The Race Matters column spoke to WW-P students about their experiences with stereotypes and assumptions in the classroom. Here’s what they had to say.
Edward Simon Cruz
We cannot control our assumptions. When they arise within us, it is normal for us to act on them as if they are true. Coupled with an unwillingness to investigate whether our assumptions are true or even appropriate, we sometimes fill the blanks in ourselves, regardless of whether our interpretations are correct.
Assumptions are everywhere, confining minds to only part of the true story. But they are especially unique in school environments, where a teacher makes an assumption about a student. When this happens, there are factors that a student can and cannot control. Students have control of their actions and their choices. But they can’t control their race, their ethnicity, their personal circumstances. It is exactly these factors, ones out of a student’s control, that mold the ways in which schools function for students of color. Judgements are made, allowing internal biases and stereotypes to breed within a safe space that is supposedly for all students.
These assumptions voiced by teachers create a sense of distrust and helplessness for students in an environment where they are supposed to feel secure, producing a snowball effect of student resentment towards their learning environment. However, students, in fear of speaking out to their teachers and authority figures, tend to keep their concerns to themselves. Teachers walk away unaware of the effects of their comments, unable to grow from otherwise minimal student feedback.
With the loss of this safe space, the question, then, is what we should, or rather should not, assume about students based on their race, ethnicity, or culture. In an effort to answer this question, we spoke to WW-P students about their experiences with stereotypes and assumptions in the classroom.
Assuming their nationality or place of birth.
“‘What are your future dreams?’
It was the first day of school, and as an opening activity, my teacher decided to do an icebreaker. I pondered for a moment, thinking about what my answer would be. When it was finally my turn to speak, I told my teacher that I wanted to be the President of the United States. Expecting my teacher to make a small comment and move on, I was shocked when my teacher laughed at me. Wondering what was so funny, I gave him a puzzling look. “You can be President, but you will have to change the Constitution first because only those born in the U.S. can be president,” was my teacher’s explanation. I was confused. I was born in the United States. Why did he think I wasn’t? I realized it was what I looked like that had led my teacher to think that I wasn’t born in the United States. He hadn’t even asked me if I was born here. He just assumed I wasn’t because of my appearance.”
Assuming students celebrate a certain holiday because of their race
“We had been talking about holidays that day. Our teacher was going down the list of holidays that the students in our class might celebrate. Christmas, Yom Kippur, Halloween… My teacher looked at me and the one other black student in the class, telling us that we would know the next holiday. I had no idea what holiday we would know that no one else would.
‘This holiday is called Kwanzaa,’ my teacher exclaimed while smiling at us.
My classmates turned to look at me, expecting an explanation. But I didn’t have one. I asked my teacher what Kwanzaa was, and she looked confused.
‘What do you mean? You celebrate Kwanzaa, right?’ I felt just as confused as she looked. Had someone told her that I celebrated Kwanzaa? I replied saying that I didn’t celebrate it. My teacher paused for a moment and then resumed her spiel about what Kwanzaa was. Eventually everyone stopped looking at me, but I continued to sit there, puzzling. Once I got home, I asked my parents.
‘We don’t celebrate Kwanzaa,’ my dad responded. ‘Kwanzaa is usually celebrated by African Americans who live in America. We are Caribbean American, so we don’t celebrate Kwanzaa.’
I thought about his response for a second, before it dawned on me. My teacher assumed I celebrated Kwanzaa because of my race.”
Assuming that a student is not in the correct class because of their race
“I remember one time during my sophomore year when I walked into my honors chemistry class, the teacher asked if I was in the wrong classroom. I told her that I was supposed to be there; however, she questioned me further. When I showed her my schedule, she was shocked and silently allowed me to take my seat. I guess she assumed that because of external factors, I wasn’t supposed to be in that class, which was very disheartening to me.”
Assuming that a student is knowledgeable about a subject because of their race
“That day in class, we were talking about Emmett Till. To be honest, I didn’t enjoy talking about topics like those; I found them very difficult for me to listen to. But, I knew that they were important topics to discuss. My teacher was getting ready to launch into the story of Emmett Till, so I prepared myself to hear the story. But before she did so, she turned to me and said, ‘Please correct me if I say anything wrong.’ I froze. Rather than confessing that I wouldn’t be of any help, I just smiled and nodded, already knowing that I would keep my mouth shut. I didn’t know any more about Emmett Till than the next person in my class, even though I was the only black student. I was worried that she was going to call on me to answer a question, but thank goodness, she didn’t. However, I was nervous about it the entire time.”
Ultimately, the consequences of our assumptions are ruled by how well we control them. It’s by noticing our internal biases and recognizing internalized stereotypes that we can actively work towards changing our behavior.
So, when a student says they want to be President of the United States, ask the student where they are from or say nothing at all.
When topics like Kwanzaa arise, avoid asserting your assumption that all Black people celebrate it.
When a student comes into class, recognize your internal biases and digested stereotypes about their race before acting on your assumption that they are in the wrong class.
When discussing racial injustice or culture, don’t expect a person of color to be an expert.
Assumptions are a part of our human nature, a response we make when something is new or unfamiliar. But assumptions are dangerous. They ostracize, they categorize, they devalue. So the next time you catch yourself making an assumption, realize that it comes from your personal experiences, influences, and opinions, and that projecting them onto other people is hurtful and unjust. It’s only when you rid yourself of your preconceived notions, when you separate expectation and reality, that learning and growth can be achieved.
Picture Source: Keith Negley / Learning for Justice