GUEST POST (Series 1, #1): Priyanka Jhalani on Growing Up Bicultural

Since seventh grade, Hercules has been one of my favorite movies, which is strange considering the first time I watched it, my eyes were filled with tears. As a twelve-year-old, I was fascinated by the “Gods” on my television screen, and proudly proclaimed, “I’m going to be Hera!” to which a well-intentioned classmate remarked, “but you’re brown.” Hera was, of course, pink. Now, almost five years later as a senior about to graduate high school, I still remember this moment clearly, but not for the reasons one might think.

Immediately following my peer’s acknowledgement of my skin color, I cried. My teacher, to her credit, made my classmate apologize, yet this moment remains a powerful memory because it reflects that I, at twelve years old, had already internalized the idea that being brown was something to be ashamed of.

I grew up attending a predominantly white, affluent, private school in Orange County, and needless to say, between me and the other Indian girl in my class, there wasn’t exactly an accurate representation of Indians.

For my classmates, there was little-to-no cultural context for understanding the Indian American experience. Race and ethnicity were seldom discussed, and when they were, teachers only addressed issues that were black and white. When the word “Indian” did come up it was, inaccurately, used to describe Indigenous American peoples. I thought maybe we’d be acknowledged when people referred to Asians, but quickly learned that this term was reserved strictly for descendants of the East side of the continent.

I came to find that while much of my culture was left uncovered within the classroom, it was an entirely different story outside of it. Indian accents were widely promoted through pop culture as hilarious—and images of us as cab drivers or covered in henna tattoos and colored powder were of no shortage. Whenever Indians were mentioned, it was through stereotypes about how “exotic” we were, nods to our intelligence, and other overgeneralizations. I struggled to find myself in the misguided images provided by the media and was getting mixed signals on when it was “okay” to be Indian.

Saris, bindis, and henna tattoos were cool—and everybody loved Indian food—but as soon as Slumdog Millionaire came out, I became the Indian ambassador—everyone expected me to have all the answers related to Indian culture and be accountable for 1.3 billion people’s actions. I was learning very harshly that American pop culture picked, rather selectively, what it was going to accept and what it was going to reject from any given culture.

Pop culture made festivals such as Holi—the celebration of color in which we throw colored powders at one another—yoga, and meditation all seem like fads. I would see images of non-Indians dressed in saris, throwing colors at each other and think to myself, they’re enjoying Indian culture now, but at the end of the day they don’t have to deal with being brown. They have the privilege of celebrating our holidays and taking “trendy” pictures, but then turning right back around and mocking our accents or telling us we smell like curry.

The most daunting question of all was the dreaded, “Can you do your Indian accent for me?” which wide-eyed classmates lined up to hear, ready to imitate and mock my heritage in the most excruciating manner. I felt like a puppet, like a circus act, and horribly used when people asked me this question. My classmates, who were mostly white and weren’t struggling with the identity crisis I was, couldn’t understand why this question was so hurtful.

I didn’t want people to just see me as that Indian girl or talk to me about their fascination with Indians as if I was some type of “exotic” fetish.

Problems occurred when my two worlds collided and someone decided to bring up stereotypes about Indians or talk about how cool it would be to have Holi at school. I loved my Indian culture, but in typical middle school fashion, I was embarrassed by the thing that made me different. Every time it came up, I felt singled out. Part of this was because I’d internalized the American concept that race isn’t an appropriate conversation topic, but the other part was because of the valid reality of racism in the United States.

I was far from understanding the complex racial dynamics of America in middle school and even further from being able to explain them. As a result, I hid my heritage but owned my skin color. Basically, I understood that the color of my skin was brown and I couldn’t hide from that, but since Indian culture wasn’t highly publicized and I clearly wasn’t white, peers tended to lump me into the black category. Of course, their classification relied exclusively on stereotypes, like being able to dance and my “sassy” nature.

The funny thing is, I didn’t mind. Like I said, at this point I had no concept of race in America. I grew up with the same ideals as every other American kid: we are all equal and race doesn’t matter. So, I went on being called black because, in this context, it was cool; of course, I was doing the same thing non-Indians were doing when they celebrated Holi on their own. I was taking what I liked from black culture (the accepted part of it) and using it to my advantage.

What finally put an end to this identity crisis was getting into social justice work. My sophomore year of high school, I got the opportunity to attend the Student Diversity Leadership Conference—better known as SDLC.

This conference was for students from independent schools around the country who wanted to learn more about identity. During one of the sessions, we were all instructed to go to our cultural affinity groups. In reality, this was the same as me going to a family party to see my Indian friends for a night, but at that point I couldn’t understand why we needed to do this.

However, when I joined the circle of over a hundred other Indian American youth, I knew I was right where I belonged. We talked about our favorite Bollywood movies, how annoying it was to be asked to do our accents, and how often people mispronounced our names. I could relate to everything that was said! For the first time in a setting outside of my home, I felt my Indian identity affirmed.

