Cultural Insight

Walking the path of global and cultural understanding. This is a glimpse into my journey

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Knowing Ourselves as Instructors

This reading sat very well with me. As a reflective practitioner, this article reenforced my awareness about my own bias in the classroom. My cultural identity codes as not white. Nevertheless, my skintone, hair, articulate voice, choice of clothing, globally framed discussions, and diverse social justice oriented topics frequently send mixed messages to students.

I don't fit into their stereotypical framework. A significant portion of a semester can pass by before students get up the courage to pull me aside to pose the big question.
Student: "Um, could I ask you a question?"
Me: Sure
Student: Well, um. What are you?
Me: I'm the Director
Student: No, I mean what are you?
Me: A man
Student: No, I mean what are you?
Me: Do you mean what is my cultural background?
Student: Yeah, what are you?
Me: Why?
Student: Well, everyone in the class has been trying to figure out what you are. I mean your cultural background. I figured I would ask.
Me: What do you think my cultural background is.
Student: I don't know. Maybe mixed.
Me: Do you mean biracial?
Student: Yeah

The conversation continues and we share our cultural histories, influences, and values. The exchange is personal and based on a level of trust established from a variety of conversations since the beginning of the semester. I don't share everything about myself, but students don't share everything either. Pehaps I share more than most professors. Perhaps students share more with me than with other faculty. Curiousity of students about my cultural and social identities shows how important the messenger is to the message we present. The are looking for a social or cultural marker that establishes a clear point of reference. Thoughts based on stereotypes created by media run throught their minds. How do I approach this quy? What makes him tick? What can I say? Where are the boundaries in this class? How much power do I have or don't I have?

Nothing remains in the background. Even if we as educators try to ignore it, students code us as much as they can based on their previous knowledge.

As a teacher of color in a classroom of primarily White students, I know that I will often be challenged as an unfamiliar authority figure. Understanding how to best navigate through the difficult moments is based on an inner peace. I could tell you that for the past two years white students have walked out of my classroom because the saw a black man at the front of the room. Perhaps they just found themselves in the wrong classroom at eight in the morning. They give no statement. No explanation. They just see my face and leave. That could mean anything. When I talk about tough subjects like white privlidge in class, some students are not prepared to have a dialogue. Fine. Maybe part of my role is to plant the seeds that will grow later on.

Race and social justice work is challenging. Opposition sits around every corner. The philosophy I have adopted is simple. One that I learned in Lamu. An amazing ancient island off the coast of Kenya. The waves come in and the waves go out. You cannot fight against the tide. Sometimes you must be patient and just wait until the currents of change work in your favor.

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