“Punita, you’re Indian, can you tell the rest of the class a little about Diwali?”
I wasn’t sure how to respond to my teacher’s question. I was in 7th grade, and I didn’t have a speech memorized on the significance of Diwali (a holiday celebrated throughout India but observed differently across regions and religions).
It wasn’t a heartbreaking experience, but I remember still that I felt like I was somehow a bad Indian for not being able to teach everyone else about the holiday. At the time, I didn’t think to be offended, but I was embarrassed. I remember feeling like I had let my teacher and classmates down.
I don’t believe my teacher was trying to make me uncomfortable, but she should not have put me in that position. As a 12-year-old South Asian American kid, I shouldn’t have had to feel guilty for not being a scholar on Indian history or holidays.
In asking me to speak as a representative for all Indian Americans, my teacher wasn’t just showing a lapse in judgment, or even just a lack of cultural literacy. She was engaging in a kind of microaggression, and she was asking me to assume the role of teacher, rather than learner—a role I shouldn’t have had to take on.
My experience is far from unique. My own research on the K-12 experiences of South Asian Americans, conducted as part of my doctoral dissertation with the Johns Hopkins University School of Education, finds that many South Asian American students face discrimination and negative interactions in schools. Teachers expect them to serve as ambassadors for their race or culture, regardless of how little they might know or be reasonably expected to know.
This creates unreasonable pressure. There are doubtless some 10- or 12-year-old kids who know a great deal about the cultural significance of any number of holidays, but for the most part, they are not subject matter experts. As one of the participants in my study shared:
There were a few times I wondered what they [teachers] were thinking. My 5th grade teacher [name omitted] in particular stands out because we studied India in class and she was asking me if I thought the books were accurate; she seemed to think my ethnicity made me an expert on India, nevermind I was 10 years old.
Similarly, another participant in my research described how his teachers would ask him “a million questions when we were studying ancient India” (adding, “like I knew anything”).
These kinds of exchanges also single the student out, and are a kind of microaggression. Microaggressions are those little, day-to-day manifestations of racism that people of color continue to experience regularly, and which are often normalized and overlooked as innocuous or insignificant. Asking students to be spokespersons for their culture in school communicates that the teacher sees the student as not American, as a foreigner.
Though we need more research on the challenges South Asian American students face in schools, plenty of past research has documented the harmful impacts of microaggressions, including for Asian American groups.
In her 2009 work on microaggressions, researcher Janice McCabe found that it is common for students of color to be expected to speak for all people from their race or cultural background, and even to feel an ongoing “daily pressure” to be a “spokesperson” for their race. Likewise, a participant in my own work described how his teachers singled him out for his background:
[They] treated me like any of the other kids, except for when the topic India is brought up. Then they’d assume I was an expert on Indian culture and ask me very general or stereotypical questions about Indian attitudes on subjects such as marriage or grades or jobs … . [I]t was annoying to be singled out during class.
Expecting students to serve as cultural ambassadors or spokespeople doesn’t just reflect a lack of basic cultural competence, it can even serve to inhibit a student’s own academic growth.
One participant in my study described how her teachers always assigned her topics related to India or pressured her to represent India in school, at the expense of her own learning:
I was always assigned to the India group and was expected to bring items from my house to enrich the class with diverse experiences, while learning nothing myself … . They [teachers] also assumed I needed no learning assistance and used me to help other students. Instead of challenging me, they would have me tutor other students, even talking them through test questions and helping them take school tests.
This participant’s teachers may have had good intentions in asking her to share about India. They might have been hoping to enrich other students’ knowledge or celebrate diverse backgrounds in their classroom. But in doing so, these teachers positioned this student to serve her peers at the cost of her own learning and growth.
This is not to say teachers should never ask about students’ backgrounds or invite them to share their heritages with their classes. But there is a fine line between inviting them to share, and pressuring or positioning them to speak as representatives of their culture.
How can teachers know what kind of questions are appropriate, and what might make a student uncomfortable?
First, treat every student as an individual. If you know your student well, you might already have a sense of how knowledgeable she is about her family’s background—or whether she’s even the kind of kid who would want to share.
Next, and perhaps more importantly, teachers should avoid putting a student on the spot. If you think students might want to share their personal experiences as part of a lesson, engage them ahead of time to check. This also gives you the opportunity to vet what they’re sharing and determine how to frame it in a broader context.
Finally, teachers should be self-reflective. Ask yourself: Are you inviting all students to share elements of their backgrounds and what matters to them (culture and heritage included), so that you are not singling out students of color?
When we invite our students to share their backgrounds and values—all of our students—then we foster inclusion and respect for diversity. But when teachers position students of color to serve as spokespersons for their culture, we risk making them feel othered and we detract from their own opportunities for enrichment, learning, and growth.