I returned to Orange County with a newfound confidence and clarity regarding my Indian identity. I began to correct people when they tried to lump me into a black, or otherwise nonwhite, category and I was proud of my heritage once again. I combatted harmful stereotypes and let others know when their questions or comments about my culture made me uncomfortable.

Today, I’m proud to say that both of the cultures I’ve grown up in, Indian and American alike, exist within me harmoniously. I’m able to embrace one identity as much as the other. Now I know growing up bicultural is a blessing not a burden.

For my graduation next month I’ve decided I want to wear a sari because it’s the outfit that makes me feel the most beautiful and reflects an important part of my culture. The road to self-acceptance, especially in categories as historically and politically charged as race and ethnicity, can be tricky sometimes and it’s okay to stumble and fall—I certainly did.

Priyanka Jhalani is a high school senior who is passionate about social justice work. Since her sophomore year, she has been heavily involved in diversity and inclusivity initiatives. She’s facilitated numerous discussions and given several speeches at her school. She’s a first generation Indian woman and lived in France during her junior year of school. When she has the time, Priyanka loves to write, read, run, and dance.

Editor’s Note: This article is the first of three in Teaching Social Justice’s first series. I am honored that Priyanka chose TSJ as her outlet to publish this work as part of a senior project. Stay tuned for her next article on colorism in the coming weeks.

Struggling: When the Need for Social Justice Never Sleeps

Have you ever found yourself struggling–emotionally, physically, spiritually? By the book, you’ve had the hours of sleep you need. You are happy with yourself and your life. You know what drives you, what your values are, and fight for your beliefs. Your boxes are checked, but you see something, hear something, think something, and there you are: struggling.

I am struggling today.

I haven’t written in a while. I’d blame it on lack of time, but we’re all busy. It is easy to hide behind guest posts and occasional blurbs, but there are words to be said and I’ve sat silent. Behind silence is privilege and cowardice. A colleague and mentor, Bettina Love, often writes: “White silence is violence.” I am beginning to understand the gravity of those words today, especially since I began this post four weeks ago, and here I am, finally posting.

I have so many incomplete posts that will live forever in the purgatory of “unpublished drafts.” Yeah–it is easy to get lost in life; lost in the day-to-day, but despite being busy, I can still find time every Sunday to watch yet another Black man die on The Walking Dead so, in short, let’s talk about our world in and outside the classroom (and everywhere in between). I am not necessarily going to start with Ferguson and end with what is going on today, but I’ll start with my class and we’ll go from there. Please join me in this dialogue.

I was reading an article about the school-to-prison pipeline with my seventh grade ELA students a little while ago. As you’ll see (if you click the link), I added annotations to encourage active reading. Here is a link to the original piece. Previously, my kids and I were knocked around for poor grades on benchmark tests addressing nonfiction texts, so we read, analyzed, and responded to articles discussing this topic, income inequality (there are fewer annotations here because they were instructed to come up with questions and answers of their own), the American dream (or, mostly, lack thereof), and more.

Needless to say, their test scores did not improve much, but the way they read and responded to texts did, so I call that a win. Since then, I have had more students willing to speak out and about “controversial topics,” including race relations, gender issues, income inequality, the disillusionment of the American dream, and more. I have seen and heard them relate “single stories” to their own experiences. I am amazed by these kiddos every day. They are brave and tenacious.

If you’re reading this piece and thinking I underestimate(d) my kids, you’re probably right. This year is my first working in a middle school (and eighth year teaching). For some reason, before I began, I pictured my students as much younger than they actually are. I am surprised often by how little I know and how little I’ve experienced in comparison to them.

This year is also my first time teaching in a rural school district. I assumed these topics–ones of race, class, gender, sexuality, etc.–would be difficult to address in my classes. They aren’t easy, of course, but my students are extremely receptive to discussing various ideas, despite where their opinions land on the spectrum of possibility.

Most of these surprises are positive ones. My students are critical thinkers who are eager to learn–that discovery is both inspiring and uplifting to me as an educator. However, despite how great things may be going, there is always something on the horizon that stops me in my tracks–and then I struggle.

Today I learned that three White men, allegedly White supremacists, shot and injured five people in Minneapolis who were participating in a peaceful #BlackLivesMatter protest. Here is the story. These people were protesting the murder of Jamar Clark. According to NPR, “Police say they shot Jamar Clark in the head because he interfered with paramedics who were treating his girlfriend. Demonstrators say this is yet another case of police using excessive force.”

I was in Minneapolis this past week/end for the National Council of Teachers of English Annual Convention. At the convention, I joined others from the CEE Commission on Social Justice in Teacher Education in a protest against Pearson’s unethical, profit-hungry policies that hurt our students, teachers, and the educational system as a whole. While I still believe this protest was a necessary act and raised awareness (that even caught Pearson’s attention, since they took down much of the footage online), little did I know something else–something bigger–was happening on the other side of town.

In other news, I also learned earlier this year about a young woman who was assaulted in her own school, own classroom, and own desk by a school police officer:

In international news, we have seen Paris’s struggle. Not only was the attack on Paris horrific and unbelievable, but I am also ashamed at the media’s coverage thereafter. We have reentered the arena where Syrians and Muslims are terrorists, look a certain, stereotypical way, and are unworthy of our help and refuge. Even more? The media has all but ignored the attacks in Beirut and Kenya, where other brutal attacks occurred around the same time as the ones that hit Paris.

