Many of us hold on to certain memories from our childhood school days for the rest of our lives — our own parents and grandparents likely have their own stories to tell as well, when things were simpler and more innocent. Sometimes these memories are exceptionally good, but other times they are hurtful or even traumatic and they have the power to stay with us from childhood into adulthood. From all of the Asian American men and women I’ve spoken to over the years, we’ve all got our fair share of the latter.
For Asian children growing up in Western countries, growing pains means far more than just puberty and school drama. It means racially motivated bullying and it means being forced to grow thicker skin in order to cope. Schools can be a breeding ground for racist narratives and teachers oftentimes determine whether these ideas are stopped in their tracks or exacerbated even further. Many times without knowing, or caring, these teachers play a huge role in a child’s development.
I remember how much I adored my 4th grade art teacher — her kind smile, gentle voice and bubbly nature made me want to be just like her. Most children grow up admiring at least one teacher in their lives, this isn’t unusual, but maybe they even start to see them as role models and subconsciously mimic their traits and behaviors. Whether it’s preschool, high school or even university, we look to our teachers to be the authority figures and to guide our moral compasses, especially as young children.
In high school, I had one teacher who stuck out from all the rest. Despite being an older white woman, she would dedicate several lessons in her English classes to talking about race and privilege, no matter how uncomfortable it got for her white students. “Do you think you can be racist towards a white person?” I remember her asking the class. As the majority Caucasian classroom began looking around, with some students furiously nodding, she interrupted by confidently stating, “No, absolutely not. Reverse racism is not and will never be real. It doesn’t exist.”
For weeks, she patiently yet fiercely debated with her students, teaching about race and class — topics so many educators gloss over out of pure laziness — and not once did she take on a “savior” narrative. For the white students, the discussions began as defensive and in denial, but after weeks of her efforts, more of them began to see her point. The discussions became far more respectful, both in and outside of the classroom and students began to understand the importance of admitting privilege.
I think back to her class all the time, about how lucky I was to have such a brilliant woman as a teacher and how I wish every POC could grow up with a figure like her. But of course, this isn’t the case for most.
That same year, I had a white male teacher who embodied every toxic trait you can imagine. He would taunt his Asian students with a mock Asian accent and broken English, label Black men as “thugs” and call under-aged girls “sluts” for failing to dress as conservatively as he wished — all of this in front of his impressionable students, in every class.
For four years I had this man as my teacher and for four years I saw him make POC students cry. Most notably, I saw him violate vulnerable, young Asian girls’ personal space — making suggestive comments, holding their faces too close to his, stroking their backs and grabbing their waists and the side of their rib cages; memories I’ll never forget.
It was almost uncanny how this behavior replicated itself in his students. Soon enough, male students in his class began throwing around the same racially insensitive jokes, slut-shaming women and grabbing them without consent. Despite only being one teacher, his toxic influence on his students was far greater than he could have imagined. He didn’t have to utter a single word because his behavior alone sent the message to his students that this was acceptable.
Looking back, it’s easy to see that this man was a bigoted and manipulative figure — it would be very difficult to argue otherwise. However, an educator doesn’t necessarily need to be so outwardly hateful and vile to send the same message.
Years later, I ended up attending one of the “Whitest” universities in the U.K. with an overwhelming percentage of middle to upper class Caucasian students. While I’ve been confronting debates about racial inequalities my entire life, I was shocked to discover many of these students have never even spoken to another person from an East Asian background. In this setting, our professors and lecturers became the gatekeepers to discussions about racial biases.
In one debate-based class, the white female lecturer threw out a question for a room full of white students and three ethnic minority students to discuss — are certain acts of yellow/brown/black face acceptable?
As myself and the two other non-white students argued against 15 or more other students who struggled to grapple with the idea that wearing yellow and Black face in any setting is harmful and unacceptable and insisted that minorities were being “too sensitive,” it felt as if we were being fed to the wolves. I tried looking at the lecturer, attempting to make eye contact, but this woman was barely looking up from her piece of paper, I’m not sure she even cared how the discussion went.
To that professor, I’m sure this hour-long seminar was just another requirement on her curriculum that she can now cross off. And sure enough, we never talked about race again in that module.
By mediating these conflicts as a neutral onlooker, teachers are turning a blind eye and leaving POC students to fend for themselves in a debate they initiated. At the end of the day, while learning about race and what is right or wrong may just be a curriculum to white teachers, for ethnic students, it’s our entire lives. We’re constantly expected to educate our white peers on behalf of our teachers and defend what we should or shouldn’t be offended by. Yes, talking about race is important, and yes, these debates need to take place — but educators need to be prepared to take initiative and be active, blunt participants in these discussions just like my high school English teacher had been. Because in these situations, remaining neutral is nowhere near enough.
All educators need to realize that their actions, no matter how small or mundane, have consequences. As children and young adults, students of all ages are highly impressionable and academia is where we pick up on many of our habits, beliefs and behaviors that will carry on into adulthood. Of course being outwardly toxic, misogynistic and racist is harmful, that’s obvious. However, remaining passive and neutral in a classroom discussion on racial inequalities isn’t that much better. Both actions imply to white students that holding bigoted beliefs and dismissing painful experiences of POC students are acceptable behaviors.
Many educators I’ve met over the years seem to take pride in creating our future. In my experience, many of these role models take their influence seriously — inspiring young people to be more accepting and knowledgeable than the generations that came before. I can only hope more teachers, lecturers and professors begin to realize they need to do the same.