Students asking about your ethnicity?

Discussion in 'Debate & Marathon Threads Archive' started by starsallaround, Oct 4, 2013.

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  1. starsallaround

    starsallaround Rookie

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    Oct 4, 2013

    I'm mixed-race, and looking at me it is hard to tell "what" I am (guesses include Chinese, Mexican, Native American/Hawaiian/Alaskan).

    I rarely get questions about it from other adults, probably due to politeness. However, I am a high school teacher-in-training and have a job tutoring students, and I have noticed that a LOT of kids will ask me, sometimes in awkward ways (e.g. "Hey ... what ARE you?" or "Where are you from? No, I don't mean the US -- I mean, where are you REALLY from?")

    How should I approach the "race question" when I become a high school teacher? Would it be a good idea to just tell the kids on the first day, as part of an About Me?

    On one hand I like the idea of being up-front about something that a lot of them are probably wondering about -- might as well alleviate their curiosity. On the other hand, I don't want to make race a bigger deal than it is, especially since I personally do not identify strongly with my own racial background. So telling them would be more of a "Hey, this is why I look different ... well, um, I have nothing more to say ..." rather than "Let me tell you about all of my awesome cultural knowledge and experiences."

    What do you guys think?
     
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  3. Ms. I

    Ms. I Maven

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    This is the story of my life! I'm of a mixed race as well. As a child growing up, I was constantly asked, "What are you?" and I'd tell them back then.

    As an adult, it has unfortunately turned into disliking answering the question from MAINLY other adults (& students) I may see on a regular basis. First of all, it's nobody's business. People don't go around asking them what they are. Secondly, with adults I see on a regular basis (work especially), once they know, they'll have all their preconceived ideas, stigmas, even hatefulness, & other opinions about how they feel about those races & believe it or not, they'll treat me differently.

    One time, I'll never forget, I was ST (student teaching) & had this CT (cooperating teacher). Towards the very end (thank God!) of my student teaching, I made the mistake of telling him my ethnicity when he asked, & ever since then, I had to put up with his little snide, mocking comments, etc. in front of others. Before he knew what ethnicity I was, he was OK. And this wasn't in the "olden days", but in the 2000s. Thank God I had only 1 week left, so I just wanted to be done, but I gave him a not-so-good evaluation about his unprofessionalism and making me feel uncomfortable that my university had us student teachers complete. Whether they took heed to it, who knows. I told myself I'd never make that mistake of telling anyone I work with again. Strangers I may see only 1x, I don't care about so much, so I don't mind telling them.

    Once on an actual job interview, the interviewer had the nerve to ask my ethnicity (since I guess people are so "intrigued" with my last name). I just say American and they can tell to change the subject...fast. She kind of knew she put her foot in her mouth & moved on.

    I work with mostly high schoolers nowadays & one has asked (not my student) & I said, "I don't answer those kinds of personal questions" and I quickly continued what I was doing. With younger kids, I'd say never mind that or don't worry about it.

    If you ever need to talk, vent, etc. about this issue, feel free to PM me because I know all about it!
     
  4. Jerseygirlteach

    Jerseygirlteach Groupie

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    Okay, I just had a flashback to the Cosby show episode where Theo's high school teacher had all her students try to guess her ethnicity. If you're in your 20s and don't know what I'm talking about, please don't tell me!:haha:

    I think it's natural for children (and adults) to be curious about ethnicity. It's part of who we are. A couple of times last year I got new students and when I told the class we were getting someone new, the first question was always "Is it a boy or a girl?" The second question from some was "What is his/her skin color?" I teach in a very diverse school BTW. I told them it wasn't important but that doesn't change their level of interest.

    If you're comfortable discussing it, I say go right ahead. If not, tell them you are not. But I don't think there's anything wrong with them being curious about it.
     
  5. microbe

    microbe Comrade

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    When I was doing a week long subbing job last year we had special guests come to teach the kids something cool (this was middle school).

    One of the guests, I believe, was mixed race, and one student began loudly demanding "what he was." He was very surprised and handled it well, and he didn't seem upset. Looking back on it, I wish I chastised the student but this student always gave me trouble in this school and the behavior would only get worse if I ever addressed it. Plus, I was uncomfortable telling her that it was an inappropriate question since the question wasn't directed at me and I had no idea if the guest actually found it offensive.

