Humans have an inherent desire for everything we do to mean something – to be bigger than ourselves. In reflecting on my time with the Youth Action Researchers at the Intersection (YARI) project, I wanted to accurately depict this project in a somewhat professional manner: write down data and draw up organized charts. But in truth, this has been messy, and more importantly, it has been honest, and I do not think there is anything I value more than authenticity.
Throughout my life, I have been taught to seek knowledge and value education. Both my parents are very well–educated individuals that come from underprivileged, uneducated backgrounds and because of this, were revolutionary in their households. From a young age, I yearned to expand the capacities of my thinking and, seeing the very elitist and capitalistic society we live in, I was very much brainwashed into believing that the only valuable education is the one received in schools. In second grade, I was diagnosed with dyslexia and it still very much shapes who I am as a learner and how I feel when presenting myself in educational environments. I was outrightly and effectively othered – deemed an unconventional learner, though my younger self always registered this as incapability – that I was unfit.
I zeroed in on one word - relationships - and I thought about how everything I do that holds value for me has to do with connection.
Early in my education, I attended school in Egypt and, although Biracial, I do tend to present as conventionally Egyptian-looking, so I knew what it was like to be othered academically but that was about it. It was not until my family moved back to the states and I began attending public school in a very white suburban area that being Brown mattered. Though I did not realize it at the time, I internalized all the racism that I was being subjected to and tried so very hard to not be what I was and am: a mixed kid, the Brown daughter of a Black man, the daughter of an immigrant, an Arab. I so desperately wanted to be anything but myself and so I did what I have now learned through the conduction of this project that every student of color attempts at some point: I tried to erase every foreign aspect of my being, attempting to turn myself into a clean white canvas.
Why we chose to focus on the importance of racial and ethnic backgrounds in student-teacher relationships
Our research project began in February of 2020. Our team, which at the time consisted of my research partner Amy Monroy and I, as well as our Rhode Island College Mentor Essence Harrison, gathered to discuss the future of our project. We all knew that we wanted our research to be in the pursuit of something meaningful, something that held great personal value to each of us. We sought to find a commonality between the three of us.
I am a firm believer that there is always something that can cause strangers to find themselves intertwined in the deepest of ways and as a result not be left strangers after all. In this instance that proved to be true: we realized that we were all women of color who had been in white-majority education at some point. We had walked the same path.
Get to know Laila and her research partner, Amy, and explore the project and its findings.
Our research question for this project was, “How do the racial and ethnic backgrounds of students and teachers affect student–teacher relationships within the classroom?” I zeroed in on one word – relationships – and I thought about how everything I do that holds value for me has to do with connection. When I think of all I have learned, I do not think of school but instead the people I have entangled myself with – how I have learned the most through communication. Value is interconnectivity.
We decided that we were going to conduct our research through a series of interviews. This both excited and terrified me because in my experience there is nothing more valuable than speaking to someone only to listen, to absorb the words of another person. To hold onto another’s perspective as it is described and then apply it to your own. To hear of one’s growth and in turn begin to grow yourself.
Most, if not all, of the students that we interviewed have been in majority white education for most of their lives. Because of this and the fact that they had been so desensitized to being othered, a lot of students of color were challenged to make the connection between their struggles to learn comfortably and the lack of people of color around them. It was only after subconsciously processing while answering the interview questions that they were able to begin to understand how deeply being a minority in white majority spaces affected them and their learning. What I found most value in while interviewing students of color was watching them have this world-altering realization that the reason they failed to learn comfortably was due to the lack of people of color around them. That maybe their struggles were not just individual and dismissible, but systemic and valid. That they deserved to be a little kinder to themselves.
What I found most value in while interviewing students of color was watching them have this world-altering realization that the reason they failed to learn comfortably was due to the lack of people of color around them. That maybe their struggles were not just individual and dismissible, but systemic and valid. That they deserved to be a little kinder to themselves.
As the project ends, we are still left to answer the question: How does the racial and ethnic background of students and teachers affect student–teacher relationships within the classroom? We can only educate based on what we know and because of this, the education we give and receive is, in some sense, biased. This makes it incredibly difficult to be comfortably taught things by people so different from us. Our racial and ethnic background determine so much of how we can exist in spaces – whether we are allowed to be in the entirety of our muchness or are forced to compact ourselves into something unnaturally small. It is our instinct to assume that because we are the minority, we are in the wrong. Throughout the interview process, students said that when their educators were white, the class content and learning materials given out would be extremely Eurocentric and effectively other students of color.
Yet there were these rare moments, ones they’ll never forget, in which their educator was a person of color and they felt reflected. As students of color, we exist in a space that rejects us and we are constantly reaching for something to belong to, even if to do so, we must learn to reject ourselves. But in those moments where our educators are like us – our authority is also our representation. There is someone there to stop us from reaching, to take our hand and place it in theirs and tell us that we are enough.