Most, if not all, international schools exist to inspire all learners to reach their full potential and create a positive legacy for the future. We believe students need to feel valued, know they belong, and see themselves reflected within the schools they attend in order to be successful. Although some schools have taken initial steps in their diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ) and LGBTQIA+ journeys, we are learning that more work is necessary for our students to feel that every child matters.
Historically around the globe, people have been and continue to be categorized by race, and with that categorization comes inequalities. Globally, we have only started to recognize systemic racism, discrimination, homophobia, and transphobia in education and in our communities. We understand that Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC), and members of the LGBTQIA+ community have been and continue to be disadvantaged because of these systems and structures which are often not visible.
As a father, parent, and educator, I often see the justification of racism and homophobia placed under the umbrella of “the children do not know what they are talking about.” This has become a disturbing trend as a justification. I realize that these can be difficult conversations for parents, but they are necessary. To be able to address the behavior, we need to address what students are exposed to, what they are doing, and what they are saying. Failing to address these issues of racism, homophobia, stereotyping, etc. allows this discriminatory thinking to become a normative behavior within social groups.
The prevalence of using racial slurs has become endemic in various communities. With the excuse, “I have a black friend, so I have a ‘pass’ in saying it.” Or, these slurs are used on Tik Tok, where it is acceptable to use derogatory, dehumanizing, and offensive racist language. It is not okay. We, as custodians, need to be aware and talk to our children about it. Nothing normalizes racism, bigotry, or offensive words and behavior. Ensuring children are aware of the hurt and impact that these words have on our homes, social groups, and communities is an important role that we all play.
There are many experiences within our community that make it difficult for our students of color to navigate. The use of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) by people outside of the BIPOC community is offensive to our BIPOC students. As the name indicates, AAVE is established and curated by the African American community. It is with this in mind that any person using such vernacular who is not a part of this community can be viewed as racist. It has a history that students might not understand, but that our BIPOC students understand. The racist undertones by which it is used and referred to legitimize racist language and behavior within certain parts of our community.
The public and private degrading comments and shame that our LGBTQIA+ students endure are disheartening. The instances whereby students from this community have to defend themselves from other students' comments or ridicule have become far too many. As a community and as parents, it is our responsibility to have serious conversations with our children about the impact their words and actions have on the most vulnerable members of our community. Often, our students from marginalized communities experience a high level of discomfort within our communities. It is these students who need more protection from their communities. Because of their differences, they become targets.
It would be disconcerting to continue perpetuating the falsehoods that “children are just exploring,” “this is just where they are at,” or “they do not know what they are doing” when they are participating in discriminatory behaviors. Often, middle schoolers know what they are doing in these instances, but they might not understand the impact. Their actions are fundamentally designed to elicit a reaction and we have to acknowledge that these desired reactions are negative ones, as they want the person to feel embarrassed.
It is often difficult for parents to address these issues, as we have certain interpretations about inclusion. This often leads to the minimization and avoidance of conversations around gender and neuro-diversity because there is relative and relevant distance. The word that resonates with me at this time is empathy. To develop empathy is to understand the struggles of different people and what they have to face as a person. It is within this understanding that we develop a greater sense of who we are as a people and a person in the greater world. That inclusion does not mean agreeing, but it certainly does mean having respect for another human being and being able to learn to treat other people with human dignity.
We can all agree that we want our children to learn, experience a greater world, and learn how to navigate the complexity of this world. It is also important to note that not having these conversations or seeking justification for their actions does not create an ideal environment for learning or inclusion. As parents, we have a responsibility to open up conversations about race; to be color-brave rather than color-evasive in order to support an increase in racial literacy.
Moving forward, schools have to continue supporting and engaging students and staff in rich learning and deep conversations about anti-racism, anti-discrimination, and inclusion. School communities need to put a greater effort into sharing this knowledge beyond our schools, committing to working with our communities on the role they can play in being allies for our BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, and other marginalized students, and also in helping change the systems and structures that support power imbalances. In order to make a positive difference, be truly globally minded, and be internationally relevant, we cannot do this alone. This open dialogue will be in the best interest of our students and future generations to come.
Juan Jacobs Sheblak is the deputy secondary principal at UNIS Hanoi, Vietnam.