By Nayoung Weaver & Rama Ndiaye – AIELOC Fellows
“Education […] helps people to understand the character of the oppressions, exploitations, exclusions, and destructions committed against humanity.” – excerpt from the AIELOC Equity Statement
We just want to be teachers. We entered this profession to give hope to our future generation. One of our biggest desires is to help our learners discover that critical thinking skills along with well-rounded knowledge are tools that can improve humanity as a whole. As the AIELOC equity statement highlights, students need these tools to understand the permanent oppression and exploitation present in the world in order to dismantle them.
We just want to be teachers because empowering learners with global, historical, and cultural contexts and understanding is one of the best ways to improve our society.
We just want to be teachers because one of the most rewarding aspects of our profession is witnessing learners flourish as they discover the different ways in which their humanity is valued and that they, too, can have a positive impact on our world.
We just want to be teachers because we know that fostering our students’ global-mindedness can help them cultivate progress and cherish, with love, the importance of our interconnectedness and our shared humanity.
We just want to be teachers. Yet, since Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice (DEIJ) became more globally mainstream, marginalized international educators spend more time and precious energy towards dismantling racist systems that have taken centuries to build.
We just want to be teachers. Unfortunately, the burden of a meaningful, well-established, and culture-wide anti-racist school environment continues to fall on BIPOC and other historically marginalized educators and leaders. This oppressive practice can no longer be the norm.
This open letter is a call to action to all members of the international school ecosystem:
- To white educators and leaders:
- Turn to each other and reflect on your prejudices;
- List your privileges and meaningfully use them every day to support educators, students and families of color;
- Be humble when marginalized educators and leaders share their stories. Take it for the love that it is and attentively listen to their lived experience;
- Be aware and self-reflect on your fragility when marginalized groups need their own space;
- Fight for hazard pay for marginalized individuals;
- Support humans over institutions.
- Seek out and learn BIPOC stories and intentionally de-center dominant narratives.
- Work to dismantle the racist system not serving all
- To BIPOC educators and leaders:
- Understand and reflect on your internalized oppression;
- Fight the impulse to continue laboring under the white gaze;
- Find safe and brave spaces to keep telling your stories;
- Reach out to marginalized students;
- Heal: invest in your self care;
- Create solidarity with each other;
- Amplify and uphold each other;
- Disrupt discriminatory practices as a team.
- To white DEIJ consultants:
- Educate every client about your privilege;
- Give up your platform to BIPOC consultants;
- Amplify the voices of anti-racist BIPOC;
- Consistently and continuously educate yourself about your role in this white supremacist world.
- To accrediting organizations:
- Hire BIPOC-vetted and anti-racist accreditation peer evaluators (such as consultants from AIELOC);
- Seek out the voices of BIPOC international educators at every school you accredit;
- Require all international school human resources (HR) offices to be trained in and comply with anti-racist philosophies;
- Officialize community voices – especially those from marginalized communities – as part of the accreditation assessment;
- Tie accreditation with meaningful anti-racist work (if you do not know what that is, return to self-reflection and come back to it);
- Hold institutions accountable by providing conditional accreditation or by taking it away;
- Recommend boards of schools to dismiss leaders who continue to be performative in their anti-racism work.
- To international recruitment agencies;
- Advocate for qualified, racially, and ethnically diverse educators. If they cannot meet these needs, provide support to allow candidates to seek alternative organizations;
- Seek out and listen to marginalized voices regarding fairs, recruitment processes, retention, etc.;
- Be transparent about recommendation letters;
- Hold schools accountable that are not hiring or retaining diverse educators/leaders;
- Maintain an ongoing database of educators/leaders’ evaluations to prevent retaliation from leaders towards educators leaving a hostile environment.
- To journalists, editors, investigators, and other media:
- Collect the stories of BIPOC international educators;
- Find the patterns of racism and the covert silencing that continue to be cultivated in international education;
- Expose the mediocre leaders and the harmful practices they inflict on their communities;
- Expose the web of the “old boys’ club” and “white affinity groups” that continue to uphold each other and maintain a racist system to keep marginalized people in the margins.
- To lawyers:
- Find a way to fight for marginalized educators who remain in the “grey land” of not working in their passport country but not quite in their host country;
- Lobby for international laws that will protect populations that remain in neo-colonial pockets of international schools;
- Create legal precedence to protect international school populations from continued abuse from perpetrators who manipulate the system.
