by: Amanda Hubbard, K-5 Educator
I am an educator of color in Seattle Public Schools and I’ve been struggling to find where I matter. Teaching and being with my students are the easy parts of being an educator compared to navigating the politics and social tensions of the school system. To say it is challenging working within a racist system is an understatement because at the end of the day we know we are upholding that same, racist system. So, about seven years into my career I started to burn out. Working in ‘failing’ schools, I struggled to find how I was making a lasting impact. I worked hard each year building my kids up only to witness how that system beats them back down to where they started. If I was going to stay in education, I needed community and allies to keep me going. I sought out trainings on racial equity and teaching for social justice. I served on Racial Equity teams. I organized professional development (P.D.) for my buildings and I am so grateful that this work eventually led me to the Ethnic Studies Task Force and Advisory Group. It was working within a women of color dominated space that I realized my own identities beyond being an educator. Questioning and building anti-racist curriculum was liberating work; defining a decolonized curriculum centered on our students and critical thinking was liberating work. I could not get enough and quickly focused my pursuit of racial equity on Ethnic Studies and getting the message out to as many educators as possible.
Accordingly, I attended and helped facilitate the Ethnic Studies (E.S.) Institute this summer and it awakened something in me. Inspired and shook, I felt thrust into the uncomfortable position of facing the many and unintended ways I perpetuate institutional and systemic racism in our public schools. As it happens though, this is the first step in becoming an anti-racist educator. Examining our practice is something we came back to again and again throughout the Institute. We analyzed lesson plans and units for the themes of E.S.: Origins, Identity, and Agency, Power and Oppression, History of Resistance and Liberation, and Action and Reflection. We asked ourselves how these themes revealed themselves and how they might be problematic and then revised our lessons and units to better meet the needs of our students of color. Little by little the weight of being antiracist in our practice and content eased. Working in solidarity with fellow antiracist educators renewed and affirmed for me that not only was this work critical to the health, success, and joy of our students of color, but that we are part of a bigger movement. It made me feel, for the first time, that we would be able to sustain this work.
As I’ve said, thinking about systemic and institutional issues led me to pursue continuous professional development on racial equity and I am thankful every day for the knowledge and community that Ethnic Studies provides. However, it is only through reflection that I realized what was driving me. In fact, E.S. has been a slow-burn type of awakening for me. Through collective knowledge building and discussions on colonialism and how it continues to shape us and our educational system I started to realize the kind of educator and person I wanted to be. I realized there’s a part of me that was lying every time I would say “I loved school!” as the reason why I became a teacher. Writing the E.S. frameworks demanded a level of self-reflection and vulnerability I had not ever tapped into. What would it mean to have our students and their identities at the center of our curriculum? What would a culturally responsive and relevant curriculum for a biracial, daughter of an immigrant girl really require? This felt like uncharted territory and part of the reason is because to create the language needed to begin decolonizing curriculum we also needed to decolonize ourselves. This meant dredging up memories I had carefully suppressed. This meant declaring that I became a teacher, not because ‘I loved school,’ but because I knew and know that students like me deserve more from their schools.
Growing Up in a White Supremacy
I remembered all the times I would agonize over my homework trying to answer questions that asked me to explain why I thought learning what we were learning was important. Even by middle school this question presented no challenge; I knew there was so much to learn! We learned about the revolutionary War and read My Brother Sam is Dead, we studied the ancient civilizations of Rome and Greece, and we lingered in the middle ages so long that we put on a huge Medieval Faire complete with costumes and reading far too much about King Arthur. I remember thinking, “What new and exciting cultures and histories would we learn about next?!” Except there was no next, not really. We slogged thru England and France’s futile wars, we unpacked battle after battle in U.S. History, and read and read about white American boys and men in staggering quantities. No matter the era, between North America and Europe it all eventually blurred together becoming indistinguishable fragments of history and literature; overwhelming in its whiteness. By the time I hit high school, when I was asked to justify why what we were learning was important, I knew that the correct answer was always- whatever my teacher said was the reason. I had to do little to no reflecting or critical thinking, I just had to parrot everything the teacher said.
“Upon the receipt of my diploma the world had taught me about the inferiority of Filipinos so well that I did not once question their erasure.”
Realizing these things imploded my internal life and narrative. Figuring out how and why, as an excelling student, I was so disengaged from school made me furious. I was furious because I realized this maintain-the-status-quo lesson, bad enough as it is, disguised far worse ones. While learning the parroting lesson I was internalizing lessons about who matters in the world and who does not. Lessons about the types of lives worth writing and reading about. Amongst all this “important” curriculum I never learned about a single Filipino and the coverage of other leaders of color was embarrassingly bare. Upon the receipt of my diploma the world had taught me about the inferiority of Filipinos so well that I did not once question their erasure. That is how insidious and significant the lack of representation is for our children of color- we rarely question it because by the time we finish our K-12 education we have internalized the message of inferiority. Students of color (SOC) are shown their excellence and potential for greatness through precious little beyond MLK and sports or music stars. Their ambitions sound more like fairy tales than realities. We tell our SOC to dream these things while their white peers are given countless models of greatness personified making their ambitions limitless. My people have famous scientists, writers, and engineers too, but who would ever know it after thirteen years in public education? All people of color know that their people, cultures, and countries, will rarely show up as anything more than a ‘fun fact’ or ‘bonus’ learning in our current curriculums.
