How’s your neck today? Me, I’m feeling the whiplash. As editor of The International Educator newspaper, it’s my job to stay abreast of events that impact our sector so I can help to keep all of you informed in turn. Hence the neck problem.
I’ve got to be honest: in the midst of the massive upheaval that has surged at the juncture of COVID-19 and the brutal legacy of 1619, my best efforts will necessarily fall short. There is simply too much of import to report, and it’s all happening so fast.
TIE was never in the business of covering breaking news. Since its inception almost 35 years ago, our quarterly publication has changed little in format over the decades. Sure, we adopted a supplemental June issue and have developed a dynamic online platform to complement our print edition, but even through these changes we have maintained an unharried pace, publishing your stories at a sort of reflective remove from the present moment.
As educators, I think we can all agree that there is a lot to be said for mellow reflection and careful deliberation. When crisis strikes, however, or in the throes of a global awakening over racial injustice such as the one we’re experiencing today, mellow and careful just don’t cut it.
Today, we all need to take immediate action, performing a probing and critical examination at the individual and collective levels to identify the ways in which systemic racism is baked into all of our institutions—TIE included—and devise a concrete plan for rooting it out. To be sure, this is work we should have been doing yesterday, just as it is work we will need to do again tomorrow. And the day after. And every day going forward, as we learn to make antiracism a daily practice in striving toward a just and equitable world.
Tricky as it is figuring out how to meet this monumental moment with the means at hand, I feel very fortunate to be able to place at your disposal our newspaper as a forum well-suited for fostering the deep reflective work so needed within our community. Let’s use this platform as a safe space in which to pursue a sustained conversation about how we get to authentic diversity, equity, and inclusion—a conversation I heartily invite you to join.
Back in March—or was it five years ago?—when planning the June edition of the newspaper, we decided to devote the entire issue to your wildly impressive and phenomenally resilient students, offering them the chance to tell the international school community what they’d learned and felt in the move to remote learning. They blew us away.
So when you’re back from the protest and have a quiet moment for reflection, please take the time to readthese thoughtful and moving articles by tomorrow’s leaders.
The Association of International Educators and Leaders of Color decries anti-black discrimination in China prompted by the coronavirus pandemic and insists that schools respond.
By Meadow Dibble
Medical experts understand the importance of properly naming what ails us. That is why the International Committee on the Taxonomy of Viruses went to the trouble of bestowing a distinctive name on the novel coronavirus that first manifested in Wuhan, China at the cusp of 2020. Identify a disease and you can diagnose it. Diagnose it, and you stand a much better chance of effectively treating it.
In the absence of an International Committee on the Taxonomy of Discrimination, however, it was left to the hivemind that is the internet to come up with “coronaracism,” a term describing the particular brand of anti-Asian hostility that has frequently been reported since COVID-19 outbreaks began flaring up outside of China.
After a number of incidents in February led French Asians to inaugurate the #JeNeSuisPasUnVirus hashtag on Twitter and Instagram, #IAmNotAVirus became a rallying cry for Asians everywhere as they found themselves the target of similar abuse on public transportation, in stores, and over social media, where President Trump’s inflammatory references to the “Chinese Virus” have only amplified prejudicial rhetoric.
What then shall we call the virulent anti-black racism endured by Africans, African Americans, and other people of African descent in China over the past few weeks? In effect, as certain regions have experienced a resurgence of COVID-19 cases, this population has increasingly become the scapegoat’s scapegoat.
According to the Associated Press, which began reporting on anti-black discrimination in China beginning in early April, much of this abuse appears to be concentrated in the city of Guangzhou, home to an estimated 300,000 people of African origin. Many have been evicted from their apartments and forced to sleep on the street. Some, conversely, have been locked in their homes and prevented from leaving, subjected to a heavy-handed forced quarantine without ever having tested positive for coronavirus. Many more have been refused service at various businesses.
Name that racism
In launching a campaign to engage the international education community in efforts to put a stop to these incidents, Kevin Simpson, founder of the Association of International Educators and Leaders of Color (AIELOC), did not feel compelled to invent a catchy name or brand this egregious show of prejudice with a flashy hashtag. After all, the virus that plagues us may be novel, but there is sadly nothing new about the resurgence of age-old racist tropes in times of crisis.
