Exploring Race Relations

A Mexican-American teacher tackles racial prejudice in her seventh-grade classroom

By Lisa Espinosa

Illustrator: US Library of Congress


‘I don’t want my daughter going to the high school with all the blacks.”

That’s what one of my students’ mothers said four years ago, when I first began teaching. While her comment took me aback, it wasn’t the first time I had heard such racist comments from people in the Latino community.

Although I had not heard my own students, most of whom are Mexican Americans, make blatant racist comments, I had heard adults mention “loud black people” or express fear of black people moving into the community. My own parents were caring people, but they had biases and prejudices against blacks—mostly stemming from lack of education and experience. I wondered how this racial divide affected my students.

I had chosen to teach in a predominantly Mexican community in Chicago because, as a Mexican-American woman, I felt a connection to the students there. I hoped to use our shared culture as a means of validating my seventh graders’ experiences. And I wanted to help my students become more politically aware by exposing them to issues and ideas I didn’t encounter until college.

Comments such as the one my student’s mother made reminded me that part of teaching my students about who they are in the world and how to overcome oppression means helping them see the commonalities between their struggles and those of other people of color.

But starting a dialogue about it with them wasn’t easy. I did not want to disrespect my students’ families, and I did not want my students to perceive me as doing so. I had struggled with this issue before and believed that by bringing in my personal experiences I could help my students feel more comfortable. But I must admit that sharing my own family’s biases was not something I enjoyed. I couldn’t help feeling as if talking about this made me somehow disloyal to my family—and maybe even my culture.

I am very proud of my Mexican-American heritage, and I want to help foster that pride in my students. At the same time, I feel people of color need to unite to fight against the oppression and systemic racism in our society. In the current political climate—with attacks on public schools, immigrants, the poor, and new tax breaks for the wealthy—it is easy for people of color to narrow their vision and “fight for scraps” instead of joining together to fight against common oppression. In fact, those in power in our society count on the divisions among the powerless to maintain their positions.

In order to introduce my students to these concepts, I began integrating content into my curriculum that I believed would help them see connections between the struggles of blacks and Latinos in this country. I hoped that this would help them develop a sense of alliance between themselves and African Americans.

This is the story of some of the efforts I have made—sometimes only partially successful ones—to teach about issues of racism and to begin a conversation with my students about their own racial biases. These are not snapshots of amazing transformations among my students, but glimpses of efforts I’ve made to challenge my students—and myself—to examine a topic that often goes unacknowledged.

A Process of Discovery

Examining racial biases has been a learning experience for my students, but it has been just as much a process of discovery for me. Growing up in a working-class Mexican immigrant household, I didn’t listen to NPR and read the New York Times. I didn’t know about progressive causes because there was nobody to inform me about them. Unlike my parents, I was able to go to college. But, during college, I was also busy raising my children, so my main concern was making sure I stayed in school and graduated. Because of my background, I continually feel as if I’m trying to play catch up—even when it comes to knowing about my own cultural history. So, when I teach my students about the Chicano Movement, in many ways, I’m learning right along with them.

But whoever is doing the teaching, one thing is certain: Racism still affects the lives of African Americans and Latinos (as well as other people of color). According to Minding the Gap, a 2003 report funded by the Human Relations Foundation of Chicago, the Jane Adams Policy Initiative, and the Center for Urban Research and Learning at Loyola University, Latinos and African Americans in the Chicago area continue to face disparities in areas such as housing, economic opportunity, access to public transportation, and health care. In 2001, for example, African Americans in Chicago were five times more likely to be denied conventional mortgages than whites, while Latinos were two-and-a-half times more likely than whites to be denied. While income levels grew for all racial groups in Illinois between 1990 and 2000, Latino and African-American men still earn less than half of their Asian and white counterparts. And Latinos (29 percent) and African Americans (24 percent) in Illinois have the highest rates of non-elderly persons without health insurance.

