Sunday, October 26, 2014

Race, Ethnicity, and the Adolescent

In a powerful chapter entitled Ethnic Identity Development, Michael J. Nakkula and Eric Toshalis disassemble common societal perceptions, particularly among the white majority, that race and ethnicity are one in the same.   The authors use many poignant examples of some of the students to whom they introduced us in past chapters to show how many minority adolescents, on top of struggling to negotiate their different identities among their peers and families, have the additional burden of being associated with stereotypes of "race" as opposed to "ethnicity."

As Nakkula and Toshalis and as most people understand, ethnicity is a much smaller subset within the larger category of one's race.  As a white Irish woman, I may choose to celebrate my Irish ethnicity when listening to Irish jigs and reels with my family at our numerous gatherings.   My family can reminisce about our visits with our Irish cousins abroad, celebrating ourselves and our traditions in the privacy of our own home or at large gatherings on St. Patrick's Day.   At the same time, to people who meet me, I am a white woman who is presumed by my last name to be Irish and Catholic.  I'm not Catholic though-I'm an Episcopalian- something I can choose to point out or not point out.  Without knowing my last name, I could be Scottish or English or almost anything- I am white, and I am in the majority.  There are no pejorative connotations with being white in our larger society.  Within other non-white ethnic groups, I could be scorned, but overall, I hold cultural capital because of the the color of my skin.

Interestingly, as the authors point out, there are connotations and stereotypes that are affiliated with one's race, particularly when one's race is "anything but white."  For Asian people, as Korean student Steven Chang quickly learned, the assumption is that one is "Chinese" (both ethnically and culturally incorrect) and that he and other Asian students "like him" will excel in school.  The authors write, "If he bothered to correct their ignorance and identify himself as Korean, someone would invariably ask, 'You're from Korea?' to which he'd have to correct them again and say, 'No, my parents are'"(p.167) Steve learned at a young age when inviting a white friend for dinner that he was "other"  His family's food was perceived as strange and repugnant to his young white companion who left without eating dinner.  Steve, on top of juggling becoming "masculine" to impress a girl, needs to factor in his race and how he will negotiate being Asian and "normal" among his white peers.  His race puts him in a position of being force to examine himself with respect to his peers; how he chooses to identify himself, whether strongly or weakly with his Korean ethnicity, strongly or weakly with being "Asian", or strongly or weakly with being the majority of his white friends is something that Steve needs to consider and his white friends do not (p. 161). Steve must undergo an additional level of self-searching by virtue of being in a cultural minority.   In reading this segment about Steve, it made me reflect on some of my "Asian" and "Arabic" students who face similar stereotypes.  It makes me wish that I had addressed ethnicity in a unit on racial stereotypes.   It also makes me want to design my units of study around my students' own cultures now that I'm realizing that "race" is too big of an umbrella.

Lorena faces similar challenges as a "Latino" adolescent woman.  She feels comfortable speaking Spanish at home, and to her, English feels like "somebody else's language" (p. 159).   She is forced to endure racially charged situations; she lives in a Chicano-Latino community but increasingly hangs around with "gringas" through rowing.  She, like Steve, needs to consider her race and what it means when she disassociates with her community expectations.  She worries about how to negotiate the prospect of going to college without abandoning her "family" in the community in which she was raised.  

Julian, a Haitian-American, most poignantly for me demonstrated the true angst one can feel with being labeled as simply a Black or African American.  When Antwon harasses Julian for not calling himself "black" but rather, "Haitian," I immediately realized that there are stereotypes among African Americans as to what "blackness" means.  "In making distinctions between themselves and what they considered the stereotypical Black American to be, Water's research subjects described 'the culture and values of lower-class Black Americans as including a lack or discipline, lack of work ethic, laziness, bad child-rearing practices and lack for respect for education'" (p. 172).  Well-meaning teachers like myself may bring conversations about culture into our classrooms, but until we ask students to speak specifically to their ethnicity as opposed to race, we are inadvertently promoting further identity withdrawal.  I want now to know where all of my students are from; what are their traditions and values; what else do they want to find out?   Until this chapter, I had felt that I was doing a great job breaking down stereotypes among my students.  After reading it, I realize that I need to do much, much more.   

I was in the emergency room all day and night yesterday with my son Kevin (the trumpet player) who broke his wrist skateboarding.   I had about a million different things going through my head as I wrote what I just wrote and what I didn't write because race is so tremendously prevalent-- so  much more than ethnicity.  We circle "white" or "Asian" or "Hispanic" or "black" on forms; we see a myriad of races and social classes of people in emergency rooms in city hospitals like Hasbro, and throughout the day and night, Kevin was treated by white paramedics, Latina receptionists, white female nurses, white male nurses, a black female doctor, and finally, a white orthopedic surgeon who set his arm in his cast at 2 in the morning.  My point is this; I'm tired and overwhelmed and behind on my work, but I really appreciate the diverse and exceptional melting pot that is the United States.  At the same time, I am sickened and disheartened by all of the stereotyping and lazy "clumping" of people into groups.  It makes me mad that last night (prior to reading this chapter today), I was intently observing and chatting with people but not truly noticing them.  In a way, that is the point of being an adult; people respecting people at face value.  But at the same time, I wonder what drove each of the diverse adult professionals with whom we interacted to become the professionals they are today.  Did somebody celebrate their ethnicity along the way?

Here's an awesome link I just found on racial stereotypes, but don't use the "Black men are well-endowed" one in your classrooms!!!!!      Top 10 Racial Stereotypes


  1. Amy, you do a really nice job of pointing out the depths to which these complexities go. I liked that Nakkula made the point that our brains are naturally wired to organize and categorize information, and that we must fight this natural tendency when it comes to dealing with people. This is a very conscious decision. How do we figure people out without lumping or pigeon holing people into one group or another? How do we especially make sure to avoid this when it comes to our students? I don't know if it has to do with "celebrating ethnicity" as much as recognizing and really know our students. What do they like to do? What are their strengths? How do they learn?...These questions really help us understand the individual and help us move away from over-categorization. However, this needs to be done within a framework of respect and self monitoring on the behalf of the teacher. Just like Antwon's teacher started to reflect on how she was treating him, we need to do this too.

  2. Amy,
    I agree with both you and Brittany, as teachers we must be reflective not only on our teaching but on how we are relating to our students. This new job has taught me how important this is. I think that it is natural for teachers to want to be in control at all times. We want to fix things I know that all too often I feel the need to speak when I really should be listening and observing.