As much as I bitch about Americans and how narrow-minded they can be, I do think that Europeans have things a helluva lot easier when it comes to dealing with different cultures and races. Most Europeans (unless we grew up in a major city) are just not used to dealing with people who look and act differently from us….because we don’t have to! Obviously I know that things are changing, but for the most part many of us live in societies that are still mainly white. This was, at least, the case for me when I was growing up. There were a couple of kids of Pakistani origin in my classes and that was about it throughout my entire time in school!. Oh, I nearly forgot – when I was in my final year of primary school, there was a little black girl in Primary 1, who was an object of some fascination to everybody because, well, there just are no black people in my country. According to Wikipedia, only 0.16% of the population is black!
When I imagine what it must be like to be a teacher in “the motherland”, it seems that it would be fairly easy compared to being a teacher in the US. If you’re a teacher here, there are a million different issues to deal with in the classroom…in terms of race, culture and language. There are probably schools back home where these are factors, too, but I don’t think to such a great extent.
Take today for example…
Today I had my first ever volunteer session in a local elementary school. The idea is for several volunteers to meet once a week with a class of 2nd graders (for non-American readers, this means kids around seven years old) and spend forty-five minutes reading to them in groups with around two to four students.
I didn’t read to my kids today (two little Latinas) but just spent some time getting to know them. I have zero experience with such young children, so I was wondering how our time together would go. For the most part, it was quite fun, like when one of the girls pointed to a map, and showed me the town where her uncle lived, then whispered conspiratorially “He’s in jail!”.
When I was in my awful alternative teacher certification course, they taught us that the most important thing to do first in the classroom is to introduce your behavioural expectations. If they don’t do that, they say, all hell will break loose, and you’ll have a hard time getting your students back on track. Of course, this was exactly what I didn’t do! This was partly because those little girls just looked so damn cute that I didn’t want to come in and be all strict with them. It was also, I admit, because I was just a little flustered in the beginning and forgot! Big mistake! One of the little girls talked a mile a minute and was up out of her seat any chance she got. Oh well. You live; you learn. Next week I’ll outline my expectations…like no talking over me or your classmate; no saying you can’t do things when you can do them perfectly well; no getting out of your seat without asking permission etc.
Another reason why it would have been good for me to have outlined my expectations was because it would have been easier for me to stop the girls chatting aimlessly, and focus more on the matter at hand. At one point, Miss Chatterbox overheard someone in another group mention the word “Obama”. She then went on to tell me how her friend wrote a letter to President Obama in her journal, telling him how much she liked him. I asked her if she liked the president, and she said, quite forcefully, that she most certainly did not. “Ah ha”, I thought. “Clearly someone’s parents are Republicans”.
The talk then turned to Obama’s daughters, Malia and Sasha, which was natural enough given that they’re close in age to my students. This was when it all went a bit pear-shaped, though. Miss Chatterbox (who proved herself to be a right little opinionated so-and-so) declared that she didn’t like Obama’s daughters either. I asked her why and she said she thought they were ugly. At this point, you’d have thought I might have guessed the direction the conversation was going but, no, I blundered on and asked “Oh, really? I find them really pretty. Why do you think they’re ugly?” Miss Chatterbox screwed up her face and said “Well, their hair is OK but their faces….yuk! They’re too black!” Hmmm, guess whose parents are racist?!
I can’t say that I was exactly surprised by this confession but, to be honest, I just wasn’t expecting it on Day One. I wanted to point out that such a comment could really hurt somebody’s feelings and that all skin colors are beautiful, but I didn’t feel comfortable saying this to child I’d just met. I didn’t feel that I’d quite earned that right. I didn’t let it go entirely (I said something like “Well, hmmm, I think they’re very pretty” and then I just quickly moved on) but I felt bad for not addressing it more.
When I first encountered racism between minority groups, I must say that I was a bit surprised. I really expected Latinos and African-Americans to be “brothers and sisters” against oppression but this is apparently not the case. In fact, inter-minority racism is as old as the hills in the US. Check out this extract from the following text (written in 1808 but dealing with life in pre-Revolutionary Upstate New York). The author, Anne Grant, a Scottish-American is writing about the Native American view of slaves:
“It is a singular circumstance, that though they saw the negroes in every respectable family not only treated with humanity, but cherished with parental kindness*, they always regarded them with contempt and dislike, as an inferior race, and would have no communication with them” (Memoirs of An American Lady, with Sketches of Manners and Scenes in America that Existed Previous to the Revolution).
Sigh. Sometimes I think it would be easier to move back to the “motherland” where I wouldn’t have to deal with race issues…just people who are pasty and unattractive!
* “Treated with humanity”? “Cherished with parental kindness”? Yup, Mrs. Anne Grant is an apologist for slavery alright!