Why We Should Educate Kids About Racism
Author: Belicia Tang | Category: Books | Education | Date: 08-21-2020
This summer, I had the opportunity to teach a seven-week reading and writing intensive course to a group of five students (ages 10-14), all of whom are first or second generation Chinese Americans.
Our curriculum consisted of four books:
Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehesi Coates
Animal Farm by George Orwell
Outliers discusses the importance of privilege and opportunity in shaping highly successful people. One such success story is depicted in Girl in Translation, which details a Chinese immigrant girl’s struggle to rise above her station and provide a better life for herself and her mother. Between the World and Me shows that such a rosy rags-to-riches story is not realistic for many African Americans, and that even if a black man manages to escape the streets, he will never escape America’s racist beliefs and actions. Lastly, Animal Farm illustrates a direct correlation between education level and social status, pointing out that the poorly educated are most susceptible to being manipulated and oppressed by those in power. Examined together, my students gained insight into important social issues that many of them had previously been comfortably sheltered from.
In Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell reframes our view on success, arguing that success is not only a product of hard work and talent, but also a confluence of many external factors beyond individual ability-- opportunity, luck, resources, ethnic background, even birth dates. These are all factors that go largely unexamined when we lionize super-achievers. Gladwell illustrates the importance of external influences in predicting one’s ability to rise up the social ladder. In the context of education, children who come from disadvantaged backgrounds lack the resources, opportunities, and “concerted cultivation”, or nurturing from parents, to recognize their true potentials. It is not that these children are less smart, less creative, or less capable than their more privileged peers. Rather, it is the fact that arbitrary things like skin color and street addresses can greatly hinder a child’s ability to succeed in school. Outliers challenged my students to broaden their inchoate, socially-conditioned definitions of success, and encouraged them to start operationalizing success in their own way, independent of what platitudes their parents and society have indoctrinated in them. My students also learned that rising up the social ladder is ultimately a privilege, as much as it is an achievement.
Our second book, Girl in Translation, is a realistic fiction novel about a young Chinese immigrant girl who, with her mother, struggles to build a life in America. The book-- loosely based on author Jean Kwok’s own life-- follows protagonist Kimberly Chang and her efforts to survive in America in the 1980s. Kim’s early years in America were fraught with language barriers, extreme poverty, and a fundamental struggle to reconcile her dual identities of stellar student by day, and underaged factory worker by night. The book explores the central theme of education as a path to a better future. Kimberly’s prowess in school was her key out of poverty. She earned a full-ride scholarship to Harrison Prep, an elite, white-dominant high school, where she excelled in math and science and became fluent in English. She is accepted to Yale University, moves out of the dilapidated apartment in which she and her mother lived, and goes on to become a successful pediatric heart surgeon. Though heartwarming, the rags-to-riches story of Kimberly Chang is by no means the reality of many immigrants and other ethnic minority groups. After reading Outliers, I expected my students to challenge Kim’s story as an oversimplification of a more complex phenomenon. Is Kim’s rise out of poverty attributed solely to her intellectual genius and resilience? Or are there other external factors at play that Kwok glazed over? Are other racial minority groups, like black and Latinx populations, able to achieve what Kim did, simply through hard work and innate ability? Is the American Dream accessible to all who are willing to put in the work?
Some of these questions were answered when we read our third book, Between the World and Me, by Ta Nehesi-Coates. Written as a letter to his son, Coates gives a chilling account of the harsh realities of living as a black man in a white-man’s world. It is challenging, mature, and brutally honest. The book is relevant always, but especially now, in light of the Black Lives Matter movement. I assigned this book to middle school students not because I expected them to completely comprehend the involved language and complex themes, but rather, to open their eyes to the plights and unique struggles faced by other ethnic minority groups.
Central to Coates’s book is the motif of the “Dream”, which represents white privilege in America. The Dream is “perfect houses with nice lawns… Memorial Day treehouses and the Cub Scouts… the Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake.” Coates argues that the Dream has never been an option for people like him and his son, as it only exists through the oppression of black people. “A mountain is not a mountain if there is nothing below,” he says. “You and I, my son, are that ‘below’.”
Another big topic Coates’s addresses in his book is education and his hatred toward the public school system for keeping African Americans disempowered and alienated from the Dream. He says, “If the streets shackled my right leg, the schools shackled my left.” Coates cites the statistic that over 60% of black men who drop out of high school end up in jail. He sees school not as a place of higher learning and education, but rather a “means of escape from death and penal warehousing”. To Coates, school did nothing to satiate his budding curiosity and was simply concerned with “compliance”. School taught him “rote discipline”, not independent thinking. Coates views school as just another means of keeping black people chained to the streets, for performance in school is largely indicative of social status in adulthood. Fail to make it in school, and your odds of rising up in a capitalist society are greatly diminished. And why, one may ask, do black kids struggle in school? As posited in Outliers, these children fall behind in the classroom not necessarily because of incompetence or lack of effort, but because of their race, income and zip code-- all factors beyond individual control.
Our fourth and final book, Animal Farm, drives home the idea of education as a means of self-preservation. The book tells the story of farm animals who rebel against their human oppressors and successfully take over the farm. They are then tasked with creating a fair society where “all animals are equal”. The book is an allegory for the Russian Revolution and, more broadly, a criticism of oppressive governments. One takeaway from the book is how undereducated people can be easily manipulated by corrupt leaders. The common farm animals blindly follow the more intelligent pigs, who manipulate and deceive them into compliance. As one pig, Napoleon, emerges as a corrupt, greedy dictator, the animals are powerless to stop him. Squealer, another pig, is the mouthpiece of Napoleon who, through abstruse rhetoric and clever logic, manages to quell any concerns raised by the animals. Animal Farm perfectly illustrates the maxim, “knowledge is power”. The undereducated are rendered powerless. Powerless to fight oppression, and powerless to fight injustice.
In the context of politics, undereducated folk are more likely to blindly internalize false information, just as the farm animals believe Squealer, whose eloquence and charisma mask deception and dangerous lies. When people buy into misinformation, they are led to make uninformed decisions. This is troubling especially in democratic governments, because citizens are tasked with the responsibility of electing a strong, competent leader who can benefit the greater good. In the age of digital media, fake news floods the internet, and news outlets routinely twist information to fit their angle and ideology. How, then, should people inoculate themselves against misguidance and misinformation? As illustrated by Animal Farm, the educated, politically aware and well-informed are less likely to be manipulated by those in power than people who are kept in the dark.
In summary, these four books, when examined together, present the following picture of society. We know that resources and opportunities are just as, if not more important than individual ability in the path up the social hierarchy. We can see that certain ethnic minority groups, like African Americans, struggle in school not necessarily because they lack talent, strong values or a good work ethic, but rather because their street addresses, single-parent households, and lack of financial resources handicap them from succeeding in the classroom. Because performance in school is closely related to upward social mobility, kids who underperform in school will likely have a difficult time rising above their class. Undereducated, working class people are vulnerable to being manipulated, controlled and oppressed by their social superiors, and at the end of the day, those who started at the bottom will likely remain entrenched in society’s lower echelon.
One may well ask, “Why does such a grim narrative seem to exclude Asian Americans, another ethnic minority group, who are generally highly educated and successful members of society?” To address this question, I had my students read a supplemental article discussing the “model minority myth”. Those who buy into the myth believe that Asian-Americans are a “model” of an ethnic minority group that, through hard work and academic achievement, manage to rise up the social ladder and achieve the Dream. So, if Asians can do it, what’s stopping other ethnic minority groups, like African-Americans, from doing the same? Some may argue that laziness, lack of morality or weak family values are the reasons why African Americans continue to struggle in society. Such an assumption, however, not only unfairly equates the different types of racism faced by Asians and African Americans, but also implies that systemic racism towards black people can be overcome simply through hard work and character building. “Asians have faced various forms of discrimination, but never the systematic dehumanization that black people have faced during slavery and continue to face today.” Asians have undoubtedly experienced racism in America. They’ve been barred from entering the US and sent to incarceration camps. However, such form of racism is different than the segregation, police brutality and discrimination that African Americans continue to endure. To hold black people to the same standards as Asian people is misguided and reflects a gross oversimplification of a deeply-rooted societal issue.
Now the question remains, what can we do to give the underprivileged and underserved a fighting chance at escaping the life they were born into? This is a question that politicians, sociologists and educators have grappled with for many years. Affirmative action, though controversial, is in my opinion, a step in the right direction. Obama’s Every Student Succeeds Act was another attempt at equalizing the playing field for disadvantaged children. To discuss all the actionable ways in which our society and government can address the glaring issue of inequality is impossible to do in a single blog post, but is certainly a topic worth revisiting in a later post.
**If you have any suggestions or thoughts about potential solutions to this issue, please write a comment below.
Some people have questioned my decision to expose pre-teens to such a loaded topic as racism. “Aren’t middle schoolers too young to be talking about these kinds of things?” This very question illustrates the extent of society’s ignorance towards an issue that has plagued our great nation since its inception. We shelter kids from the truth because the reality of racism is ugly, uncomfortable and politically charged. Perhaps we ourselves are ignorant and uninformed about racism, as many people with privilege are apt to turn a blind eye on things that they cannot personally relate to. I wanted my students to start thinking about the world beyond them; to peel off the protective layers of privilege and recognize that the opportunities they are bestowed-- like a summer reading enrichment class during a global pandemic-- are not to be taken for granted.
About: Belicia Tang
Hello, everyone! My name is Belicia, and welcome to my page! A little bit about myself-- I am a graduate from UCLA, class of 2019. Go Bruins!!! I earned a B.A. in Psychology and aspire to become a sports and performance psychologist. I am a sports enthusiast, particularly in aesthetic sports (gymnastics, figure skating, dancing). I am also a champion of the performance arts with a love for music, dancing, musical theater, acting, and more! My creative passions include competitive Latin ballroom dance, figure skating, rhythmic gymnastics and, of course, writing. I enjoy writing about mental health, sports, mental health in sports, film and book reviews, and personal reflections. I hope you find my work enlightening, engaging and entertaining!
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