    I've gotten the question from adults before but never students (and adults only ask me if they're my friends). I personally feel that it would be better to tell the student that it's an inappropriate question, since it may offend other people they may ask. But I suppose the real question is: are people offended by the question? If the answer is yes, shouldn't students be discouraged from randomly asking such a private thing?
     
  6. 2ndTimeAround

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    I say answer when asked but not volunteer. I don't see why anyone would hesitate. Heck, we have a mixed-race president that chooses to be identified as black so pick whatever you want. It doesn't matter. If someone is going to judge you on the color of your skin, they're going to do it with or without a label.
     
  7. catnfiddle

    catnfiddle Moderator

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    Oct 4, 2013

    "Oh, my family is from everywhere, but I'm from" whatever town where you were raised. Evasive but at least an answer.
     
  8. Caesar753

    Caesar753 Multitudinous

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    It might be a good teachable moment. You can use the opportunity to gently and kindly let students know that the question is not appropriate and why.

    Right now I'm experiencing a medical situation (nothing bad or dangerous, don't worry), that will soon become physically obvious. I'm anticipating students asking me about it in their usual blunt, often tactless way. My plan is to let them know that there are kinder, more polite ways of addressing the issue. I think that they will respond positively to my response. As a teacher, my goal is to teach them how to be good citizens of the world, not just good students. Part of that means teaching them how to relate to and interact with others.
     
  9. Peregrin5

    Peregrin5 Maven

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    Oct 4, 2013

    If they ask me "what ARE you?" I reply with a snarky: "human".

    I'm mixed race as well, however if they ask me politely and correctly: "What ethnicity are you?" I will tell them. I won't respond to "what are you?" - human, "what nationality are you?" - American, "what's your race?" - human again.

    I don't really care if they know, but I've had adults ask me in the same kind of rude and incorrect way. What ethnicity are you is the appropriate and polite way of phrasing the question. You can still genuinely not want to say, but I like to reward them for asking it correctly.
     
  10. chebrutta

    chebrutta Enthusiast

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    Haha, Peregrine, I've used the "human" line before!

    Sometimes a kid will ask; I tell them. The only problem is that it kind of leads to everyone wanting to tell what they are, too. Which is fun, but you know: time, place, lesson.

    Actually, this sort of thing happened several times with my parents. My friends would ask what they were or where they were from. Well, they're people, and they're from PA and NY. But my friends were always incredulous that my parents were born here in the US... actually, thinking back on it, it always made me a little upset. Hmm.
     
  11. Linguist92021

    Linguist92021 Phenom

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    Oct 4, 2013

    I'm Hungarian, with an accent, so the story of my life is that everyone at some point asks me where I'm from. They can almost never guess right, so I know they're curious. When I hear someone with an accent, I'm curious to know where they're from, although most of the time I don't ask, because I know how annoying it can get, hearing it 50 times / day.

    In my opinion there is nothing wrong with students asking, and there's nothing wrong with answering (if you're comfortable with it).
    1. obviously they're curious.
    2. if you don't answer, they'd want to know even more, but now they might be wondering why you're not telling them, etc.
    3. they should ask politely and appropriately. If not, you should take the opportunity to clarify some things, such as the difference between race, ethnicity and nationality. You can - and should - tell them how it is appropriate to ask.

    You can handle this in a variety of ways. These are some of the ways I handled it, based on my mood, the student asking, the class dynamics and the type of day the class had that day (on task, or disruptive)

    - what are you?
    - "human" or "teacher", etc. After that I wouldn't allow anymore questions, because the question was not appropriately phrased, demanding and actually cut me off in the middle of a sentence.

    - where are you from?
    - I'm Hungarian.
    and then the questions: where is that at? how long have you been here? what language do you speak? say something in your language?
    Sometimes I answered some of the questions, or promised them I would say something or give more info when we're done with the lesson, there were times when I blurted something out in my language and translated for example " let's get back to work". They were very amused, got their curiousity satisfied, got back to work and the whole thing took 2 minutes.

    So it really depends.
     
