If you want to feel the soul of a city, go into one of its public school classrooms. I understood this intimately during my time student teaching on the East Coast in Boston. Being an Asian American, I was attracted to the city because of its cosmopolitan reputation and the colleges and universities in the metropolitan area; I assumed that these features of the city would promise a diverse population and a critical mass of people who looked like me. However, the diversity I found in the classrooms I taught turned out to be much different from what I found in the community at large.
Asian Americans, at least in the school where I was placed, were few and far between, rarities to be gawked at, and not significant enough to be counted or considered. Being in a profession that runs counter to the stereotypical Asian white-collar career choices like a doctor or engineer, I struggled to prove my worth as a teacher. In my drive to transcend the label of “the Asian teacher” that colleagues and students attached to me, I ended up suppressing another part of my identity as a disabled person with a visual impairment.
As I’ve worked to understand these parts of my identity, I came to understand how important it is for schools to think holistically about diversity. We need to think of diversity beyond discrete, all-encompassing and exclusive labels and empower role models for students who are more than an ethnicity, a gender, a sexual orientation, or a disability, but unique and intricate human beings. While this is a reality I crave for my sense of self, I believe there is a greater impact to be had for students who also seek to be seen as whole people with multiple, meaningful identities.
Confronting My Identity While Combatting Stereotypes
Going through life with multiple marginalized identities has meant being pigeonholed, and at times, suppressing one identity over the other. Although I grew up in Hawaii, I attended college and graduate school on the Mainland – far from centers of the Asian population that felt familiar. I have been in spaces where I am one of many and spaces where I am the only one. In the former, it was my disability that defined who I was, but in the latter, it was my skin color.
Most often, it is my ethnic identity that is imposed on me by the majority culture, and usually at the expense of my identity as a disabled person. When I am the only Asian person in a room, my almond eyes, flat nose and high cheekbones are the features that receive the most stares. Asian men are often stereotyped as poor communicators, weak, impotent and submissive, so I make a special effort to project myself as the all-American Malboro Man and avoid any mannerisms in speech or behavior that could be construed as foreign. One cultural trait that has persisted through the generations, however, is the propensity to react to adversity by suffering in silence, having a stiff upper lip and pretending that all is well. Coincidentally, that is exactly what I do to mask my visual impairment: squint, surreptitiously move closer to any boards or screens if I have to, but under no circumstances ask for help or accommodations that would confirm that I am a nearsighted, thick glasses-wearing person with a disability.
As a student teacher in this environment, being in front of a class of not-always-empathetic teenagers made me especially anxious to be perceived as an exception to these stereotypes. It also led me to miss out on some important opportunities, opportunities to share my disability with students, to model vulnerability and to give them a chance to learn empathy and compassion and see others for more than their skin color and facial features. To the Asian students I taught that semester on the U.S. Mainland – who also longed to be seen – I wish I could apologize to them for not having the courage to help my colleagues and students see them beyond their ethnicity. I would also apologize for not having the courage to step up and be a strong, self-confident and fully integrated role model, at peace with all aspects of my identity.
Bridging the Gap Between My Identities
At home in Hawaii, despite being in spaces where I am one of many Asian Americans, it is my disability that comes to the forefront. Though born blind, I regained functional, limited vision after multiple surgeries as an infant. As a result, I inhabit a nebulous gray area where I do not require formal services or accommodations but cannot engage in many major life activities like driving. Nevertheless, when many people find out about my disability, the flattening of my identity to the single dimension of disability commences.
Having good hearts and generous intentions, many people, encountering someone with a disability, will either help too much or too little. Some will engage in infantilization and try to do everything for the disabled, not realizing that people with disabilities cherish their independence and have the resilience and gumption to be able to do many things on their own. Others, wanting to avoid an awkward situation or inconveniencing themselves, will not offer any help. Having a fiercely independent streak and not wanting to be pitied, I have always preferred the latter response.
Unfortunately, my desire for independence led to more missed opportunities, especially as a younger teacher. I was insecure about classroom management and wasn’t forthright about my disability with colleagues and students. I hadn’t come to terms with my identity and was afraid of being labeled as the disabled teacher – much like my desire to not be seen as the Asian teacher. Because of my beliefs, I couldn’t be a role model for my students with disabilities and my students missed the chance to see one of their teachers in the fullness of his humanity.
For any educator, having the opportunity to engage with students beyond surface-level learning interactions is why we do our job. It was not until I came to terms with the pieces of me that made me feel validated and agentic that I could offer that representation to students. By then, it was too late.
Finding Wholeness in Our Identities
Reflecting on these experiences has made me keenly aware of the lack of cultural awareness that pervades our education system and prevents us from providing support for students with identified disabilities. As someone who participates in meetings to formulate and evaluate the special services provided to students with disabilities, there is a notable absence of cultural considerations in the boilerplate Individual Education Plans that are used by schools around the country. As well, for students from ethnic groups that are new to our system, knowing more about cultural norms and expectations would certainly help us to provide support more attuned to students’ holistic identities and not just their assessment scores or adherence to unfamiliar social norms. Even more, teachers or mentors with multiple, diverse identities – whether they be race, ethnicity, ability or gender – could be tapped as resources for students that are looking for representation and belonging from their teachers.
Our own perceptions of how others see us are never accurate; in spite of how successfully I thought I was hiding my disability while student teaching, it turns out that my supervising teacher could see right through my act. When she confronted me about it, I was forced to finally confess that I had a disability, to which she responded, “That’s OK. Kids need all kinds of role models.” If my experiences as a student and teacher with multiple, marginalized identities are any indication, there are many students in our schools whose voices are silenced because of the dissonance between who they are and who the dominant culture favors.
Ensuring we provide students with all kinds of teacher role models – those that look like them and those who are empowered by the intersectional fullness of their identity – could save them from a lifetime of shame and empower them to advocate for themselves in a way that is consistent with the fullness of who they are.