Many, many more social justice issues and events have happened recently, but despite what has happened, how do you talk about these things with middle schoolers (or any students for that matter)? It has been fairly easy to discuss general social justice issues–race, class, gender, religious differences, etc. However, as I enter discussions about specific events, I struggle–and my students struggle.

How do you explain a broken world, but encourage hope and action in your students without merely bursting their dreams before they’re even formed? How do you put a face on injustice–and why am I being forced to do so over and over again? To clarify, I am not arguing against social justice pedagogy, and I am especially not arguing against teaching for social justice. On the contrary, I am struggling today because I’m looking for a light in this world, but we keep entering a further state of darkness.

I’m struggling because I’m angry.

I’m struggling because my students are angry.

I am struggling because the world is angry, and sad, and hurting, and when people stand up for what they believe in, they’re deemed as: whiners, radicals, crazies, extremists, wrong–and some are even shot or murdered for their beliefs. How do I inspire these kids to stand up for their own values if others are being physically and emotionally harmed for demonstrating theirs peacefully?

This post is not a resolution. It is not meant to be a radical rant. It is simply a post from a struggling teacher living in a struggling world. Any suggestions?

JJW

Smagorinsky on writing: Put your money where your mouth is

Rick Diguette wrote an op-ed titled, “Has freshman year in college become grade 12½?” on Sunday. His piece addresses the lackluster writing habits of college freshmen, and suggests that professors are having to teach writing skills students should have learned in high school. What Peter Smagorinsky said in return, though, is an argument everyone needs to hear:

If you want kids to learn how to write, then put your money to work to provide teachers the kinds of conditions that enable the time to plan effective instruction, guide students through the process, and assess their work thoughtfully and considerately.

Otherwise, you may as well add yourself to the list of reasons that kids these days can’t write. (Smagorinsky, 2014)

Throughout the op-ed, Smagorinsky attacks the policies in place that do damage to our classrooms, instead of attacking our teachers. It is worth a read, and needs to be shared. More people need to see arguments like this — ones that defend our teachers and the public school system. 

From the field: Creativity

Too many classrooms offer too few opportunities for imagination, innovation, engagement, and stimulation. Even if students and teachers don’t drop out physically, they frequently stay in school only to get the credentials or salary, and not the intellectual enrichment.

The above quote can be found in a beautifully-written article in today’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution by University of Georgia professors Bob Fecho and Stephanie R. Jones. I wish I had time to write a full response to it, but I wanted to make sure it at least got shared. Enjoy!

What are we teaching them? A discussion on standardized testing

As a high school American Literature teacher, this is the time of year I dread — this is End of Course Test (EOCT) season.

I am not worried about my students’ test scores. I am not worried about the material we covered or what my students learned. I am, though, worried about what this season does to them — what it teaches them to value. After all, we did so much more in our classes than what is covered in this 101-page document, a document that claims ownership of our (specifically: Georgia’s) public school curriculum.

Because I believe we are in a state of crisis — in dire need of education reform — I keep up with news on Common Core State Standards, standardized testing, and educational “policy.” Today, I came across an article titled “Mandatory Common Core tests in New York just happen to be full of corporate brand names.” After a moment of speechlessness, I began this blog post by asking myself: what are we teaching them?

What are we teaching students when:

  • 20% of their class grade is based on one multiple-choice test?
  • teachers are encouraged to teach to the test?
  • these tests are given weeks before the end of the course?
  • EOCTs are written using racially-biased, gender-biased, and class-biased language?
  • EOCTs insert brand names into their questions?

There are countless questions racing through my mind, and I cannot ask any one without being accused of being “just another angry teacher who doesn’t want accountability.” I, in fact, encourage accountability and collaboration between educators; however, in my model, standardization does not accountability make. There are better ways to assess students and teachers (portfolios, observations, reflection journals, self-evaluative rubrics, etc.).

To me, the dialogue surrounding standardized education is a type of newspeak. I feel like Winston Smith, understanding the truth behind the buzzwords, but I do not know how to bring that truth to everyone. All I know is: this time of year, I lose some of my teacher soul when I have to utilize precious class time to reiterate the structure of blank verse, to discuss commonly misspelled words, or to encourage students to memorize the steps in the writing process according to our state-mandated EOCT Study Guide.

We are fast-approaching a breaking point in education. I don’t want to be there — and I especially don’t want my students to be there — when education loses its humanity altogether.

Related:

Brand names in NY standardized tests vex parents — more information on the above article

Education Evolution — an cool video calling for a change in “today’s classroom”

Wife of teacher to Obama: ‘please stop this runaway reform now’

Wife of teacher to Obama: ‘please stop this runaway reform now’

In this Washington Post open letter to President Obama, the wife of a Georgia public schoolteacher describes the state of emergency students and teachers are currently facing. It is beautifully composed and deserves a read.