- To law enforcement:
- Recognize the systemic oppression against marginalized populations;
- Investigate hate crimes for what they are;
- Avoid putting the burden of proof on the victims;
- Hold hate crime perpetrators accountable.
- To the United Nations, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and other international human rights organizations:
- Include international school education in investigative reports;
- Oversee child protection policies at international schools;
- Maintain a database of human rights violations at international schools;
- Collaborate with international law enforcement to create a system of accountability.
- To ALL of our educators: Do, rinse, repeat each day:
To our beloved students: We see you, we hear you, we want to be here for you. The international school ecosystem should be proud of the courage you demonstrated when you shared your painful stories and how the oppressive systems in place stifled your identity and your humanity. We hope this open letter will be a wake-up call for those who have the power to make meaningful change.
EmoEmpathy: Where there is Story, there is Power
To Teach Empathy in a World on the Margins
A racial slur was once graffitied upon the walls of my school. Many saw it. Some laughed, some averted their eyes. But no one did anything about it until a teacher at our school came across it. She was shocked, as one can imagine. Everything this person of color had worked for, to obtain a life free of discrimination seemed to crumble at that very moment. While most educators would have set up a condemning assembly to talk about how writing slurs is incredibly wrong, she took a different path. One we will never forget.
She approached every class that afternoon. Every single one. And she did something so simple, yet so phenomenal; she told us a story.
She told us about her life growing up, how racism had impacted almost every aspect of her growth; school, ballet class, friendships – the very essence of her being. About how hard she worked to attain, without privilege, a life most white people take for granted.
This story was not one read out of a book. It was personal. It was emotional. And as every single one us in that room heard this story, our hearts and minds connected.
While discrimination did not miraculously disappear, things changed. You could feel it. People began to listen, to think twice.
All through the power of story.
It was a turning point for me, birthing EmoEmpathy, a 3-point, 3-principle concept based on the teaching of sensitive education through personal storytelling and pathos. EmoEmpathy is a practice of education – a lense with which we teach. It is based on three types of “story” omnipresent within all education, and must be focussed on as we dissect and reevaluate our curriculums to ensure they fosters empathetic learning. They are; the stories we read ( compositional ), the story of life ( historical ), and our personal story ( emotional, sensitivity ).
EmoEmpathetic teaching looks like this.
Step 1: To re-evaluate and expand our literary curriculums; the stories we read.
From just teaching the predominantly white literary canon, to including the voices of the marginalized, PoC, LGBTQ+
Step 2: To Re-evaluate and expand the perspectives with which we teach history; the story of life.
From teaching the history of slavery from the perspectives of just one party, to the perspectives, histories and experiences of all involved parties.
Step 3: To teach sensitive subjects via both objective and emotional means; our personal story. Teaching concepts such as racial injustice through personal storytelling, to share experiences, and make use of human vulnerability, just like my teacher did. Storytelling – the most powerful form of communication.
Storytelling is an ancient, time-tested tool. Yes, it has always existed. Yet, rarely ever is it used to teach empathy in an educational context. Why?
Scientific studies such as that conducted by Uri Hasson in Neuroscience proves, through Neural Coupling, that our brains react uniquely to stories. Upon hearing a story, our brain reaches a cognitive state known as ignition, also known as engagement. As humans, the cognitive state of neural ignition enables us to better comprehend and break down concepts and proceed to make connections, something that is critical in education. What this means, is that our brains are physically able to better function when we are taught via means of story – that verbal stories heighten our ability to comprehend and learn much more than lists, paragraphs, or any other kind of verbal presentation.
Stephens, G. J. et al. “Speaker-Listener Neural Coupling Underlies Successful Communication”. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences, vol 107, no. 32, 2010, pp. 14425-14430. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences, doi:10.1073/pnas.1008662107.
Perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate the way we teach, not via an objective lens, but an emotional one.
When we begin to put our educational institutions and real-world society side by side, we realize that schools are indeed microcosmic reflections of real world society. The parallels are astonishing. Our authority figures – governments, prime ministers, presidents, kings and queens, are at school our teachers, headmasters and staff. The “people”, who in the real world comprise of the rule followers and general economy-fueling citizens, are at school, our students, within whom the intricacies of social hierarchies and cliques naturally follow. The list of parallels could go on forever. When we begin to observe the correlations between school and the real world, we can understand that the significance of a school extends much farther than just the sole teaching of math, or english, but that schools serve as simulators to prepare us for living and collaborating in a society. Thus, if we want to raise culturally intelligent, empathetic leaders of tomorrow, we need to ensure that the reflection we produce within our schools is one of an ideal world. If that is a world of cultural and racial inclusion, a world free of the margins we face today, then that is the world we must reflect within our schools. For to make change out there, we must begin by making change in here, within our schools. That begins with what we teach and how we teach it.
