A recent incident has stirred up some feelings for me regarding cultural sensitivity in schools. As a teacher, generally I feel responsible for the character education of all of my students, so whenever an occasion arises -- in class or otherwise -- where I see that someone is being offensive or hurtful to others (for whatever reason), I address it firmly and make sure I send out a message that that type of behavior is absolutely unacceptable.
As a person of proud Asian descent, I am particularly bothered on a personal level when I see actions around the school setting, that stereotype and/or demean Asian people. But, countering this is not always so easy, especially because in many cultures besides in America (surely in German as well as Salvadoran cultures), there is much less cultural sensitivity in general. I have heard a colleague say things to me that would be considered highly offensive if said in the States, even in private, much less in a professional environment. As a teacher in El Salvador, you live with the reality that one boy out of at least each class is nicknamed "(el) Chino" because they have slanted or small eyes. One "Chino" from my Precalculus class was a blond boy; the nickname was not meant to be hurtful or disparaging. Other culturally "acceptable" nicknames are "(el) Gordo" (the fat one), "(el) Chele" (the pale one), etc. Totally unacceptable in the States but totally common-place in Latin America.
So, the line becomes gray in other cultures. --Or does it?
That is what I have been thinking about the last few days, since I had to deal with a kid who repeatedly put offensive images about Chinese people on a slideshow that he was trying to put together about China. As it turns out, neither the boy's mom nor the other colleague involved in the incident thought the pictures were so bad. (The images made fun of how Chinese people eat cats and dogs, and also had bad English phrases on them like "Sum Ting Wong?") The pictures were so offensive to me that I had to delete them off of my desktop immediately after sending them along to another adult, so that I could get rid of the negative feeling that the images caused me. When my colleague saw the pictures, their first reaction -- in my presence -- was to laugh. Is it my job to educate them? Where does my role as an outsider fit in, in terms of pushing back on these cultural sensitivity issues?
On a semi-related note, recently, an acquaintance mentioned on Facebook that she received a letter from her bank with a Chinese card tucked inside. She was offended, because she's actually Vietnamese. From an outsider's perspective, maybe you would think she overreacted, but unless you are from a country that constantly gets lumped into another country's ethnic group, you cannot begin to understand how she feels. (Her last name is Nguyen, by the way. That is the most common Vietnamese last name. The person at her bank who made this Asian publicity stunt needs to feel bad; that is like addressing a Kenny or O'Connor and saying they are Swiss.)
So, this is what I know: Racism is real, and it is hurtful. Whether or not a person is actually racist, their behavior and choices speak volumes for them. If we do not educate our children about what is acceptable and culturally sensitive, then they will grow up to be adults who help to propogate harmful racial stereotypes.
So, again, my question is: What is my role as an educator to help to stop this? Does my role change in an international setting? If you have thoughts, please feel free to add them. Otherwise, this is something I guess I'll have to figure out for myself, because it is important and worth thinking about.