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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Conferences: 1

Conferences were a lot of fun. I really enjoyed them. My interpreter decided my Spanish was too good, so left me for the majority of the conferences. She stayed to help with a few that required more in depth discussions of issues.

One parent brought up an issue that I had not previously been aware of at all.

The child, like all but one of my students, is Latino - Mexican specifically, but has a very fair complexion. His brother calls him "el güero," (meaning, essentially, "one with a fair complexion") as do other students occasionally when not in the classroom. I was under the impression that this was generally a form of endearment or a statement of fact. (In Mexico, my host mother often refered to that fact that I was very "güera," like her daughter, so needed to be sure to use sunscreen or wear a hat. There were other times, too, that my classmates would be talking about something and simply state the fact that I was "güera," because it is true. I am fair skinned.)

His mom said that the other kids make fun of him for being lighter skinned and having green eyes. She said they tell him that he's not really Mexican, that he can't really be Mexican with his pale skin and lighter hair. They accuse him of being too American (in a bad way). She thinks this is related to the other children's parent's resentment of white people because of their racism toward Latinos/as. (Many of the conservative whites living here in the desert are very anti-immigrant.) She's afraid that he is starting to resent his own Mexican/Mexican-American culture because his peers are pushing him away and establishing him as an "other," not one who belongs with the rest of them.

She said he wants to be a police officer when he grows up and she is afraid he is going to unfairly take out his anger/agression on people (Latino/a people, I think she was insinuating) due to his growing anger and resentment now toward his peers. This last part I didn't entirely understand, but I do get that she is worried that whatever is going on now is going to have a lasting negative impact on his cultural pride and own well being.

I want to do something about this, but I'm not sure what. There were many issues brought up in this conversation, but dealing just with this child's feeling of exclusion is my first goal. There are several other students who, like him, speak Spanish at home, come from Mexican or Mexican-American households, and are fair skinned. I'm not sure why the students would be picking on him in particular as opposed to the others. I also have not seen this happening at all in the classroom, though that doesn't mean that it is not happening in the classroom. Just that I haven't observed it or picked up the students' possibly subtle actions. (Though really, they're 6, so their actions can't be too incredibly subtle.) While this could be happening in the classroom, it's probably happening more at lunch and recess when there is less supervision.

I can't think of any book or song that says, "I'm a fair-skinned person, but I'm still Latino and proud!" There are plenty of materials that I could find that say, "I'm Latino and my skin is brown and my hair and eyes are brown and I am proud."

And it's ironic (maybe?) in a way because, well, it tends to be the fair-skinned people who get the prominent roles in Mexican film and television. There are plenty of famous Latino/a actors and singers who are fair-skinned. And of course, many of the Mexican politicians are fair skinned too. Like in many countries - the few who are pale, who look more "European," are those who tend to control the country (economically or politically). So, where this child to live in Mexico, he might have an advantage. Fitting in with his classmates though, he feels like an outsider.

I'm basically at a loss as to what I should do about this. I will keep my eyes and ears open for other students saying or doing something like the mother described. It very well could be happening. But at the same time, it also could be that he said something to her once, and she read a lot more into it than really existed. The mother made it sound as if everyone was ganging up against him. If that were true, wouldn't I have seen something? There could be a few students though, saying things to him, accusing him of not being Mexican enough to really be Mexican.

I've been thinking about this for a week now, trying to figure out what I can do about it - how I can help. This feels different to me than a standard form of exclusion because it is someone being excluded from a group that he is part of. It's not a white student not being included because he/she is white and comes from a different cultural and linguistic background than the majority Latino/a and Spanish-speaking students in the class. It is a Latino student feeling excluded from the group he is a part of. Really, it shouldn't be that different than any other type of exclusion, but I'm having a hard time figuring out what to do about it - how to go about developing a lesson or a series of lessons dealing with this type of issue.

Coincidently, I was talking with someone the other day about young children's perceptions of race and gender. This person is a PhD candidate in education, and is teaching an undergraduate class to elementary education program students. Her undergraduate students didn't believe that young children should be or could be exposed to social justice issues. Having never really worked with young children (she has worked with mostly college-aged students) she thought and believed that even primary-school-aged students should be exposed to discussions and lessons on social justice, but didn't have any concrete examples of how or why. I gave her a few examples to share with her students, but I think this is another strong example. As I said to her before, children - even young children - can see race and gender the same way high school students and college students can. Even six-year-olds have misconceptions, can be influenced by their parents, and can develop misconceptions of their own. Because of this, even first graders (and younger, too) can and should be exposed to both tangential and deliberate discussions of race and gender.


