With only a couple of weeks left in their middle school careers, Valerie Barth, the teacher-librarian at Horace Mann, wants her students to deepen their understanding of ethnicity, race, and nationality.
In an earlier class, students associated being American with being white. It’s a perception that excludes them because most of their parents were born in Latin America, the Caribbean or Asia and few see themselves as white.
The possibility of her students rejecting an American identity disturbs Barth, an immigrant from Singapore, proud of her U.S. Passport. So for the last week, she’s made an extra effort to jar their notions, open their minds.
She hands out a review sheet on the concepts and pulls over an easel. The large sheet of paper has two columns: race and ethnicity.
Race, Barth reminds students, categorizes people by physical traits, most often skin color; ethnicity relates to one’s country of origin, language, ancestry and culture. She also adds religion as a characteristic of ethnicity.
“I see you are chewing on something, “ Barth says to a girl. “Anyone else with gum, spit it out or it’s detention.”
A couple of students go to the wastebasket, spit out their gum and return to their seats.
Do the words Muslim, Mexican and Caucasian belong under race or ethnicity?
Minutes go by with heads down, pencils moving.
While some students wait for others to finish, they explore the distractions offered by a pencil: it’s something to run through your hair, balance atop a water bottle, and two can be manipulated as chopsticks to suspend and then drop a sheet of paper.
When the class reviews the answers, most have them right. Barth plunges on to talk about ways in which the terms Asian, African, and American are misused to refer to skin color.
They talk about their earlier confusion in equating the United States with whiteness.
“Don’t let that concept stick with you,” says Barth. “You are just as much American as whites.”
“If you are a U.S. citizen, a resident, you are American, don’t let other people take that away from you.”
The class looks at the census form together. It’s confusing. If you’re Latino, do you check white?
“I would never tell people I’m white,” Barth says. She identifies as mixed race.
Then the class turns to nationality. For years, Barth says, she was Singaporean, but since becoming a U.S. citizen, she answers American when someone asks.
She urges the students to engage and take back the debate on who is an American.
Just minutes are left in the class and at the bottom of the page three questions stare up at students. Describe your race, ethnicity and nationality.
Later, looking at their papers, it becomes clear that Barth’s students have taken her lead. Of the 27 students, 21 fill in the blank space next to nationality: American.