I recently served as a reader of scholarship applications. The process included a complex algorithm for inclusion and took several criteria into account, like GPA, test scores, native languages, income level, assets, essays, parental education level and ethnicity. While providing this service, I came face-to-face with a misconception about race and ethnicity: Appearance predicts what language people speak.
During the process, I re-read two applications because I thought the applicants had made a mistake and checked the wrong ethnicity box. On both, the students had checked their first language as Spanish. In one case, the student had also marked their ethnicity as Asian. The other student checked ethnicity as black. As it turns out, one student was from an Asian family that had lived in Mexico for two generations. The other student was from the Dominican Republic, where a large part of the population is of African ancestry. I had made some assumptions.
I should have known better. I thought of another student who attended a school I taught at about a decade ago. She transferred into our school mid-year and spoke only Spanish. The child was also black. She was from Cuba, where almost half of the population has African ancestry. This 6-year-old was considered an anomaly at our school. Our Spanish-speaking students were mostly Mexican, Guatemalan, Salvadoran and Nicaraguan. As long as anyone who was at that school could remember, there had never been a black person who spoke only Spanish. And some of the Latino children looked “white” and that was confusing for many students.
This little girl’s presence at our school challenged our ideas about what people from different ethnicities looked like. Because our classes were separated by language, we were used to our classes being fairly segregated. The English-speaking classes had black kids in them, the Vietnamese-speaking classes had Asian kids, and the Spanish-speaking classes had Latino kids in them, or what we thought Latino kids looked like.
But this little girl got every possible reaction, from children trying to push or pull her out of the Latino class to one with black children in it. Teachers, thinking they were helpful would say, “Here, sweetie, maybe you’re in this class,” and lead her to a different class. All the while, she couldn’t understand what was going on, but must have felt incredibly uncomfortable and out of place. What already had to be an incredibly difficult transition for her was made more so because of our community’s assumptions of what it means to be a Spanish-speaker.
Ethnicity is often more complex than we think. It is a mixture of culture, background and family traditions. We cannot make assumptions about someone’s race, ethnicity or national background. As teachers, it is our responsibility to meet each student where they are, to be informed and open enough so that we can be an example to our students and welcome anybody, not making them feel like they’re not in the right place.
Harris is a teacher, tutor and volunteer in California.