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  • Roomana Shaikh

We Need More People of Color In Education

“Oh so you speak Arabic” (It’s Urdu)

“That’s Indian right?” (It’s Bengali)

For so long, schools have had a hard time understanding the Asian and Arab communities. All different ethnicities and languages are grouped under one big umbrella. It’s great that the similarities are being celebrated but what about the difficulty of not understanding and not recognizing the struggles and needs of each child because of overgeneralization?

There are many obstacles that the South Asian and Arab communities face and become a barrier between the school and the parents/children. The first is the language and cultural barrier between the students, the parents, and the school. When parents don’t know the second language as well—many students who are first-generation struggle with the native language—it brings a divide and a lack of understanding between the two. Immigrant parents come from fairly conservative backgrounds or have more traditional and religious beliefs. Oftentimes, these contradict Western ideologies that portray growing trends of changes in mentalities and lifestyles. Many South Asian parents have a different way of communicating with children and when there are more barriers put into place, it causes a bigger divide. For one example, when children from immigrant families attend school, they become more fluent in English and are likely to forget their native language. Since parents don’t know the education process their children are dealing with, they have no idea how to help them or how to talk to them about it.

While schools can play a role in mediating this conflict, these institutions don’t do a great job with outreach within these two communities. For starters, there aren’t enough teachers that are familiar with the language and the culture. Many people don’t understand the depth and diversity in each South Asian country. To name one example, you can have two students from India but from two different ethnicities and might not even speak the same language. The same concept applies to people coming from Pakistan and Bangladesh.

I was a student-teacher at a high school in the Bronx that had only one South Asian English teacher (in her first year). I had many Muslim students come up to me excitedly telling me how happy they were to see a hijabi as a teacher. Whenever the majority of the faculty didn’t know how to prepare for events concerning students from different cultural and religious backgrounds, the South Asian English teacher and I stepped up to discuss this further, especially in the case of handling Ramadan with the children. I also noticed that for any school events involving food, the school didn’t accommodate halal food for the students despite there being about 5 halal restaurants within walking distance. The school also held a potluck culture festival during Ramadan in which Muslim students had to participate in. With this being the status quo, it’s no surprise that South Asians and Arabs are generalized into one big group in school, the lack of educational resources presents a greater challenge in navigating through their daily life.

Another issue is that schools aren’t well aware of the many struggles their students might be facing. The South Asian and Arab communities encounter issues that are unique to them hence why there is a need for alternative solutions. For instance, a solution for a concern a white middle-class family’s child is dealing with can not be applied to a South Asian and Arab household. The fact of the matter is that the experiences are subjectively and drastically contrary to one another. Many schools are just unaware of the struggles students might be dealing with and the cultural background is what shapes the obstacles affecting the lives of several students from South Asian and Arab backgrounds.

To illustrate, one struggle several South Asians face is body dysmorphia, which is very prevalent among South Asian women. Many South Asian women are confronted by comments on their appearance that come directly from their primary family members and their community members. Much of this stems from the collective culture that’s fairly dominant in South Asian cultures, unlike the themes of individualism that has a stronghold on Western culture.

Another example is students having to work because many South Asian parents also financially provide for their relatives back home. Students hold a lot of pressure to do things right and are successful not only for themselves but to help their parents and extended family. The lack of cultural awareness and understanding of the South Asian experience is what paves the path for microaggressions to appear in an academic setting. One of the many generalizations South Asians hear daily is that their natural proficiency in Science and Math automatically means that they don’t need these resources because they aren’t facing “real struggles.” This very notion is problematic because it asserts an expectation for South Asian children to achieve perfection and nothing but that.

Additionally, numerous South Asians deal with the concerns of marriage proposals as they tend to come about when the community believes that they’ve “come of age.” Generally speaking, Western schools unfamiliar with these cultural norms might pass ignorant judgment by not understanding the depth of history behind these issues is a common topic of concern for these communities.

Photo Credit: Ritika Banerjee Feminism in India

All of these concerns are by-products of intergenerational trauma that persists within South Asian and Arab households even to this day. This requires a certain level of understanding so that bridge can be established between professionals and educators and the students. However, due to the lack of South Asians in education and lack of outreach and knowledge, many students and families don’t receive proper resources or help. When you overgeneralize a community that is so diverse, you dismiss many issues that might be right under your nose. Especially when the community is constantly seen as a “model minority.” Their academic success is emphasized so much that schools ignore any issues they are dealing with. A student could be in honors but battling depression and anxiety and teachers didn’t see the signs. A student could be dealing with eating disorders and teachers or schools have no idea because it shows differently. The “model minority” brings more harm as it dismisses so many concerns simply because of academic success.

Photo Credit: Rakhi Bose

Historically speaking, the demographic with the most resources including bilingual school programs are Spanish Speakers. Much of this is attributed to the fact that there is a high population of Spanish speakers in ELL programs. However, this also means that many South Asian and Arab students really have to find their own resources and understand how to learn English and navigate themselves in school. While there are some resources available, they are very limited. On top of that, accent discrimination is very real and many students might suffer from losing their native language due to the pressure of being fluent in English. Lastly, with few representations in education, it makes it harder for there to be bridges built between the communities and the schools.

Arshmeena Amir, a college student in Virginia recalls the moment when she realized how important it was to have South Asians as educators. Amir said that “there was this one Indian teacher in middle school. She was an ELL teacher but I never had her. I remember she would wear a kurta to school every day and that honestly really helped me embrace my own culture. She inspired me to not be ashamed of who I am, ya know. One day she came into our class while the teacher was gone just to supervise. All the kids were doing their homework and she offered help to whoever needed it. I asked her for help with my math homework and she came over and saw that I was super stressed. I remember her talking to me about how it’s really easy to feel pressured to do an amazing job, but as long as I am doing my best I should be okay.” Her story shows how just having a teacher who resembles you or reminds you of your roots is so important for a student who might struggle with embracing their culture.

Seher Qazi, a teacher on Long Island shares her story saying, “I think it’s necessary for students to have teachers that understand their backgrounds and culture. My experience as a South Asian in education is how frequently my kids will come to me for advice and share what’s going on in their personal lives. Oftentimes I see that they feel much more comfortable around my presence when they realize I too share the same experiences. I remember growing up I never had a teacher that looked like me or heard of any of my interests regarding my love of Pakistani food or Bollywood. I remember I never wanted to talk about my weekend in front of teachers because I knew they wouldn’t understand nor did I have the time to explain. Today, my students feel comfortable enough to share these interests without finding the need to explain everything because of the connection we have. What really brightens their day is how I can pronounce their names correctly. My students love to ask me questions regarding my culture, language, and religion. Just for their own general knowledge and I think that’s pretty cool. It helps them be more open and empathetic I feel.”

Both of these stories share a little snippet into what representation can do for the South Asian community and what more we need to do to help the communities. We need to bring more encouragement for South Asians to pursue education as a career instead of undervaluing it. One way of achieving this is by using our voices to raise awareness in schools to do more outreach. By directly communicating with schools, we are taking action so that they can do more for our communities and accommodate resources that were initially left out. To do this, we need to help parents communicate with schools about what concerns they have. Communication is crucial and advocating for our community is how we will be able to make sure students’ academic needs aren’t just benign met but their emotional and social needs as well.

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