Dear fellow educators,
Many international schools have been re-examining their DEIJ work over the past two years in an effort to become more inclusive, equitable, and just for all students and staff.
Some of us have woven DEIJ work into the fabric of our school, and are developing a natural scent of inclusion, equity, and justice. Others are still on the “perfume” stage where it seems to look and smell good but lacks deep and meaningful work to bring real and sustainable change. Then there are those where the concept has begun to waft over the school but has not yet embedded within its very essence. They are still in the early stages of DEIJ work, and intermittently schedule activities to show that it is important to them.
Every year, my reflection goes back to how far we’ve come as an international school community in the fight for justice and equity in our institutions. In what ways are we using current events, wars, and the many crises we are witnessing in our classrooms to promote the kind of education that fosters and instills in our students “a moral obligation to make change whenever needed?” (Tim Wise).
Once again, we are witnessing a horrific crisis, this time close to home for those living in Europe. The invasion of Ukraine makes us think back in history and reflect on what many thought would never happen again; a powerful country deciding to take over another one. It’s scary, it’s tragic, and it’s pure injustice to the people of Ukraine. The responses to this crisis from international schools, fellow educators, and institutions have been some of the most beautiful and most compassionate I’ve ever seen towards refugees. People have opened up their homes to welcome Ukrainian refugees, schools have disrupted their programs in efforts to respond to this crisis through classroom activities, discussions, relief efforts… and I can only appreciate this gesture.
However, I can’t stop wondering what made some of you go the extra mile in such an admirable way? What is different about this crisis compared to other crises we continue to witness? I strongly believe that it's when we can see ourselves in other peoples' struggles that we are profoundly moved, whether consciously or unconsciously. So, I wonder if it was seeing this mirror image that prompted you to act?
I would like to ask you now to think about your students or colleagues of color who have seen themselves in Syrian refugees or Africans on the boat fleeing their countries to find refuge in Europe. As an African woman, watching the plight of these people, who come from where I come from, I am filled with a feeling of despair as the world around me does not seem to be very concerned about the fact that hundreds of my fellow African refugees, including children and babies, are drowning in the Mediterranean Sea almost daily. My heart is heavy when I see that in Europe there are still hundreds of refugees who have been patiently waiting for years for temporary or permanent residence after fleeing wars in Africa and the Middle East. Ukrainian refugees, however, receive it automatically prior to their arrival in any other European country.
The world’s positive response to the Ukraine crisis is a beautiful example of what true humanity is supposed to be. However, as an educator of color and a mother to two beautiful black boys, I am left with the feeling that this beautiful humanity does not include me, nor my sons, nor students and colleagues of color.
Let’s please have an honest and open-hearted conversation on what made us react more to certain crises and less to others?
- How much were you personally affected when you saw Syrian refugees back in 2015 walking miles throughout Europe to flee the war? What actions and initiatives did you take in your schools and/or classrooms? What were the learning outcomes for your students as global citizens?
- When thousands of refugees from many African countries were drowning (still today) in the Mediterranean in the hope to find a safe place in Europe, how often did this discussion show up in your classrooms or institutions?
- How often do you or did you talk about the war in Yemen where children are the first victims? What relief efforts were put in place for this? Were there opportunities to discuss this crisis with our future leaders, your students?
The purpose of this conversation is not to condemn nor shame anyone, but to hopefully shed light on the impact of our own positionality and unconscious racial bias on ourselves and, more importantly, the people we serve, our students who are the individuals that will make and shape tomorrow’s society.
If you have brown and black students in your schools and classrooms, there is no doubt that they have noticed the contrast in treatment between different refugees. As you’re discussing the Ukraine crisis and the relief efforts organized by your school, chances are that black and brown students are thinking:
When Africans, like me, were drowning, we didn’t do much about it.
When Syrian refugees who look like my mother and my family were fleeing the country, we didn’t do this much.
With Ukrainian refugees, the treatment and care are very different. What makes them different from the refugees who come from where I come from and who look like me and my family? What more do they have that I don’t?
It is important to be aware of this perspective. It can be harmful to ask these students or your colleagues of color to take part in the relief efforts without acknowledging some of the injustices they are likely experiencing. I understand that we are more impacted by those who look like us and live close to us, but this idea goes further and further away from internationalism, DEIJ practices, and the kind of schools we aim to build.