These numbers demonstrate that systemic injustices continue to affect both blacks and Latinos. But for a person growing up in a racially isolated neighborhood, it’s sometimes hard to get that perspective. I grew up in a very segregated community in Chicago in the 1980s, and I don’t remember ever having black classmates in the public elementary school I attended. Today many students in Chicago public schools face similar circumstances: Fifty years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, 343 of Chicago’s 602 schools are racially isolated, with 90 percent or more of their students sharing the same racial background, according to statistics from the Chicago Board of Education.When I asked my students earlier this year how many of them had black friends, few raised their hands. Some have had African-American teachers at school, but most have had little, if any, personal interaction with black people.

I try to do three things in my class throughout the year: provide background knowledge about the history of racism and discrimination in this country and how that has led to the inequalities that exist today; look at current issues that affect people of color; and examine how the media creates and perpetuates negative images of people of color. Here I will focus on curriculum that I developed around certain resources that I gathered, most of which focus on the African-American experience. Because I am doing this as part of my language arts class, where I need to cover many other topics, I can’t always explore these topics as deeply as I would like.

One of the resources I used to discuss current issues affecting poor urban youth in our city is the book Our America: Life and Death on The South Side of Chicago, by LeAlan Jones and Lloyd Newman. This book, which grew out of two radio documentaries, examines life in a public housing development from the perspectives of two African-American teenagers, 13-year-old LeAlan Jones and 14-year-old Lloyd Newman. (Along with the book we listened to the original radio documentary.) To provide some historical background about the Civil Rights Movement, I used the book Freedom’s Children: Young Civil Rights Activists Tell Their Own Stories, by Ellen Levine. Finally, to examine how the media creates and perpetuates stereotypes of African Americans, we watched the documentary Ethnic Notions and read relevant articles in magazines and newspapers.

Our America

The book Our America was at the center of our unit. This book helped me raise some current issues that affect poor urban youth, such as inadequate housing, lack of community resources, and the prevalence of violence in their community. I required all my students to keep a dialogue journal. Through reading the journal entries I was able to get a sense of how they were connecting with LeAlan and Lloyd, the protagonists of the book. LeAlan and Lloyd write a lot about the lack of resources in their community and the biases that people who were not from their community have against them. These were things I knew my students could relate to. Many of them compared LeAlan’s and Lloyd’s environment with their own.

Several students wrote about the death of a five-year-old boy in the book. Although I never forced my students to share their writing, as the unit progressed they became more comfortable sharing. Lilia,* who had recently been in a car accident that seriously injured her mother and killed her three-year-old nephew, wrote, “It was sad because I’ve seen a person dead already and it reminded me of the accident that I was in.” She read this aloud in class, and although it made me sad that she had experienced such a tragedy, I felt it could be healing for her to begin sharing some of her feelings about it.

Many students wanted to discuss how economic and social circumstances can lead children to resort to disruptive and even violent behavior. Angelica wrote, “This made me think that some kids were treated wrong and maybe in school they act all tough but what they really want is love and friendship.” Although these reflections did not deal directly with race, the fact that my students were empathizing with LeAlan and Lloyd was an important beginning.

Ethnic Notions

To begin a conversation about the origins of stereotyping and misrepresentation of African Americans, we watched the documentary Ethnic Notions. Although the language of the video is difficult, with sufficient teacher guidance it can be a valuable teaching tool. It depicts different images that have been used throughout this country’s history to represent African Americans. For example, blacks were either depicted as docile—”the happy slave”—as a defense of slavery, or as savages after the Civil War to justify the need to go back to the “good old times in the southern plantation.”

Because the video Ethnic Notions is so complex, it is helpful to show it over the course of several days. I used words from the film as our weekly vocabulary, and wrote comprehension questions to help guide my students along the way. I also reviewed with them the different historical periods that the video references: antebellum (pre-Civil War), Civil War, Reconstruction, and Redemption.

To understand some of the concepts in Ethnic Notions, students need to have some familiarity with the idea of media representation. Since we had started the year looking at media depictions of men and women, my students were already familiar with these concepts. Before watching the video, I explained to my students that the video was going to explore different portrayals of African Americans throughout different historical periods in this country. Although using this video was a time-consuming process, I believe that it is worth the time and energy, and it’s a film we often refer back to throughout the year.