Blogger Sra. Profe said...

I've been exposed to what your student is going through.

I grew up in a South American country, where the vast majority of people are "white." I never knew I was "Hispanic" until we moved to the US and had to check a box when we registered for school. Most countries in South America had a strong influx of European immigrants, so many, if not most, people in the country are fair-skinned. The lower classes have more indian blood in them, so they will be darker-skinned (will look like your typical "Hispanic"), but, as you said, the people in power will be "white."

In high school I was a National Hispanic Merit Scholar Finalist, and a friend of my sisters, who was darker-skinned but had never lived outside of Texas, was angry with me. I couldn't be "Hispanic" because I was white - even though up until a couple years before, I had lived in a South American country.

The school where I work now is about 50% Hispanic, and the kids talk about race openly (where I went to school - high school and college - we didn't talk about race, because talking about it made you racist... and almost everybody was white, so there). The kids are a little thrown off by me - I speak without an accent, they can tell I'm not a gringa, but I'm "white." Because I look white. (My brown hair and eyes come from my mom, the Yankee; everyone on my dad's side, the SA family, had blonde hair and blue/green eyes. A lady I worked with could not get over the fact that my dad, who was South American, had blue eyes.) One of my kids asked me how "white" I was. I explained my background, and it was hard for them to understand that I was indeed Hispanic, but I look "white." I tried to explain that "white" is not an ethnicity, it's really a "none of the above." Also, "Hispanic" can be any color - it also really bugs me when my students say, "No, miss, I can't speak Spanish - I'm black!" Oh, really? Wanna come with me to Haiti, or Cuba, or the Dominican Republic?

SO, my point being... OK, I'm not sure what the point is. Maybe the student is not under constant harrassment, maybe his peers have only mentioned once or twice that he's white or fairer than the rest of them; maybe his classmates have only mentioned it as something interesting, but he took it the wrong way; maybe even the parents are "helping" him see it the wrong way by asking leading questions, I don't know... But I guess my point is that it does happen. My feelings aren't hurt, but my high school students will tell me I'm white, I can't be Hispanic. I find it a little irritating because having grown up in a Spanish-speaking country should give me credibility with these kids, because I'm their Spanish teacher, but they toss the facts aside because of the color of my skin (and because I don't have an accent in English). The way harrassment works, what matters is not what the person saying it meant, but what the person receiving it felt - if the kid feels "harrassed" or excluded, then he is being harrassed. Have you asked him how he feels about it? What he thinks the other kids are saying/thinking?

I know you don't have any extra time in your day (with everything hte state orders you to do), but it might be a good idea to give a lesson on skin color. To talk abot race, because it is a fact, whether we talk about it or not, and chances are these kids are going to have to deal with it their whole lives. Might as well eliminate the taboo and talk about it, and explain that Latinos come in all shades. Point out those Latin artists who are Hispanic, but "white" (Juanes, Shakira), and those who are Hispanic but "black" (the only ones I can think of now are the gentlemen from the Buena Vista Social Club, but I doubt your first-graders will know who they are!) You can even show pictures of Fujimori, president of Peru (in the 80s? 90s?), who was Asian. Explain the difference between race (genetics, physical features) and ethnicity (culture). Then again, as I'm writing this I realize this might be a little over a first-grader's head (the genetics v. culture stuff)... but, then again again, children are usually smarter and able to comprehend more than we give them credit for.

I agree that children should be exposed to issues of race and gender. They are already exposed to it, I'm sure, by walking down the street, going to the grocery store, etc. If we pretend what they see is not happening, we are adding to the problem and doing those children a disservice. If we openly talk about it, we can educate them and prepare the future generation to be more open-minded than the current one, and hopefully put an end to the ignorant discrimination and racism in our schools and our society. (The community where I teach is pretty racist as well, thanks to immigration issues, and it really bugs me. Can you tell?)

2:01 PM  
Blogger Not Quite Grown Up... said...

Thank you for responding, Sra. Profe. I definitely will make time and find ways to talk about this with my class. As I said in the above post - it kind of works really nicely with discussion about the election, too.

8:21 PM  

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