Saturday, March 31, 2012

Thoughts About Cultural Sensitivity

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.


  1. Those sound like hard situations. I wish you the best in figuring out how to move forward.

    In thinking about your El Salvador experiences, I'm reminded of my time in Brasil. The word morena is used a lot there, sometimes as a nickname. It means dark, in a way, but I think of it as meaning something like tan. It always sounded positive to me.

    I'm wondering if Gordo could sound positive in the salvadorean context (do they admire chubbiness?), and whether it's possible to refer to skin color for nicknames in a way that doesn't add to the load of racism. Is it racist when someone with red hair is nicknamed Red? (I know the Irish have faced racism, too...)

    Thanks for your post.

  2. Dealing with prejudicial statements or actions, whether intended to be such or not, can be a big challenge to educators. I too am a teacher with some time spent overseas (SE Asia and Mexico), though only a few years' experience. However, I have found that part of my role necessarily becomes stepping in, setting boundaries, and giving guidance about prejudice.

    One of the only ways I have found that effectively keeps students from crossing the line and helps them to reflect on their own subtle tendencies to prejudice is not to allow students to mention any aspect of a person's physical appearance (since that is where a lot of prejudice begins) unless it is truly relevant to the statement. Most of my students would never outright say that they thought a person was a criminal because of their skin color or that they thought a person had strict parents because of hair color and eye shape, but those are exactly the assumptions they portray sometimes. Any time a story (or even a retelling of a movie) starts with something like "this black/Asian/Hispanic/Jewish/tall/short/fat/blonde man/woman...", I immediately stop them and ask "is their appearance important to the story?" Usually not. And if so, they have to hear themselves trying to justify out loud what relevance the person's appearance has to their character and actions...which ought to be none. Yes, there are a few times when there are real innocent reasons for mentioning what the person looked like, but probably 99 times out of 100, it was just going to end up with a subtle negative association.

    So, basically, my policy is that a person's appearance should not be frivolously mentioned. And I think that guideline could be used in any culture setting. Think more deeply about people...who are they, what is important to them, what are their hopes and goals. This allows for meaningful discussions about diversity that are not based on appearance, but on real cultural differences - values, beliefs, and traditions.

    Best of luck to you!

  3. Interesting problem. It's curious what things really are OK. As a Swedish American, if someone mistakenly thinks my name is Norwegian, it's clearly no problem. Why is that? Some possibilities: we came to the USA voluntarily; it was a long time ago; the USA has not recently invaded Sweden or (as far as we know) engineered a coup; we have never been systematically excluded or oppressed; in fact, we white northern Europeans have always had a thumb (or so) on the privilege scale. And the direction of the "PC oppression vector" seems to matter: it's much more insensitive to call Mr. O'Malley English than it is to call Mr. Smyth-Rhodes Irish.

    But it's not always about oppression; simply stereotyping can be unkind. Until recently I sometimes used accents in everyday conversation. One day, I realized that I would never use the "Indian waiter" voice in front of my friend Vishakha. That stopped me in my tracks (and ended the Indian waiter).

    This leads immediately to a strategy for students. Ask: would you use that joke, that graphic, that name, that accent, if a Chinese/Vietnamese/Black/Jewish/Polish/North Dakotan person were present? If not, good, you have have a conscience; use it. On the other hand, if it wouldn't bother you, then maybe it's not offensive -- or perhaps we need to have a deeper conversation.

    (I feel entitled to use the Swedish accent still; occasionally channeling Hans Rosling in Stats class amuses the students...)

  4. This is just one example, but it happened more recently, of what I still get: An owner of an antique store said upon learning that I'm Vietnamese, "Oh, you do nails then?" (Clearly he didn't see my very UN-manicured nails which were only cared for by another person almost two years ago because my sister-in-law paid this person.)

    I want to practice what I tell my students, "If someone makes you uncomfortable, by whatever means, verbal or nonverbal, you need to speak up." I know this is difficult to do, not just for kids but for adults too. But until we speak up, I'm afraid we just added another layer of false belief that it's okay when clearly it's not.

    And it's not enough that we defend for ourselves, we need to speak up whenever we hear or see prejudice. My favorite line from the movie "A Few Good Men" (besides "You can't handle the truth!") is when Dawson tells Downey, "We were supposed to fight for the people who couldn't fight for themselves."

    I know you are talking about cultural sensitivity, but what I see and hear more among the middle schoolers in the US is homophobic teasing. (Locally we made national news because a hate crime was committed where an 8th grade boy shot, at point blank, an openly gay student.) Zero tolerance must mean exactly that.

  5. Hi everyone,

    Thanks for your thoughts! Interesting.

    Specifically to Fawn: I do say something about homophobia and in general everything else that is intolerant whenever I hear it in a school context. Such as recently when I was making an announcement about there being a GSA speaker coming in, and a girl thought it would be appropriate to giggle and ask her friend whether her friend is a lesbian. I only wrote about the Asian incidents here because that stuff happened very recently. And I'm sorry to hear about the nails incident! ugh.

    I have to say though, that I'm not the kindest person when I address intolerance, because I simply do not have patience for their ignorance on those issues. The way I address them is probably not the most effective, because I can go from zero to UPSET very fast, if I think that they are stereotyping any group of people. One of my goals will have to be to communicate more effectively on issues like this.


  6. What a challenging situation. Teaching college students in the US, the most prevalent language issues that come up for me are students saying both "that's so gay" and "that's retarded." I put a stop to that language REAL fast and sometimes have to work through some bull-headedness from students who "didn't mean it that way," but it's important for me to point out to the entire class what was wrong with those words.

    I can't imagine what I would do in your situation--either with your colleagues or with the students.