demographics in the past several years, my classroom has undoubtedly been more diverse. Even in the neighbourhoods that you would think that they are predominantly caucasian, there is diversity. 

 

Growing up as a visible minority in the 80s and early 90s was indeed challenging. Racism was downright overt. Racism epithets and slurs were heard in the playground like it was part of their regular play speech. I have been called chink, with gestures slanting my eyes, and also songs sang to me in the tune of “I love you” by Barney with altered lyrics of, “me chinese, me so dumb…” on numerous occasions. Our family has been told to go back to where we came from on numerous occasions, to having followed when we shop at different locations. But all this time, I thought it was just directed at us because we were Chinese (or Asian, however at the time, there didn’t seem to be much differentiation between Chinese and Asian. If you were Asian, people assumed you were Chinese) and it wasn’t. I have seen East Indians been targeted with similar epithets, about their Bindi on the middle of their forehead as “paki dot”, or that witnessed a group of students chant and danced in a circle to mimic an Indigenous ceremony. My friend who is filipino wasn’t allowed to enter the convenience store in his neighborhood. At that time in the 80s and 90s, racism was definitely overt.

 

Fast forward to 2021, with ample opportunities and exposure to diversity education, movements such as Black Lives Matter, and Indigenous education such as Orange shirt day, we have progressed and I have firsthand witnessed the kindness and acceptance of students of diversity in my classroom. However, racism is no longer the overt with name calling that we saw in our schools (at least we hope). Racism is in the system, racism is how we are perceived and covertly manipulated. Being an educator of colour brings a certain type of baggage that my Caucasian colleagues don’t. From the beginning process of using my ethnic Chinese last name on my resume in my application, to the interview process, and the moment I step into the classroom, my students and colleagues see me with their prior assumptions and stereotypes, that I was and am someone else. Whether, you’ve had positive encounters with my ethnic background which provided you with positive perceptions of me, or worse, negative encounters which you automatically judged and elicited negative stereotypes strictly based on my ethnic background. Most often, the discrimination is generally hidden or suppressed in the classroom. Microaggressions, or defined by psychologist Derald Sue as  “The everyday slights, indignities, put downs and insults that people of color, women, LGBT populations or those who are marginalized experiences in their day-to-day interactions with people.” may be deemed as innocuous at first but are so prevalent, insidious and detrimental that have more of a lasting effect (Desmond-Harris 2015). Microaggressions are often seen as a compliment or a joke, but in reality, was exposing the stereotypes and beliefs of the individual. They may seem harmless or in a complimentary manner, but the beliefs of these microaggressions will unwillingly affect the decisions that are made in future situations. I remember there was one interview process where I stated that I enjoy playing ice hockey (played it since I was 9), and how I’d love to help coach a team. The interviewer basically nodded and brushed it off while acknowledging my ability to teach a math class when I don’t have a math background (sure I have done a couple math classes in my science degree). This example seems to be benign but it can lead to other questionable experiences such as when I explained the racism I experienced when I played hockey as a kid to a friend. My ethnic background compounded on the fact that I was a new player and not great at hockey provided a convenient path for some of my teammates to bully me. But when I shared this experience with a friend, the friend questioned if it was racially motivated or simply because I was not great at hockey. This could in fact be correct, but I cannot deny to think that through my life of experiences that I would default to think that race would be an influence. 

 

These examples may be innocuous in nature but if we were to extrapolate the more lasting effects of our beliefs and stereotypes to the big picture of a school, leadership in Asian culture looks drastically different than Western culture. Leadership in this sense does not necessarily mean being an administrator or superintendent but merely an influential factor in the school.  In an article, Leadership And Talent Challenges In Asia. It’s Different, explains that the Japanese culture exhibits respectful, quiet and harmoniousness in their communications… and somewhat hesitant to speak in front of their peers. (Bersin 2014) while Western culture exhibits directive, participative, charismatic, and “super star” like manner (Mills 2005). This drastic difference can influence how people are perceived in the roles of a school. Moreover, in an article “The Microaggressions Towards Black Women You Might Be Complicit in at Work” by Bianca Baratt (2020), Black women are more likely to face occupational segregation to earning less than white women and face both racial and gender discrimination at work. Similar to my previous example of my ‘math abilities’, Baratt (2020) suggests that black women are all assumed to share similar life experiences, experience tone policing where they are deemed quite ‘assertive’ or ‘aggressive’ in meetings when their counterparts could use the same tone but without the same perception, opportunity shaming where when people of colour earn a position, they are the tokenized and always perceived as the ‘ethnic-position’ such ‘asian principal’, or ‘black president’, and judgement in appearance.  The problem here lies in the understanding of the diverse groups and continually use our traditional lens to view leadership or roles in our schools and workplace. More often or not, the leaders in our school exhibit the charismatic and participative traits where the said individuals will be placed in positions of power which perpetuates the cycle of similar leadership style. Does that happen in our classrooms? Do we value the ones who answer our questions and favour students who speak up more so than others? 

