Michael Wiggins


The paradox of education is precisely this – that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.  The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white, to decide for himself whether there is a God in heaven or not.  To ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions, is the way he achieves his own identity.  But no society is really anxious to have that kind of person around.
– James Baldwin, A Talk to Teachers

I’d Like To Teach the World To Sing In Perfect Harmony

I hate to break it to you like this, but I’m beginning to suspect that the promise of diversity is a lie.

My mother dropped me off at elementary school in 1974, just when America was getting into Disco, Star Wars was still a few years away, and Coca Cola commercials blared about how they wanted the world to sing “in perfect harmony”. The Moynihan report, the groundbreaking study on the state of Black families, was not yet ten years old. I let go of my mother’s hand, and took the hand of the nice white lady who would be my first grade teacher.

I loved school and I loved my teachers. Some of my strongest childhood memories involve what I’ve come to realize were sensitivity trainings, which mostly looked like a class of six year olds sitting on the rug in a semicircle around our first-grade teacher, singing “If I had a Hammer” and talking about the concept of “prejudice”.

Prejudice, of course, was a bad thing, and to be accused of being prejudiced by a classmate was something one worked hard to avoid. When someone was deemed, by word or deed, to be a prejudiced individual, that person was promptly ostracized, and it usually ended in tears, a fist fight, and further dialogue. Back to the rug, everybody!

I went to a fully integrated elementary school in Fort Meade, Maryland, a military base. My classmates were all shades and from many ethnic backgrounds. Between all the inculcation with peace, love, and joy we got while sitting on the rug, and my budding addiction to watching Sesame Street, I and my classmates embraced the idea of diversity with missionary zeal. Among the first to be educated in the humanistic framework of the post-civil rights movement era, the clear message we got from our teachers was “Yes, we’re all different, but under the skin we’re all the same and we should love each other.”

I remember, sitting at the dinner table lecturing my parents about the evils of prejudice, which, knowing what I know now about their lives growing up Black in America, is a hilarious memory for me. In between playground fights, my classmates and I made a game of showing who was more of a prejudice-free humanist. Sometimes, especially during our folk music sing-alongs on the rug, we just couldn’t stop hugging each other.

Like the hitchhiking burrs you get from walking through a meadow, the lessons I learned in elementary school stuck to my psyche, and I have carried the promise of diversity throughout my adult life. It is only now, in middle-age, that I find that early message of peace, love, and joy to be inadequate to the situation we find ourselves in.

The achievement gap is still growing.

People of color are still economically marginalized.

Black and brown lives still don’t seem to matter.

Stranger in A Strange Land

About four years ago, during a sojourn in San Francisco, I did a teaching artist gig in a couple of 5th grade English classes at Ulloa Elementary School; a Title I public school in a neighborhood of tidy, well-kept little houses, somewhat reminiscent of a beach town. Title I schools get supplemental assistance from the U.S. Department of Education to meet the needs of low-income students.

The residency, a literacy through theatre-making project, was fun and relatively painless, mostly because the students were well-behaved, the teachers collegial, and the school well-run. It didn’t hurt that the building is only a few blocks from the Pacific. I had lots of support. I was partnered with another teaching artist, and there was a partnering classroom teacher for each class session. It was a sweet gig. I thoroughly enjoyed working with the children, and, like all experiences that require us to use both our hearts and heads, the residency changed my teaching artist practice in subtle ways that I’m still discovering.

Right away, I noticed that the school had some cultural and ethnic diversity, but the overwhelming majority of the students in my classes identified as Chinese-American, as did their classroom teachers. Looking back, I wonder if I had any right to be there? I was culturally incompetent. I had no idea what the home life of my students was like. I didn’t know which video games, movies, music or TV shows they were into, and I don’t speak Chinese. I was a stranger.

Still, like any good liberal, I tried my darndest to honor everyone I met as an individual, and to demonstrate the proper respect and consideration for our differences, even while committing to the ideal of the “melting pot.”

These two truly American ideas—one that we are all culturally different, and two that the natural state of America is a cultural melange—carry with them the implication that it is the individual’s patriotic duty to relinquish our attachment to some, if not all, of the specific markers of our cultural identity for the sake of a more perfect union.

We’re all supposed to assimilate.

We’re all supposed to be embracing the idea of diversity.

We are one nation (except when we’re not.)

