As I considered the personal stories that contribute to my identity I realized that school and schooling, in the home, the Catholic Church, my community, and at school, substantially affected how I thought of myself and others. I grew up financially poor and culturally rich in Spanish Harlem in the 70s and 80s. My friends, neighbors, classmates, church, and community were primarily Puerto Rican and African American, with a sprinkling of Dominican and Mexican people. The nuns and priests of my Catholic elementary school were the only white people living in the area, except for one white boy in my class who left the neighborhood after third grade. I didn’t have white students in my class again until I attended a predominantly white Catholic high school in midtown Manhattan. High school was also the first time I got to know more intimately friends of color who were Asians, Hatians, Jamaicans, Pilipino and South Americans beyond what I heard and absorbed from the media and society at large (assuming some of their narratives even made it to pop culture by the 80s).
I heard many stereotypes about Asians and math, about poor or dangerous Blacks, and lazy Latinos, yet I also heard the frustrations from my friends who belonged to those groups. We sometimes joked about how naive white people were for thinking such limiting thoughts about us, but we were never encouraged to talk about it outside of our circle of friends. Some of us developed relationships with the white kids in our grade, but lunch time was very much as Beverly D. Tatum spoke of in her book Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria? Cross-racial relationships were rare, and discussions about identity and culture in the curriculum did not exist. No mention of Black heroes or sheroes; no discussion about Latinx immigration; no role of, or room for, contributions from Asian-American activists. These limiting cultural and historical perspectives was the air I breathed throughout high school.
By the time I entered college I was making sense of the racist comments coming from others, including my own parents about dark skinned people, never mind that we had Latinx relatives with dark skin. Between my late teens and young adulthood I learned to see and operate in the world through a racial, and more likely a racist, lens. The intersectionality of my identities; ethnicity, skin color, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and class, were ever present for me when I became an assistant teacher in my first independent school.
Fast forward to November 1991, and I am finishing up my first set of parent-teacher conferences as a new head teacher in an independent school in New York City. I will never forget this one particular conference because the outcomes of this parent discussion propelled me to become an anti-bias educator. These African American parents, and their 3-year-old daughter, had experienced their first three months in an independent school and they were concerned about their child’s racial identity. Their daughter was hitting all of her developmental milestones and so I was prepared to talk about her easy transition to an all day three’s program, her strong cognitive and social skills, and her infectious laugh. I was also anxious to speak to them about some comments their daughter had been making. This brown skinned Black little girl told me she wanted yellow skin, yellow hair, and blue eyes. The parents had heard the same comments at home. Talking about her racial identity was their main priority.
From the start, the parents and I connected. We all grew up in Harlem in poor or working class communities and strongly connected to our rich cultural heritages. During the home visit in August they learned that I am Latina and they shared that they were raising their children in an Afro-centric home and community. They were comforted knowing they were experiencing their first independent school outside of their community with a teacher of color and a handful of other students and families of color. Three months later, however, the dad wondered if they had made a grave mistake to have taken their Black child out of her community to expose her to so many white teachers and students at such a young age.
I naively thought that my personal experiences would suffice as a window into the experiences of poor or working class families and families of color in an all white school. No doubt my personal experiences with racism, sexism, classism, learning differences, and homophobia have allowed me to enter conversations from the “I” perspective. However, a missing component to my training as an educator were the skills needed to address bias when it surfaced in my classroom. Race, ethnicity, class, religion, and gender were rarely the focus of the many classes I took between my junior year in college, when I majored in the Pre-Education program, and graduate school. I began to wonder how I could have entered the field of education with plenty of early childhood development training under my belt, but little to no knowledge about how to address social identities or social inequities with young children.
Quite coincidentally, authors on racial identity development and anti-bias education with young children were visitors to the graduate school that year. While I had already graduated, I was allowed to attend these forums. Lucky for me because these authors and their books shaped my personal views on education and put me on the path to becoming an anti-bias educator. I learned not to discredit my personal life experiences, but to add to my perspective a repertoire based on anti-bias training which included systems of oppression, identity development, multicultural education, and inclusive communities. I was beginning to understand the skills I needed to develop for my own cultural competencies.
In short, I am an educator for social justice and equity, who continues to learn from others. I am touched by the many identities that inform my work and life. I am dedicated to finding and nurturing spaces for myself to discuss my personal experiences with others (affinity groups). I pursue relationships with people across varied differences. I will read journey stories and empirical research about the same topic to inform my practice and sit to listen to what you have to share about your own journey. Mostly, I enjoy taking action to create a world that is different for my children and their future selves.
Snapshot here of what three year old student is not doing.
Dr. Sandra Chapman
Latina, Lesbian, Educator, Mommy of two. Committed to enriching her life with a diverse village of people who will share their stories.