 

What’s important here is to analyze the root of the issue. Our individual different personality types will definitely play a role and influence how we are as individuals, but as a culture and a visible minority group, the perceptions can be ingrained in our decision making and how we behave with the various groups. Stereotypes of Asian students are often to include them being “silent”, “quiet”, “passive”, “non-assertive” and “poor communicators” (Yamamoto & Li 2012). In Japanese culture, the people were mostly quiet and very respectful, somewhat hesitant to speak out in front of their peers (Bersin 2014). These qualities can sometimes be perceived as negative such as being rude and passive depending on the culture you are in. In Indigenous cultures, Indigenous students are less likely to answer questions as traditionally, knowledge is passed down through storytelling and that Indigenous students don’t like to be the centre of attention (Korff 2020). If we continue to uphold one version of what leadership is such as what Western culture traits of being an active participant, charismatic, “super star” like quality and directive, then the results of our students will only adhere and confirm to our original biases, which are marginalized students cannot be good leaders in our classroom. Students who start off as ‘shy’, ‘passive’, ‘quiet’ at a young age will most likely not be chosen to lead in the classroom. They would be overlooked to participate, or be involved in various opportunities in the classroom because their peers may have spoken up before them, or deemed as more competent because they spoke up. More time would be devoted in answering questions from students who are comfortable in asking questions, sharing, and/or participating while the ones who are quiet, shy, or simply don’t want the centre of the attention in a large group setting may slip and fall behind. These students (including staff) more often than not will not advocate for themselves, and will simply accept their fate of either their grade, or treatment because they either have been taught to accept authority, or that they know the efforts would be futile. On the other hand, I have witnessed my white colleagues throughout my years express their concerns (with some shedding tears) to have decisions overturned. As stated in Robin D’Angelo’s book White Fragility, White Women Tears is the notion that “in reaction to a racial injustice or to being told directly that something they have done is an example of behavior that reinforces racist ideas or beliefs — it is the white woman who then takes center stage and becomes the victim, getting redress or comfort, and pushing the actual person of color hurt by racism to the side.” (Cepeda 2020). Could this idea be extrapolated to our students and their parents as well? Our initial biases of various ethnic groups are strengthened and the ramifications could be appalling as the students will continue through the system that could continually fall behind. Thus, as the student progresses through the school system, more often or not, they will not participate or be chosen to participate because they never developed the skills or opportunities to lead or be engaged. Sometimes instead of tackling the root of the issue, though not our intent, we further the issue by using the same qualities against our students. How often do we remind our quiet students that they are quiet, or that they are shy? I am definitely guilty of that myself but would reminding them that they are quiet provide an automatic change for them to speak up? 

 

What does this mean in our classrooms? 

 

The challenge of being an educator of colour, is having my peers understand the challenges in itself. How does one explain the challenges of racial microaggressions without sounding weak, or complaining? My students definitely perceive me differently whether through a positive or negative lens depending on their previous experience with my ‘ethnic’ background. When I first walked into my classroom in Ghana, West Africa, in a classroom of all African students, I was greeted with “konichiwa” and “ni hao” assuming that I spoke both Japanese and Mandarin to which I don’t. Or in my classroom at an International school and even locally, some of my students and parents would automatically assume that I would be a ‘tough’ marker because I was Chinese (Asian) as explicitly stated by a parent. When we survey our classrooms, we have to be cognizant and mindful on the diverse values that exist in addition to the students’ ethnic background. A blanket question such as “do we all understand?” or “any questions?”, as we commonly do in our classroom, only cater to the small and same minority of the classroom. I am definitely guilty of that as it is easy and convenient but we need to ask ourselves, how many of the questions and comments are from the same students every time? Otherwise, all of the decisions done in class will be influenced by only a limited number of voices. 

 

As I survey the diversity in the staff of schools that I have worked at. More often or not, I am the only visible minority teacher on the teaching staff but the diversity increases 5 – 10 fold in the educational assistant department. It is true that there may be a lot fewer people of color teachers compared to E.As in the application pool. But if we were to tackle systemic racism, how will our students perceive this discrepancy? I can attest that I have had (and still have) some very meaningful connections with some of my Asian students. When I survey my experiences as a student, I can only recall one single Asian teacher, and that was because she taught me Mandarin. Representation matters. I can sense the ease and openness my Asian students have with me as I can only imagine what it’s like to have an Asian teacher for myself when I was a student. Perhaps, I would be more inclined to participate? 

