3 Things to Remember as the Only Minority Teacher in the Room

October 13, 2015

students of color

Photo by Attila Kisbendek

I attend a predominantly white university aimed to train teachers for a metro area. Within my cohort, I am the only East Asian American, and within my subject area, the only minority student, period. This makes for conflicted feelings in classroom discussions, as I believe my classmates really want to make a difference in the schools they work for. However, at the same time, a major issue in today’s education system is the scarcity of minority teachers in the classroom, especially when it comes to low-income schools where minority students make up the majority of the class. When I think about my childhood, I had no teachers of color until high school. Even then, there was not one minority teacher in the common core, perhaps only a handful in the entire school. Low motivation in the classroom can be attributed to many factors, but given the diversity of the student population, a homogenous faculty is certainly a correlation. Students need mentors and teachers who can relate to their experiences, not just comprehension in a subject area. Even white students can benefit from humanizing the Other in the classroom, especially a minority person in a place of authority. 

If you are in the predicament of being the token minority educator, how do you proceed in the workplace and classroom? No matter the sticky conversation or ridiculous comments you hear as an AAPI teacher (“Students should all learn the same way,” “I don’t want to focus on race,” “That’s not the issue here” to name a few), remember that visibility is one huge step to approaching more tolerant educators. These are some points I have found effective and straightforward in making race salient rather than a glossed over issue.

Draw Attention to In-group/Out-group Speak

When people attempt to tackle race ideologies, they may slip into comparisons of “us” versus “them.” This speech assumes that groups are based off of race rather than ideas or principles, so it’s best to avoid alienating words altogether. When talking with a fellow student, try to make visible what he or she said and how it can be misconstrued as isolating by students of color. No one wants to be the “them” in a situation where “us” is so inclusive and familiar. It should always be “we.” You’ll be less likely to say something negative or accusatory if the pronouns you use include you in the situation. “We are going to change things.” “We’re going to make a difference.” Not only does this sound empowering to the group involved, it also makes the classroom inclusive. In tense scenarios, using “we” may diffuse the situation, since it reminds students and teachers alike to be supportive of each other. 

Don’t “Relieve” the Other

A peer in one of our classes talked about “relieving the Other” when speaking on behalf of students dealing with issues of race, sexual orientation, and religion in schools. This speech targets unique traits of students as problems instead of self-expression. It silences minority students without ever giving them a chance to share their stories. This ideology of getting rid of what makes people different is akin to arguments for colorblindness.  “Relieving” someone’s differences makes you feel as if your problems are insignificant, even invisible. Students may feel like their experiences don’t matter at all, providing grounds for low self-esteem and depression. Mainstream audiences want to eliminate issues like race to make themselves more comfortable. After all, if you fail to acknowledge race, you can pretend it doesn’t exist. Educators cannot make their students feel invisible by ignoring their differences. 

Actively Listen

Oftentimes, I find myself eager to interrupt a colleague when I assume they introduce a subject with racial biases. On the contrary, many times my peers piece together what they’re thinking out loud, not really conscious of what exactly they say word for word. In these instances, I let them form their argument, placing more worth on closing statements. Try to observe for tone, and gauge the seriousness of comments before carefully choosing a response. As a minority student, it’s easier for others to stereotype you as the only model in the setting. In a way, the few minority students in the class are pressured to act almost as “ambassadors” of the race issue. Regardless of the unfairness of this responsibility, it pays to approach conversations diplomatically instead of combatively. When responding, bringing up concrete examples usually helps buffer abstract beliefs. So, consider if someone says to you, “Race doesn’t even matter in schools,” when talking about low achievement. You could say, “Actually, I believe it is due to this longitudinal study. So-and-so researcher also details several accounts of low self-esteem due to racial bullying.” By bringing up the actual statistics and solid examples, you can de-bunk groundless opinions. 

Regardless of reactions, don’t be afraid to discuss issues of race in the classroom because helps the class to pay attention to the implications of their words and privileged language use. As more teachers understand the importance of supporting each student as learners, more students will be encouraged to stay in the education field. Recognizing the struggles of minority students can promote more learning and tolerance for a spectrum of human experience. Once we refuse to alienate, that’s when we truly educate.