Education is the foundation of life as we know it. With story-based EmoEmpathetic teaching, let’s create a world where no more little girls, no children, no men, or women feel cheated by their education – like I did.
So don’t tell your students what to, or not to do. The eternal prejudices of man cannot be understood objectively like 1,2,3 lists of mathematical equations. Tell them a story. Get your students to share experiences, and for just a minute, be vulnerable. Connect with one another. For our emotions are intrinsic qualities that define the human-kind, thus, don’t be afraid to use them. They are powerful.
So what are we waiting for? It’s time to tell a story.
“The human species thinks in metaphors and learns through stories.” – Mary Catherine Bateson
“Where there is a story, there is the power to teach” – Mehar Suri
- Hasson, Uri, et al. “Speaker–Listener Neural Coupling Underlies Successful
Communication.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the
United States of America, 26 July 2010. National Centre for Biotechnology
Information, doi:10.1073/pnas.1008662107. Accessed 15 Oct. 2020.
- “How To Use Storytelling To Effectively Market Your Brand | Brand Marketing”. Echovme – Blog, 2017, https://echovme.in/blog/use-storytelling-effectively-market-brand/. Accessed 9 Apr 2021.
- Stephens, G. J. et al. “Speaker-Listener Neural Coupling Underlies Successful Communication”. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences, vol 107, no. 32, 2010, pp. 14425-14430. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences, doi:10.1073/pnas.1008662107. Accessed 9 Apr 2021.
Mehar Suri is a 16 year old ethnic-Indian global citizen studying at the International School of Amsterdam. Working with organizations such as the Anne Frank Huis, Stories that Move and AIELOC (Association of International Educators and Leaders of Color ), she is passionate about searching for and developing anti-discrimination tools in education. The founder of Care4buddies, a 45 member animal welfare organization founded in 2016, she is a lover of animals and a big advocate of vegetarianism. She is credited with the development of the principle EmoEmpathy.
We recently read your article entitled DEI & Me: An Opinion. Thank you for sharing your unique experience as a leader in an international school. As educators ourselves, we think it is crucial to continuously reflect on our craft and educate ourselves – this is how we can provide the most inclusive and equitable environment for our students.
As a Head of Early Years, we believe that you have a high level of influence and responsibility for how students understand and view a world that could truly be anti-racist. For that reason, we would like to ask you some questions about some of the opinions you stated in your piece. We would like clarification on your thoughts and self-reflection process:
1. ”As I reflect on my personal journey and experiences with regard to racism and sexism as an educator in international schools around the world.”
What is your experience concerning racism and sexism? How did that shape you as a leader?
2. “The fact that we continue to label each other as “white,” “Black,” “Asian,” “male,” “female,” etc. is a practice that concerns me for two reasons. For one, it oversimplifies who we are and therefore disconnects us with the cultural uniqueness and many personal perspectives that we bring with us.”
White Supremacy is the source of these labels. Racism is a social construct created hundreds of years ago to justify the enslavement of Africans. Ibrahim X. Kendi does phenomenal work explaining this painful history in Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. Here is a synopsis.
The acquisition of gender labels is also a social construct that has very real consequences on people’s lives. The problem is not the way we label each other but the fact that we refuse to acknowledge the serious consequences these social constructs have had on the way humans perceive themselves. We completely agree that each human is unique and brings their own perspective. However taking a color-blind and gender-blind approach renders the experience of historically marginalized people invisible and invalidates the oppression they face regularly. White Supremacy has been, to use your words, pitting “one group over another and therefore perpetuating the Us vs. Them mentality.” Acknowledging the presence of these labels in our societies first is the only way to dismantle the systems of oppression. Due to the hegemonic spread of American culture and curriculum in international schools, we suggest that you read the 1619 Project. It is brilliant in explaining how the remnants of slavery manifest in the racist world in which we currently live.
3. “I did such a great job at assimilating as an American”
Could you please explain what you mean here? How do you perceive the assimilation of an immigrant to the United States? Your statement also reminded us of a segment John Oliver did on Last Week tonight. White Supremacy often creates this illusion of POC exceptionalism to, as you mentioned earlier , “pit one group of people against another.” This article talks about how skillfully that was established with one marginalized group in the United States.
