For as long as I can remember, I have been pretty uncomfortable when it comes to starting a conversation. I have always needed a scaffold. Someone to go first. An outspoken and more confident friend or family member who brings comic relief to the room. An adult beverage or an actual conversation piece like an interesting accessory or a delicious appetizer. I need someone to model it for me. What does speaking with confidence look like or sound like in a completely new (or not so new) setting?
In the name of self- reflection, something that is crucial for truly being an anti-racist and culturally responsive educator, I looked deeper into a part of my own history. I studied the part of my cultural identity map that is tricky; the part that brings up all the feelings.
I had never really named it, but a big source of my awkwardness and discomfort in some social situations is rooted in my Racial, Ethnic, and Cultural (REC) identity. (Tatum, 1997)
I am third generation Filipino American. Both sets of my grandparents immigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines in 1950 and 1957.
My Dad and my Grandma made the journey when he was 5. My mom was born in The States two years after my Grandma and Grandpa had made their voyage.
My parents were raised in San Francisco and grew up as English Only speakers. My mom’s parents chose not to teach the native tongue of the homeland to their children with the hope of making it easier for them to assimilate to American culture. My dad felt conflicted at a young age with the beginnings of a bilingual life, so English ended up being his primary language.
Mom and dad found each other as teenagers in the big city, living a legendary life as two young Filipino Americans who formed lifelong friendships. Their groups of friends were a diverse mix that included Filipinos like them, White, Black, and Asian folx. My dad and his hobbyist musician friends even named their band Shades of Soul. I still love hearing the stories about that era.
In ‘78, my parents moved to the burbs to Vallejo, California, and had me in 1980.
I had already learned so much about what the words minority and majority meant and felt like at this point even though no one had named it for me yet.
For about two years prior to grade one, I was in a room full of kids and teachers in my preschool and Kindergarten classes with people who for the most part, didn’t look like me. The learning environments felt safe and nurturing enough, aside from the occasional classmate asking me (maybe telling me?) if I was Chinese. The community was mostly a reflection of my Barbies, Cabbage Patch Kid dolls, and 1980’s sitcoms. Representation of Filipinos around this particular time was limited.
My parents thought about what would be best for my educational future when they decided to enroll me in private Catholic school starting in first grade. I walked into my new class to meet a room full of young Filipino American kids. They were dressed in the same school uniforms as mine, like mirrors all around me, reflecting the same look; brown skin and dark hair. Out of the class of about 25, only 3 or 4 kids were not Filipino.
I was actually part of the racial majority this time.
The relief and sense of belonging didn’t last long, however. I was quickly considered the minority again, but this time by definition of the language that I didn’t speak.
I was amidst Filipino-American peers who were smart, family-oriented, whose parents were well-off enough to afford private Catholic school, AND bilingual.
However, I was missing a couple of invisible checkboxes that were required in order to really fit into the dominant culture, especially in any social circles outside of the classroom.
I would attend birthday parties in which my classmate’s parents would come up to me and automatically speak Tagalog, expecting me to understand and respond. When they saw my deer-in-the-headlights expression, the look of confusion and disappointment on their faces created the ultimate awkward moment. Some would be so bold to as to ask me (after quickly switching back to English), “Why didn’t your mom and dad teach you?!”.
The awkward cycle of confusion mixed with a precise amount of shame repeated itself at different times in my life. Although my parents and I had attended many functions and gatherings in which we were fully immersed in the language, it is just one part of my heritage that I still have very limited knowledge of to this day.
I learned to assimilate within my own culture. Nod. Smile. Listen. Participate and be engaged to the best of my ability. Repeat. It became my communication playlist by default not only in a room full of bilingual Filipinos, but in many other contexts too.
On some occasions, the times that I would find the more confident version of my voice, I would find out later that I had been called “white washed”.
Sometimes, in a room full of non-Filipino folx, I would for some, instantly become a product of assumptions, fielding questions about a HUGE extended family that I didn’t have, stereotypical things that me and my family didn’t do, the rarity of me being an only child, and of course the assumption that I was bilingual.
Sometimes when it seemed to not have added up for people, they would ask me if I was of mixed race.
Mellow and quiet “Zen Jenn” has been a part of my identity for many years in certain situations. I would cue up the playlist because it felt safer. Nod, smile, listen. Contribute when comfortable in a “positive vibes” kind of way, and quietly let go of the statements that were based on other people’s assumptions. I would take notice of awkward reactions and just move on.
Now it is necessary to circle back.
Moving forward, I am reminded of what is so important, yet so challenging, especially within educational systems:
- When an assumption is quickly made about a person (or student) in the room (or classroom), it can potentially put the real narrative on mute, sometimes for the long-term.
- How someone identifies across racial, gender, and cultural lines, and any of the experiences that are part of their journey are the ultimate conversation starters. They help us learn from each other, and they are worth any initial fear of discomfort.
I am proud of my cultural identity, especially the parts that are complex. My grandparents and parents made difficult choices to help support the future generations in the family, even though some may not have agreed. I have finally figured out how to share the part of my cultural identity map that seemed hard to explain before, because of my own assumption of people not getting it, or not being able to relate.
The current state of the world is an open invitation to replace assumptions with the true narratives. We can change our own personal playlists. Reflect, rehearse, unmute all, and listen.
What stories and scaffolds can we build to empower everyone to be a part of the conversation?
Tatum, Beverly Daniel. Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria And Other Conversations about Race. New York, Basic Books, 1997, 2017
■ Elementary Educator for Equity & Cultural Responsibility
■ Collector of Small Moments & Thrifty Finds
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■ Bay Area, CA