By Katie Huang
“You get to work in a more diverse! Isn’t that what you’ve wanted?”
This question was asked of me by one of my best friends who happens to also be a colleague. I was being recruited by a small charter school in a predominantly black area; 97% African student population. Up to that point, I had been working in a predominately area, for 20 years.
Is the definition of “diversity” the color of our skin?
Since the pandemic started and with all of the racial tensions, I have been reflecting on the educational system especially from the point of view of an Asian, woman educator.
As a child, I didn’t feel like I fit in anywhere. Even though my elementary school had many students of color, I felt like there was some sort of “mold” that I never fit in. I know that I didn’t feel like I fit some “asian mold”; I was not the best at math nor was I some concert pianist. I would rather play sports, climb trees or run around. Don’t get me wrong, I still practiced the piano every night, but I certainly did not match the expectations, namely my mother’s.
I was born and raised in Montreal which is a very diverse city. The major dispute during the 1970s was the whole Anglophones versus the Francophones. This did however, add to the gambit of derogatory names that afflicted my childhood. You did not want to be called “Quebecois” because that implied you agreed politically with those that wanted French as the primary language. But as an Asian child, it really didn’t matter that I was tri-lingual, speaking English, French, and Mandarin, I was still called “chink” with eye-pulling gestures or having people say, “Ching, chang, chong,” because apparently it means something. I still did not fit on either sides of the political battle even though I spoke both of the major languages.
Moving to the US in my early twenties, did not change these early sentiments of people and my feelings of fitting in. As a matter of fact, I feel that I was noticed more. Not because of what I was doing, but because I spoke English well and I did not have an accent. I remember one classmate commenting on the fact that she believed that “Asians are conformists,” This ignited anger within me, since I did not believe that I comply all the time. I believe that I put up a fight when I believe it worth the time. But I do see that historically, Asians were the “model minority.”
I find myself always questioning what I say and do because I just didn’t understand my reason for feeling like the “odd guy.” Even amongst the Asian population, I don’t quite fit in. I am seen as different living in Canada or the USA but I am also different were I to go to China or Taiwan. When I went to Taiwan, my demeanor gave me away. I laughed too loudly, I walked too confidently,and I spoke Mandarin with an accent. I was American.
Some of my friends say that I am intimidating. I truly do not understand that phrase. I feel that intimidation is seen as a negative trait unless you are male or physically huge. Perhaps I exude the aura of the Asian Tiger mom! This is very possible since my own mother is definitely the matriarch of our family. Some say that it takes five seconds for anyone to realize after talking to me that I am knowledgeable and smart, so is that intimidating?
I personally feel that the reason is the fact that I do not fit into the stereotypical mold of an ideal Asian woman. I am not docile, nor soft spoken; I don’t laugh behind my hand, nor do I follow. I hold my own, question my abilities and question others.
For my whole educational career I have constantly been “proving myself” and “taking” the microaggressions without fully understanding that this was happening. I wondered each time whether the person truly understood what he/she was saying. The comments I received ranged from, “I believe that you do that because of your culture” or “We don’t do that here.” I did have a person ask my neighbor, “Does she speak English well enough to teach first grade?” Even when I did the exact same thing as another colleague, I was questioned.
As one of the very few POC in the district, I did not have many opportunities to collaborate or communicate with other educators of color, so I admit that I lost steam. I lost the fight that was there in the early part of my career. I lost the sense of pushing against the system and I crawled into my own utopic hole, caring only about my students in the classroom and becoming invisible or stereotypically quiet. When I did push back, I was accused of being “confrontational” and worse yet, was shut down because, “that’s not what we are talking about at this time” when others were hijacking the conversation, deviating it to their own.
I have felt that I have been passed over for leadership roles, and I always wonder if it is because I am an Asian woman. I was told once after an interview, that if I desired a position in leadership, I should consider going to a smaller district or school. It would seem that if all things were equal, it really cannot be ability or coachability. It has to be something that perhaps I have no control over. It is disheartening.
As I started to see more POC educators on social media and I started to network outside of my district including trainings, webinars and conferences related to social justice, I realized that I was not the only one. I had played by the rules of the system by keeping my head down and closing my door. I was never highlighted until relatively recently and coincidentally, when racial tensions within the community and our society started to be highlighted and voices were “suddenly” being heard. Suddenly, I was within a picture that was posted. No one had ever asked me to pose for a picture that highlighted diversity before. Suddenly, I got an apology after a discussion about racial tensions. That definitely never happened before! Suddenly, I was told, “You keep doing what you know is best for students because you are a great teacher.” Suddenly my culture was not part of this equation.
So, I decided, well, the sudden pandemic decided for me, that it was high-time to go outside of my comfort zone, to be recruited and do something different, with different people, with POC, with children of color!
“You get to work in a more diverse school! Isn’t that what you’ve wanted?”
My initial excitement was also met with some fear. I wondered whether I could even relate to the new school, new community, and new cultures. As much as the pandemic wreaked havoc in our lives, being virtual slowed things down. It gave me a chance to get to know the staff and the workings of the building. I was able to start understanding the dynamics that exists within a group of people. I started filtering words that were said in certain settings and words that were directed at students and even other adults. I was constantly comparing what I came from with where I was presently and deciding whether this was diversity, whether this was equitable, whether this was just, whether I fit.
Do I see diversity? My response is, “No, it isn’t diverse!”
The majority of the staff are still white. Yes, there are more staff that are of color in comparison to my previous district and the children and their families are still homogeneous.
So what then is diversity?
Is it just the way a group of people look when they stand together?Or is it diversity in thought?
Within committees and training regarding diversity, equity and inclusion, we do talk about our own biases. So does being in a diverse group mean that we have all looked at our biases?
I am learning to understand these school community beliefs which are different, but biases are still here even though there is more variety in skin color. We are still having conversations about how to best create the culture and climate within the classrooms and how to think about the language we use when speaking to black and brown students. If we truly believe that we want schools to be a safe place for students, why aren’t they?
My personal opinion is that we should strive for diversity; not in appearances or that photo-op, but that diverse thinking. I do believe that being in this new position, in this new community, has transformed my thinking, thereby “diversifying” my actions and reactions. We should never hear, “That is not what we do here.” We should be embracing the conflicting conversations so that we can all learn, transform, and grow. We should hear, “ We’ve never done that before, let’s think and converse on it.” We should not continue the harm that is being committed each and everyday because someone somewhere said that these kids can’t and change the narrative to these kids will and we as educators need to stand by that.
I still don’t feel like I fit in and I don’t feel like I quite “belong” but what makes my current position different is the fact that I do have more opportunity to talk to someone who can commiserate, empathize and sympathize. Perhaps it is just that there are more people who themselves have had to reflect on their biases. Perhaps it is my job role or title.
“You get to work in a more diverse school! Isn’t that what you’ve wanted?” So, am I working in a diverse school? Again, not quite yet. Perhaps a little bit closer but we still have miles to go.
This blog post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Series, a month-long movement to feature the voices of indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars. Please CLICK HERE to read the previous blog post by Nawal Q Casiano (and be sure to check out the link at the end of each post to catch up on the rest of the blog series).