 

Lastly, I am not courageous to start racial conversations with anyone. I don’t see myself as confrontational with someone who may share opposing views as me. I don’t foresee myself in any leadership roles such as administrator as the classroom is what I love. But if anyone were to ask what they can do or evolve with their interactions and in the classroom, then I would provide you with my experiences and what I would do if I were to see myself in my own classroom. In Desmond-Lewis’ article on What exactly is microaggression?, 5 suggestions are offered to avoid microaggressions. Listening without defending is the first step. A lot of times we appear to be listening without actually listening. Some of the conversations I have had regarding race often resort to having the other person try to convey their own agenda instead of really listening. I can’t lie about my experiences and neither can my students.  Also, reading up on history and understanding the root of the issue is crucial and critical in helping me challenge my own biases. We all have biases but it is how we acknowledge them that allows us to change our perceptions. Most people don’t have the intent to be racist, but it is usually their biases that come out during times of discomfort that make them racist. Examples like getting cut off on the road, the energetic student who is of a particular ethnic background, or the student who is quiet and often looks disengaged, do our beliefs come out? Further, reading, experiencing, and traveling different cultures can definitely further your understanding and appreciation of different ethnic groups. I can strongly state that my time spent teaching in Ghana has definitely made my connections with my African students a lot easier because we automatically share this point of similarity. That connection narrowed our gap of misunderstanding and biases. I am able to share my experiences and idiosyncrasies of the place and the culture I’ve experienced. Lastly, converse with students who are quiet about their interests. Simply asking them how they are doing only results in the answer “good” or “fine”. Take note of their interests, cultural norms, and invite them to participate even if it meets some initial resistance.  


Our classrooms are definitely not the same as they were 20-30 years ago. There have been a lot of voices with many strong advocates that have started the path for healthy dialogues. Many of the ones I have encountered have authentic and genuine interests in understanding diversity. There has been progress despite even with the polarized society that we now live in. However, similar to our character, we are only tested when we face situations that are uncomfortable, that is, our true biases and beliefs come out at times of discomfort. It is then when we really know what our true challenges are in terms of facing diversity.  

 

 

Here are some books that I am currently reading or have read that have helped my understanding:

  1. White Fragility – Robin D’Angelo
  2. Superior – Angela Saini
  3. Indian Givers – Jack Weatherford
  4. Spectacle – Ota Benga – Pamela Newkirk

 

References

Asian and American Leadership Styles: How Are They Unique? (2005, June 27). Retrieved January 17, 2021,

from https://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/asian-and-american-leadership-styles-how-are-they-unique

 

Barratt, B. (2020, June 25). The Microaggressions Towards Black Women You Might Be Complicit In At Work. 

Retrieved January 17, 2021, from

https://www.forbes.com/sites/biancabarratt/2020/06/19/the-microaggressions-towards-black-women-you-might-be-complicit-in-at-work/?sh=55b109842bda

 

Bersin, J. (2014, November 26). Leadership And Talent Challenges In Asia. It’s Different. Retrieved January 

17, 2021, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/joshbersin/2014/11/21/talent-strategies-in-asia-leadership-retention-growth/?sh=7927a32e4630

 

Desmond-Harris, J. (2015, February 16). What exactly is a microaggression? Retrieved January 17, 2021,

from https://www.vox.com/2015/2/16/8031073/what-are-microaggressions

 

Korff, J. (2020, August 12). Ways of teaching & engaging Aboriginal students. Retrieved January 17, 2021, 

from https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/education/teaching-aboriginal-students

 

Mills, D. Q. (2005, June 27). Asian and American Leadership Styles: How Are They Unique? Retrieved

January 17, 2021, from

https://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/asian-and-american-leadership-styles-how-are-they-unique

 

Post, E. (2020, April 21). Column: Why it’s important to accept criticism without ‘white women’s tears’.

Retrieved January 17, 2021, from https://www.yakimaherald.com/opinion/columnists/column-why-its-important-to-accept-criticism-without-white-womens-tears/article_84bb1f14-0815-52a8-a232-3adbbba4a6ab.html

 

Yamamoto Y. · Li J.

Garcia Coll C (ed): The Impact of Immigration on Children’s Development. Contrib Hum Dev. Basel, Karger, 2012, vol 24, pp 1–16

 

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