“To the naked eye, I may seem normal just like another student or individual; however, behind the mask, I am constantly reminded that I am different from everybody else. I am not sure when I will be able to overcome these fears and doubts because I sometimes feel like I cannot be myself in school or back home. To the naked eye, I am known as Alexander; however, behind the mask, I am known as a hard-of-hearing queer Latino. Would there be a day that individuals like me ever feel comfortable? I am not sure, maybe in a near future, or maybe not because it all depends on how accepting our education and culture can be.”

We write together to share our experiences of difference, and to explore the question of how our schools and classrooms might become spaces where we can share ourselves in honesty and safety, where we can grow and learn together. We are Alexander Hernandez, a college student at a small liberal arts institution, and Deborah Seltzer-Kelly, a professor of educational philosophy at that college. This essay brings together selections from our ongoing conversations on this topic, moving between excerpts of papers Alex wrote for a class in educational philosophy taught by Debbie, and passages we wrote together specifically for this project.

We present our writing as a series of focused reflections — as a collage more than as sequential narrative — as we work to highlight some broad themes and experiences that we see interacting in relation to these issues. In so doing, we have left intact Alex’s own speech patterns from his class assignments to preserve his authentic voice.

Reflecting upon his K–12 experiences, Alex wrote: “Ironically, coming from a border town, my school did not try to teach me about where I came from. Coming from a border town, my school district’s main priority was to have students just graduate from high school. When it came to our education, they just did the bare minimum. Having first and second generation immigrants, my school district, up to this day, has the mentality that college is an unattainable reality for most of us. Counting that my school was 99% Mexican or Mexican descent, they did not try to teach us about our own culture or history. As any other school district in the Rio Grande Valley, they are unaware of what is happening outside our region. They are unaware of the class stratification, of the problems that our nation is currently facing, or even the potential that our community has to break away from the negative image that was bestowed upon it.”

As is the case for many American families, Debbie’s heritage is actually multiracial, but visually she is a member of the dominant white culture. Adding to the privilege conveyed by her appearance, she is the product of a highly educated family, with the accompanying social and cultural capital. At the same time, she grew up with family members who were determined to conceal all traces of “ethnic” heritage, including a grandmother and aunt who obsessed over her skin tone and texture, and labored unsuccessfully to tame her wildly coarse and curly hair to 1960s standards for nice white girls. Her parents, by contrast, were deeply involved in the Civil Rights Movement, and Debbie entered kindergarten in 1965 as a part of the first cohort of U.S. students to be educated entirely in desegregated schools.

These experiences left Debbie with a deep commitment to diverse and multicultural schools and neighborhoods — a commitment that ultimately prompted her midlife move from a career in business to one in education. Debbie’s encounter with Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism during her master’s-level studies in history opened her eyes to the explicit — and intended — ways in which educational systems have historically worked as a part of colonial processes. As Said notes, centuries of systematic interactions between Europeans and their “others” have continually inculcated the idea that “there is an ‘us’ and a ‘them,’ each quite settled, clear, unassailably self-evident” (xxv). What he describes as “the colonization of the imagination” takes place as our texts narrate reality to our students.

Alex wrote: “Growing up, I never questioned why the symbol of history, and even my education overall, was a Puritan, Anglo-Saxon, Heterosexual cis-gender individual. Growing up, because of our constitution and laws, I believed that everybody was equal, so I never asked for the other side. Growing up, how I was supposed to know that society was not living up to the Civil Rights Act?”

As a high school history teacher, and then as a college professor, Debbie has worked to uncover this process for her students, to lay bare the ways in which textbook narratives and pedagogical practices have sought to cover up dissent and unease and outright domination and discrimination with a presentation of a homogenized and whitened reality. She typically meets with a mixture of resistance and cautious interest from her students when she first raises these issues. White students, not surprisingly, typically cannot understand why there is a problem: comments range from, “Well, that’s what it’s important to know,” to “The books are supposed to present the objective reality, not people’s subjective experiences,” to “What’s the problem; it hasn’t hurt anyone, has it?”

Alex wrote: “Prior coming to college, I believed my ethnicity and region did not have anything to offer. When I learned about the history of my ethnicity and region in my history class at college, I was astonished. Who knew that I was known as a border person, and that my culture was distinct, neither American nor Mexican but a mix of both? Who knew that Cesar Chavez and the Chicano Movement had influenced my community, or even that there was such a thing as compadrismo politics. Things like these would have been nice to learn back home.

“Before I came to college, I always perceived Chicano studies majors, like native speakers majoring in Spanish, as lame because they were studying something natural to them. To show how insignificant my home seems to the rest of the nation, on the one hand, the media always puts a negative image on the Mexican immigrants, or they would say that my area, especially my county, has the highest rates of pregnancy, unemployment, and high school dropouts in the nation. On the other, people believe that San Antonio is the southernmost point of Texas; anything beyond that is considered Mexico, or just the middle of nowhere.”

Students of color in U.S. public schools often face a dual challenge: not only must they navigate an environment in which information presented reflects a foreign culture, but too often the level of academic preparation is lacking, particularly in terms of preparation to work in the rarified world of academic English. Administrators and educators speak casually of the need for students to learn to “code-switch,” to move comfortably between the languages of home and of school, intimating that treating home language with respect while instilling robust literacy skills is all that is needed to level the cultural playing field.

