"The oppressed, having internalized the image of the oppressor and adopted his guidelines, are fearful of freedom." - Paulo Freire
A hand slowly went up, and a pair of hesitant eyes looked my way. “I’ll say something, but I’m not sure if it’s the right thing to say.”
“Go ahead; your voice is safe here. Take the risk,” I reassured her. Safety was one of the reasons why I had started this weekly group for 30 Latina girls. I wanted to provide a safe space where they could talk openly about difficult topics.
She repositioned her body as if to gather more strength, then took a deep breath: “We don’t participate in class because we’re not as smart as the white kids.”
Some of the girls gasped. Many looked for my reaction; a few looked down, fussing with their shoes. My mind went to my counselor skills. I was good at receiving all sorts of shocking information, but something about Carla’s* statement froze me. How was I to correct the negative perception of a 10-year-old Latina when I had held similar beliefs about myself as an 18-year-old Latina years ago, when I came to the United States as a college freshman?
Pushing through the discomfort, I let out my best semi-panicked answer.
“That’s not true.”
“Yes, it is! They always answer right, they barely ever make mistakes and besides, Ms. Barbie, don’t you see that in movies and TV they’re the doctors and lawyers? We clean their houses, and now some people say we’re criminals.”
I paused for three seconds and forced myself to smile. “This is why we’re here in this group! We’re going to talk about these issues openly. There are reasons why we start believing lies about ourselves. We will defeat these thoughts by learning about where they’re coming from and talking openly about them.”
Silence. Slowly, another hand went up.
“I agree with Carla. It seems like they’re better.”
“Raise your hand if you think Carla is right,” I said.
Of the 30, all but three raised their hands. I sighed, heartbroken but determined.
“We have a lot of work to do! I used to think just like you until I learned that there are reasons why we sometimes believe the stereotypes about us. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. This must be hard for all of you to talk about so openly.”
A couple of months prior, I had been discussing with our school leadership the “participation gap” in most of our classrooms. Our white students participate in class at a higher rate than our Latino students. For a school like ours—dual language, where more than half of the student population identifies as Latino and classrooms are composed of 50 percent native Spanish-speakers and 50 percent native English-speakers—this gap in participation is especially palpable.
In general, our white students show up ready to own their space in the classroom community, while many of our Latino kids quietly sit on the sidelines. At first I pinned it to the nature of some of our Latino families, with more authoritarian parenting and norms in which kids are often not allowed to voice their opinions very much (as I know from experience). It made sense. If kids were not used to speaking their minds at home, then why would they do it in the classroom? Knowing that I couldn’t just rely on my theories, I decided to ask our students directly. Turns out I was wrong. The reality was that many of the Latino students here at our school in Small City, North Carolina, did not feel worthy of occupying their space in our classrooms.
Although heartbreaking, their answers were not surprising. Anyone familiar with the term internalized oppression knows that, for some people of color, a common consequence of living within an oppressive context is to internalize the negative stereotypes created by the dominant culture about their racial group. These negative beliefs corrode proactive behaviors students critically need for success—in this case, participation, which directly impacts empowerment, risk-taking and academic engagement. Students must feel part of the classroom community, own their voice and occupy their space as they journey toward academic success and civic engagement.
Propelled by the current political climate, the oppressive context in which our marginalized students live continues to expand. This academic year, creating a safe space for students to use their voices is particularly critical. As an educator, it is my responsibility to facilitate opportunities for marginalized students to safely verbalize their observations about the world around them. I must pursue, cultivate and honor the voices of all of my students, not only the voices of students who are already empowered and often occupy more than their share of space. In the midst of all the uncertainty around this very peculiar election year, my students will continue to hear me say, “Your voice is safe here.”
*Student’s name has been changed.
Garayúa-Tudryn is a school counselor at a dual-language elementary school in North Carolina. She is also a member of the Teaching Tolerance Advisory Board.