I recently visited schools in the bay to read-aloud my new book: It’s Time for Holi! From this experience, I became aware of the unusual stereotypes that young children have been exposed to about the Indian culture in the United States. This book was about the festival of colors that originated in India. So before I began, I asked the children to talk more about what they knew about India.
Many of these children had very limited knowledge about the Indian culture. Other children had heard strange things such as, “Indian people drink their own pee because it is healthy for them.” When I told my mother about this, she actually recalled an Indian Prime Minister who did this to stay fit. However, the point here is that very little is known about this population and what is known (if is true or not) is often misperceived and generalized to an entire population of people. Thus, stereotypes whether positive or negative marginalize the experiences of Asian-Americans in the United States. These stereotypes shape the experiences of Asian Americans and many must deal with racism and discrimination in their personal and professional lives due to common stereotypes.
Unfortunately, because there is a shortage of teachers of color in our nation’s schools, there are not enough teachers that can serve as positive role models for students. Teachers of color can share their experiences and counter the negative stereotypes that students are exposed to. With more Asian American teachers in our schools, all teachers could be better informed of common stereotypes that persist, permeate, and shape the experiences of Asian American children in schools.
One common stereotype is that all Asian American children are model minorities who will naturally excel in school. Many teachers also believe this and thus, as the literature shows Asian American children do not need receive the help that they need. Due to this stereotype, many Asian American children do not develop their reading, writing, and/or public speaking skills. Many teachers believe that they will naturally excel and fail to meet their academic, social, or emotional needs. In addition, many Asian American children internalize this stereotype and develop low levels of self-esteem or confidence when they are unable to excel in school.
Another stereotype is that they are perpetual or permanent foreigners. Research studies have found that many people believe that Asian Americans are not really “Americans” when compared to Caucasians and/or African-American. These messages confuse children and they often feel as though their culture is not a part of what it means to be American. It is important for Asian-American parents to volunteer their time in schools so that we can begin to educate students about our culture in a realistic and more accurate way. This will help children feel as though their culture can be a part of the school and they can take pride in being a part of that culture.
I remember having my own mom volunteer in my fifth grade classroom. She came to my school during multicultural week to show children how to put on a sari. I remember this day because up until that point, I had tried to hide the fact that I was Indian. I acted as White as I could be due to stereotypes that I had heard about Indians. However, on that day I actually acknowledged that I was Indian and was proud to be Indian. On that day, all my friends developed an understanding of my culture and embraced it. They all wanted my mother to put a sari on them! That one experience helped me develop a more positive image of my culture in the United States and helped me identify with my own cultural identity.
After reading my book at schools, I had many teachers tell me how proud the Indian children had become of their culture. The children who were not from India also wanted to have a personal connection with the book—so many of them said they had been to India (even though they had not been there). Holi was an exciting festival for them! The children learned that they could celebrate spring by throwing colors on one another! Many Indian children were aware of this festival when I spoke about it, but they were not sure how to share and/or communicate it with their peers at school.
I think it is very important to help all children develop an understanding of the Indian culture because this will influence how Indian children feel about their own culture. I recently had a mother tell me that her daughter was refusing to speak Bengali at home— but she enjoyed watching Dora and speaking in Spanish. This may be because it is easier for her daughter to embrace Spanish. Spanish-speaking shows have received much more attention in the media so it may be easier for her daughter to feel “accepted” by her peers. Unfortunately, with South Asian languages, children often don’t know how to explain what they are speaking to their friends. It’s just not as common and children don’t have shared experiences around it. Many children want to be accepted and they don’t want to stand out from the norm. It is important for all of us to become advocates for our culture in schools and our society.
The Asian American culture does not receive much attention in the media, in children’s book, or in the school curriculum. Asian American parents really need to be the ones that go into their children’s classrooms to talk to the students. They can help build this cultural awareness for all children. This will also help their own children develop a positive image of their culture that they can be proud be of. Hence, this is another way to help develop their bicultural identity. After all, as Maya Angelou says, when you know better you do better.
By Amita Roy Shah, Ed.D.