4. “as an American expat experiencing a foreign land myself.”
Could you provide more details on how you used this lens to self-reflect on your experience and to reflect on the anti-racist work you are doing?
5. “Growing up in the U.S., you were either white, black, Asian, or other. But, outside of the US, people did not think in terms of the color of their skin.”
We perceive this statement as a generalization. We realize that this could have been your experience – could you elaborate more on that? As far as the second sentence is concerned, it is simply not accurate. Please browse the Global Census website, which demonstrates how other countries around the world categorize people by race, ethnicity, or ancestry.
6. “To group people from all different backgrounds and countries into their skin color is stripping away their identity and over-simplifying the complex issues of -ism. (racism, classism, sexism, etc.)”.
We completely agree that people should not be reduced to their skin color. It seems as though you are advocating for a culture of colorblindness (please correct us if we misunderstood your point). These two things are not mutually exclusive. Unfortunately, this is what White Supremacy has done for centuries. Historically marginalized people have attempted to reclaim their identity by reclaiming these labels. Again, the social construct of race has put people in boxes. To acknowledge the oppressive consequences of these boxes, we must look inside said boxes to learn from them. Simply saying, “don’t label me with a color,” will not lead to the dismantling of centuries-old systems. The identities of People of Color have already been stripped and they will continue to be stripped as oppressive structures remain in the foundation. Reclaiming these labels and making them fit into our own identity is what will empower marginalized people. Because of the lived experience of many People of Color, our race has become part of our identity. When we deny that is when we “oversimplify the complex issues of -ism.”
Moreover, most of these terms (or labels) are about a power structure. We, too, would love to live in a post-racial society where our skin color is meaningless. Unfortunately, we are far from being a part of that utopic world as we are conditioned to think otherwise.
7. “From that point forward, I made a real effort to take that lens off and making sure to not label people that which over-simplifies them as individual, whether it be skin color, race, gender, etc. I wonder if my fellow educators can shift the lens themselves and discontinue the spreading of such practice where we oversimplify each other with “labeling.”
We would love to hear more of your thoughts on this. Our stance is that to deny people’s race, gender, etc., is to invalidate their experience in the world. As educators, validating our students’ identities is part of how we empower them. Educators did not create these labels – we are simply attempting to dismantle them by helping our learners to love themselves and counter some of the white supremacist messages they receive daily. This article does a decent job explaining the consequences of the color-blind ideology, which you seem to be arguing in your piece.
8. “why educators would continue to use language such as “colored educators” and “white educators””
We believe the term to be “educators of color.” This article may help you reflect on why the phrase you chose to use is archaic.
9. “I wonder if it is time for us to move past the practice of skin color labeling and simply discuss how we can all be more inclusive”
Absolutely! As soon as the hate crimes, systemic oppression, and constant microaggressions cease, then we can move towards a post-racial society where skin color has no bearing. Unfortunately, we are far from that ideal. Inclusion starts with accepting the experiences and realities of historically marginalized people living in a world created for white, straight, cis-gendered males.
10. “The DEI movement is the current trending topic and is a topic that many educators are passionate about. However, I urge our fellow educators to reflect on our embedded behaviors before perpetuating a practice that is no longer effective.”
Can you elaborate on what you mean by DEI “is the current trending topic”? As educators of color, we embody DEI as values because they are inherently linked to our lived experience. Authentic educators bring their experiences to the classroom; therefore, DEI is not a trend for many of us. Carnegie Mellon University gave early signs of such “a trend” since the early 1900s. And the NAACP, established in 1909, is America’s oldest and largest civil rights organization.
In the conclusion of your piece, you “urge educators to reflect” – this is definitely a practice we can get behind as it allows us to grow. Could you give us examples of how you reflect on your “embedded behavior” and what practical solutions you use as a Head of Early Years to stop perpetuating the practices you deem “no longer effective”?
Overall, you seem to advocate for less labeling of people throughout your article but applaud your white friends for wanting to label themselves more with their country of origin, lineage, or even hobbies. Could you please clarify your thinking on that? In addition, we wonder if People of Color in New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, and Ireland would react similarly to your white colleagues – we would love to hear your thoughts on that as well.
Thank you again for writing a thought-provoking piece that allows all of us to reflect as educators on the meaning of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. We are happy to organize a video chat to discuss any of the above. Our intention in sending this to you is to help our BIPOC community reflect on how we can dismantle racism – we hope you feel called into our ecosystem.
Rama & Nayoung