By Garima Aggarwal:
At the Stanford Graduate School of Education, where I currently study, there was a talk recently by Na’ilah Nasir on Race, Identity, and Learning. If any of the readers reading my article ever have the chance to hear her, I would highly recommend not missing out on the opportunity.
The talk raised very pertinent concerns about race, identity and how such factors impact learning. Stereotypes that have been created around particular ethnicities influence the socialization of both members of that sub-group as well as individuals belonging to other sub-groups. Nasir’s study showed that students react and respond to this stereotype threat in multiple ways – remaining unaware of them, taking them up (i.e. believing them), distancing themselves from it or resisting it. A majority of the kids were in the ‘taking up the stereotypes’ classification, which fosters a ‘resigned to my fate’ outlook that, as we all know, can be severely detrimental.
During the talk, I could not help but wonder how our collective identities (i.e. race, ethnicities, nationalities) can be both empowering, and at the same time critically dis-empowering. The labels associated with our gender, the colour of our skin, the accent of our speech and the tags on our clothes precede us. Even before we speak to a person, we have made several assumptions about them. ‘Assumption’ though, is a relatively mild word, and I believe we, including me, are not so benign. We actually label and pack individuals into neat little boxes, confident in our ability of having figured out where ‘they come from’. Any conversation with the individual after that mostly serves to reinforce our own ‘thesis’ about the individual. If we find an anomaly, instead of digging deeper to understand more, we reject it as aberrant behaviour not worthy of our consideration. I am not saying this scenario is 100% of the times. There are times when we truly let the other person speak, and we truly hear them out. And when we are ready to unpack them out of that little box we had put them in, we realize that no human being can ever be put into any box, no matter how big or small.
It is these instances; it is these conversations that I as a practitioner am interested in. After the talk, I spoke to Nasir about collective narratives and how I believe individual narratives should replace them. I do not suggest we reject our communities, but simply that we expand them. From seeing ourselves and others as male/female, Asian/Caucasian/Hispanic (among others), low income/middle class/privileged class, straight/queer/bisexual or any of the other labels we tend to find comfort in, lets change our lens and see ourselves and others foremost as human beings. That is and will be our primary and fundamental identity. For I can be, and am, female, Asian, homosexual, middle class. But I am also a lot of other things that these labels or stereotypes do not capture and never will. I am a bunch of contradictions. I’m the darkness in the light, I’m the leftness in the right, I’m the rightness in the wrong, I’m the shortness in the long, I’m the undiscovered land, I’m the single grain of sand (source: The Divine Comedy). Try putting me in a box and you would realize there is only one box I can fit into, and that is me.
And it is wonderful to uncover the box that is me or the box that is you. The only way I believe of doing that is when you see me for who I am and I see you for who you are. YOU, not your family, skin or voice. That is why I believe in personal narratives. That is how I think we can go beyond issues that we hold so dearly on to and which lead to alienation and subjugation, to a world where all are equal, all are beautiful. A world where we would like to live and love and support. Where one in two black men is not expected to go to jail, where a Caucasian man is not assumed to have grown up in privilege, where the Asian man is not looked at as a math wiz out to steal someone’s job, where Hispanic men are not presumed to be idle.
Let us build this wonderful world together. I have already begun my journey, care to join me?