When I was a child growing up in the deep south in primary school, I remembered how we were oftentimes discouraged from enjoying the experience of learning new and interesting subjects in school. I recall a third grade teacher, who told us (a class of African American students) that we would be unable to complete an experiment in static electricity because our hair was “too oily.” The experiment was designed so that the students would have to rub balloons against their heads to attract bits of paper on the desk. When the teacher saw that some, though certainly not all of the students of African American descent, were unable to complete the experiment satisfactorily, she made the aforementioned comment. To this day, I am still baffled as to why she said this. Did she want to discourage us from developing an interest in science? Was this a form of passive aggressive bullying or not?
Bullying was rampant at school when I was student in primary school. I went to school in South Carolina in the Low country region, not too far from Charleston. Racism was the focal point of many a bullying incident at school. If you wanted to play volleyball at the playground and weren’t white, you had to be made into an honorary “white boy” to play, but then you’d be ostracized by other students for engaging in activities that were not considered “appropriate” for your ethnicity. It sounds bizarre, but I almost exclusively was on the receiving end of bullying just because I liked to study, primarily by male members of my own ethnicity.
The bullying was mostly passive in nature but resulted in exclusion from activities (e.g. sports teams, social events etc.) just because I liked studying. It is difficult to qualify what it means to “like studying” because it was hard work and not all fun and games, but all I can say is that there was certainly a negative correlation between how well I got on with people and how well I did in school in terms of grades I received. It may be the case that people experience this around the country regardless of ethnic or social background; however, at least in my context, this seems to have been a beast spawned by racialist thinking. It’s been my experience that passive aggression is the worst type of bullying. Being excluded, given a label, and ignored are the most demoralizing things and serve to diminish students’ self-esteem. How does one deal with passive aggression, particularly when the factors that led to its creation exist and/or are inherent at a local or societal level.
Even if there is ostracism inherent in schools and this can lead to the bullying and isolation of individuals who do not conform to the status, then why would ethnic minorities, choose to eschew education (as is often suggested by the media) given the obvious economic and social incentives currently associated with academic success? Recent research answers this question by more accurately suggesting that environmental factors and personal relationships demarcate the role of education in the lives of minorities. An immediate conclusion from the aforementioned is that minorities’ resistance or acceptance of educational opportunities cannot be readily and solely predicted by historical inequalities or injustice.
Lee (1994) provides evidence for how relationships between parents, authorities, and peers encourage or discourage minority students. In particular, the researcher notes that Korean students feel indebted to their parents’ sacrifices for their education (p. 418). Korean students’ parents in turn support their accommodation of white culture; furthermore the dominant culture (e.g. teachers and others in power) promote, encourage, and expect these Asian students to excel in academia (pp.416-417). It is apparent that the expectations from the local community and parents are congenial, which is associated with academic success according researchers (Hones and Cha, 1999, p. 154). Thus, we see that when both the community and parents expect and encourage minority students to succeed, children are more likely to make progress. Contrastingly, it has been found that other Asian groups are worse off academically when they perceive themselves as victims of discrimination (pp. 424-425).
Hones and Cha (1999) present us with a gamut of environmental factors affecting minorities’ educational performance. On one hand, if both parents and the local community reject the aspirations of minority students to succeed academically, those who happen to succeed might become alienated from both groups. The result would be that fewer minorities in such situations would succeed (p. 45). On the other hand, groups like the Hmong, when placed in schools where minorities are encouraged to succeed, will more than likely do well given their culture’s insistence on academic and professional development (p. 112). Again, encouragement from the local community appears vital in producing desirable results for the Hmong. In conclusion, the researchers suggest that schools implement cultural therapy programs to mitigate the influence of negative environmental factors. Through cultural therapy students will have the opportunity to learn “social skills suitable for participation in the larger society” (pp. 139-140).
The question quite naturally arises however as to what social skills are suitable for society, especially if our society is potentially the culprit that engenders inequalities and disparities in education that lead to bullying, ostracism, and isolation? After reflecting on the readings this week, I believe the way forward is to connect parents and educators by promoting cross-cultural awareness, but without a systematic analysis of the factors that discourage minority students, such intervention may not have the desired results.
Ultimately, I believe that in order for students to succeed, educators must strive to create learning environments where students feel confident to express themselves, where diversity is seen as a valued asset, and where students are given tools to become agents of change both inside and outside of the classroom. My reasoning for the aforementioned is that I believe that in order for schools to become viable in an increasingly diverse society, every student must be treated as an integral member within an inclusive, educational environment.
I believe that schools should serve as safe havens where our diverse student body can utilize their cultural capital without fear or prejudice. In such a school environment, networks would be formed at school where students would be able present information about their home cultures and language. Knowledge of students’ home cultures can serve as resources for teachers to connect students with the content of their lessons. Such content will be culturally appropriate and meet the needs of the students (Luke, 2009, pp. 301-303). Opportunities for students to share their home cultures through different mediums such as blogs, wikis, and presentations will ultimately serve to reconcile home and school cultures. Knowledge gained from these activities can serve as a platform to connect teachers with parents and correct misconceptions teachers may have about students and their parents and vice versa.
Finally, I believe schools should empower students to overcome “deficit” and “racializing” discourses that have long plagued American society. These discourses have often branded minorities as being culturally and linguistically inferior in addition to being marginalized as the “other.” Schools can empower these students in two profound ways: The first way is to give students opportunities to provide feedback on their teacher’s performance. Students should be able to openly discuss aspects of their classroom experience that they find difficult or confusing. The second way is to make explicit the kinds of discrimination students are likely to encounter in the real world (Freeman, 1998). The aforementioned involves increasing students’ awareness of the factors that have created their circumstances, which can position them to take on the role of change agents (Freire, 1970). In the aforementioned view, the school becomes a bunker where students can actively and collectively resist the status quo rather than becoming molded and shaped by it (Freeman, 2000, pp. 203, 206-207). In this way, educators will be able to serve as catalysts for change.
Freire, Paulo. (1970). The adult literacy process as cultural action for freedom. Harvard Educational Review, 40(2), 205-225.
Freeman, Rebecca D. (1998). Bilingual Education and Social Change. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.
Freeman, R. (2000). Contextual challenges to dual-language education: A case study of developing middle school program. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 31(2), 202-229.
Luke, A. (2009). Race and language as capital in school: A sociological template for language-education reform. In R. Kubota & A. Lin (Eds.). Race, culture and identities in second language education. New York: Routledge.
Hones, Donald F., & Cher Shou Cha (1999). Educating New Americans: Immigrant Lives and Learning. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Lee, Stacey J. (1994). Behind the model-minority stereotype: Voices of high and low-achieving Asian American students. Anthropology and Education Quarterly 25(4), 413-429.