At The Intersection of Structural Racism, Teaching Limitations, and Special Education

Guest post on structural racism in international educational environments, offering a view from the perspective of a marginalized student and a special education teacher.
Amanda Hansel, M.Ed blogs on topics in special education and race


hen I was in the first grade, I found and read a Turkish children’s book about a little talking plane. It took two children around the world, stopping at different countries and talking to locals. At one point in the story, the plane flies over Africa. Underneath the text was an illustration of a little black child, half naked, looking up at the sky. The children wanted to land, but the plane warned the children that it wouldn’t be safe to land and talk to the natives. The plane flew over as the children waved.

I reread that part a few times. I remember scratching out the word “friendly plane” and scribbling “pis u├žak”—Turkish for “dirty plane”—on the next page.

That black people, like me and my mother, were thought of as dangerous, or the anger I felt about it, wasn’t new. By the time I was old enough to read, I was very familiar with a variety of racial insults, racist assumptions, and stereotypes, both in English and Turkish. Going to a Turkish public school gave me ample opportunity to review them.
Old School Turkish Children's book targeting
young girls,  where white skin and
straight hair are the idealized girl.
Title translates to Aysegul Boards a
Plane
In case you feel this was somehow state sanctioned, let me clarify. Teachers, administrators, even most of my classmates weren’t out to get me. There wasn’t some grand conspiracy to make the little brown child feel unwelcome in an all-white, all Turkish public school. Honestly, I doubt it would have even occurred to the majority of my teachers to make some sort of racial political statement through me. For most of my teachers in Turkey, I was the first, and perhaps only, black child they’d ever taught. Race wasn’t a filter teachers would have typically used to evaluate my performance, behavior, or personality.
But the daily encounters with race were part of my experience as a student, whether I was in a classroom, on the playground, or reading a book for leisure. It was in the cheap, poorly dubbed, uncensored racist Popeye and Tom & Jerry cartoons from the 1940’s played on national TV every afternoon and on weekends. It was in popular movies where black Turkish speaking actors and actresses were depicted as jolly servants, it was in the blackface on comedy shows. It was every time I left the house with my mother and someone made comments about animals we resembled, assuming we didn’t speak Turkish.
By the time I reached high school, my grades had plummeted in certain subjects. My teachers encouraged me to pursue careers outside my field of interest, steering me away from math and science. Most likely assumed I’d want to do something that would take advantage of my foreign identity and bilingual status. I eventually agreed I was incapable of math, and gave up trying to understand it, regardless of my interest in math-based careers. I struggled with depression, anxiety, and social withdrawal for the rest of my academic life, largely surrounding my self-image. For most of my adolescence, I assumed I was inherently stupider, uglier, and weaker than my peers, and that my only advantage—speaking English—came about by accident of birth.
This wasn’t solely a racial issue, of course, and at the time I doubt I would have seen it as racial at all. Nobody else around me did. This was my personal failing. Why wouldn’t it be? I had some amazing teachers in elementary school, and some terrible ones. I doubt any of them would have cited race or racism around me as any sort of deciding factor in my academics. Since I was a high performing student based on standardized tests and grades, few would have projected I’d fail in high school. Indeed, many adults at the time cited race blindness as a reason why what I was experiencing around me wasn’t racism at all, but a few unfortunate comments by the uneducated. Some indicated I was overly sensitive about the issue, and that in itself was making me anxious, depressed, and under confident.
Many years and miles later, I realize there wasn’t any reason anyone around me would have thought differently. Most—if not all—of my teachers in Turkey had only taught white identified children until they met me. And with 40 other students to teach per class, there wasn’t time, opportunity, or even reason to make exceptions for one child’s experiences over another. Many of my classmates were carrying greater burdens than ugly comments heard on TV, or nasty looks at the park.
Yet, here I am, as an adult, replaying the hundreds of little incidents I encountered every day, before, during, and after school, that eventually ate away at my confidence as a person and a student. While racism wasn’t the overriding problem, it compounded existing ones. The general policy of outright denying racism provided a platform for those problems to continue, without giving me the tools the solve them. When I did voice any concerns about my identity as a person of color, dismissal by mentors and friends didn’t eliminate my feelings of helplessness or inadequacy, but it taught me to be silent about them. Eventually, I’d come up with solutions for my problems. Most would be unhealthy and dangerous.
Hindsight can be a good thing. I can look back and see why I was so desperate to prove myself as a teenager, in all the wrong ways, and how it damaged my schooling. I can read that children’s book with a teacher’s eyes, and see exactly what a child would hate about it. I can see where and how it could do damage to children like me. And I can see where teachers have an opportunity, especially in as diverse a country as the United States, to avoid the pitfalls of denial under the guise of acceptance.
This isn’t some kind of sanctimonious social manifesto. It wasn’t and isn’t a teacher’s job to fix an entire system. I’m on the other side of the desk now—a teacher in a diverse community that still lacks teacher diversity—and I recognize we have little authority, but tremendous responsibility, for how we shape social interactions in our students. But it is our job to build relationships with our students, to understand them as they are, not as we’d like to see them. And we have a responsibility to see how our teaching approach—or lack thereof—regarding racism, racial history, racial diversity can impact a students’ social, emotional, and psychological health.
I hope to discuss some of my experiences with diversity education in the hopes of offering some alternatives to the more damaging policies of “tourism teaching” and race-blindness.


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