Alien Nation

Although everyone at Ulloa Elementary was terribly nice and polite, I’ve rarely felt my cultural “otherness” as keenly as I did when I was doing teaching artist work in San Francisco. At lunchtime, eating my vegan rations in the sun, students on the playground would approach me to pose the kind of tentative questions one might ask an alien just beamed down from a distant planet. “Can I touch your head?” one student asked. Since my bald scalp was already enjoying the invisible caress of ocean breezes, I politely declined. “Is he your brother?”, asked another, when my lunchtime companion just happened to be a fellow teaching artist whose cocoa-colored skin reflected the Brazilian heritage the children mistook for kinship. Walking down the hallways, gaggles of children stared at me, and giggled behind their hands.

Once, when students were getting a bit out of hand, their classroom teacher, an exemplary professional whom I really came to admire, admonished the circle of children in rapid-fire Chinese. Of course, I didn’t understand a word she said, but there was no mistaking her tone. Instantly, the students went completely silent, hanging their heads in shame. At the end of the class period, students lined up, shook my hand and apologized for “being bad”. In all my time as a teaching artist in public schools, I’ve never witnessed anything like it. It was a jaw-dropping display of the power of cultural competency employed to regulate human behavior. 

The classroom teacher demonstrated a high degree of cultural competency, a skill set which was evident to me in her consistent ability to connect, communicate, and maintain a productive learning environment. Of course, she knew her individual students much better than I, and her deep understanding of their shared cultural framework made her an expert advisor on setting up activities. I relied on her cultural competencies to get me through each class.

For example, although the lingua franca was English, most students also knew Chinese, and when I needed a translation, she was able to provide it. Most of the students came from a specific culture, with distinct mores and rules. She was fluent in their cultural code words, and she understood where they were coming from. If I was struggling, the classroom teacher employed her understanding to help me communicate, defend, and enhance the learning experience. On more than one occasion, students who were off-track were brought back into the moment not by my exhortations, but by the classroom teacher’s words and gestures. I looked to the classroom teacher, and sometimes to the students, to restate our instructions, not in Chinese, but in English. I couldn’t speak to my Chinese-American students using the right code words, and I didn’t really understand the totality of their value system.

As a result, it took me much longer than it usually does to figure out ways to communicate, and connect. My early lesson planning conversations were all over the place, and there were times when the students just didn’t understand what I was asking of them. Sometimes it was a language barrier. More often, it was a cultural disconnect. At a certain point, I had to admit that my intuition was useless, so I was grateful that there was a culturally competent educator in the room to support me when I needed it.

Culture Diversity or Cultural Affinity?

At Ulloa, there were many inspiring examples of cultural pride, evidence of a strong cultural value system, and, at least among the adults, a shared sense of what was aesthetically pleasing.  The sense of being in a space of Chinese-American culture was persistent and only a teensy bit alienating for me.

I reject the toxic myth of the Asian as America’s “model minority” as just that–a spurious fiction that is too often trotted out to divide us and circumvent any real dialogue about the African American community’s seeming inability to overcome institutional oppression as some immigrant groups have done. In fact, none of the stereotypical labels that are so often attached to Chinese culture were in evidence at Ulloa. Tiger Moms. Patriarchy. Insularity. I saw none of that. What I did see was lots of love, and a straightforward consideration of the fact that most of the students and their families were Chinese-American, a fact which influenced the way people communicated and how they dealt with each other. This appreciation of the culture was coupled with an openness to anything outside that could be of benefit to the children. I suppose that’s the doorway I slipped through, even though I was culturally incompetent. The school saw value in arts integration.

Aside from the fact that none of my students seemed particularly interested in Hip-Hop, the school children of Ulloa displayed a full-range of aptitudes and personalities similar to the African-American and Latino/a middle schoolers I was used to teaching in New York City. My classes had all the usual suspects, the class clown, the nerd, the sci-fi geek, the sensitive artist, the budding Einstein. So, in some sense, it’s true that we are all the same under the skin. 

Still, I started to notice some fascinating things:

First, aside from that one time in the semi-circle, we hardly ever had any significant problems with classroom management, and the few times there were behavioral issues, the classroom teacher only had to say a few words, gesture, or throw a look to get students to stop and adjust. 

Also, most of the students seemed incredibly happy, and I definitely felt a sense of order and peace whenever I entered the building.