The Unspoken Evil of Assimilation
How was I supposed to grow up to know that Filipinos ARE important people when I never once learned about them or how their labor helped build the U.S.? In this U.S. “Melting Pot” the expectation for assimilation is so stifling that my mother chose not to share any of her history with her children. Our pleas for stories of P.I. [Philippines] were met instead with questions like, “Did you do your homework?” or “How’re you doing in class?” These questions and the hundreds like it drove home the point that our biggest responsibility was to do school and not make a fuss. Not to learn, but to excel was our priority. This effectively sealed me off from half of who I am. As a child my reaction was to stop asking for my mother’s stories and, instead, tell myself that she does not have any worth telling. Once you combine my devaluing of my mother with the absence of any single person that resembled me or had a story like mine from school, then you begin to understand that I was part of another generation in this cycle of trauma and oppression. My mom was too fearful of her children not being accepted to share herself with us and my rejection of her for that is a painful truth without remedy. I could not and did not understand how the immense pressures of assimilation and the desire for something resembling her own upbringing drove her to make those decisions.
“Recognizing that people of color have been saving themselves for just as long as people have oppressed them was gratifying. It helped me make the connection that I am resilient like my mother. I am powerful like my mother and I do not have to accept her suppression of our culture anymore.”
Growing up I could only see her struggle; it took time and experience for me to begin to see her strength. Four years ago, my mom had a stroke that not only mentally impaired her but changed her into a childlike version of her former self. I lost my chance to know and understand her, but I found healing in Ethnic Studies. The framework and themes helped me reconcile my memories and experiences with my feelings. I was able to contextualize my mom’s abusive parenting. I understand now that she has countless experiences being underestimated and treated unjustly as a brown woman who speaks with an accent. She took the pain of those experiences and channeled it into criticizing her children into submitting to her high expectations. The weight of her struggle is eased when viewed through the Ethnic Studies theme and lens of Resistance and Liberation. It disabused me of the notion that I was powerless. Recognizing that people of color have been saving themselves for just as long as people have oppressed them was gratifying. It helped me make the connection that I am resilient like my mother. I am powerful like my mother and I do not have to accept her suppression of our culture anymore.
Ethnic Studies is Community
So, I grew up to be my mother’s ‘American’ daughter, but no amount of assimilation could compensate for the fact that I’m not white. No amount of assimilation helped me to find connections to who I am or where I fit in the world. The reality of our society is that I might be “half” white on paper, but never once have I been mistaken for white in this world. For every job interview I’ve had I had to prepare to watch my interviewers adjust their faces and expectations when they matched name: Amanda Hubbard (white) to face (ambiguously Asian). This is true for parents and families meeting me as their child’s teacher. This is true for me when I introduce my dad as my dad. These truths are founded upon our acceptance as a society of whiteness as the norm and color as the exception. When we challenge those ideals with Ethnic Studies, we are choosing to heal ourselves. E.S. chooses to normalize the experiences of POC and not treat racial equity work as taboo or rude to talk about. We pose critical questions about what we are learning, who it is for or about, and which powers and oppressions are present. Ethnic Studies provides a way to educate ourselves and our students about the differences in our world, the power dynamics of our world, and how to change them for the better using your own reflections and action steps.
One of the biggest strengths of the E.S. institute was that, by the end of the first day, it provided the information and space for 100 educators to begin to define who they are and what they want to be. We watched Curtis Acosta teach from the heart and connect with his Xicanx students using culturally responsive teaching and texts. We knew we wanted to be authentic and engaging like him and we analyzed his teaching moves finding the connections between the content we were learning about Ethnic Studies and how we needed to show up for students. We critiqued who was or was not represented in our lessons and units and debated their merits knowing they came from educators in the room brave enough to share them. We pushed ourselves to be vulnerable and acknowledged that we weren’t sure how all of this was supposed to work, but we trusted and respected each other enough to figure it out together. We are growing and increasing our impact because we create and sustain supportive learning environments and community.
The culmination of these experiences is that E.S. is the gap-closing answer to eliminating the chasm between our white students and our students of color. It brings the real ‘real world’ into the classroom. Students of color have curriculum that not only reflects them, but centers and empowers them to engage with it, challenge it, and ultimately shape it for the better. E.S. decenters whiteness from our content and practices and instead centers our instruction on students critically asking and answering: who is telling the story? Who benefits from its telling? Who has the power in the story? My school experience was not a unique one but there wasn’t a way for me to know that. School did not concern itself with the lives of immigrants, the working poor, or non-‘first world’ countries, me. I realized that school taught me how to do school, but it was teaching that taught me how to learn. Ethnic Studies is teaching me how to help our students.