(Editor’s note: This is the tenth of about a dozen student essays we’ll be publishing for this round of Education Lab’s Student Voices program, which is partnering this year with Project Homeless. Know a student with a story to tell about homelessness or education? Email Education Lab’s engagement editor, Mohammed Kloub, at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
If you’re a person of color, there comes a time in your education when you sit in history class and learn about people who look like you. Sometimes it’s very brief, a simple footnote compared to the chapters that tell the history of white people. It’s almost always told in the context of violence and war.
I remember the moment, sitting in history class when we discussed the Chinese workers who labored on our country’s railroads. I felt my peers’ eyes fall on me, the only Chinese kid there. It felt as though I could see inside their minds, drawing comparisons between me and the people they read about. I wanted to cry out that my story was different.
From kindergarten through high school, I can only recall having one teacher of color outside my foreign-language classes. I have to imagine how the conversations, lectures and curriculum would have looked like if I’d had a teacher who resembled me, or was also a person of color.
This problem isn’t exclusive to me. There is a nationwide gap between the diversity of teachers and their students. A 2016 U.S. Department of Education report found that in the 2011-12 school year, 82 percent of public-school educators were white.
In Washington, the mismatch is bigger. As The Seattle Times recently reported, 89 percent of the state’s teachers are white while the increasing population of nonwhite students is now nearly 46 percent.
There are many reasons why this is a problem, but for me it’s quite simple — there’s power in seeing someone who looks like you in a position of leadership. I had only one teacher of Asian ancestry up until college, when one quarter, I had three of them.
For the first time, as a student of color, I felt seen. When we talked about Chinese Americans we didn’t just talk about the Chinese Exclusion Act and railroads. Instead, we discussed Angel Island, the “Other Alcatraz” and how it was like a prison. It was empowering.
Our society is dominated by narratives and systems meant to exclude people of color, so it often falls on those same people to carve out their own spaces within institutions like school. It’s a difficult task made easier if you have someone to help you find confidence in your identity — someone who can relate to the experience of being excluded. Without that person, it’s easy to feel alone in the complicated struggle to understand your identity and how you fit into society.
Where you might hope to seek some understanding of identity in history and English class, you find none. The required reading is written by dead white men and some women. History classes present images of oppression and violence with people of color often on the receiving end. These realizations leave you with more questions than answers, a situation that might change with more diverse teachers.
Last year, I took my first Asian-American-studies class and my first ethnic-studies class. The classes were filled mainly with people who looked like me and professors who weren’t white. There was a certain unspoken understanding between the professor and the students, that these classes were meant for us — students trying to understand where they came from and who they are.
I watched my peers nod as my professor spoke about the whitewashing of Asians in the media and their experience growing up in South Seattle. I listened to another professor talk about seeing the death of Vincent Chin on the news and the sudden fear he felt as an Asian man.
There was an overwhelming sense of relief because we knew we weren’t alone anymore. That’s the importance of having diverse teachers and a curriculum that presents a variety of perspectives. It is impossible to underplay how feeling seen affected me. To go from understanding yourself as a rarity, the odd man out, to learning about others like you from the past and present legitimizes your existence. That is something that everyone who gets an education should walk away with.