Interestingly, though, even a move toward bilingual education, with its supposed commitment to cultural reciprocity, is not unproblematic. As Richard Rodriguez notes, many argue for bilingualism on the grounds that “children lose a degree of ‘individuality’ by becoming assimilated into public society” (26). (It is important to note here that this argument is almost never made for African-American English, but rather is reserved for languages that are regarded as socially valuable.) As Rodriguez points out, though, bilingualism does little to advance inclusion in the face of a larger society with clear boundaries between those in power, and those outside of that center: “I’d hear strangers on the radio and in the Mexican Catholic church across town speaking in Spanish, but I couldn’t really believe that Spanish was a public language, like English. Spanish speakers, rather, seemed related to me, for I sensed that we shared — through our language — the experience of feeling apart from los gringos…. I was reminded by Spanish of my separateness from los otros, los gringos in power” (14).

As we have discussed together while writing this, “tolerance” for one’s difference is hardly the same as full inclusion of that part of one’s being within the circle that defines the cultural norm. Alex has considered the role of multicultural education in coming into a sense of cultural power. “When I came to college, I was able to see that there was a difference between being in the culture, and truly embracing the culture because of the knowledge you have about your culture. For example, I did not find out about the importance of the Rio Grande Valley, or that the idea of cowboys originated from Mexico, until I took a course in borderlands history. I always assumed that my area or my culture was not that important because of the media and history.”

While both of us have experienced enormous freedom at our college to engage in these discussions, and to explore diverse and multicultural topics in class and in writing, that doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges, too — challenges that are inherently far more overt for Alex, although for both of us there can be backbiting and undercutting, especially when we move into specific discussions and critiques of cultural norms.

Alex wrote: “My ingrained suspicion originated with my first actual group discussion. This group discussion was the second part of my interview process for my full-ride scholarship. After surviving the first part, the individual portion, I was confident and ready for the rest. Two hours prior to the group discussion, the judges gave us a short story to analyze. The vocabulary and diction of the short-story were basic enough for me to understand. I was ready to overcome anything. The group discussion started and everything was going well.

“We got two minutes in, and my competition started bringing in facts and complicated words that really threw me off. What really started my ingrained fear and suspicion was when one of the guys from the group, who shall remain nameless, pointed out that every time I made the argument about the family’s setting, I used the term ‘ranch’ instead of ‘farm.’ How was I supposed to know that there was a difference between ranch and farm, especially when the term rancho, the Spanish word for ranch, was the only translation I knew? My face literally turned red, and I felt so embarrassed. During the whole flight back home, I felt so inferior compared to my competition. How was I supposed to be college material, if I was not able to make the distinction between farm and ranch, or even able to bring in complicated words and outside facts that could help me in the discussion? I literally felt like the laughingstock of my group.”

As we discuss our experiences, we see many faculty and administrators around us who, with the very best motives, want to stick with a code-switching model that maintains a Eurocentric culture on our campus: specifically, for our students to acquire here a comfort and facility with academic English and White culture that will carry them into any career they want. Rodriguez, who is assimilationist, seems to support this approach; he wants to include all individuals within society in a common cultural thread. From his perspective, those who favor bilingual education, for example “insist that a student should be reminded of his difference from others in mass society, his heritage.” This, Rodriguez tells us, is an error because “they equate mere separateness with individuality.” His solution is that the individual must find within him/herself a sense of personal identity that permits belonging: “full individuality is achieved, paradoxically, by those who are able to consider themselves members of the crowd. … Only when I was able to think of myself as an American, no longer an alien in gringo society, could I seek the rights and opportunities necessary for full public individuality” (26–27).

While we find much in Rodriguez that is of value — particularly in his articulation of the ways in which clinging to notions of individualism can become a path to social ostracism — we see the process of belonging as mutual. Dewey’s goal for public education was for each student — of every racial and cultural group — to come to a point where s/he would “continue to prize and reverence that coming from his [or her] own past, but [she or] he will think of it as honored in being simply one factor in forming a whole, nobler and finer than itself.” This, he believed, could only be achieved through a system of public education that attends more carefully to the history of immigration that has created the U.S. population, so students would come to understand “the rich breadth of our national make-up” (205–06). To this, we would add our concern that more care be given to elaborate the aspects of internal colonization, and of involuntary immigration, that have indelibly shaped our population.

Alex wrote: “I have gone through so many diversity workshops, conferences, and dinners; however, I am not the one that needs to be educated about diversity. I, and other diverse classmates, are getting exhausted trying to defend ourselves from prejudice. The only way that we are able to make our college, and other campuses, more welcoming is that we have people doing something about informing others about our differences and similarities through venues in which all sides of the stories can be told. Someone from the interview could have understood what was happening to me, could have easily stepped up, and defended me from the guy that made that remark. As you can see, the whole intention of diversifying our education system has not occurred.” Diverse individuals are not the only ones that make the difference; Puritan, Anglo-Saxon, Heterosexual cis-gender individuals do also.