Write a reflection on the impacts of shifting cultural, linguistic, demographic and socioeconomic trends based on in-class presentations and discussions, what you have read in and outside of class and your professional experience as an educator. Please focus on specific challenges and opportunities for public schools at the local, state and national level.
After the readings and discussions I encountered this week in class, I am fascinated by the concept of microaggressions. In a nation that maintains constant dialogue regarding racism and political correctness, it has become clear that ethnocentrism and bias against groups of people who are considered “outsiders” (for whatever reason) still exist, but have taken on a different and oftentimes more subtle nature. How do we as teachers understand, recognize, and respond to microaggressions in our classrooms and/or school communities?
Here in the San Francisco bay area, I grew up in a very multicultural family and school community in which I did not observe blatant signs of ethnocentrism or racism. However, I did recognize from a young age that there were students who were included and students who were not included in social peer groups or certain activities. Within my own Hawaiian family, I was at times teased for being one of the few cousins who was born with a fair complexion and blonde hair.
As a teacher now, I recognize that many injustices occur on a smaller scale and by those who learn and use covert methods to disenfranchise others. It’s easy to recognize when ethnocentric behaviors are overt. During my first year of teaching, I had a student who would repeatedly make racist comments loudly for the entire class to hear, which resulted in him disrupting music class time and getting extra attention. The entire class understood that this particular student had unique needs which were addressed by school staff intervention, regardless, I felt that I must address his comments and demonstrate that such statements were not acceptable or appropriate in my classroom. I struggled with how exactly to address these difficult class disruptions in a way that was effective and communicated respect for all students, including the one making the disturbing comments. This student openly communicated with hostility towards others based on their ethnic and cultural background. Alarmingly, much aggression in schools or communities occurs in a way that is more subtle and sneaky, making them difficult to recognize and address.
Microaggressions may be intentional or even unintentional because at times they take the form of learned behaviors and systemic thought processes taught to children beginning at a young age. The person delivering the microaggression may be unaware of resulting damage or may view the target of their microaggressions as overreacting if pushback occurs. Nevertheless, it is imperative that microaggressions not be downplayed or justified. The current definition of the term microaggression comes from “Microaggression: More Than Just Race” by Derald Wing Sue Ph.D.:
“Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership. In many cases, these hidden messages may invalidate the group identity or experiential reality of target persons, demean them on a personal or group level, communicate they are lesser human beings, suggest they do not belong with the majority group, threaten and intimidate, or relegate them to inferior status and treatment.”
Upon closer examination and greater understanding of the invalidation that microaggressions communicate to students and families, we must acknowledge that significant damage can occur to a student and his/her learning. Education is an empowering process, but if individuals feel they are not included in or worthy of the learning that happens within their classroom and school community, they will be at risk of feeling like an outsider and falling behind academically. I see the need here to point out that the use of the word “micro” (in the term microaggression) refers to the pervasiveness and subtlety of such disparaging comments or behaviors, and certainly not to imply that the the amount of damage experienced by the targets of multiple microaggressions over time is “micro.” The harm resulting from microaggressions compounds with each occurrence:
“For many of us, microaggressions are so commonplace that it seems impossible to tackle them one at a time. Psychologists often compare them to death by a thousand cuts...It’s tempting to ignore microaggressions, considering blatant, obvious discrimination is still a real problem, but the buildup of these “everyday slights” has consequences on a victim’s mental and physical health that cannot be overlooked. The normalization of microaggressions is antithetical to a well-rounded society with equal opportunities for marginalized individuals.” (Yoon, Hahna, “How to Respond to Microaggressions,” 3/3/2020, The New York Times)
Once we understand the harm of microaggressions and how they play out in American schools and communities, we are more equipped to recognize them when they occur and we also realize the importance of disarming them. This is great in theory, but how do we address microaggressions in the moments when they occur in our classrooms?
A number of interventions and practices allow teachers to prevent and disarm microaggressions in the classroom. Cultural Relevance as detailed by Jackie Roehl in her article “Embracing Discomfort” can demonstrated by her practice of allowing smaller groups of students to process lesson content in ways that best engage their predominant learning styles as they also trade stories, which leads them to build a personal connection both to the lesson material and their peers who may have different cultural experiences. This in turn furthers the goal of increased student engagement, enhanced learning, and builds within students an appreciation for hearing fellow student perspectives.
Another best practice to combat microaggression as a teacher and role model for students is to show a commitment to understanding every student or family’s experience, along with what makes them unique from mainstream culture. According to Jennifer Gonzalez, this can be done with something as simple yet imperative as a commitment to learn and pronounce our students’ names correctly, even if it takes practice. Gonzalez writes of a teacher who stood out in his efforts to get student names right: “It did take him a bit of time to learn to pronounce my name, but he was always apologetic when he said it wrong, and always insisted on the importance of getting such things right. He was easily the most inspirational and challenging teacher I’ve had…he just insisted that every student feel important.” (Gonzalez, Jennifer, “How We Prounounce Student Names, and Why it Matters,” published 4/14/14, Cult of Pedagogy). If we as teachers show with our words and actions that our goal is for every student to feel important, students will see that inclusivity and positivity in the classroom environment is the norm.
