By Tala Al-Mangour
I recently read about an experience in a Northern Californian classroom where a high-school science teacher warned her class of predominately Latina students that, if they did not pay attention and listen closely, they would end up as prostitutes in the barrio.1 This elicited an immediate jaw-dropping reaction, how could this teacher approach learning in this way? For her students, the power of her one-liner might last decades or be shrugged off as one in a conveyer belt of abusive micro-aggressions. Another question that came to mind is whether or not this comment would ever be uttered in a Portland Public classroom, with a predominately White student population, a school that arguably fits perfectly into a White, Middle Class cultural capital. I had to remind myself that perhaps I am injecting my own bias into this situation, as I come from a different cultural background, with different ideals, familial structures, and disciplinary techniques. Still it begs the question, are these micro-aggressions only happening to students of color?
The research suggests that novice teachers unconsciously come to conclusions based on gender, race, and socio-economic status.2 This is usually not an act of malicious intent but instead an unfamiliarity with varying cultural backgrounds. To some extent, we all hold ideologies that are packed with bias and judgment, as much as we attempt to dismiss them. However, it is only when we recognize biases that we can work towards dismantling them. In any given classroom, teachers may treat certain students differently based on a multitude of reasons. Do we make judgments based on hairstyles, clothing, or something much deeper? Why do we reprimand certain students but dismiss other students with a benign warning? Why did we send Abdullahi to the principal’s office when Sam simply got a letter home? Do we have a deep subconscious fear of the Other?
This brings a similar incident to mind where a teacher was convinced some of her students were using profane Spanish in her classroom. Her instinctual response was to demand: “English only!”3 Unbeknownst to her, she has further cemented the oppression that Spanish speakers have faced for decades, perhaps tossing it aside because it does not fit into the school’s cultural capital. She literally and figuratively did not understand what was being said.
This leads us to the unsettling conclusion that there is something critically wrong with the way we subconsciously “other” cultures, races, religions that do not belong to our immediate, familiar world. Perhaps the most unsettling lingering question is: how do we change this? The first step is surely noticing and recognizing bias. Claiming humility and exposing oneself to the uncomfortable truth that maybe we allow more time with some students, and do not call on others. Are we more easily frustrated with one student’s actions, and excuse the others to a bad day? In order to move forward from these biases we must make noticeable adjustments to accommodate students. This does not mean allowing certain discrepancies in our established cultural capital, but allowing for and harnessing a capital in which all cultures are being honored. Above all else, it is essential that we care. As disheartening as these statistics are, further research shows that perception of teachers’ care for their students, regardless of difference, prompts success and confidence in the classroom.4 Perhaps the most important data lies in the fact that the perception of care from a teacher, principal, authority figure makes a difference cross-culturally. Only when we begin to create a caring, nurturing environment in the classroom, will we begin to see change.