A conversation that can’t be avoided: the presence of cultural ignorance and inaccuracies in school

Cultural+ignorance+and+inaccuracies+in+school+leads+to+further+community+racism.

Photo illustration by Katie Wallace

Cultural ignorance and inaccuracies in school leads to further community racism.

By Katie Wallace, Parkway West High School

Working on assignment 8.1 in virtual American Sign Language 2 (ASL), students opened the week’s expressive assignment to be met with brightly colored images. Dread, followed by anger, sank in the pit of one student’s stomach as she read the directions and realized she was supposed to explain the background and ethnicity of caricatures just from the childlike images. 

Of the 1,407 students currently enrolled at school, 29.8% of them are people of color. However, racism and misrepresentation of their race and ethnicity in curriculums, textbooks and in their classes in general is ever-present.

False representation of the culture and ethnicities of students in educational settings can be easily found. This February, ASL students were assigned an activity that asked students to explain the cultural backgrounds of people and places expressed in cartoon images.

Junior Lucky Payala, who is Indian and Hindu, believes that this assignment has a negative connotation.

“I think that background, ethnicity and culture [are] very important to people. I don’t think we can truly understand [them] based on a simple drawing or even a paragraph. It’s very complicated and there are so many facets of culture that a simple picture doesn’t do it justice. This activity is negative and reinforces stereotypes we might already have,” Payala said.

Payala is a member of Global Perspectives, a club that was created to “embrace the cultures of West.”

A scanned document from ASL 2 that appeared in Schoology for students to complete. (Katie Wallace)

“West is a very diverse school, but I think that we shy away from conversations about culture. I think what [the club leaders are] doing is very important so that we can bring forth these conversations and help people better understand where we’re coming from,” Payala said.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) states that, “In order to have safe, respectful and inclusive learning environments, schools need to consider true representation and active efforts to teach students [and teachers] about bias and discrimination.” Therefore, ongoing cultural education for both teachers and students is necessary so racism and offensive incidents produced out of miseducation and ignorance do not occur as frequently. 

“I was just sitting in history class, it was a normal day, my teacher was reading a quote from Muhammad Ali and she said the n-word. I couldn’t comprehend it at first; I was just in shock,” an Iraqi and Muslim student, who preferred to remain anonymous, said. “I called her out on it, she just kept [defending herself] and saying it’s just in the quote. She was like ‘what do you want me to do about it?’ and ‘I’m sorry if I offended you.’ She didn’t offend me, she offended other people.”

This was not the first racist incident this student had witnessed or experienced in school. 

“A teacher called me out for being the only colored girl in class. He specifically said no Middle Eastern women could have rights,” the anonymous student said.

Social studies teacher Kristen Collins believes the problems in the curriculum are not outright racism, but instead instances of ignorance and a lack of diversity.

I think that background, ethnicity and culture [are] very important to people. I don’t think we can truly understand [them] based on a simple drawing or even a paragraph. This activity is negative and reinforces stereotypes we might already have.”

— Lucky Payala

“AP World History just went through a big revision in terms of content three years ago, and they slashed the content. They initially put the starting date at the year 1450, we got it pushed back to 1200, but what that did [is it] kind of embedded [stereotypes about cultures],” Collins said. “So [social studies teacher Jim] Hermann and I, we don’t start at the date that the College Board starts our curriculum. We think that in terms of history, we need to go back deeper, so we do.” 

In terms of the future, the Social Studies department is undertaking a massive curriculum revamp focused on improving the cultural accuracy and inclusiveness within the education system.

“From sixth grade through high school, we are going to do a better job of telling the stories of more diverse cultures and ensuring that the stories of minorities in the United States are told,” Collins said. “I’m really looking forward to that and a years long effort to work through this. It’s going to be a more diverse, richer curriculum.”

This story was originally published on Pathfinder on March 29, 2021.