  12. lucybelle

    lucybelle Connoisseur

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    I'm white as white bread so I don't have race questions but I always get religious, political and sexuality questions. I always answer with "does it matter?" to which they answer "nooo..." and I say "okay then" and continue. Or the ever popular "that doesn't have anything to do with [insert subject you're teaching]"

    I simply do not answer prying questions about myself. I guess I like the way that the other posters thought you should have a "teachable moment" but what I like to teach is that those things don't define a person. I can be a good person or bad person no matter my skin color, background, religion, etc. You don't need to know those things to know who I am as a person.
     
  13. Linguist92021

    Linguist92021 Phenom

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    I definitely wouldn't like and wouldn't answer religious or political questions. Those are choices, and someone will always be offended or be on the opposite side, so it's none of their business. Ethnicity is not something you choose, so they shouldn't have a problem with that and if they do, I WILL turn it into a teachable moment :)
     
  14. Aliceacc

    Aliceacc Multitudinous

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    I honestly would have no issue with it. I don't see ethnicity as being a value judgement, so I would take is as curiosity.

    I always kid my classes about how there's "this old Irish saying, it goes like this: PLEASE SHUT UP!!" I say it with a smile and they laugh and stop talking. So I'm guessing that, even if the blonde hair and blue eyes didn't do it, that would probably clue them in to my ethnic background.
     
  15. orangetea

    orangetea Connoisseur

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    I get this question a lot from students, especially this year, since I am South Asian. If a student asks what I am or where I am really from, I redirect them because I want them to know why that question is offensive. If a student asks what my ethnic background is, I tell them.
     
  16. indigo-angel

    indigo-angel Companion

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    Although my race is obvious, I get questions about my ethnicity often. When students ask me, I just tell them. I don't think there's anything wrong with asking, and I've never had any negative experiences concerning it. I've had people come up to me speaking in different languages, then act surprised when I don't respond. I've also been asked during interviews, and not only have I answered, but I've returned the question to the interviewer.
     
  17. Ms.SLS

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    I get this a lot. My last name is a pretty big indicator to adults, but kids generally don't know. Most of the time, it's well meant. At my old school, many of the kids had never spent time out of their small town in California or their small town in Mexico, so I got A LOT of "What ARE you?"

    Then, a student brought me a brochure from Vietnamese acrobats, written in Vietnamese and asked me if I could read it since they "looked like me." (I'm not Vietnamese, for the record haha). Another student, after the tsunami in Japan, came in at lunch to tell me how sorry he was "for my country."

    I've rarely had any kid ask me about my ethnicity in any way that wasn't pure curiosity, and I don't make a big deal out of it.
     
  18. czacza

    czacza Multitudinous

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    We study immigration, family traditions and diversity in my third grade SS curriculum. We celebrate our heritages, respect differences and appreciate how we are also so very much alike regardless of ethnicity. I love sharing students' and friends' cultural traditions....my students develop similar mindsets so if one asked a question about background, it would most likely come from a place of curious acceptance and not from a judgmental angle.:cool:
     
  19. scmom

    scmom Enthusiast

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    I have a look that makes people wonder if I am part Asian, but as far as I know, I'm not, but I will speculate about Mongols invading Europe so who knows.

    I guess, assuming we are proud of who we are, why is this an offensive question? And I am sorry if asking this is offensive in and of itself.
     
  20. Ms. I

    Ms. I Maven

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    scmom, I PM'd you.
     
  21. orangetea

    orangetea Connoisseur

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    It's not an offensive question at all if asked politely. I don't think people should ask the first time they meet me though...that strikes me as somewhat rude.

    I think the OP finds the question offensive because students are asking questions like "What are you?" and "Where are you really from?" The second question is rude because it implies that someone who isn't white cannot be American. I'm totally fine if a student or colleague asks what my ethnic background is though...and I'll usually return the question. I'm open with my kids about my life so I don't mind discussing it with my kids BUT I think it's important to make them aware of how to ask politely.
     