I began to wonder: If the children I’ve worked with in NYC and San Francisco are so similar, and they are, then why is their self-expression so vastly different? Why is the school faculty so much more cohesive and chill? The model minority was nowhere to be seen, so why were teachers still able to manage their rambunctious students, even with class sizes larger than those in New York?

“Seriously, why do these children seem so happy?”, I thought, “The children in New York don’t seem nearly that happy.”

Finally, I determined that the difference stemmed from the fact that the culture of Chinese-Americans was fully embraced and validated by everything that the adults did.

School life was, in some important ways, an extension of home life. The school authentically  reflected the cultural values of the students’ families, and it respected their parents’ right to determine what is right. The internal racial schema of the children, their identity as Chinese-Americans, was unequivocally affirmed by the external racial schema of the school. 

In New York City, the culture of black and brown children is not authentically embraced or exploited for positive ends. I hear black and brown parenting skills disparaged way too often for my taste. I never heard similar disparaging statements about parents at Ulloa. In New York, I hear it all the time. When the majority of the students are children of color, but the majority of their teachers are white, the internal racial schema of the children must grapple with the disconnect, usually in silence. 

No one really wants to talk authentically about race and power with children. It’s too uncomfortable.

Yes, non-white cultural values are embraced in our schools in an ad hoc fashion, but, since the majority of teachers are white, there is no unified cultural identity to exploit, and the home culture of students of color is too often confused with things that are actually just the standard pathologies of poverty warping the picture.

Maybe Chinese-American teachers are more equipped to use cultural signposts to guide and connect to Chinese-American students? In fact, although causality has not been definitively proven, the research shows that it’s important for students of color to locate themselves within a racial schema that is supported by external factors. One way to achieve this is to make sure students of color have teachers that look like them. 

If, as the research indicates, race matters, and we educators of color can exploit our cultural identity to improve the educational experiences for students of color, then why do we keep cosigning the push for more diversity?

I mean, if we embrace the concept of diversity, what do we have to let go?

The answer, I think, is our mother’s hand, cultural affinity and all the wonderful things that go along with it.

I saw the power of cultural affinity, while I was at Ulloa Elementary.

I rarely see the same kind of affinity for the culture of black and brown students in New York City public schools.

What I see is the dominant culture being totally validated, while the culture of black and brown children is asked to sit at the back of the bus until Black History Month rolls around, or until another black boy dies at the hands of the police.

The classroom teachers I worked with at Ulloa seemed to love their students, just as most white teachers I’ve had seemed to love me. The difference is that the classroom teacher at Ulloa looked like her students, had an intimate understanding of the children in her care, and she demonstrated a deep respect for their parents’ value system. She honored the parents and worked hard to meet their standards. As far as I could see, she pushed many of the same value system messages at school as the students got at home. 

I Want To Believe

Schools don’t fully validate the cultures of their students of color because, frankly, they don’t have to. We are expected to adopt the values of the dominant culture, or we should expect to fail. 

When we talk about race, what we’re also talking about is “who has the power?” That’s a hard question to pose when it involves friends and allies in the struggle.

It sounds like an indictment.

It’s feels like an accusation. 

But I’m tired of not talking about it.

It’s not that I don’t want to love everybody, or that I don’t think white teachers can love or teach black and brown children. I do. It’s just that I wonder why I see schools flatly rejecting the value system of the students’ parents?

It’s not that I don’t still want to love everybody. I do. It’s just that I wonder why, in order to be educated, we are supposed to let go of our parents’ hands and take the hand of a stranger who has no intimate understanding of what it is like to be black or brown in America? Shouldn’t there be a framework for cultural competency? I certainly could have used one on Chinese American culture.

It’s not that I don’t still want to love everybody. I really do. It’s just that I fear we have agreed to a Faustian bargain; trading in our culture in exchange for an education, and a higher income, in segregated schools that celebrate Brown v. Board of Education and the concept of diversity without ever acknowledging the fact that most of the students in public schools live in poverty, and the only white person in the room is usually the teacher, a living symbol of the dominant culture, who doesn’t look a thing like my mother, and probably wouldn’t agree with her on the finer points of how children should be raised. 

It’s not that I don’t still want to love everybody, I do. It’s just that I have learned that the promise of diversity is a lie wrapped in the truth.

Next: #Theyneverlovedus



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