You tell your students and staff that your school is an inclusive environment, promoting equity and justice. And yet, when crises arise, certain refugees seem to deserve more attention and appear more valuable than others. Leaving behind brown and black students takes us further away from the social justice and equity we pledge to our schools.
This different treatment of crises and refugees can also be dangerous for white students as the potential message being sent is that we show more compassion, more love, and more care to those who look like us and are closer to us than those who look different and are further away, the very opposite of global citizenship and the IB learner profiles.
Please don’t misunderstand me! I am not suggesting that we don’t talk about the Ukraine crisis or organize relief efforts. On the contrary, it’s good to bring this up and it is necessary for our Ukrainian and Russian students particularly. But as you discuss, keep in mind that you might have staff members and students from marginalized groups who are either hurt by this injustice or wish their conflicts received this much attention and aid.
So, when you talk about a crisis, ensure you give proper time to discuss it. Put frameworks in place that take the conversation away from finger-pointing, toward a fruitful discussion that seeks out different perspectives. Consider the following:
- Am I considering all my students/staff as I start this conversation?
- Will the discussion cause harm to some and bring comfort to others?
- Am I imposing my view on my students/staff? How do I know that?
- Which voices are being centered here and why?
We have a moral obligation as educators, especially international educators, to do better for the next generation. No one should feel ashamed of their own biases and blind spots. Instead, once detected, we should feel grateful we know and commit to be intentional with our own positionality as we make decisions that will impact the schools we lead or the students we serve.
If you feel you were raised to be racially illiterate, make sure you don’t repeat the same errors with this next generation. If you are made aware of your own biases that can potentially cause harm to some groups of people, make sure the baton is not passed on to the next generation. Remember also that white students pick up unconscious bias as bystanders from adults they trust. What makes implicit bias and racism hard to understand is that “your beliefs and values do not always drive your behavior. These beliefs and values are stored in the highest, most complex part of your brain - the cortex. But other parts of your brain can make associations - distorted, inaccurate, racist associations. The same person can have very sincere anti-racist beliefs but still have implicit biases that result in racist comments or actions” (Perry & Winfrey, 2021).
This is an invitation to reflect on where you might be likely to express your bias. Be brave enough to spend time with people who are and look different from you, and who might challenge your biases; receive it as a gift of learning as opposed to being defensive and dismissive. It will be uncomfortable and yet, discomfort is what we need to grow and be better versions of ourselves.
Our job as educators is not to keep things comfortable for our students, but to teach them to lean into discomfort, to make sure they are confident dealing with issues we were or are uncomfortable dealing with because of our own upbringing. Our students cannot be held hostage of our own fears, discomfort, biases, and positionality. It is our responsibility and our duty to break this vicious circle of biases and racial hierarchy very present in our lives and ensure that the next generation feel a moral obligation to act on any kind of injustice regardless of people’s origins, race, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, and more.
Your role as an educator goes beyond the subject you teach. You have the potential to set the tone as to what kind of society our children will live in tomorrow; such is the influence of your role. You have the opportunity to be the “unspoken” hero who turns the world around or the educator who misses +/-180 opportunities a year to have an impact.
With this tragedy, I hope that all of us, especially white educators, remember and teach our students that “a refugee is not a synonym for a brown person. Anyone could become a refugee. It’s a thing that happens to you and not who you are” (Trevor Noah).
With love & care,
Perry, Bruce D., & Winfrey, Oprah. (2021). What Happened to You?: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience,and Healing. New York, Flatiron Books, 2021.
Teaching while White (2020- present). Schools Succeeding at Failure with Tim Wise.https://www.teachingwhilewhite.org/podcast/2020/3/31/schools-succeeding-at-failure-with-tim-wise
Born and raised in Burundi, Doline Ndorimana is an international educator, DEIJ workshop leader, and a university lecturer with 15 years of experience in international schools. She is also a language Acquisition MYP consultant, is part of TIE Editorial committee, and is a member of AIELOC and ISS Diversity Collaborative. Doline is trained in international accreditation as a team evaluator and has been involved in accreditation visits. She is a great advocate of students’ voices and works at amplifying them by helping to create a culture of inclusion and vulnerability in schools. She now lives in Melbourne with her family.