This essay is a part of our “Crosstalk” series featuring stories from graduate students of color. Read more in our special issue, “Crosstalk: Graduate Students of Color Reflect on Lessons Lived and Learned in the Academy,” now available in hardcopy and on Project MUSE and JSTOR.
Joanne Baltazar Vakil is a PhD candidate and has been an adjunct and GTA teacher education instructor in two higher ed institutions.
On my first day as a doctoral student, I remember stepping into the well-lit faculty lounge, searching for my mailbox to see if I had received any important messages for my new position as a graduate teaching assistant. This moment prefaced pedagogical flashpoints, what Kraehe and Lewis (2018) define as “lived phenomena” (3) that results in a heightened moment of awareness of sociocultural differences. Having taught middle school for over a decade, I was in awe of the ample resources of colored paper, printing availability, sticky notes, and tape, all a stark contrast to the meager supplies in my school’s staff area (we had no dedicated teacher’s room). In addition to jugs of bottled spring water, a cold and hot dispenser, as well as a Keurig coffee machine, the comfortable space offered a complete selection of coffee and tea pods, boxes of liquid creamer, and organic brown sugar. I felt pampered and appreciated, and I wished that all K-12 teachers could walk into such an oasis to be fueled with supplies and beverages.
It was here where a professor approached me. Realizing that I may be one of the new GTAs for the department, she asked, “Please, pronounce your name slowly for me.” Since my name is Joanne, I found her request puzzling. To avoid being rude, I enunciated my name, but not too slowly. That became my first impression of my new workplace, an institution among many promoting equitable and diverse learning environments. When I tell this story, I generally see the listener cringe or hear an outraged gasp after coming to the realization that the professor most likely phrased this question because of my appearance, a brown body wearing a scarf. Some point to the incident as a microaggression. Yet Kraehe and Lewis (2018) differentiate microagressions as more directional and targeted than “deeply ambivalent” (9) pedagogical flashpoints, though both can occur in informal and formal educational spaces. Considering that the professor’s intentions were to welcome me, I discount her inquiry as a microaggressive act of mispronouncing students’ names and disregarding the names’ cultural significance (Kohli and Solórzano 2012). Instead, she was attempting to avoid that, and I consider the event a misunderstanding of sorts and tend to overlook any accusations of ignorance or stereotyping.
My response is rooted in my positionality as a first-generation Filipina-American, Muslim revert, cisgender woman. One who has benefitted from the evolution of racism over the past eighty years, as it has transitioned from the blatant support of segregation and stereotypes in the 1940s to a more color-blind ideology (Bonilla-Silva 2010). Color-blind racism is subtle and purports a sense of equality without the recognition of the practices of institutionalized racism, which continues to benefit white Americans with privileges such as housing, education, and career opportunities (Bonilla-Silva 2010). This affordance of education is underscored in the racial composition of the undergraduate and graduate students in the classes I teach. Although part of the fastest growing racial group in the United States (“White House Initiative” 2018), Asian Pacific Islander Desi American (APIDA) educators are underrepresented in the teaching field, with 82 percent of American teachers identifying as white (Aud, Fox, and KewalRamani 2010).
When I walk into a lecture hall or classroom, I cannot help feeling intimidated by the sea of white faces. It is not so much the eager, smiling ones as it is those whose eyes slowly gaze from my shoes to my scarf, listening to my words cautiously, even suspiciously. Perhaps I have over-read the stares and glares and simply suffer from a case of imposter syndrome. But awkward moments continually lead me to actions I regret. To counter the discomfort, I attempt to connect to my students’ whiteness. During introductions, I present myself as an educator from New Hampshire, silently hoping that no one will pose the question strangers generally ask, “But where are you really from?” I proudly reveal my status as a military wife, having taught in various states due to changes in my husband’s assignments. In essence, I stress my good English (the only language I know, except for a little German I learned in college) and patriotism as a means to convey that I am like you, after all.
My most unsettling tactic is to dress like the rest or finer. As a Muslim, I modestly cover but do so by wearing heels, professional blazers, floral blouses, and light, pastel scarves pleasantly fastened with a pin that compliments the colors of my necklace. Thankfully, I have not experienced the “invisible violence” (Alimahomed-Wilson 2017, 73) of hate crimes towards Muslim women, many who have been targeted because their “headscarf is viewed as a threatening signifier of difference” (78). From my conversations with a few who have experienced dreadful name-calling or life-threatening attacks in public spaces, such events have profoundly influenced their conflicted decision in not covering, a decision brought on by the need to minimize attention and distinction as a Muslim.
Wilson speaks of this phenomenon of shedding an identity marker (Wilson 2018). Her study on art participation of Black Americans categorizes ways in which these artists gain entrance into the mainstream art world, either through assimilation, self-determination (an advancement of identity), or resistance, a movement towards “reawaking to injustices of the past” (409). Substituting the symbolism of art galleries for lecture halls, I fret over my tendency to distance myself as a brown, Muslim instructor in an attempt to secure acceptance from my students and colleagues. My fear of being limited from other opportunities to work fuel my resistance to resist. I have carved an idea of success that has involved shedding in order to be valued by the dominant members of the community I hope to enter.
As I continue to engage in self-reflexivity, I recognize the need to make more of an effort to be proud of my cultural and religious background, and not by simply changing my wardrobe to an abaya (a more traditional, loose cloak) or understating my biography. I need to begin sharing significant moments in my life that have shaped me as a teacher and learner, moments that have been influenced by my heritage and beliefs, stories that my students hearing now might see a connection with when they begin sharing and listening to their own future APIDA students. I hope future GTAs will possess the confidence I lack as they work with students who may hold hegemonic understandings and fear minorities in various positions in education. Indeed, GTAs have the platform to enlighten their students of the “Eurocentric bias in the classroom” and can exert their position to encourage students to “identify and expand their cultural limits” in order for them to realize “the power that teachers carry to influence a student’s sense of self and worldview” (Kohli and Solorzano 2012, 459). This is the very purpose of our role in teacher education.
Alimahomed-Wilson, Sabrina. “Invisible Violence: Gender, Islamophobia, and the Hidden Assault on U.S. Muslim Women.” Women, Gender, and Families of Color 5, no. 1 (2017): 73-97.
Aud, Susan, Mary Ann Fox, and Angelina KewalRamani. “Status and Trends in the Education of Racial and Ethnic Groups. NCES 2010-015.” National Center for Education Statistics, July 2010, https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2010/2010015.pdf
Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. Racism without Racists: Color-blind Racism & Racial Inequality in Contemporary America. 3rd Ed. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2010.
Kohli, Rita and Daniel Solórzano. “Teachers Please Learn Our Names! Racial Microaggressions and the K-12 Classroom.” Race, Ethnicity and Education 15, no. 4 (2012): 441-462.
Howard, Gary R. “Whites in Multicultural Education: Rethinking our Role.” Phi Delta Kappan 75, no. 1(1993): 36- 41.
Kraehe, Amelia, and Tyson Lewis. “Introduction: Flashpoints—The Breakthrough of Sociocultural Difference.” In Pedagogies in the Flesh: Case Studies on the Embodiment of Sociocultural Differences in Education, edited by Sarah Travis, Amelia Kraehe, Emily Hood, and Tyson Lewis, 1- 14. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.
“White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders,” accessed January 22, 2020, https://sites.ed.gov/aapi/, 2018.
Wilson, Gloria. “Navigating ‘Crooked Rooms’: Intersections of Race and Arts Participation.” In The Arts as White Property, edited by Amelia Kraehe, Ruben Gatztambide-Fernandez, and B. Stephen Carpenter II, 407- 422. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.