To connect the negative media images of African Americans in Ethnic Notions to current portrayals of Latinos in the media, I brought in copies of the “Ask Dame Edna” column in the February 2003 issue of Vanity Fair that had caused a stir among Latinos across the country. In the column, which is a spoof of advice columns, Dame Edna “jokingly” responds to a dilemma from a fictionalized reader who says she wants to learn French, but everyone keeps telling her to learn Spanish instead. Dame Edna responds, in part: “Who speaks [Spanish] that you are really desperate to talk to? The help? Your leaf blower?”

Like many other readers, my students did not think her comments were funny or appropriate. Some of them wrote letters to the editors of the magazine. Alberto wrote, “I think Vanity Fair was wrong in putting Selma Hayek on the cover of the magazine and at the same time printing Dame Edna’s comment. They tried to get Hispanics to buy their magazine but at the same time, they insult Hispanics with such a racist comment. I believe Vanity Fair owes Hispanics an apology.” Javier wrote, “When I read it, it made me feel bad . . . and if you just say it was a joke, well it was a joke that hurt feelings.” And Mara wrote, “I love my culture and when I grow up I will find a way to make Hispanics look great in front of everybody’s face.”

Historical Context

After we explored past and current media representations, I though it would help to provide some background on the Civil Rights Movement. The book Freedom’s Children: Young Civil Rights Activists Tell Their Own Stories helped me to provide historical background that my students could relate to. It includes first-person accounts from activists that were teenagers during the Civil Rights Movement and photographs of the teenagers and major events.

Because we were pressed for time, I decided to read the first chapter together in class and then divide the six remaining chapters among the six reading groups in my class. I had each group summarize the major facts of one event and choose one teenager from the corresponding chapter to read and write about.

Looking back, I realize that my students needed more guidance with each chapter. Next time I teach this, I’ll provide a set of questions for each chapter. When the groups finished that assignment, I asked them to design posters that included facts about the events and words from the young activists. Then I had them teach their classmates about what they’d learned. Although my students wanted to create skits for each of their chapters, finishing this project took much longer than I anticipated, so we postponed that idea. These activities helped my students get a better sense of the impact of the Civil Rights Movement and the role teenagers can play in creating social change. It also set the stage for our later discussion of the Chicano Movement and allowed us to later compare and contrast the two movements.

In a recent class discussion, I asked my students whether they thought building alliances with other people of color, specifically African Americans, was important. Miriam said, “I think it would be good to start alliances because they probably don’t know many Mexicans and we could teach them not to believe all the stereotypes about us and we could learn too.” Judging by the students’ journals, I think my efforts were paying off. Eddie wrote, “We would have more power working together.” Jacinto wrote, “I think it is important because the more united you are the more you get done.” And Iris added, “I think they should form an alliance because the bigger we are, the better things we will probably get from the government.”

As a result of this last conversation, we are planning to start a correspondence with a seventh-grade class of predominantly African-American students. My students are very excited about this.

I don’t want to give the impression that some of my students haven’t been resistant to the idea that building solidarity with African Americans is important. For example, there have been times when students have expressed a belief that Latinos need to help themselves and that African Americans “already get too much help.” But these are exactly the kinds of ideas I’m trying to address in my classroom. In a sense, these kinds of comments give me a chance to further educate my students.

In her book De Colores Means All of Us, Elizabeth Martinez writes, “Building alliances calls for us to break down the walls of mutual prejudice that exist. To do so we need to hammer out strong tools. One is simply education: learning about each other’s history, current experience and culture, beginning very young.” By exploring media depictions of African Americans and Latinos and the history of the Civil Rights Movement, I feel we’re headed in the right direction.

Lisa Espinosa (lisaespinosa2374@yahoo.com) teaches seventh grade at Ruiz School in Chicago. She is the mother of five children.

*All students’ names have been changed.