I’m going on a slight rant today…also if you’re someone who likes to nit-pick this is probably going to bother you. Equally some of you may not actually understand this struggle and I am sorry for that. However you must know that this happens, a lot.
When you meet me for the first time, I know my brown skin is super interesting and different. However when I tell you that I am Canadian, can we leave it at that? Maybe when I become really good friends with you I will share that I actually was born in Thailand and maybe you’ll get my life story but I promise you it’s not going to happen after knowing you for just 2 minutes.
Why does this bother you so much, Orn? You should be proud of your heritage! People are just interested.
I am not saying I am not proud of my heritage…but how common is it for someone to say, “Where are you from?” “Oh I am from Canada.” “I don’t mean that, like where are you REALLY from. Your white skin is slightly lighter than others I’ve seen so I thought maybe you were Swedish. I get Swedish people and Russian people mixed up all the time.”
I’m not even joking…this is literally almost every single conversation I’ve had with someone new over the past month and we are not talking about Swedish and Russian people. I have openly heard people say, “I get _______mixed up with ________ people all the time.” Okay, even if you do not know the difference, you don’t say that. That would be like me saying all white people look the same and that is simply not true. You say this to your confidants, not the new person you just met seconds ago.
Let’s talk about cultural relevance. Actually, let’s not. Let’s talk about cultural competence. Growing up in school I really didn’t care that in math textbooks there was a lack of Hu-Yungs and Ahmed’s listed as characters in them. Please remember this is my personal opinion and experience, however I found that when a text listed, Sally, David, Lucy and Addisu (who was clearly an ethnic minority) I laughed because if the text was attempting to cater to all backgrounds if anything it just proved a point that a minority is just that: the least represented. I remember my classmates and I laughing because it was so obvious. “There’s our representation in the text. Represent, Addisu!” Am I saying that textbooks should have equal amounts of every race on every page? No. I am saying though that a lot of children laugh because it’s obvious that someone does not match the other and they were intentionally put in there to “balance it out”. We laughed. Maybe that is where things have gone wrong, we were laughing about it rather than seeing it as just another page in a book. Rather than trying to make culturally relevant material, we should be teaching children how to be culturally competent. We should teach that we don’t laugh at different names. We don’t assume people are foreign because their skin is darker. We don’t stereotype races. We don’t use our skin tone as a reason as to why we can or cannot be successful.We do not encourage different treatment of people because of their skin tone. We need to encourage learning about cultures, ALL cultures. The Swedish and Russian cultures, the First Nations and African-American cultures, South Asia and East Asia (and knowing the difference). Heck, let’s learn about freaking Zimbabwe. The only time I ever learned about countries (and by learned, wiki’d a page or two) was when we had Olympic day or “cultural” day and you had to represent one country and wear their clothes. Once we had a unit in school about it but it was only for a grade or two. We are exposed to various cultures every day therefore the study of it shouldn’t limited to a unit. We did math everyday because apparently math is in everything we do…We need to know the histories behind cultures, the triumphs and failures of the countries within them. Maybe then when kids read the textbooks they won’t be looking and laughing at what’s different in the text, they will be looking at what is capable and expected.
There is no perfect equation on how to eradicate stereotyping, racism or prejudice. It is going to happen; we are an intelligent species and as that, we form our own opinions. We felt the need to create names for species of animals and genres for literature so we will create identifications for various cultures of humans too. It is not about teaching children about learning to love all types of people. Children are not born hating people. They’re not born loving people. They are born seeing people and how we communicate cultural differences to them should be more about acknowledging their intelligence and competence than, “Oh, they come from the country where there’s curry and cows everywhere!”. How about, “Oh! They come from India, the country that invented the number system and Zero.” Okay…I realize that was a far stretch that requires some knowledge about the number system, however that’s my point. Yes it’s important to learn about differences in food but what universal success have they brought to the world? Social Studies is supposed to be about connecting us to the world, not just politics and the economy or relevant national events. You will find that every country, culture, race, has brought something good and bad. We never learned this until we were much older and by then the exposure to stereotyping and racism had already happened. It is amazing how much kids are capable of thinking when you expect a high standard of knowledge and inspire them to want to learn it. The problem is, I think, that we think kids are too young to understand these things and we must do things step-by-step rather than have them see the whole picture and analyze it in a way they understand. Critical thinking skills, people, a slowly dying art.
I said in the title I would be telling you How to Tell Asians Apart. I am sorry to disappoint but I’ve decided not to do that. Actually, I was never going to do that. If you’re really curious about someone’s racial background, you need to get to know the person, maybe go for a few coffees or engage in a meaningful conversation or two and then maybe you will learn about where they might come or where their family originated from. Then, out of courtesy, I’m sure they’d love to know a bit about you too. If you’re the lucky person that meets me, you’ll learn very quickly that I know very little about Thailand’s politics, I do not think beauty is an appearance of fair, untanned, porcelain skin, I do not know how to cook Pad-Thai, nor do I consider it a Thai food and I do not think I am the best nanny-material even though, “Those nannies from Thailand and the Philippines are so good with babies.”