Fighting the Good Fight: Students and Teachers of Color Working Against the ‘Isms

Yesterday I had a talk with a former student who is currently a first year student at an Ivy League university. Since her freshman year in high school, we have connected on our common Latina background, mine Puerto Rican, hers Dominican. Now that she is in college, I continue to feel connected to her as she forges her way as the first in her family to attend college.

During the course of our conversation, she interviewed me for a women’s studies class project on which she is currently working. As we talked, we shared common experiences of facing racism and classism during pivotal moments in our lives. When my family moved from the Bronx to Long Island, I faced racist epithets such as “spic,” “nigger,” and “afro” from children on the playground. The teasing and the bullying didn’t end there though. After our move to Long Island, my Bronx relatives started calling me “white girl.” I was suddenly living in two worlds that didn’t accept me.

Years later, when I attended a predominantly white college, I was told that I had a “Long Island accent.” Soon, I found myself studying the speech patterns of my classmates, copying their pronunciation of certain words, erasing my so-called Long Island inflection.

My former student concurred and reminded me that she had faced the same teasing when she started attending private school: those at school criticized her “loud” voice and those at home started calling her “white.”

For thirteen years, I have heard these kinds of stories from students of color in independent schools. What I experienced in the 80’s as a child is no different from what my students of color face today. The experience of being in-between is painful. And it is no different in public schools; the feeling of being between worlds whether it be based on race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, or religion does not discriminate between public and private school walls. Indeed, my feelings of isolation and bullying all happened in the context of attending public schools.

What would have happened if a teacher knew how alone I felt in this in-between state?

I know that my former student reminds me all the time how grateful she is that I was not only her teacher but also her mentor. She reminds me that she is thankful for my helping her not only write analytical essays but also write college essays; thankful for guiding her not only as a young student of color but also as a young feminist of color.

More importantly, I am thankful for what she has taught me: to love oneself even in the face of all the ‘isms thrown at you. She has taught me this too: Students need teachers in whom they see themselves, as well as teachers who expand their worldview. For this reason, schools must be intentional in hiring a diverse faculty that both affirms the diverse range of student realities and broadens student (and faculty) understandings of our plural and global society. Ultimately, diverse school communities are integral to fighting the good fight against the ‘isms that plague us, our students, and our world.

As I move forward into the second decade of my career, I don’t want to keep hearing stories about students struggling with living with the racism (or classism, or sexism, or homophobia, etc.) of their peers and teachers while also dealing with the racism, classism, sexism, and homophobia of their families. It is up to us as educators to begin dismantling the system that is crushing our students.

It is up to us to build them up so that someday you can hear them on the other end of the phone calling you while they are at college, grateful that you were always there for them.

This post can also be found at Equality 101.

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6 thoughts on “Fighting the Good Fight: Students and Teachers of Color Working Against the ‘Isms

  1. I agree completey that it is vital for students to have role models with whom they can identify. Sadly, most people in the teaching profession are white – I don’t know what, if anything is being done to attract people of color to the teaching profession. I know in my education classes there are very few students of color (I think that there was one last semester). What to do in the meantime? I know that once I am teaching I can arrange visits from professionals of color into the classroom. But how do I, as a white teacher, mentor students caught in this in-between space? Is it possible to bridge that chasm? Are there pitfalls for a white teacher directing a student of color to resources that help them reinforce their identity as a student as compatible with their home identity?

    Sometimes, as a student, I feel like I read and read for the answers I’m looking for and only ever end up with more questions.

    Laura

    • Laura, I think you make some very important points and ask strong questions about the importance of white allies who are teachers and mentors to students. Too often, students of color have told me that they have felt unsafe in a particular teacher’s class because they have used that student’s race or ethnicity to castigate or embarrass them (one teacher called a student a “hot Latina” when she became upset about a classroom situation). I think creating spaces where they feel safe to share their experiences without judgment either publicly (such as in an assignment or a discussion) or privately is key. As far as sources: Beverly Daniel Tatum’s book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? explores how young people and adults move through various stages of racial identity development; this text may be helpful as a starting point. Feminist author Cherrie Moraga explores her identity as a light-skinned Latina in her essay collection Loving in the War Years. She writes a great deal about navigating both privileged spaces and Latin@ spaces. The essay collection Half and Half: Writers on Growing Up Biracial and Bicultural has also been helpful for some of my students.

  2. Amazingly (in CA), I had only one Latina teacher-my Spanish teacher. Also, amazingly, I did not realize this until I was in own college classroom teaching my students about racism in education. Luckily, I did have many strong female teachers with whom I could identify and who were kind enough to mentor me. It was their journeys as teachers and artists that inspired my own.

    So many people forget the power of seeing someone “like you” in positions of power, but it is powerful and important!

    • I agree Elsie. I’m lucky that I had some wonderful teachers who were mentors to me, but none of them who were my true mentors were teachers of color. It wasn’t until I got to graduate school that I started meeting professors of color who reached out to me as intellectual mentors.

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