When microaggressions or more outward ethnocentric behaviors do occur, we can address them in a few different ways. Dr. Kevin L. Nadel came up with a tool kit called “A Guide to Responding to Microaggressions,” which proposes a set of questions to ask oneself when deciding how to respond to microaggressions:
1. If I respond, could my physical safety be in danger?
2. If I respond, will the person become defensive and will this lead to an argument?
3. If I respond, how will this affect my relationship with this person (e.g., coworker, family member, etc.)
4. If I don’t respond, will I regret not saying something?
5. If I don't respond, does that convey that I accept the behavior or statement?”
Depending on the answers to these questions and knowing that an appropriate response or “micro intervention” will also be determined by the specifics of each situation, Dr. Diane Goodman as quoted in Yoon’s New York Times article “recommends memorizing these three tactics from her list of prepared statements.
Ask for more clarification: “Could you say more about what you mean by that?” “How have you come to think that?”
Separate intent from impact: “I know you didn’t realize this, but when you __________ (comment/behavior), it was hurtful/offensive because___________. Instead you could___________ (different language or behavior.)”
Share your own process: “I noticed that you ___________ (comment/behavior). I used to do/say that too, but then I learned____________.”
A thorough understanding of microaggression, its harmful effects on students and their families, and how to properly address it will significantly improve education in the United States. If we can disarm those who use either intentional or accidental microaggressions to disenfranchise others, we will better and more thoroughly eliminate the problem of “death by a thousand cuts” in classroom and school communities that may marginalize individual students and families from a positive and successful academic experience.
Based on class discussions, readings in and outside of class, the self examination tools provided, and your professional experience as an educator, reflect on your own beliefs, perspectives and values related to culture and education. Please use your own classroom as a reference point. Have your perspectives changed? Why? What will you do as a result? Share your ideas.
Education is such an important field to address culture and inclusion because of the role every school plays in building informed communities and training future American parents and workers. School communities serve so many families, each with their own cultures emerging from familial differences as well as differences in countries of origin. If we focus on how families and cultures are different and thus clash, schools and society can be a breeding ground for resentment and segregation. If we focus instead on what Chinua Achebe calls “a balance of stories,” we can diffuse animosity so that we nurture instead the celebration of our differences. We will see that cultural differences can strengthen our school communities. My music classroom is a perfect place to celebrate multiple cultures. Music, dance, art, play, performance, costuming, history, and political climate is such an important and fascinating aspect of culture, and so these topics are relatively easy to touch upon as well as engaging to students when we study music from other countries and cultures. That being said, I still see room for improvement in my presentation of world music in my classrooms.
Children are naturally curious and understanding of people’s differences. When I was a child, I had a Vietnamese friend whose father owned a laundromat and so we would play and work on our homework there sometimes after school. I had another friend from Holland who taught me some Dutch words and we ate frosting sandwiches with sprinkles as a snack after school because that is a common treat in the Netherlands. I learned from a very young age that my friends' homes were different from mine, and though at times that was uncomfortable because I didn’t grow up in their homes with their language, I also observed that we as children had so much in common that we could play and talk for hours despite our differences. By singing together the songs that emerge from other countries and cultures and playing circle games, we come to the same conclusion -- that we share humanity with each other, though some of the logistics and details surrounding our core of shared humanity do differ.
If we as teachers use this natural curiosity as a springboard for open mindedness in our classrooms, we can accomplish much towards the anthropological study of human societies and cultures, and their development. I do believe that anthropology is a great subject to include in schools starting at a young, in order to nurture a natural curiosity, respect towards, and appreciation of learning more about how others live. As Chimamanda Adichie expressed in her TED talk entitled “The Danger of a Single Story”: “Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can repair that broken dignity.” When we study cultures that are different from our own, we learn that there is so much more than any one story about people.
In my music classroom, I teach songs and musical games from all over the world. Children enjoy playing and singing with each other, no matter their circumstances. As students get older, the need for developmentally appropriate and socially acceptable ways to interact with each other takes centerstage. My music students never express surprise that children in Africa, Brazil, France, the Czech Republic, Japan, or Australia (to name several places around the world) would play games and sing together. Rather, young music students in my classroom immediately and readily accept a new, musical way of passing the time in playful togetherness.
This year I am a third year music classroom teacher, and for the first time in my teaching practice I taught a Kwanzaa song along with drumming, a Hawaiian Christmas song and hula, and Ella Fitzgerald’s jazzy rendition of “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.” I am incorporating more cultural music but have plenty more to do in terms of finding and introducing music from many cultures. I also received excellent feedback from another teacher within the last month who suggested that I assign my music students a project in which they teach the class about a song that is meaningful to their family and culture. Not only would this allow students to teach each other about music and traditions that are meaningful to them, but it would also allow me to learn more about my students and songs that I could add to my teaching practice.
In Vision, Privilege, and the Limits of Tolerance, Cris Cullinan eloquently articulates a similar sentiment “I believe we must live an "examined life": acting consciously to examine how we think about, how we hear, and how we act toward others.” I grew up in an extremely multi-cultural family -- my cousins have Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese, Native Hawaiian, Native American Indian, African, German, and English ancestors. My parents encouraged open mindedness and respect for the many stories that I encountered as a child. I joined a multicultural sorority in college. I live an “examined life” and consider myself as having achieved multicultural awareness, and yet I see that I still have so much to learn as I move through this CTEL program and also expand the amount of world music I teach in my classroom.