My students have diverse backgrounds, nationalities, and languages. Based on external appearances many of them can be easily grouped together. Many are Black, some are Middle-Eastern, Latina/Latino, and various other ethnic groups or nationalities. It would be a grave mistake if I grouped students together only based on their skin color. Behind their skin colors are unique cultures, countries, and connections. Some of these students have been marginalized based on one or more of their identities. These identities could include socioeconomics, gender, ethnicity, ability, and religion.
In one of my classes, we taught an identity unit. My co-teacher in this class is a White male who is new to our school. He is also new to the dominant cultures in our school. A majority of the students we teach together have Caribbean heritage. This allowed my co-teacher to get to know our students a little more. In one of those discussions, students from various backgrounds spoke about the types of foods they enjoy in their culture, but none of the students with a Latin background spoke. So I intentionally asked a few of them to speak about their culture. This gesture was to validate that their cultural heritage is just as important as everyone else’s. Since my co-teacher was the minority in the classroom, I asked him to share about his culture also. This validated my co-teacher’s culture to him and to our students.
The literature that we read depicted the experiences of diverse ethnic groups. These stories and class discussions allowed the students and us teachers to reflect on our own experiences, and learn about each other. Another class discussion addressed internalized racism. This discussion ensued from a personal narrative written by a Native American who many assumed was Latina. She wrote about her struggles with identity and her family’s culture dying out because of internalized racism. One example of the internalized racism was when her foreparents did not teach their children the native language, Kaqchikel, because they wanted to assimilate to the dominant culture in their country. In this story, the narrator reminds us that discrimination often causes people to forsake their rich heritage and can cause people to struggle with their value in society. I have met many people who never learned the language of their parents. These parents did not want their children to face additional discrimination, and therefore they did not speak their native language to their children. Though ensuring their children learned the language of the dominant culture was beneficial to the children, learning a second language (their native language) could have also been an asset to these children.
It is not easy to be in situations where you are the only one or one of a few who share your identity. This could be based on gender, class, race, or any other identity. I want to empower my students to love themselves and resist the negative stereotypes that have been placed on them and others. Many times, I hear students make derogatory comments about the group to which they belong. When I have reprimanded them, some have reminded me that they carried out a negative act because of their identity. Sometimes the remark is said jovially, but many times what is said in jest has been internalized. With that said, students also have negative stereotypes about other racial or ethnic groups. I have also heard gender stereotypes from students. When students say negative things about their or other people’s identities, I try to correct their thinking and explain why the statement they made is erroneous. I remind them not to take on negative stereotypes. Because I want my students to build healthy relationships with people outside of their groups, I try to help them put history and social phenomena in context and encourage them not to judge a whole group of people based on stereotypes. My goal is to remind them that they are valuable, have positive characteristics, and can break the boundaries placed on them.
Scripture clearly states that our race, social status, and gender are not as important as our identity in Christ. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28 NIV). Though not all our students are Christians, we know that God loves them and wants us to treat them well. This scripture in Galatians is not suggesting that we ignore race; it tells us that we should not treat people poorly because of their ethnic, social, or biological identity. God does not ignore, but embraces our various identities as highlighted in Revelation 7:9, “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb…” (NIV). Ultimately, we must remind students that they are fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14), though they have different identities.
Every person struggles with issues related to their identity, at some point or another. At the core of our teaching practice, we must empower students and help them learn to love themselves regardless of their various cultural backgrounds. Let us learn about, celebrate, and validate the identities of others.