– by Ashleigh Brown-Grier –
This spring, Fulbridge asked ETAs to write about the theme of diversity– “the condition or quality of being diverse, different, or varied; difference, unlikeness” – in their grant experiences. This month, ETAs from around the world share how the grant year has changed their perspectives on diversity. Read the full series here.
This piece was written by Ashleigh Brown-Grier, 2016-17 ETA in Malaysia.
* “Cikgu” means “teacher” in Malaysian.
My first day of school began with a welcome assembly. I was nervous as I walked to the front of the hall to give a brief speech. I could hear the children snickering, and I couldn’t figure out why. I tried to ignore it.
After I spoke, I was escorted to the side of the stage next to a rolled up banner secured at the top by a ribbon. One of English teachers handed me a pair of scissors. I cut the ribbon.
Down rolled a beautiful banner with a picture of me: I was dressed in African clothing, complete with a headwrap.
This was a picture of me from Halloween, when I had dressed as an African queen. I had not intended this picture to be used on a banner. I smiled for the cameras, but the entire time I wondered: how did the administrators find this picture? In the audience, I saw the teachers pointing at the picture and looking at me with confused faces. As I stood there nervously, I was riddled with the fear of rejection. I thought: my students will think that I am African and not American. How will I be able to explain this to them?
A few weeks later, my mentor told me that she copied the picture from my Whatsapp profile. Even though I can now laugh at this situation, at the time, it filled me with apprehension at the challenges that I could encounter throughout the year.
* * *
Webster’s dictionary defines diversity as the condition of having or being composed of differing elements: variety; especially the inclusion of different types of people (different races or cultures) in a group or organization. To me, having a diverse group is one thing, but engagement with diversity requires much more from us. It means that we must strive for cultural understanding, acceptance, and appreciation of all people regardless of outer appearance, social status, and life experiences.
Malaysia is a country that boasts about its diversity. As of 2015, the ethnic groups within Malaysia were: Bumiputera, e.g. Malay (67.4%), Chinese (24.6%), Indian (7.3%), Other (0.7%). But in my small town of Marang, Terengganu, this mix is nearly non-existent. All of my students and community members are Malay, and this causes certain challenges for those of us who stand out, who are different – not only from the members of my host community, but different also from their imagination of what the “typical American” is.
And the truth is, I am tired of defending my “American-ness.” I find myself withdrawing, avoiding interactions with my host community. When I walk outside – to go to the market, to get food or gas – the locals will point, whisper, stare – sometimes, even laugh. A simple trip to town becomes draining. Eventually I decided that I would only go out to town with friends or for things that I need; other then that, I stay home. To other members of my cohort, Malaysians express how beautiful they are, how pretty their skin and eyes are; they want to take photos with them. I too, get asked for photos, but I often fear that it’s only for good laughs. Sometimes, people will laugh hysterically after asking me photo a photo. Or sarcastically compliment my hair and then burst into laughter. It made me realize how as a Black American, in many places around the world, I am often considered less desirable because of the color of my skin and my hair.
As my grant year went on, I remembered Malaysia’s own diversity, thinking back to learning in orientation that Malaysians are favored more so than Chinese and Indian Malaysians. I decided I wanted to discuss this diversity with my students, to bring these issues to the fore. And so, a month after the school assembly, I raised this inquiry in the classroom, challenging my students, who range from age twelve to age seventeen, to think about what “American” means.
It was a sunny day; I was standing in front of the class, my students watching. The boys occupied the front of the room, clad in their ever-present black pants and blue shirts, while the girls clustered around them, wearing uniformed Tudungs and baju kurung.
I started with a series of questions. “What is your favorite food?” I began.
I asked them their favorite colors, their hobbies. Though quiet and shy at first, once they started they were anxious to share their answers– so much so, that I had to ask them to slow down so I could get an accurate count of hands.
Then I switched tacks. On the whiteboard, I had drawn outlines of Europe, Africa, and America. I walked to the board and drew a line from Europe to the United States. I drew a boat. I wrote the year 1492 on the board. The students looked puzzled. They did not know that Europeans were not originally from the United States; I told them that Native Americans, or Red Indians, as they are known in Malaysia, lived their first.
“How do you think the Europeans got to Africa?” I asked, my co-teacher aiding me in translation.
The students yelled: “By boat, by boat!”
I drew a line from the United States to Africa, and wrote 1619, the approximate date that African were brought to America, on the board.
I asked a student to stand next to me as if we were chained together. Every move I made, they made too. As we reenacted this, the students would laugh, but you could see in there eyes that they understood.
I wrote “mother,” “father,” and “children” on different spots on the map of the U.S., to illustrate the separation of family members from one another. I engaged my students by asking: “How would you feel if you were taken away from your parents?”
“Sad!” the students responded.
I wrote the date 1863 on the board. I told them about President Lincoln, the man that freed the slaves. “The slaves were now free – that is a good thing, right?”
The students all agreed; some shouted yes, and some nodded.
“What if I told you that they were free, but could not find work and could not read or write? Could only get jobs as servants or farmers?”
Silence. When I asked, “Is that a good thing?” the student shook their heads.
When I described how, in the following century, there were white- and black-only water fountains, restrooms, restaurants, and schools, among other sites of separation – my co-teacher helping me along the way – I could see the sadness and puzzled looks the students faces. One student was brave enough to raise his hand.
“Why?” he asked.
“Because of the color of our skin,” I said.
The students raised their hands.
“Well, my favorite color is pink, too. This means everyone who likes the color pink will eat cake for the rest of the year and will pass the class.”
The students looked looked around at each other in awe for a moment. What was happening?
“But everyone else will copy sentences everyday until the end of the school year. Just because your favorite color isn’t pink.”
The students looked bewildered. Some even looked anxious.
To the students whose hobby was soccer, I said: “You will have to leave my class, and you won’t be able to come back.”
To this, they reacted with questions and frustration. “Why can’t I come back to class?” some asked. “This isn’t fair!” others insisted. “Why do they get to eat cake?”
At the end, I explained that these same experiences of unfairness were what black people had faced in the United States at one time. Then I broke the spell, revealing that these new rules were not in fact true. You could hear the sighs of relief throughout the classroom.
At the end of the lesson, students wrote paragraphs about a time that they weren’t treated fairly because they were different. Afterward, I read one of the paragraphs a student had written:
“It is not fair that Donald Trump doesn’t like Muslims because of our religion,” he wrote. “It makes me mad that he won’t let Muslims fly into the United States. It is ok for people to have different religions and different beliefs.”
From this, I felt I’d started to make a difference.
Several weeks later, I was sitting in the canteen with one of my students, working on the songs for the chorasical sketch competition. My students began asking me personal questions, trying to get to know me a little better. One of my students, a form 4 student– which is equivalent to 11th grade in the U.S. – was curious about my relationship status.
“Do you have a boyfriend?” he asked me.
(Now, in real life, I don’t have a boyfriend. But for the sake of Malaysia, I do.)
“Does he look like you,” he went on, “or is he a ‘real’ American– you know, white?”
I stopped for a moment. “What do you mean?” I asked.“I am American. I was born in America; I’ve never been to Africa, and my family has never been to Africa.”
He said, “I know. But I mean, is he white?”
I was taken aback. I did not show it, but deep down, it really hurt my feelings. Once again, I had to validate my “American-ness.”
We like to believe, as cultural ambassadors, that we can create change. In this moment, I was disappointed, especially because of the lesson I had taught: I had exposed my students to Black American history, and, I thought, to new ways of thinking.
But now I see that change is small and gradual. You can’t make every moment a “teachable moment” – it’s too exhausting – and then again, perhaps that’s not needed. I may just be the first black person that many of my students have ever seen. Through these moments, I know that, even with my struggles, my students are learning more about America and its diversity– just as I am learning about Malaysia and its diversity, too.
Throughout this past year, I have been kind, helpful, and sought to instill knowledge in my students, and I hope they can spread the message and share what the definition of diversity truly is. Because diversity isn’t attained simply by the mere existence of variety– the many colors in the coloring box. It is an action we have to take: one that lies in how we treat others, and how we work to understand people and cultures.
Ashleigh Brown-Grier is a native of Mobile, AL. Ashleigh is a 2016 graduate of Morgan State University where she received a Master of Arts in Teaching and a 2011 graduate of Talladega College where she received a Bachelor of Arts in Music Performance.