Racial Discussions Belong in Classrooms
Writer: Irin Lipson
Editor: Pat Sevikul, Tonwaan Apiratikiat, Laila Michel
Graphic Designer: Hannah Bugeja
The most popular argument against reading “How to Kill a Mockingbird" is that it is premature exposure to the very real world of racism. Some say it causes discomfort and tension among kids. Others, on the other hand, argue that this sense of discomfort is necessary; if we want to live in a world that’s racially equal, inequality should make us uncomfortable.
Those are the perspectives of many parents, teachers, and students of various countries, especially in New Zealand. Here, some believe that children should not be prematurely exposed to racial discussions and that it may even encourage discriminatory behavior. This is one belief I am firmly against.
It’s the lack of childhood exposure to conversations about racism that breed statements like, "All lives matter" and "We don’t have racism in NZ.”These sentiments are extremely problematic as they are ignorant and invalidate the struggles of many minorities. Their ignorance is what makes them a part of the problem.
I believe a level of discomfort is necessary to understand heavy topics. In order to prevent the domino effect that is racism, children should be taught from a young age to avoid showing discriminatory behaviors such as gaslighting, insensitive use of slurs, culture shaming, etc. If students are not aware of racism, then they’ll partake in it consciously or subconsciously.
Systemic racism has been ingrained into New Zealand, especially in education and healthcare. Students of color are marked by stereotypes that hinder their educational and social growth. For example, structural racism in the education system is why typical stereotypes in school exist in the first place. Common stereotypes such as “Asians are good at math” or “Moari students fail English”. These stereotypes hinder the education of those students, where the stereotypically “smart” students won’t receive enough support, with their struggles being overlooked by teachers, whereas the students who are stereotyped as “academically disadvantaged” are not allowed to express their full potential, as it is not considered. These students will miss out on opportunities due to the systemic racism that errods the education system. These missed opportunities will result in stereotypically “smart” students getting into well-paid jobs and higher education whereas the “disadvantaged” students will be pushed into lower-paid jobs and less further education efforts. This worsens racism as people begin to associate certain races with certain jobs and social statuses.
Casual racism is almost impossible to avoid. Although this form of racism may be unintentionally offensive, it is merely everyday acts of racism that we, as a society have accepted to be jokes or common occurrences. Examples include mocking accents, invalidating generational trauma left through colonization, appropriating cultural clothing and practices, and not acknowledging the history of minorities (eg. colonization and rebuttals such as “well not all white people…”) Personally, microaggressions like mocking ethnic accents and racial profiling is the most common. Comments like, "Oh, you’re Indian, you must eat curry 3 meals a day!" have just become one of the many forms of racism I deal with daily. Because people weren’t educated on other cultures growing up, It's become instinctive to get involved in racist behavior. If this doesn't change, their ignorance will persist and small microaggressions like these will build up to be racist acts much more harmful.
When I first came to New Zealand, I was quiet in class. This wasn’t because I wasn’t fluent in English, but simply because I was shy. I remember sitting at lunch when a young European girl approached me. She started yelling while making these really big hand gestures. At first, I was confused. What was going on? Then I realized: She was trying to talk to me. She then asked, “Do you speak English?!” in a voice so loud, the entire block turned to stare at us.To this day, I still vividly remember the surprised look that crossed her face when fluent English came out of my mouth. I wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt; she was young, innocent, and only trying to be nice, but where on earth had she received the idea that yelling (in English) would be a good way to communicate with someone who does not look English?
The education system had failed her. She was taught to immediately assume I only spoke my mother tongue and that I couldn’t speak English. I speak 3 languages, English being my best. But the young girl's lack of knowledge about India had led her to believe otherwise. The school had never taught her that Indians can speak English, yet she knew about the slums and the abundance of, and I quote, “uneducated homeless men.” Her ignorance wasn’t her own fault, but her schools’, teachers’, and elders’ who all failed to show her the depth and richness of other cultures. Instead, they influenced racial stereotypes. This behavior took place at the tender age of 5, but it’s one that she may have continued to carry on. She may be 16 now and still convinced that Indians are homeless and uneducated. And if that’s the case, then not only did her school fail to teach her the civilized and progressed sides of my country, but they also failed to mention the poverty that affects the minority. Yet, they had conveniently left out our high literacy rates and long life expectancies. She was taught that Indians were to be looked down upon and pitied. This will undoubtedly lead to prejudice which further delays a racially equal world.
Schools need to clearly teach race and racial sensitivity to their students, where the end goal is to understand the importance of diversity and appreciate other cultures. Children should learn that cultures vary and just because it’s unfamiliar, doesn’t mean it’s bad. New Zealand is diverse and continues to be an ever-diversifying country. This means we need to demand our institutions to overcome systemic racism and its long-term ideologies that have been engraved into our society.
New Zealanders will go to great lengths to avoid acknowledging the racism we have here. They will invalidate every struggle and gaslight those who speak up. They will mask their racism as “jokes” and pretend they're funny and those of us who are discriminated against will eventually go along with these “jokes” to gain white attention and respect, brushing it further under the mat.
We need to teach children to be actively anti-racist. There comes a time when remaining silent is harmful. Children should be taught to call out racism and correct it. They should be taught how to approach someone when they are making racist remarks – whether intentionally or unintentionally. Children should be equipped to confront uncomfortable conversations because racism should not be tolerated in the slightest. So maybe reading how to kill a mockingbird is adequate exposure, maybe racial discussions need to begin in classrooms to set the foundations.
Racism has been around for too long. In order to put a stop to it, the next generation needs to be prepared, educated, and inspired to know and do better than those in the past. Young minds are impressionable; they will turn out the way they are influenced. If a child continues to accept racist jokes, stereotypes and normalized discriminatory acts, they will undoubtedly grow into them. But if we, as a nation, decide to overcome systemic racism, then we can raise an intelligent, critical minded and racially sensitive generation and those who are affected would not have to face the same remarks that I did.