  22. dgpiaffeteach

    dgpiaffeteach Aficionado

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    I'm pretty open with questions from the kids. I have a lot pictures around my room so they'll ask about BF. I usually tell them a little about him. We talk about the weekend, etc... I have a lot of free time with some of my kids (we have a game club). I don't feel I have anything to hide. On the first day, I sometimes mention my background including that I'm a Heinz 57 mutt :)
     
  23. Aliceacc

    Aliceacc Multitudinous

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    I talk a lot about my "real life" in class. I think that if I'm going to try to build a relationship with these kids, they need to know who I really am. So they hear stories of my kids and husband and the beast of a dog, they know about my Disney addiction and my work with NHS, they learn lots of stuff about me.
     
  24. lucybelle

    lucybelle Connoisseur

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    My kids know a lot about me too. In fact, most of my bonus questions on my quizzes are about me :) But for some reason I feel like there's some things I don't want to reveal to my students. For example- they know where I'm from in the USA, how many siblings I have, that my parents are divorced and re-married other people, that my sister loves to read books, that my mom recently climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, that my brother has red hair, etc. But they don't know- I'm married, my religion, my political beliefs, where I live in Costa Rica, etc. Since I'm never asked about my race, I don't know if I would feel comfortable discussing it. But I do think it would be one of the things that I wouldn't discuss with them. Because it shouldn't matter.

    Though I do get the point of it being such a non-issue you just answer them and then move on.
     
  25. musicgirl094

    musicgirl094 Rookie

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    What subject areas are you training to teach? If you're teaching social studies or english, you could do a lesson on multiculturalism in the US, and discuss your background as an example, or assign literature written by foreign-born authors who live/work in the US.
     
  26. Linguist92021

    Linguist92021 Phenom

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    I share some things with my students, and stay away from others. My P told me about 'oversharing'. She didn't say that I was doing it, even when I specifically asked her, she just said I have to be careful, because when students know a lot, they feel that they can have an opinion.
    Since then I've been thinking about what is it that I may have shared that I shouldn't have, but I can't think of anything. I think it is good to share some things with the students, so you come across as someone approachable.

    I think the fact that I lived in their neighborhood (in gang territory :( ) made them see me as an every day person, not someone rich and foreign and stuck up. I know I've won some students over because of that, although that was not my intention. I didn't know I was moving into that kind of area. I'm moving out of it, to a good area, but they know me now :)

    They know the music I listen to, and it's good. They thought I go home and listen to classical music and opera, because I would put on classical music during class (??)

    I actually want them to know that I'm a single mom, alone in this country, and I was still able to make it through school, and raise my daughter. My life hasn't been easy, but I made it work. I think that can be inspiring for them.
    I'm already so different from them that they often know where to place me, so it's good if they know I understand them and can relate to them at least on some level.
     
  27. JustMe

    JustMe Virtuoso

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    I agree, but kids often just don't know. They very well may think only white people are American. I am sure I thought the same when I was young because there was VERY little diversity in my life. As you said, they should be taught better.

    (Random: I've never known a Jewish person...until last week! We couldn't believe a Jewish person actually lived here. Kind of pathetic. :haha:)

    Anyhow, I am open with my students about a good deal of my personal life. I wouldn't consider my ethnicity to be an issue to purposefully discuss or purposefully avoid.
     
  28. Linguist92021

    Linguist92021 Phenom

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    A few weeks ago I had to clarify to my students that I AM white. They were confused. I said "I'm not white American, I'm white European, but I am white". Then they got it. I don't know what they actually thought, I guess they couldn't place me, or that I had a separate category, Hungarian. This shows, once again how confused they've been about nationality, ethnicity and race.
     
  29. lucybelle

    lucybelle Connoisseur

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    That reminds me of a video I saw recently that was like "what white people shouldn't say to Asian people" I couldn't find it but it basically dealt with the
    "where are you from?"
    "Michigan."
    "No, where are you really from?"
    "Michigan"
    "No, like where are your people from?"

    ... You get the point! :)
     
  30. orangetea

    orangetea Connoisseur

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    Exactly... so if a student asks in an offensive way, we talk about better way to phrase the question and why.

    I think the problem is not whether we should discuss ethnicity/race with our students, but how to react when students ask in an offensive manner.
     
  31. JustMe

    JustMe Virtuoso

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    Yes, orangetea, I agreed with you and agree with the above as well. I was just clarifying that it usually doesn't come from a purposefully mean or judgmental place when children are asking even in an offensive way.
     
