“How do they celebrate Three Kings’ Day in Mexico?” I once observed a teacher ask one of her Dual Language students.
The question seemed innocent enough. She was trying to build sociocultural competence in her classroom by being inclusive of all her students as the upcoming holiday approached. However, the student felt uncomfortable. While his parents were from Mexico, he was born in the United States and had never been to his parents’ country of origin. He had no idea how they celebrated there.
Many teachers think they are being inclusive by asking students to share information about foods, holidays, or other aspects from “their country.” The more we share about ourselves and our experiences, the more we break down barriers, right? However, for many of our students, “their country” is the United States. Thus, such requests fall under one of ten, common types of microaggressions, Forever Alien in One’s Own Land.
Definition of Forever Alien in One’s Own Land
A microaggression is a seemingly small statement that directly or indirectly insults someone on the basis of their race. Forever Alien in One’s Own Land is a microaggression that happens often in schools where a student (or staff member) who is obviously not White is mistaken for an immigrant or recent arrival regardless of how long they or their ancestors have been in this country. It stems from the aggressor equating being American with Whiteness.
A common example of Forever Alien in One’s Own Land is when a new student with Asian features registers and the teacher compliments his English. The teacher has automatically assumed that the student is from an Asian country. The student, however, is from a neighboring state. Of course his English is good.
Another common question is, “Will you be going home for the summer?” or “When is the next time you’ll be going home?” All students in the United States’ public school systems (unless homeless) have home addresses in the United States. This question, however, suggests that the United States can never be our students’ home.
Furthermore, “Where are you from?” and follow up questions such as “No, where are you really from?” or “Where are you originally from?” are also pernicious microaggressions. The real, underlying question asked with these follow up questions becomes, “Why are you not White?” When my own 5-year-old daughter was asked where she was from by a Connecticut teacher, and she answered, “Massachusetts,” the teacher followed up with her own version of probing, racially charged questions until she got the answer she was looking for. Her questions included, “Where is your mother from?” and then “Where are your grandparents from?” My daughter’s answers led the teacher to the conclusion, “Oh, so you’re Indian,” denying my third generation, American child her rightful American identity. Not surprisingly, she came home crying that day, not understanding how the teacher had not understood that she was from Massachusetts.
Such microaggressions communicate the message of exclusion and marginalization to our students. They communicate that one has to be White to be American, barring those who belong to ethnic minorities from the right to claim their American identity. Not being allowed to embrace one’s identity creates an internal conflict for those victims who, just as strongly as their White counterparts do, identify as Americans.
Forever Alien in One’s Own Land themed microaggressions prohibit transcultural acculturation among Third Culture Kids (TCKs), or kids who are growing up in cultures different than their caregivers, by not allowing TCKs to ever feel American enough. They prohibit Hispanic students whose ancestors were in the United States before Texas and the Southwest even became a part of the United States and Asian students whose ancestors came to build the railroads in the 1800s the right to identify as part of the only society their families have lived in for generations. And such microaggressions send a strong message to all students, including White students, that being American means being White, thus undoing the work that we try to do as Dual Language educators to dismantle systemic racism and build sociocultural competence among all students.
5 Tips to Counter Forever Alien in One’s Own Land-Themed Microaggressions
So as educators, how can you help undo or better yet prevent the harm of Forever Alien in One’s Own Land- themed microaggressions?
- Check your own biases. Ask yourself if you, regardless of your own race, have a tendency to assume that Asians and Hispanics are immigrants? If you do, be aware of your biases and work on changing your own perceptions.
- Have all students (rather than just the ones from ethnic minorities) research their heritage by interviewing their families. Let them share their own stories either through a class project, a writing assignment, or a presentation where they get to tell you their self-determined identity.
- Avoid assuming anything about the culture of a particular student or family. Instead, ask students as a class if anyone celebrates a holiday, eats a particular food, or has a tradition they would like to share. Then, let them talk about how their family engages with the holiday, food, or tradition rather than turning students into mouthpieces for an entire culture of people.
- Stop asking students (or adults for that matter) who are not White where they are from no matter how curious you are or innocent you think your question is. The truth is you probably don’t ask White students the same question at the same rate, and our students, especially as they get older, know that.
- Have honest conversations with your upper elementary and older students who are from ethnic minorities about how they feel when people say or ask questions that challenge their American identity. Conversations are an opportunity for students to confront their own feelings of exclusion and their internal identity conflicts caused by such microaggressions. Be sure that you validate that they as individuals get to choose their own identities whether they choose to identify as American, as members of their heritage culture, or both.
If you find these tips helpful, please share the link for this blog post with friends, colleagues, etc. Thanks!