Instead, this team of committed educators simply appropriated the existing #IAmNotAVirus hashtag, claiming for people of African descent the same right to a personhood free from prejudice to which Asians have lately insisted they are entitled. It is a subtle but powerful way of pointing out the devastating irony in the Chinese oppression of Africans even as the Chinese rail against the unfair treatment they have suffered at the hands of others. It is also, quite simply, an outstretched hand. We are not viruses, AIELOC insists. Not you. Not us.
Diagnosis: off the charts
Like those in the medical profession when faced with a disease, experts in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) often insist that the first step in promoting our collective recovery from the persistent social ill that is racism involves calling it out.
Among the many important principles listed in AIELOC’s “International Educator Equity Statement,” signatories pledge first and foremost to “Not wait any longer, but to speak up now about racism and all forms of discrimination in international education.”
Created in 2017 with the aim of supporting international educators and leaders of color and amplifying their work, AIELOC began as a Facebook page and has over the past three years developed into a dynamic organization focused on advocacy, learning, and research. Kevin and the other members of the leadership team—Geeta Raj, Marla Hunter, and Reem Labib—are hard at work to see that DEI principles are not only written into the DNA of international schools but are embedded in all their practices.
Racial discrimination is a common feature of the international education sector, according to Kevin, who spent 10 years as a classroom teacher—both in the U.S. and abroad—and another 10 as a professional development consultant, coach, and thought partner. It often takes the form of microaggresssions, he explains. Comments that present as compliments but mask a presumption of inferiority, such as, “You are so well-spoken.” Or, “Did you actually write this?”
The most powerful in this class of discriminitory practices is simply being ignored, Kevin feels. All of these he has experienced first-hand. What he learned from his colleagues, however, is that others have been subjected to worse.
Many are “not even given a chance to interview for positions,” the AIELOC statement reads, or to “speak or publish in the international school community.” Backing up even further, there’s a pipeline issue: are educators of color even familiar with this sector
Forging an entry point
Kevin Simpson figured
his family and friends would be stunned when they learned he had
accepted a job teaching overseas—and in Laos, no less! Strange as the
choice would undoubtedly seem to some, and hard as it sometimes was to
wrap his own mind around this new reality, in many ways it made perfect
Growing up in Flint, Michigan in the 1980s, Kevin had
spent a lot of time at his local library pouring over books set overseas
and imagining what life might be like elsewhere. His mother’s family
had been part of the Great Migration, moving up from the Jim Crow South
to secure work in Michigan’s automotive industry. For much of Kevin’s
childhood, his father was stationed in Southeast Asia as a member of the
Air Force. It was at age 19, after winning an all-expenses-paid trip to
Benin in West Africa, that Kevin was able to travel abroad himself for
the first time. The experience was transformative.
On graduating college, Kevin had everything an aspiring international educator needs: a passion for teaching, a valid passport, and a deep curiosity about the world. What he lacked, however, was the first clue that this alternate reality that is international education even existed, or any indication that someone who looked like him would be welcome there.
It was thanks to a chance encounter while pursuing his master’s degree at Michigan State University that Kevin learned his teaching credentials could serve as a passport to the world. A new acquaintance from California mentioned in passing that he would be returning to London in the fall to resume teaching.
“I was like, wait a minute,” Kevin
recalls. “You mean you’re moving back to L.A., right?” The young man
assured Kevin that the school where he taught was in fact in London,
England and let him in on education’s best kept secret—that there are
loads of English-medium K–12 schools around the world looking to hire
teachers like him. Kevin promptly invited his new friend to lunch and
grilled him on the details.
It wasn’t any specific piece of
information he learned that day that persuaded Kevin to eventually
pursue a career in international education. “The most powerful thing,”
he remembers, “was to hear all this from someone who looked like
me—another African American. It was a real awakening.”
getting his master’s, Kevin landed a job at a school in Fairfax County,
Virginia where the wonderful diversity of the student body reinforced
his conviction that, “where I live and work, I want to be around people
who don’t think what I think, believe what I believe, look like me, or
love like me. I want to always be in those places and spaces that are
going to push me beyond my upbringing and beliefs and views.” Which is
how he came to accept that first international position in Laos.
Today, Kevin is committed to helping educators of color not only find
their way to international education but also advance into leadership
positions. It’s work that involves a good bit of mentoring. Mainly,
though, it’s about promoting a shift in the underlying conditions.
I write this farewell missive from the traditional homeland of the Wabanaki, or “People of the Dawnland,” a collective name for the indigenous populations that for the past 13,000 years have occupied the territory we now refer to as northern New England, the Canadian Maritimes, and Quebec.
That, right there, is a land acknowledgement, by the way. It is increasingly common to hear such statements in the opening remarks at conferences, protests, or performances around the world. What the planet’s 370 million indigenous people share—as varied and complex as their cultures, languages, and histories undoubtedly are—is the experience of expropriation, exploitation, attempted extermination, and historical erasure that no mere statement can begin to repair.
Yet even small speech acts such as this one have value, in the eyes of many. As symbolic reinsertions, they are the first step in bringing awareness to non-native members of dominant groups that have for centuries remained willfully or unwittingly blind, not only to the plight of indigenous people but to their very presence within our communities.
According to the official United States map, I am not presently in Dawnland but in the state of Maine, a relatively young entity created in 1820 whose upcoming bicentennial has already spurred a good deal of collective soul-searching. To cite one example, rather than reiterate the old state slogan, “The Way Life Should Be,” in looking forward to 2020 the Maine Humanities Council has asked residents to collectively grapple with the question, “How should life be?”
As for the Maine Historical Society, rather than promote the state’s “Vacationland” brand in the lead-up to its 200th anniversary, the institution invited Wabanaki advisors to curate an exhibition that speaks to their millennial relationship to this land as one of leadership, obligation, and resilience. “Holding Up the Sky,” on display through February, showcases heritage items alongside contemporary artworks and includes the stunning photograph of Passamaquoddy tribal elder Mary Selmore pictured above.
The show also includes one particularly disturbing item: the Phips Proclamation of 1755. In order to secure land for English settlement in the territory now known as Maine, the Massachusetts governor offered sizeable bounties on native scalps and ensured settlers freedom in “pursuing, captivating, killing, and destroying all and every” one of the Eastern Indians. It was sanctioned genocide, and it almost worked.
I grew up in Massachusetts, but I never learned about the horrific Phips Proclamation in school. In fact, our popular imagination had the story the other way around, with “Indians” cast as the blood-thirsty scalpers of poor, hardworking “Settlers.” And though I was raised in the traditional homeland of the Wampanoag people, whose early encounter with the “Pilgrims” is celebrated every year on Thanksgiving, I was led to believe that the Native Americans of our region were long gone. (They most assuredly are not.)
Despite systematic efforts by colonizers of European extraction to remove indigenous people from the territory now known as the northeastern United States, and despite the devastating epidemics they spread, both the Wabanaki and the Wampanoag people survived. What’s more, they have managed to preserve and restore elements of their cultures, languages, traditional knowledge, and worldviews in the face of injustices doled out through the decades, right down to the present day.
Not so for the Taíno people of the Caribbean. “They would make fine servants,” wrote Christopher Columbus of the first populations he encountered following his 1492 transatlantic journey in search of the Far East. “With 50 men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”
In contrast to the persistent view that celebrates the exploits of an intrepid explorer who opened new trade routes for Europe, historical documents have revealed that Columbus was also a slave trader who inaugurated an era of brutal usurpation and genocide.
This is hardly breaking news. Even as my elementary school teacher had us memorizing, “In fourteen-hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…” over 100 Native delegates gathered at the United Nations offices in Geneva to confront the navigator’s legacy of violence. Among other important outcomes of this conference, it was resolved “to observe October 12, the day of so-called ‘discovery’ of America, as an international day of solidarity with the indigenous peoples of the Americas.”
Writing in 1977, artist and poet Jimmie Durham stated optimistically that “from now on, children all over the world will learn the true story of American Indians on Columbus Day instead of a pack of lies about three European ships.”*
Sadly, the world has been slow to catch on.
Today, my youngest daughter, Fiona, is twice the age I was when this resolution was adopted. For the very first time—and thanks to decades of effort by tribal leaders and activists from the Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, and Abenaki Nations—Fiona and her classmates celebrated Indigenous Peoples’ Day this past October, after Maine Governor Janet Mills signed a bill into law.
In eschewing the federal Columbus Day holiday, Maine joined Florida, Hawaii, Alaska, Vermont, South Dakota, New Mexico, Wisconsin, and Washington, D.C. in favoring celebrations that recognize each region’s native populations. On something of a roll, Maine lawmakers additionally passed legislation this year banning Native American mascots in public schools throughout the state, to the great dismay of a vocal band of holdouts.
Even when change is mandated by legislators, it doesn’t always take place, of course. Despite the enactment of a 2001 law requiring schools statewide to teach Native American history and culture, little had been done over the past two decades to integrate the subject until Portland public schools began working in recent months with tribal leaders to craft and roll out a Wabanaki Studies curriculum districtwide.
It seems the tide may at last be turning. The move to decolonize the curriculum and recenter the world’s indigenous people in our approaches to history is a growing global phenomenon.
While some Latin American countries continue to observe the date on which Columbus arrived in the Americas, a number now refer to it as Día de la Raza (Day of the Race) or some variation on “Day of Respect of Cultural Diversity.” These are largely commemorations that celebrate the region’s native ethnic groups and cultures in their resistance to the European colonizer.
In 2002, under Hugo Chavez’s rule, Venezuela began to mark an annual Día de la Resistencia Indigena (Day of Indigenous Resistance). Two years later, a crowd of activists toppled a statue of Cristóbal Colón, as the Italian mariner is known in Caracas.
All the same, monuments to the man continue to enjoy a place of privilege in public spaces around the world. An online “Columbus Monuments Page” lists over 600 such statues in approximately 30 countries throughout the Americas and in Europe. Toppling all of them would take a concerted effort, in the face of fierce opposition to such revisionist interventions. Indeed, in spite of all we know about his crimes against humanity, Columbus continues to enjoy widespread admiration among a powerful contingent who credit him with launching the Age of Discovery.
Miseducation onboard the Santa María
One gorgeous September afternoon this past fall, a month before Maine celebrated its first Indigenous Peoples’ Day, I brought my daughters down to Portland’s waterfront, having learned that a replica of Columbus’s flagship, the Nao Santa María, would spend three days docked at the wharf. Warning Ava and Fiona at the outset that our visit onboard the three-masted vessel was not about paying homage, I enlisted their help in a mission to examine how the ship’s history was being represented to visitors.
One of the first panels we encountered declared the Santa María “the most famous ship in universal history” and explained that the replica was constructed in Huelva, Spain (as the original had been) “with the objective of reliving history.” I wondered how the slain Taíno would feel about reliving their people’s genocide.
Timed to coincide with the 525th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in “America,” the contemporary voyage celebrates the role of Spanish ships that “opened routes” of “communication and mutual knowledge” and led to “mutual encounters and meetings.” Everything, it seems, took place on perfectly mutual terms, according to the Nao Victoria Foundation that financed this initiative.
As we made our way through the dim hull, we read about how “unbreathable” the space would have been in the 15th century. Not a single sign indicated, however, that the human cargo Columbus carried back to Spain could have been subjected to these extreme conditions. In fact, none of the navigator’s activities in the New World were discussed at all.
Back on deck, I asked a crew member to fill in the blanks left by the spotty exhibition. She was visibly uncomfortable as she referred, in passing, to the “less good impacts on the indigenous people” of Columbus’s voyages. Claiming ignorance on the subject, the veteran sailor suggested we do something more fun for the kids and she let them ring the ship’s bell. Then, in the hushed tones of a co-conspirator, the middle-aged woman asked if my girls would like to don the navigator’s faux fur-lined red robe and floppy hat. Visitors typically pay US$5 a pop for the privilege, but our guide was willing to forego the fee if a game of dress-up could get me to stop asking questions.
The whole trippy experience called to mind one of my all-time favorite movies, Goodbye, Lenin!, a 2003 German film by Wolfgang Becker about the psychological challenges involved in transitioning from a particular worldview to a radically different one. It’s October 1989 when Christiane, an East German woman deeply devoted to the socialist cause, falls into a coma. When she awakes eight months later, everything has changed, only Christiane doesn’t know it thanks to increasingly desperate efforts by her son to shield her from the realization that communism has fallen along with the Berlin Wall and her entire way of life.
Between the Santa María’s sparse infographics and its numerous theatrical props, I couldn’t help but feel that, rather than educate young visitors, children were being implicated in an elaborate and increasingly hard-to-maintain fiction, as if, like Becker’s coma survivor, they were too frail to handle the truth.
The reality is, we educators are all too often the fragile ones.
As Fiona demonstrated, if you give a kid a costume, she’s likely to play dress up, even when morally opposed to what it symbolizes. If we ask our students to memorize a catchy rhyme, they will be able to repeat it for the rest of their lives, whether or not it accurately reflects reality. And if we teach our students a mythology rather than give them the tools to critically interrogate history, we’re sure to be hearing from them in years to come.
The girls and I followed up our Santa María experience with a corrective visit to “Holding Up the Sky.”
*In the original print version of this article, Jimmie Durham was characterized as a “Cherokee artist and poet”; this reference has been removed, as Durham’s claim to Native American heritage has been contested.
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