I am a Teacher and Learner

I typically begin every course I teach by asking participants to say their name, where they are from and to recite the words, “I am a teacher and a learner in this class.”  At first, people are quite reluctant to say these words and even somewhat embarrassed.  As we continue around the circle, some students appear to be more comfortable, while others rush through the words as if to put a period at the end of their sentence.  Others still sometimes forget to say the words, at which time I remind them to say the words with a smile.  As we get to the end of the circle, it is clear some find the exercise to be a bit corny, while others appear to have a lightbulb brighten above the heads as they ponder the implications of these words.  Once we have completed the circle, we debrief.

There are several reasons I ask participants to say these words.  First, these words are inspired by Paulo Freire, the Brazilian activist and educator involved in the critical pedagogy and popular education movements.  It presupposes that all participants offer something very valuable to the class and that we are more than passive learners.  It promotes a sense of egalitarianism and mutual respect for one another.  It also exemplifies the notion that none of us in the class hold the absolute truth and that through dialogue with one another, new knowledge will be created.  I, myself, recite these words as well, signifying that as the authoritative figure in the class, I too am open to learning and committed to democratizing and decolonizing the class.

I recall my first year in teaching, where I was so terrified that students might view me as incompetent and fraudulent as an instructor that I controlled every second in the class.  I lectured for 3 hours straight to avoid any questioning of the content and to demonstrate that I was the expert in the room.  I justified this by saying to myself that students needed this content to be successful social workers or that at the very least, they should get their moneys worth.  In fact, what I was really doing was promoting the hegemonic values of our western educational system. My students did not find the process very helpful and neither did I.

It wasn’t until I released the demons of academia that made me conform to its hierarchy and made me feel like I was not smart enough that I saw transformation within the classroom.  Student transformation occurred in the form of questioning, inquiry, and critical consciousness.  Rather than de-possessing students of their voice and reinforcing themes of passivity and ignorance through my own domination of the class, the process empowered participants to examine the social and political contradictions in our everyday thoughts, behaviors, and actions.

However, the greatest transformation in the classroom occurred within me.  By releasing the demons, I too became not just a teacher, but a learner.  This learning is most intense when I am confronted or questioned about the content, the classroom environment, or the structural inequalities that we support within our program.  It is not always pleasant and often quite uncomfortable, but my ability to sit through the discomfort, at my learning edge, is when I am most open to new learning and growth.  Step outside of your comfort zone and give it a try.

I am a teacher and a learner.

Microaggressions: What can I do about them?

This is a preview to two special issues of the Journal of Cultural and Ethnic Minority Social Work of which I am the guest editor.  The first of two is set to appear in January 2017.  The first issue will be a double issue and will focus on theory and research.   The second issue which will appear later in the year will focus on social work education.  These special issues will then appear in a new book published by Taylor and Francis in late 2017.

What is a microaggression?  The concept, first coined by Chester Pierce in the 1970s and brought to the forefront by Derald Wing Sue in the 2000s, refers to those everyday slights and insults, conscious or unconscious, intentional or unintentional, that demean or degrade individuals from disenfranchised groups.  Personally, while the definition of microaggressions has been conceptualized much more broadly, I view it as something that is often perpetrated by good, often liberal-minded people whose words can carry more weight than the less common hateful bigot.

When we hear blatant and intentional racist, sexist, homophobic, or classist comments, whether it be on the streets or on the media, we can typically brush them off.  Why?  Because in my everyday life I don’t interact with people like this and most times know how to avoid them if I need to.  But when they come from people who I trust, people I care about, people who I believe share my vision of a just society, it hurts and the pain tends to linger.  Why?  Because these comments don’t come out of individual ignorance or lack of tolerance.  But rather, they come from social learning that originates from the deeply ingrained inequalities that exist within our structures and environment.

It is more than political correctness that I am talking about.  It’s about hurting people, people we care about, even if we have the best of intentions.  When a person talks about how they prefer to visit the outer islands rather than Honolulu when they travel annually to Hawaii, it is a simple comment.  A comment that conveys a preference for a quieter vacation where they can connect with natural beauty.  For me, however, it reminds me that people don’t want to see the realities of my homeland, how we work, how we live, and what’s good and what’s bad.  They don’t want to be confronted with the homeless, interact with locals, or be made aware of the colonizing forces that we all contribute to.  I don’t want to have to reflect on their comments in this manner, but I do.  And sometimes, it hurts.

When I tell people that I grew up in a poor neighborhood in Hawaii, sometimes I am told, “I didn’t see any poor people when I went to Hawaii.”  Rather than inquire further, they choose to invalidate my experience.  Of course, they did not mean to, but it still happened.  The sheer lack of awareness that the people who served them, while they were enjoying mai tais, don’t live in Waikiki with views of the ocean and likely make near minimum wage while living in a place with one of the highest costs of living in the U.S. does not occur to them in that moment.  Clearly, they never made it to homeless villages near the Salvation Army in Palama or the west side beaches.  This becomes even more evident when they tell me, “And all I ever saw were ABC stores!”

Now I must share that I myself am not free from perpetrating my own microaggressions.   In fact, I probably have no awareness of number of microaggressions I commit on a daily basis, because they don’t affect me personally.  Admittedly, it is difficult for me to even keep track of the conscious bigotry that has been taught to me and that is ingrained in me by society.  And that is why I continue to research these issues; not only to make these issues aware to others who envision a just society, but as an ongoing reminder to myself.

See the full link below for my Guest Editorial to be published in January 2017.


Photo borrowed from campusanswers.com