When I interviewed for my current job teaching ninth- and 10th-grade English in the Minneapolis Public Schools, I was asked this question: How would I respond to a Black or Brown student telling me that I could never truly understand their experience or their identity?
It was a difficult question, and one that—as a second-generation Chinese-American raised in mostly White environments—I had not fully considered. Unprepared for the question, I failed to offer a coherent response. Since that interview, though, I have had to routinely confront this question as I look out at a classroom full of faces that look different from my own.
The school in which I teach has historically been half Black and half White. In recent years, we have enrolled a growing number of Latinx and Native students, reflecting the increasing diversity of the state. However, despite this trend, we still have very few Asian students, and as a result, nearly all of my students face the unenviable task of deciphering—through close scrutiny of my words and actions—whether or not the adult charged with their care and education actually has their back.
I know they are doing this, because it is exactly what I have done (and continue to do) in countless educational, professional and social situations over the course of my life.
Does the Color of the Teacher Matter?
The shortage of teachers of color nationwide has been well documented. Here in Minneapolis, where over two-thirds of students are of color, only 16 percent of teachers are of color. Statewide, teachers of color make up a mere 4 percent of the workforce.
Equally well-documented are the benefits—academic and social—of having teachers of color in culturally diverse school settings: improved attendance, higher test scores and lower rates of disciplinary referrals. But, for as important as it is to question how to best recruit and retain teachers of color, we should also consider a question of equal importance: does it matter which color?
The answer for me has been a resounding yes.
As an Asian educator of primarily Black and White students, I navigate a complex minefield of racial politics. Asian-Americans, and Chinese-Americans in particular (the monolithic label Asian itself, is problematic), occupy a peculiar position in the racial spectrum of America, straddling a divide.
On one side, we are held up as “model minorities,” lauded for our educational and socioeconomic success and often conflated with White Americans. Conversations about the achievement gap or discipline disparities, for example, regularly group Black and Brown students into one category and White and Asian students into the other.
On the other side, however, lies the pernicious price we pay for this preferential status: the expectation of silence, invisibility and deference to systems that still regard us as less than. As an example of White America’s erasure and mockery of Asian-Americans, look no further than Fox News’ recent, racist election segment shot in Chinatown.
Thus, Asian-Americans’ position in the racial hierarchy of America is this: We are extended preferential status in that hierarchy in return for our complicity in upholding its frame.
What I Bring Into My Classroom Each Day
This implicit bargain—and the unspoken expectations attached to it—is what I bring into my classroom each day. I must contend with the ways in which the “model minority” stereotype has been unfairly and illogically used to blame African Americans for persisting social and economic inequality (“If Asians can do it, why can’t they?”). I must continually account for the ways in which I possess some of the privileges of Whiteness while permanently wearing the mark of “Other.”
More than anything, though, I must reconcile my singular position in a multiracial classroom with our country’s long history of using race as a wedge to divide marginalized groups. At this point in my career, I do not know how to do these things, only that I must.
However, my position also affords me the ability to give a uniquely honest response to that original question: How would I respond to a Black or Brown student telling me that I could never truly understand their experience or their identity?
It allows me to concede that no, I could never truly understand a Black or Brown student’s experiences, but that our experiences might overlap in meaningful ways. It also allows me to contend—without condescension—that just as my students have much to offer me, so too might I have something of value to offer them. Only from this orientation can I interrogate the anti-Blackness I have seen and experienced in many Asian spaces while also embracing a rich (but overlooked) history of Black-and-Asian allyship.
Only from this stance can I acknowledge, then challenge, my own educational biases—cemented from years spent in mostly White schools—toward Eurocentric curriculum and social norms.
I am uncertain how my Black and Brown students view me: as an ally in their struggle for equality, or as yet another educator who neither looks like nor understands them. I imagine that the answer is not one or the other, but neither, both, or it depends on the student and the day.
What I do know is that, for all my effort, I will never truly understand their experiences and identities unless I continually examine my own.