Race-work, Race-love

Race, Ecuador, Education: A Race Researcher’s Perspective

In Uncategorized on June 22, 2013 at 9:15 am

ImageI was going to write about my perceptions about the student experience for post number 3, but race has been strongly whispering in my ear to be written about and sometimes it is just best to invite the muse in and play with it. So for this piece, I will explore this some more.

Because my research interest is broadly on the role of race and racism in shaping higher education, many of my questions pertained to this very issue.  Most of my questions began like this: “I noticed that many of your administrators are not Ecuadorian, and mostly white…”  or “How do you attract non-White students to your school/program?” It usually ended with some visible discomfort from people we spoke with this week and even from some of my colleagues.

My friends remind me that my knowledge about race often makes me speak from this issue with authority and confidence that can often be misconstrued as harsh.  In my head, there is no way to soften the words “White” or “White Supremacy”  – in fact, I no longer whisper these words or decide not to tackle them because the power of Whiteness is not something that I am afraid of addressing and I haven’t given it power to do so in my research.

But I am often surprised at how isolating it is to discuss race from a researcher’s perspective with people who do not deal with it or do research using it as a lens. When I do make this point, I am often told “It’s just that you are so harsh” or “I’m just not used to the way you ask questions”.

I was reminded about the complexities of discussing race with non-race-researchers. I was reminded that sometimes I have to tread this racial terrain carefully.  I realized how important my core group of race researcher friends are to my sanity. Image

Probably the best answer I heard when I asked questions about the racial composition or dynamics of the institution was from a teacher and administrator from the Liceo Internacional. We were discussing some elements to their success and when we came to the student-teacher relationship, I asked about the diversity among teachers as related to the racial diversity among the students. In the U.S. about 90% of all teachers are White, and for many students of color, having a white teacher in the classroom is a normal experience, but an isolating one, sometimes. I was thinking about research that points to importance of race among teachers, professors, and even counselors for people of color.  I asked: How can you educate Ecuadorian children by employing a white faculty?

The administrator, who was White and from the US herself, looked a bit taken aback, but shook her head vigorously. She said it was an issue that they grapple with all the time and that she hopes to improve.  She realized the importance of attracting an Ecuadorian faculty but still hopes to balance this with more international teachers so that students may be ready for more international and global experiences after they leave the 12th grade. The founder of the school added the following: “No matter how international of a school we become, our mission is to remain an Ecuadorian school. We believe that students must know about Ecuador and must feel proud about this. We want to give them roots before they develop wings.” Indeed, this statement was felt all over the school. Pictures and drawings from students themselves were all around the hallways demonstrating Ecuadorian pride.  It was probably one of the few, if not only, times I have seen this done intentionally.

This was also the woman who (when talking alone with her) asked me where I was from. I told her that I was from New York but my family is from Ecuador.  Her family is from Czechoslovakia but she was born in Ecuador.  She told me she has gone a couple of times and was happy to hear that I took this trip. She said, “Welcome back. Isn’t this like you are visiting the ghosts from the past.”  This sounded more like a statement than a question.  She knew exactly what I was talking about perhaps because she knows this experience intimately. When you are born in a different country from your parents, you are haunted by these ghosts. You wonder why you look a certain way apart from what you see on television.  You wonder why you sound differently, why your language is spoken so differently from your parents and their siblings. Getting to know these ghosts is the only way to get answers.

I wonder how similar or not this is to the teacher-student relationship when the teacher looks so differently from his/her students. This itself could be a great experience if the teacher is competent and not color blind to these differences.  But, when White Supremacist values in the classroom are not checked, teachers and administrators may not understand the damage they may be doing.

One example of this actually happened to me while here.  After asking an administrator about the number of Ecuadorian students they were able to bring back to their school via an exchange program, and of course, how many of their total student population was White, he said that many Ecuadorian students from the US are not interested in coming back to Ecuador to study in their schools. I suggested that perhaps a plan should be developed to attract Ecuadorian American students to Ecuadorian universities and he said this was a good idea.  Our conversation transitioned from that to formally introducing ourselves and when I said I was from New York but my parents are from Guayaquil, he jokingly said “Watch out for her. She’s tough”.  While there are several microaggressions rolled up in that statement, many of us who recognize them and have experience confronting them, pick and choose our battles and this was not one I wanted to engage in. But the bigger blow came when the same administrator told a white colleague that she was “very Latina” because she hugged him.

Let me explain why this is highly disturbing. I often hear people of color tell white people who they think are cool that they are not really White.  Or that they are in fact, Black or Latina.  The problem with this is the following: White people often get the more positive and desired stereotypes that shape people’s perceptions of who people of color are. In other words, what you like about Black and Latino people will often be used to describe “cool” White folks.  Meanwhile, those of us who are Black and Latina, still get the less desirable stereotypes. What does this mean: racial diversity interaction, even in the social arena, is still more positive for White people than it is for People of Color. And, if a color-blind White person doesn’t recognize this, they find being called “not really White” a privilege. Thus, building on and amassing the privileges they already have.

What a mess. This White Supremacy thing.

I have been told by some folks that I am really Black, not Latina. I always shake my head.  As a light skinned Latina woman, to accept the more positive Black stereotypes on this light-skinned body, while allowing for my Black brothers and sisters to be demeaned and discriminated against only reinforces White Supremacy.  I may have roots, but the privileges I amass because of my light skin is something I am aware of every day. I am a race worker, a race researcher, not a tool for White Supremacy.

White Supremacy is a helluva drug y’all.

Race workers, race analysts, race researchers often find themselves isolated because we understand race the way Will Hunting sees Math – we dissect it, we try to make sense of it the way we do rubix cubes, we flip it, in essence, we are the ones to help make plain this very difficult concept of race, only made more difficult in societies that are color blind and color mute, those who do not want to see it or speak it. But it is often in the “making race plain” discussions that we find ourselves confronting very harsh opinions about the non-existence of race. And, most of the time, I confront these opinions, making me look like the one who “always” brings up race. When I don’t immediately confront it, I write about it, as I do now.  Racial justice is a part of my core values in the same way honesty is for someone else. But because race is thought of as non-existent or “too much to deal with” racial justice as a value is not explored and not valued. 

Perhaps, the more difficult the task, the stronger its bearer has to be.  But at what cost? 

My hope is that the cost brings about hope. And, perhaps some change.

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