Cultural awareness vs. stereotyping

I was having a conversation with a college student about academic pressure. I brought up how Asian students are often raised with expectations of academic excellence, and how that can cause great stress. The girl got indignant and angry at me. She actually told me that I was a bad person for believing in stereotypes.

I put that off to naive college student idealism, mixed with our present-day “enlightened” sensitivity to anything that recognizes cultural differences. People, especially kids like this, are so ready to be offended and throw the racist label. But what I have learned as an educator, a mentor, and a parent, is that race and culture blindness can be as problematic in some situations as racial stereotyping. We have to have to make ourselves aware of the cultural traditions and pressures that make kids who they are, because they help shape the adults those kids become.

I can tell you for fact that the asian students in my classes, for example, are year after year at the top of the grade standings (not every single one, of course, but in the aggregate). I also have a number of friends from asian families who are raising their children and testify to the cultural imperative to succeed in school. And the statistics show that it’s a formula that works. One of the things I try to be sensitive to is the fact that it can create intense stress in a young professional student. Some people respond to pressure, and some freak out.

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On the other end of the academic spectrum, our school district is Mexican immigrant heavy. There are a lot of families with parents who never had much schooling, but came here for opportunity and struggled mightily to make good homes and support their families. Some of them see the education system as a path to a more prosperous life for their kids, but others see a more urgent need for their kids to get into a trade or find a job so they can contribute to the family financial security as soon as possible. Those families don’t place as much priority on academic success. It’s not racial, it’s a product of the situation in which those families find themselves. The teachers I’ve talked to in the public school system who have had success are the ones who learned to appreciate the home environment and find ways to communicate with the parents about what school can do for their kids.

So anyway, I was just upset by this college kid, and I wanted to get this out. I want to make sure I’m always being sensitive to the cultures of the people around me without unconsciously pigeon holing them. 

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