Ate Josie (pronounced a-taay, meaning “big sister” in Tagalog) had a stern face. She was no-nonsense when it came to Children’s Church at TayTay New Life Christian Fellowship. It was 1987 and we were going to learn about Jesus, come hell or high water. It didn’t matter that we were sweating buckets because the ceiling fan had stopped working.
Ann Chau spent every Saturday night at Harvesters Youth Group actively listening to awkward and dramatic teenagers, her eyes simultaneously empathetic and judging. She always listened. Trustworthy and loyal, she taught us that compassion for others was more important than popularity. She encouraged our crew of misfit, tri-culture kids from around the world. Ann made me feel valued and through our relationship I realized I wanted to do that for other teens.
Christina Tsu was my youth pastor and the “boss” of my senior year internship at a local church (I was still living in Hong Kong). She counseled me as I decided who my closest friends were and what college I would attend. It was under her leadership that I became self-disciplined, learning how to passionately serve others, and how to listen to God through prayer. She shaped my notions of self-worth and my belief in God. This is the year I realized I wanted to teach high school and not become a nurse (plus body fluids are nasty!).
These women left a fingerprint on my life. While my exposure to women of color in leadership and education roles is a little nontraditional (I didn’t attend school in the United States), it has shaped how I viewed women in power. I grew up thinking that women of all colors could be in positions of power and authority while leading their respective communities. This was my norm.
My experience is not the case for many students of color in the United States today. There are systemic reasons for this exclusion that are embedded in our history of institutional racism. Often, educators of color serve in auxiliary roles such as paraeducators, office personnel, or career counselors. While this is important and without a doubt these educators change lives, only 18% of certificated teachers are of color. With such a low percentage, it is likely that most students will never encounter a teacher of color in their K-12 career.
Disclaimer: I want to acknowledge that women--particularly women of color--have always been marginalized teachers in society. As mothers, grandmothers, aunties, and sisters, they instill the most important life lessons about the world in their children, grandchildren, and siblings.
Just a couple of weeks ago I lurked in the background of an #EduColor chat titled “Her Struggle, Her Power: Women of Color as Educators.” I felt this chat was one of the most important conversations I’ve joined--not because I actually had anything to say, but because I had everything to learn. A few things stood out to me:
Women in teaching deal with a lot of the same crap from a system that doesn’t value them enough. Teaching was one of the first professions open to women in a society that didn’t view us as intelligent or capable (ironic considering we’re the ones educating future generations *Kanye shrug). So now we’ve “proven” ourselves, but we’ve also proven that we will tolerate poor working conditions and mediocre compensation packages.
Women of color have it even worse than white women. In addition to being poorly paid, teachers of color aren’t treated the same way their white counterparts are. Often they are disproportionately subject to working with “hard” cases and seen only as disciplinarians rather than instructional experts. Furthermore, in addition to gender discrimination, they face straight up racism from students, parents, colleagues, and the system as a whole!
Women of color in education reach students in a way that interchangeable white ladies need to learn from. I’d argue this is probably my most important takeaway from that Twitter chat. But it’s also the most challenging. I’m still grappling with what this looks like. I don’t think this means you awkwardly pretend you understand the WOC experience or say anything weird about how their race must help them connect with all kids from ____ racial background. Maybe start by reading this article by Christina Torres Under Pressure: Being a Woman of Color in Education. Then, go read the transcript of that Twitter chat and comment here with your own reflection.
I am the white woman I am today because of women of color.