Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Reflection #3 - Ethnicity, Inquiry, and Threat

Ava Cotlowitz's picture

   For my field placement at Ableton Elementary, I am constantly scrambling to ensure that our one-hour Friday art lessons are running smoothly.  With four other Bryn Mawr volunteers to help “take over” Mr. Cohn’s first grade class, we are never without something to do or someone to help.  Yet, several weeks ago, during an art project on collage, I decided to step back from my deeply hands-on role within the classroom and focus more on observing the classroom dynamics and environment unaffected by my contributions.   

   As I stood off to the side, scanning the room, I noticed a table to my right whispering and snickering to one another.  I followed each set of eyes at the table of five, as they all seemed to rest on this week’s new Bryn Mawr volunteer.  Curious by their concentrated interest in the new volunteer, I walked up to the table and asked what they were talking about, clearing my mind of any judgments or assumptions to what they were saying.  However, at this seemingly benign question the table fell silent.  Will began shifting uncomfortable in his seat while the four other students glared at him uncomfortably. It seemed that Will had all the answers. I probed once more and finally Tyrone blurted out, “We were talking about that new girl.” “What about her?” I asked. Then Will, in a hushed voice said, “Is she Chinese?”  I was instantly taken aback and unsure with how to respond.  While I had kept an open mind about hearing out the secretive dialogue amongst the table, I truthfully did not anticipate Will’s question.  Yes, the volunteer was in fact Asian, but so what?

   Evidently, Will and his entire table were preoccupied with this volunteer’s ethnicity, which they exercised through a manner of deliberate subtly and discretion.  It was as if they knew that what they were speaking of was not necessarily acceptable to be loudly voiced; yet at the same time it was a conversation that had to be discussed.  I was not able to understand why this was so, but could speculate a few scenarios. As a six-year-old boy at the all-black West Philadelphia school consisting of families of generally low socioeconomic status that live in walking distance from Ableton in all-black communities, it is possible that the young boy’s encounter with an Asian woman is a rare occurrence, and that the students were enamored by or even curious with the volunteer’s ethnicity.  Yet, being that Will explicitly asked if the Bryn Mawr student was Chinese and not Asian, demonstrates some sort of preconceived stereotype that Will holds of all people that appear the way the observed volunteer does.  It is possible that other characteristics and traits that were brought out when Will acquired this stereotype also may have prompted his and his table’s preoccupation with the volunteer.

   Within the short period of time that I had to answer Will’s question I mulled over how to respond. Should I go into detail about how being Chinese does not encompass every person that is Asian, that if one comes from a different region of Asia, America, or elsewhere that they could possibly be Korean or Japanese or Asian American or Filipino, etc.; or perhaps should I make a comparison to Will’s own ethnicity and how it may differ from that of his friend’s and that claiming his friend is a part of an ethnic group, that he may in fact have no ties to, just because of his outward appearance, can be insulting.  When looking back on the situation I really would have rather answered Will in one of the two aforementioned ways, but instead, I countered Will’s question asking him right back, “If she is Chinese, does it matter?”  I don’t know if this was the right thing to say, though I was genuinely curious as to why Will and his friends were so involved with uncovering and exposing the ethnicity of the new volunteer.  Yet, instead of a response, which I assumed Will would give me, the entire table fell dead silent and looked down at their artwork, as if they, or maybe I, had said or done something wrong. 

   While I wasn’t intending to silence the students’ inquiry, I also had to navigate how to convey to the students that what they were saying and they way they were choosing to do so was not appropriate in the current context of the classroom.  In reflecting on this scenario, Bob Fecho’s essay “Why Are You Doing This?” came to mind.  While Fecho’s essay in large deals with how critical inquiry pedagogy can either exacerbate or transcend feelings of threat, I believe some key points in his text relate to the aforementioned situation at Ableton Elementary.  With the introduction of an Asian volunteer into their classroom, perhaps Will and his peers were challenged by the altered sense of the known and comfortable, therefore threatening the mental, emotional, and social norms of their comfort zone.  Fecho states that, “Threat is a transactional element to be acknowledged and transcended rather than denied, ignored, minimized, or euphemized.”  Evidently, Will and his friends identified and acknowledged this threat, but it is possible that through my response to Will’s question I either helped transcend the threat, or exacerbate it.