I can still remember how it went when I was teaching languages in the beginning – I’ve taught Russian, German, French, Spanish and ESL, as well as interpreting and translation courses in high schools and universities for over 10 years now. There were the perfunctory paragraph-asides that would talk about “how things are” in this other culture and what it is like when you are visiting. These things are all well and good, but I can’t help but wonder if it’s creating an atmosphere of stereotyping. Furthermore, for the most part they were written by white people for white people. All things were filtered through the lens of whiteness.
This plays out interestingly when we actually travel. Are we learning to stereotype? I remember hearing that Russians were homophobic, for example, when I was in undergrad learning about Russia. Generally, this is true, but the impact of learning this in an academic setting was that I forgot about nuance and exceptions. I really was shocked when I heard about a doctor, working in the 1950’s, who risked losing his medical license to do a gender affirming surgery to save a trans woman’s life (she was suicidal). This didn’t fit into my Russia filing cabinet. Hmmm… and then I realized how the colonialism of Western education had infiltrated my schemata/meaning-making systems for Russian culture. Education is much more standardized in Russia, so it makes sense that I would have seen Russian people as a monolith, and yet, at the same time, it is not monolithic at all. Nothing is as monolithic as it seems.
Is it good that when I taught Spanish that I would make a point to tell students to always greet people behind the counter when they walked into stores, and also to say goodbye? That, furthermore, it is seen as very bad manners not to do this?
I think it was a good thing that I did this.
But is it good to mention racism against Africans in France, and how Black Americans have more privilege in France when they speak French with an American accent? And then how, once Black Americans get good at French, then they are mistaken for Africans and encounter more racism?
And how would that come across to African-American students? And have we thought about how it would sound to African-American students if this was a story told by a white teacher versus a Black teacher or a Latinx teacher?
I think it comes down to framing. We are in a time right now where the framework for understanding these nuances is in flux. I sat in on a small group discussion recently and there were a variety of people of color in the group. Different people, as is understandable, had different ideas of how race and the nuances of social inequality should be taught. Some didn’t want it to be taught by anyone but a Black person, others wanted to make sure that it stressed that that was then, and this is now, from a neutral lens. Another wanted it to be a social justice conversation. That there should be no neutrality. How can a teacher meet all these divergent needs?
All this filters into language instruction as well. It is very interesting to consider, for example, that you should tell people about anti-semitism in certain countries if they’re Jewish, or that some countries are extremely racist against Black people. Black students should be informed. It is not safe not to teach this. It is unethical not to teach this. But how to do it? The best book on the subject is by Anu Taranath, called Beyond Guilt Trips: Mindful Travel in an Unequal World. I’ll write more about it next week.
The main thing I want readers to leave with this week is that relationships are the glue that hold diverse classrooms together when controversial topics are raised. Students won’t be hurt by a teacher they know loves them perhaps saying something ignorant nearly as much as they would be hurt by ignorant thinking also coming from a person they feel is racist. Relationships are the foundation of effective classrooms.