When I think about my current life and the activities I am involved in, I can’t help but realize that very few of them revolve around my own culture. The multi-racial friendships I first made in junior high school, quickly turned out to be a life-long trend. Learning about other cultures, religions, and races intrigues me. Having multicultural friendships prompted me to immerse myself in situations where I was the “outsider,” the different one. Putting myself in positions such as the only Caucasian English speaker on my Latina soccer team and Baile Mexico Folklórico dance group, or the only Jewish teacher at my predominantly Latino School has been both extremely enlightening and educational. Allowing myself to be the outsider has also opened my eyes to present day racism. Witnessing the soccer referees verbally assaulting my teammates for speaking Spanish, I find myself surrounded with evidence that racism and intolerance still abound in our society.
“You’re a pobretona!” “A dirty, poor girl!” one of my fourth grade students yelled on the playground. As the teacher in charge, my first reaction is disbelief, as naïve, hurtful words fly out of the nine-year-olds’ mouth. I experienced that same shocking feeling when a student used the “N” word toward another student earlier that year, and when yet a third student sat at his desk doodling swastikas because he had no idea what they were. Even after classroom discussions about how words and images can hurt another person’s feelings, I am left unsatisfied because I know that the person to whom that racial slur was directed will never be the same. That student has been emotionally hurt by a child who simply does not understand the implications of the words he or she is saying. As the teacher, I am never angry at the students who say the degrading comments because often times they are imitating something their parents said, or a phrase they have heard in their predominantly mono-race community.
I believe the answer to ending racism at any age, is integration. If all neighborhoods, jobs, and schools contained a mix of races, it would be much more difficult to hold prejudices against entire cultures and races. If all neighborhoods were integrated, it would be easier to befriend people from multiple races, and there would be a greater probability that children would be invited to different multicultural holidays, grow up more accepting of people who look different, and ultimately, more educated. As a teacher and an advocate for acceptance of all cultures and races, I believe living in a multicultural nation is a privilege and one that should not be overlooked. As an “outsider” in my job and after school activities, I feel as if I am proof of how one person can work towards breaking prejudices. With whomever I interact, my personal qualities shine through: an American, a Caucasian female, and a Jew. I try to educate those around me about my culture and background by just being me. They will learn about my culture and beliefs by listening to how I respond to different topics and answer questions, just as I learn from them.
I recalled an exercise from a college sociology class in which the teacher divided us into seven racially mixed groups. My group consisted of a female Hmong student who explained how, as a bride, she would be purchased; a Hindu student fighting her parents’ pre-arranged marriage in India; a Muslim student deciding how much of her face to cover; a well-off African American fighting black stereotypes, a physically disabled Filipino, and an upper-class gay Caucasian. The objective: simply to ask questions, discuss our cultures and traditions, make new friends, and to learn from each other in a non-threatening setting. We were helping the world become a more tolerant, understanding place in the most ideal way: through education.
I wondered, with so many wonderful qualities of multicultural friendships, how could I push past many of my students’ cultural mono-race traditions and stereotypes, to instill in them the excitement of making multicultural friends? And beyond just my fourth grade class, what words can I say to encourage individuals of all ages to understand the richness and importance of making multicultural friendships?
My students are far from university age, and given the socioeconomic make-up of their neighborhood school, they may not have the multicultural experiences I did growing up. However, it is my job as an educator to open their eyes to the possibilities and value of forming diverse friendships. I want them to view people of different colors, races, and religions as interesting and exciting. If I can get one message across to my students for them to take with them, it would be to extend a hand of friendship, regardless of cultural background.
I challenge you, whatever age or race you may be, to reach out and befriend someone from another race, and not only befriend them, but to learn from them.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.