Efforts at both educational and immigration “reforms” in Arizona have rightly brought about protests of both institutionalized racism and personal prejudice in many Americans’ thoughts and actions.
Others remain unconvinced though, particularly when it comes to educational practices like firing teachers who speak English as a second language imperfectly with heavy accents or getting rid of ethnic studies programs that “rebuke whiteness.” The argument seems to be that such actions are necessary to teach children what it means to be an American; proper grammar and the right accent, for example, are essential for their own survival.
What they don’t seem to realize is that being an American is about much more than assimilation to a certain language or culture, and that they are sacrificing lessons that are much more valuable to children than even English.
They are teaching Latino children that people who look like them, sound like them, who have a culture that hasn’t been erased, who have hyphenated identities, so to speak, aren’t true Americans. They are teaching children – contrary to the idealized American dream – that they can’t succeed. That “heroes” and “heroines” can’t be role models from their own culture, who sound like them and their families.
They are protecting whiteness, in other words.
The recent education “reforms” are communicating more than a need for English as “survivorship.” The legislation communicates, “We only want you if you sound like us” and “We feel threatened already because you aren’t like us.”
Yet as uneasily as we have carried out compassion, pluralism and tolerance in the practices of our history, at least the claim for such ideals is professed by most Americans. Are such virtues not more important to us than English?
I must thank Arizona, though, for one thing. They have opened my eyes to part of my identity as a white American because the sad thing is that even those white people like me who profess to be “culturally aware” protect whiteness, too.
I am a white, Southern woman who happened to grow up in the military community surrounding Fort Knox. As an adult, I worked with biracial children in a Korean-American church in the same community. I often count myself blessed that I’m not like a lot of Southerners who might grow up and spend their entire lives in mono-cultural enclaves. I split folks into “us” and “them.”
The problem is there is no “us” and “them” – or there shouldn’t be. It’s a means of denial of sin for me as a white American.
The “white” part of my identity means inevitably that I am blind. For example, I am thankful that my high school was one of the most racially diverse in Kentucky and that this opened up my heart to being open to other cultures. I should be.
It wasn’t until I started thinking about Arizona school children, however, that I realized (again), that in a less overt way, I have made my own contribution to racism in ways my whiteness doesn’t allow me to see.
Although I saw and appreciated my school’s student diversity, it took Arizona’s racist practices to make me ponder the fact that very few of my school’s teachers reflected the same diversity. There wasn’t a role model in my school that spoke Korean – the same first language as my friend Misuke, for example.
There were no teachers who reflected the same cultural identities as my biracial, sometimes tri-racial, youth group kids who later went to the same school. There were no Latina teachers and only a few African-American teachers. The diversity of the school’s leadership didn’t reflect the diversity of the student body, and as a white child it never occurred to me to question it.
I thought I was good because I knew and had friendships across cultures. It never occurred to me back then that even that so-called diversity was limited, too. If it’s good for all children to have role models reflecting their cultures, it’s equally important for them to have role models who don’t – especially good for white children.
I am grief-stricken for Arizona’s school children. I am sad also for Kentucky children growing up like me who fail to see the blind spots in their communities. I am sad for other American communities who never have to question whether teachers should have “thick accents” because there are no teachers who speak anything but English and few teachers that have skin that isn’t white. I am sad for American communities where the hyphens in teachers’ cultures were erased so long ago that cultural questions are not even on the table.
I can rightly look at Arizona and say the state’s current practices reflect sin and degrade humans created in God’s image, and it’s important for me to do so.
Can I examine myself and my community and make the same claim? Doing so will take courage; fixing broken souls is much more difficult than improving broken English.
Laura M. Rector is a doctoral student in Christian ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary.