Reflecting upon circumstances and histories has triggered many a change to the way we do things in public and private spaces. It is only through self-examination we can reckon with how different groups are affected in different ways by commonly heard narratives, be they helpful or harmful.
For instance, scholarly review of Christopher Columbus’ colonization of the Americas revealed stories of brutality, enslavement, dismemberment and murder of indigenous people. Recognizing that the experiences of particular communities matter as competent simulacrums of our history, and rejecting the sanitized colonial narrative of Columbus’ Americas discovery, many state and local bodies moved to rename Columbus Day, the October holiday, as Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
This public move to acknowledge indigenous people’s experiences has made some educators think about the ways in which The City’s youth internalize dominant perspectives of culture and community.
Mark Heringer, the principal at Thurgood Marshall Academic high school (TMHS) in The City, said that the school developed a project to use the Indigenous People’s Day as an impetus for students to think “about specific narratives and how we identify with them.”
The project has students at the school — 67 percent of whom are English Language Learners, with a majority who have been in the U.S. less than a year — considering how they view themselves versus how others view them. In other words, Heringer explained, exploring “master and counter narratives” about their identities.
Anne Ryan, a history and English language teacher at the school, described the project as a way to build “solidarity among students,” while at the same time ensuring that they “are not perpetuating these master narratives.”
Using an Instagram format in a combination of artwork and text, the students took to the task in unique and compelling ways, presenting a master narrative to signify how the world looked at particular ideas, people and places, and a counter to indicate what they believed the reality was.
“I am in jail, what did I do? #Black-people-need-help,” read a master narrative and its counter stated “I am a CEO of a big company. #We-all-successful.”
Below a picture of a run-down neighborhood, another student wrote “poor Blacks.” Countering that with a photo of President Barack Obama the text read “first Black president.”
Many Asian students addressed the model minority myth. “They say my race is “naturally” smart,” wrote one, “but we know that we had to study.”
Jake Zhou, an 18-year-old senior said that the project resonated with him, since it was about “how people see me and how do I want to be seen.” Because he’s Asian, people expect him to get good grades. “See me as normal,” Zhou urged instead.
Several Asian myths were highlighted by a student: “We are good at math; Everyone immediately thinks we’re Chinese; We all look the same.” And the counter narrative had a map of Asia offering up “China isn’t the only place Asians come from.”
One high-schooler wrote about Cambodians being “portrayed as the darker and uglier ‘Asians,’” with the counter that “Yet, we are all the same as everyone else, we all bleed red blood.”
Several Latinx students quoted President Donald Trump in their master narratives about being “criminal,” “members of gangs,” “rapists,” and presented their counter views of a friendly, hard-working community. Language figured, too, in the assumptions embedded in damaging assertions, including “Only Latinos can’t speak English.”
Using large text to headline “Toxic Masculinity,” one student argued that the “machismo has to end. Be a man! With confident masculinity based on respect and strong values #arealmanalsocry.”
With the photograph of a man with his thumbs down, homophobia was profiled with the counter declaring that “For love there is no barrier.”
While the motivation was to use the idea of Indigenous People’s Day to drive youth to think about who they were in reference to where they lived, I found that the students, most of them immigrants, framed their answers in a way that was both vulnerable and defiant, confronting the otherization of their communities in positive and evocative ways.
Credit goes to the teachers and educators of TMHS who gave students an expansive easel to explore sensitivities around their identities. While the shaping of minds is a complex task, these are the kinds of projects that lay the groundwork for developing traits of empathy and compassion while connecting knowledge to experience among the young. I left the classroom acknowledging the distinct power and promise of self-reflection, especially in the learning environment.
Jaya Padmanabhan’s guest column runs biweekly in the SF Examiner and the point of view of the writer is not necessarily that of The Examiner. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan