It's never easy being the new kid, but at the start of eighth grade, that's exactly what I was. At my new school, I was amazed to find a Newcomers Program for assisting students whose families had just moved to the United States because there hadn’t been one at my old school.
I remember one day after the bell rang to start math class, one of my classmates ran in out of breath and plopped down in front of me. She turned to the boy sitting next to her and said, “Oh my gosh! Don’t you just LOVE newcomer girls?”
“No,” he said, before immediately turning back to me and adding, “No offense.”
Despite my not being a newcomer, I knew his “no offense” was well-meaning, so I just shrugged and gave him a half smile. I am a Somali woman and wear a hijab: my classmate had made the assumption that I was a newcomer based on those characteristics alone. I wasn’t offended, but I was surprised that he’d made such an assumption without a second thought about its accuracy.
We all make assumptions, and in and of itself that is not a bad thing. When we’re lacking details in a situation, we sometimes have to make assumptions. They help guide our thinking and our judgements. Everyday we make assumptions that, had we not made them, we would face major setbacks in our day; for instance, we get in our cars with the assumption that other drivers will follow the rules. Can you imagine how we’d get around if we didn’t operate under such assumptions? Obviously, assumptions serve a purpose.
But sometimes we operate under false assumptions, unfortunately. In these situations, our assumptions still guide our judgements, but they might result in negative consequences. With these false assumptions, we often don’t realize they’re false--or even that they’re assumptions. They are things we’ve regarded as true for our whole lives. These are also assumptions we tend to cling to when challenged, because it can be difficult to admit our faults.
As a person of color, people are often curious about my ethnicity. I remember sitting outside the library after work one day when I was joined by a middle aged woman. She smiled and induced herself, so I did the same. After making some small talk, she asked me, “Where are you from?”
I told her, “I’m from Minnesota.”
She stopped for a beat, confused, and asked, “No, no, where are you--where are you really from?”
I said, “Well, I was born in Dallas, Texas.” Then, I added jokingly, “But in the seventeen years I’ve been alive, I’ve had to endure sixteen Minnesota winters.”
I hoped that’d get a laugh, but no luck there; we proceeded to sit in awkward silence until my mom picked me up.
The question “where are you really from?” is one people of color are used to hearing. In her article "Where are You Really From? Try Another Question", CNN reporter Tanzina Vega explains why the question is often offensive. She talks to Professor Derald Sue who explains that, “the impact to the person receiving that persistent questioning is that you are not a true American, you are a perpetual foreigner in your own country.”
I believe this woman who was outside the library that day was well-intentioned in her inquiry. Like my eighth grade classmate, she meant no harm by her actions. She was operating under the assumption that only people who look a certain way can be truly be from Minnesota. She was also probably unaware that she was making this assumption, as well as unaware of how offensive her question was to me.
It is crucial that we make efforts to be mindful, because we often aren't aware of our incorrect assumptions. We are all human. We all make assumptions. We are oblivious to some of those assumptions.
I know it can be difficult to identify an incorrect assumption, but by making a conscious effort, we can change our cognitive patterns. When in the middle of a train of thought, we can stop and ask ourselves if we’re acting on any assumptions. We can also help others keep their assumptions in check. When someone asks me where I’m from, I know they’re really asking about my ethnicity, but I answer the way I do to force them to acknowledge their assumptions.
If you would like to explore this idea future, check out this helpful Word document that is filled with examples of common questions asked in an educational setting and important questions that educators should often ask themselves (it was created by Michael Depietro in his work the Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence at Carnegie Mellon University).
This post brought to you by Sumeya Jeilani, Senior at Mayo High School
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