  32. orangetea

    orangetea Connoisseur

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    Agreed. :)
     
  33. czacza

    czacza Multitudinous

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    Ms I...this isn't the first time you've posted of an uncomfortable feeling regarding your ethnicity...is this more about your own personal issues with your background and preconceived notions about how others may react to you? Dont prejudge student curiosity on the attitudes you've been subjected to in the past. This is an opportunity to share the pride you have in your traditions and to overcome any bias others may have. Stop hiding behind how others may react....teach, model acceptance and love of diversity.
     
  34. orangetea

    orangetea Connoisseur

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    Honestly, I do hesitate when asked by other adults who I do not know well, just because I've been treated differently way too many times to feel comfortable doing so. The shift in tone/topics are amazing once some people find out my ethnicity. (And it's amazing how many adults do not know how to ask politely!!)This is why I don't like people asking me what my ethnicity is when they barely know me, just because I don't think it should be the center of our conversations. I'm not ashamed of who I am, but the ignorance I get is just too hard for me to deal with.

    But I do choose to tell my students. It's important for them to know that I am comfortable with who I am and I want to share it with them. However, czacza, I question what you're saying just because it's hard to do what you're saying when you have had experiences with racism. Not easy at all. It is easy to tell someone to stop hiding behind how others may react...but dealing with those reactions is not easy at all. If Ms. I is uncomfortable with her ethnicity like you say, I would say that is more society's fault than her own fault. It's not her responsibility to help others overcome their biases. We do not live in a post-racial society.

    I'm sorry, but I get upset when someone tells me to be a model for diversity while ignoring how that affect me and my family.
     
  35. Alizeh

    Alizeh Rookie

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    I tell students when they ask. Most of my students know how to ask politely, thankfully.
     
  36. live

    live Companion

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    I have a pretty diverse classroom. My students are very open about their backgrounds. Some will share that their parent just got their papers, or what it means to live in a migrant family. Some will talk about their family's customs. Student's love learning about these things and we've discussed asking good, respectful questions to LEARN from one another (and not just for the sake of being nosy).

    In order to learn acceptance, students need to learn how to respect, listen, and learn from people who are different. Most of my students are good about showing respect (in how and what they ask/say). When they don't, it's not intentional.

    We always talk about how important their story is, but that in the end, THEY define who THEY are!

    These kinds of discussions are important, in my opinion. I do think that these kinds of discussions might take different form depending on the school and area.
     
  37. Ms. I

    Ms. I Maven

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    orangetea, certain people will never understand it from our viewpoint because they are not our ethnicity nor have to endure what we go through. I'm proud of my ethnicity like everyone else, but I'm not going to announce it all over the place & I don't regret handling it the way I've said in my previous post.
     
  38. greendream

    greendream Cohort

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    Race comes up a lot in my school, which is 99% black. Some of my grad school friends are shocked to learn that black students can indeed by wildly insensitive when it comes to race, so I often have to bring everything to a halt and explain why certain things may be offensive.

    For example, we have a student named Muhammad. One of my other students asks him out loud why he has a terrorist name.

    I've had to reprimand several of my students for calling grown white men "white boys."

    We had a guest presenter who was a light-skinned black man. When referring to him, several students called him "the yellow dude."

    We have one (count him--one) Latino in my school. The first day of class, a student asked him what kind of burrito he brought for lunch.
     
  39. czacza

    czacza Multitudinous

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    So you don't think professional educators are empathetic? I think you are judging the members here (and students) in ways much akin to how you think (mistakenly on the part of membership here and most likely many students) that we / they may view you. For most, it's not thru a lens of ethnicity bias.
     
  40. JustMe

    JustMe Virtuoso

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    I agree with Ms. I that "certain" people are not necessarily empathetic. She didn't say or imply professional educators as a group fail to be.
     
  41. orangetea

    orangetea Connoisseur

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    Oct 8, 2013

    It's hard to tell who will not let their biases interfere in a conversation with you though. If someone has had negative experiences in the past, that can affect how comfortable they are with sharing their ethnic background with others.

    It's completely unfair to tell someone to be a model of diversity when you don't know about their previous experiences. It may not be through a lens of an ethnicity bias for some people, but it still is for a lot of people...but you may not realize this if you have never been a target of racism. We do not live in a post-racial society.
     
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