| Seeing is believing: A plea for representation in schools
Representation is essential, yet for some it is an unbelievable dream. My dream is to have positive representation of each and every child all over. How does one forge an image of oneself?: As one sees oneself portrayed.
I am biracial, often considered white. My appearance: light-skin, light brown hair with natural blond highlights, and light brown eyes.
Despite my experience being a minority student in predominantly white schools for my entire life, I never necessarily thought of myself as any different than my peers, but I do notice that I have never read a book that truly represented me. I have never seen a book that mirrors me, my family, my life. Not until recently, did I think back upon my experiences and realize that my schools have never really taken many steps to empower minority students. My empowerment and confidence stemmed from my family.
I was fascinated by Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett’s (Viral Immunologist and Research Fellow at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases) contributions to the COVID-19 vaccine, so I decided to research her background. I found that she had mentioned in an April, 2020 article with reporters from Black Enterprise, that she had never seen a Black scientist until she worked in a UNC-Chapel Hill lab where there was a Black PhD student who was her mentor. She mentions that seeing that Black male scientist, reminded her that she really could do this. I was astonished at reading that: I went to my mom and shared that Dr. Corbett had never seen a Black scientist before and how awful I felt that was. My mother turned it back to me, and said, well have you? My mother had not when she was younger, or even really now. I racked my brain trying to come up with someone and I finally said “you.” It was a bit of a stretch. My mother is a doctor, which is not exactly a scientist in the same way that Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett is a scientist, all though both careers often lack representation. This made me realize that the fact that I always seemed to accredit my belief that Black people were successful—although not always shared in my community, to seeing successful Black people, just was not true. I, like my peers, had not truly seen successful Black people either, I just got to live with a diverse family.
When all I see are books that don’t represent people like me, or have negative representation, I don’t grow up thinking that my family is accepted in society, much less me. When you never see yourself in the media, it’s like society wants to forget that people like you exist.
In school we often watch documentaries regarding underprivileged citizens of the United States and of other countries who are people of color. Perhaps schools do this to make us educated about people who may be different from us, but personally, I believe this just serves to further ostracize those individuals in the minds of my classmates. One such experience with these types of “diverse” curriculum choices has always been ingrained in my mind as a painful memory. My seventh grade social studies class studied U.S. History, yet time was taken to negatively represent the citizens of other countries. In this case: Haitians. The documentary portrayed them making mud cookies and eating them for meals. I understand that this is a true depiction of some, but it is not the sole thing that identifies these humans. As a Haitian-American child, it hurt to see the people of my grandparents’ country depicted as unintelligent beings. While this might be a different connotation than intended by the producers of the film, it still was what my classmates saw. And what was the point of that documentary? To feed the stereotypes of Black people that my classmates already thought? There was never another film showing the accomplishments of Haitians both in Haiti or of Haitian immigrants. Instead, we were left with the lasting image of Haitians that my classmates would continue to ridicule.
These one-off attempts at diversifying the school curriculum are something that I have grown accustomed to. Most people simply won’t take the initiative to diversify their learning and to listen to diverse perspectives. Schools have the power to change people’s opinions and to provide them with diverse options.
When I was in elementary school, there was this one series, about a character named Ruby Booker that I particularly loved. I searched the bins for the other books in that series when it was reading time, because I loved reading about this Black girl and her Black family who just lived normal lives. No one else in my class read that series, but I was called to it, because each book showed that picture of Ruby smiling and doing normal things that I could relate to. The connection I felt with Ruby’s fictional life was not because she is Black, but because she loved gymnastics and because she went to school, just like me and played with her friends at recess. While I may have been called to this book, my classmates might have avoided it because they did not want to read about a Black girl who in their minds was so different from them. Schools can improve this thought process of thinking that Black people are so different than their counterparts of other races. Classrooms can provide an abundance of literature from diverse authors and featuring diverse stories. Maybe my school could have gone as far as to look through each of our reading bags and made sure that we each chose books featuring diverse perspectives that differed from that of the child who was reading it. Teachers can ask a student about their interests and instead of instantly handing them the book that features a smiling reflection of them on the cover, hand them two books. One that features the smiling reflection and one that has a main character with the same interests as the child, but reflects a different culture: maybe the culture of their classmates. Schools need to provide more than just an option, but facilitate discussion, and create assignments so that everybody learns about different people’s perspectives.
