Jaya Hiranandani portrait

Written by Jaya Hiranandani

Jaya is an international school teacher currently based in Taipei, Taiwan. She is in awe of the unlimited potential of the learning that can happen in the classroom and, as a result, is passionate about inquiry-based learning, student and staff wellbeing, and DEI.

I am from the north of India and I believe that a combination of deeply ingrained acceptance of hierarchy and authority, assumption of best intentions and sheer luck have helped me live in a foreign country and in multiple international communities relatively unscathed from the effects of overt racism. 

However, I have spent a lot of time baffled and confused by covert racism. Covert racism are often instances of racism so subtle that the victim is left wondering if they have been discriminated against. Psychologist Derald Wing Sue, Ph.D. from Teachers College Columbia University defines  “racial microaggression” as “one of the “everyday insults, indignities and demeaning messages sent to people of colour by well-intentioned white people who are unaware of the hidden messages being sent to them.”

Covert acts of racism, apart from being distressing and confusing for the recipient, can be difficult for people from the dominant culture to accept “because it’s scary to them,” Professor Sue asserts, “It assails their self-image of being good, moral, decent human beings to realise that maybe at an unconscious level they have biassed thoughts, attitudes and feelings that harm people of colour.”

When I was sidelined, ignored or marginalised, the younger me was left wondering- Was it me, them or the situation? Am I being too sensitive? Did I do something wrong? Is it just an individual personality trait or is there something bigger here?  Is this person incapable of trusting me just because I am different from them? Am I being sidelined because I am not interesting enough, or is the other person just having a bad day? Is this person not interested in knowing me because they think they already “know” how I am from their experiences with other people of my ethnicity? 

As I grew older, patterns began to emerge and I have realised that ALL these could be true in one situation or the other and I have gotten better at deciphering between my own sensitivities and other people’s biases.

Here are six suggestions I have to develop awareness about and avoid engaging in covert racism at our educational institutions: 

1. Learn how to say my name correctly, don’t hesitate to ask if needed

First things first: Yes, the names of people of colour often sound unfamiliar or sometimes, difficult to pronounce correctly. Try your best to pronounce them correctly, ask for guidance and never shorten someone’s name for your convenience before asking them first.

2. Be socially inclusive, but don’t overcompensate

You don’t need to become my friend, you just need to be friendly and considerate. 

At a previous school of mine, I was unwelcome at the staff book club for many years. There was a poster about it on the staff bulletin board and  when I expressed my interest to the book club leads, I was given sketchy details in a lukewarm tone with no invitation forthcoming. It was not until someone posted a well meaning invitation on the school’s online social messaging board that I was let in. I still can’t be sure why I was kept out of a monthly get-together based on a love for reading which I shared with the members of the group.

People of colour understand that you will be more comfortable with people who you can discuss your food with and can complain about things with; we know this because we do the same. Humans are wired to seek out people with similar experiences as theirs- it helped us during our cave-residing days when it was important to stick to our tribe to stay safe. We instinctively connect with people who share our culture and in my experience, a shared culture transcends shared race or ethnicity. So none of us should be under any kind of pressure to have diverse-looking close friends as long as we treat people fairly, equally and respectfully. 

When we value people for their intrinsic qualities, we will naturally include diverse people in our social circles. When we look beyond people’s idiosyncrasies and external looks, we find the people we share our values and ambitions with. 

3. Find diverse ways to talk to  people of colour, don’t just discuss topics related to their race or country 

I have a colleague who always talks to me about food, clothes or movies from my country. We have worked together for half a dozen years and it makes me wonder if she sees me as a multifaceted person that I am. 

Do you feel compelled to talk to ethnically diverse people only about their country or culture? Or do you plunge into awkward silence wondering what on earth you should talk about that will not be offensive and will be politically correct? Find the middle path. Yes, I am happy to talk about which Indian restaurant in town I find  the most authentic. No, I don’t want to be always seen through the lens of my ethnicity as I am so much more beyond my origins. 

4. People of colour commit racist faux pas too, don’t ignore it. 

Racial prejudice oc4urs both ways and though it cannot be termed as racism due to imbalances in power held by white people and people of colour, there is no reason to condone it. When you see or hear POC being racially biased, gently question their judgement and call it out. 

5. Talk openly about racial, cultural, ethnic differences, don’t be colourblind

Once when I mustered the courage to mention to a white male school leader that, ambiguous as it is, covert racism in international schools does exist, I was immediately and emphatically told that “no one is out there to get me” and basically made to feel that I was being too sensitive! Denying that racism in any form exists around us is colour blindness and it is a sureshot way to shut any dialogue about it.

Colorblindedness denies the prevalence of differences based on race and though it is rooted in the goal to promote racial equality based on race-neutral policies, it has led to perpetration of systemic racism. If we pretend that race does not exist, we deny the presence of race-based inequities in our communities. Open dialogue about racial and ethnic differences at your school as and when needed. A paper published by Harvard social scientists in The Current Directions in Psychological Science states that, “people exposed to arguments promoting colour blindness have been shown to subsequently display a greater degree of both explicit and implicit racial bias.”

The responsibility of open dialogue about bias, prejudice and race falls more heavily on leaders, and it’s important that schools are now developing explicit DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) policies for all stakeholders to follow.

6. Develop self-awareness about your biases, don’t equate good intentions with correct action

It has taken me years of catching myself judging people with tattoo-covered bodies to stop making assumptions about them. I recently briefly dated a person with a wing chest tattoo and a whole arm covered with a colourful assortment of motifs and images, and I learnt intriguing stories behind some of his body art.

When we observe our own thoughts and examine our biases and assumptions, we can check ourselves every time we make a sweeping generalisation in our heads about someone based on their ethnicity or physical features.

Sometimes issues will be attributed to bias even though they may have stemmed from poor communication, differences in expectation, individual personality traits and so on. Again, be curious and ready to find out more.

Most of us genuinely want to live in a diverse and inclusive world with equity for all. However, the best intentions are futile if they are not met with the right actions. Let’s marry our best intentions with wholehearted efforts and create workplaces where no one feels marginalised because of their physical features and colour.

References:

DeAngelis, Toni 2009 Unmasking ;Racial Microaggressions’ American Psychological Association Vol. 40, (No. 2) pp. 42 <https://www.apa.org/monitor/2009/02/microaggression>

Alberta Civil Liberties Research Center (ACLRC) The Myth of Reverse Racism Accessed January 2022 <https://www.aclrc.com/myth-of-reverse-racism>

Afpelbaum, E.P., Norton, M.I., and Sommers, S.R. 2012 “Racial Color Blindness: Emergence, Practice and Implications” Current Directions in Psychological Science 21 (3) pp.206  <https://www.hbs.edu/ris/Publication%20Files/Racial%20Color%20Blindness_16f0f9c6-9a67-4125-ae30-5eb1ae1eff59.pdf>

Stephen M.R. Covey May 2021, Association of California School Administrators, Accessed January 2022 <https://content.acsa.org/six-ways-to-help-your-schools-be-more-inclusive/>

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