So many of my experiences and the experiences of others that dealt with culturally unaware people should not have happened. Schools should teach people to be culturally aware and to make an effort to understand. People are curious and that’s okay, but it is not okay to be insensitively curious. Regardless of the intention, it can be a harmful experience that could have been prevented. Resources to enable people to be culturally aware and considerate are available, but they need to be readily available and actively present in schools.
What if I had not had a family to turn to and discuss these experiences with? What if I had to just listen to people say and do these things without having a support system to back me up and listen to my perspective. While I am lucky to have wonderful role models in my home who have always encouraged me to believe in myself and choose my own path, imagine those who don’t. For those individuals, I can only imagine that solely seeing demeaning representation of those close to them, and of themselves, is enough to diminish hope in their abilities.
On average, American children spend six hours a day in school(California Department of Education, https://www.cde.ca.gov/fg/aa/pa/instructionaltimetable.asp). Those six hours are one-fourth of each day for five out of the seven days in a week: coming to a grand total of 30 hours a week of schooling. The point is not to put an emphasis upon the length of time that we spend in school, but what we as students are subjected to during those 30 hours per week. American children spend the majority of the hours that they are awake during the week in school, and when they are not in school, they are often hanging out with their friends from school or at home.
The curriculum in schools has to change. Especially now, while we are experiencing the effects of the coronavirus it is essential to positively represent people of color in everyday life. Due to the pandemic, schools everywhere are shortening the length of educational classes to limit the time on screens, or to limit the amount of exposure to other people in person. With an even shorter length of classes in schools, it is pertinent that we utilize every minute to educate and share the accomplishments of every person.
Schools need a balance of books positively featuring every race and U.S. History classes need to not just talk about history from a white perspective, but from the perspective of every person who lived and does live in the United States. We should learn about these inspiring people every day of the year, and not just during a month dedicated to a discussion of certain groups. There is no white history month because white successes are frequently mentioned. Their successes are celebrated and they are encouraged to succeed. This encouragement not just in words, but in actions. Schools need to take these steps, these actions, to support each and every child and to make sure that everyone knows that their contributions are valued and that the education system wants them to succeed.
My school saying that they do not tolerate derogatory and discriminative behavior is very different from seeing proof that they do not. It is different when I see proof that they support and bring up people of color, rather than say that such behavior will not be tolerated. My educators saying that if anything were to happen, they would “deal with it” means absolutely nothing to me, because I have experienced the everyday curriculum that we are subjected to, and I have seen the lack of diversity. As far as I knew, my school believed it to be acceptable for people to share demeaning ideas regarding underrepresented people. The phrase seeing is believing includes one powerful combination of three words in the English language. I ask people to share and continue to share this phrase until it is listened to, and heard for the actions it demands. Visual representation of every single child is necessary, not just for that one child, but for everyone to acknowledge that child’s worth.
I’m tired of people talking to me about certain subjects, stating their point of view and then it’s like something clicks in their minds and they backtrack suddenly, realizing that maybe I would be offended by what they said or maybe that I just don’t want to hear their complaints about having to read a required book about a Black girl’s life and her experiences. Sometimes I try to point out the fault in their statements and discuss why it was inconsiderate of them to say that, and other times I just don’t bother. It should not be my role nor the role of other minority students to stick up for themselves. School is not a place where we should have to focus on anything other than learning.
The constitution requires that states with public schools must allow all children residing within the state to have free access to education. How does an education serve everyone when not everyone is represented?