Back to School – What We Must All Learn

Editor’s note: We’re taking next week off. Enjoy your Labor Day weekend.


Artwork: From South Shore K-8 Freedom School “Read Aloud” [picture of books, sayings: “I Know I can, Be What I, Wanna Be!]

By Erin Okuno

It is back to school season. Here are some things we need to learn or revisit in the new school year:

  1. The difference between race and ethnicity. Very often I see and hear people use the terms race and ethnicity interchangeably. They are not interchangeable. A simple way to remember: Race – big groups, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, White.Ethnicity is the sub-groups that nest under these categories: Such as in Asian ethnic groups such as Chinese, Hmong, Japanese, Korean, Mien, Okinawan, Taiwanese, Vietnamese, etc. categorized as Asian. Ethnic groups are often distinct in their language, cultures, and in the US the migration stories to the US are different between ethnic groups.

    For educators, the difference between race and ethnicity is important. With this basic understanding, you can begin to ask for better student data and also understand the identities of your students more-fully. At another time we’ll explore race and ethnicity data.

    Bonus points – learn what nationality is and how it is different from race. Quick answer: Nationality is where a person has a legal relationship to the state, such as what country issues a passport. Example, my nationality is American, my race is Asian, my ethnicities are Japanese and Okinawan.


  1. Native American / Indigenous History. Earlier this week I spent some time with high school educators during their professional development day. They came to my office to learn about our work and to build connections. As I shared what we’re working on I paused to acknowledge we are on Native Lands. I also mentioned for me it is important to acknowledge we are on Coast Salish, Duwamish land and to do the deeper work of learning about Native American history. As we talked I mentioned how doing this can make more visible our Native American students and help to undo whiteness in curriculum. One history teacher said he teaches a unit on great empires and is now questioning why it is so heavy on European history and will look at weaving in great empires from Indigenous people.While we’re at it, we should also learn the histories of other people of color and not just the civil rights and modern headline versions of bad or exceptional things happening to pocs. African, Latinx, Asian, Pacific Islander, Middle East history is rich and diverse.


  1. How to properly pronounce people’s names. Others have written about this so I’m not going to go into it, but let’s slow down and try to learn people’s names and how they want it pronounced. A Somali American colleague shared her name story with me. The Somali pronunciation of her name doesn’t match the Romanization. It was a choice between having it look ‘right’ on paper, but knowing people would forever pronounce it wrong. Many immigrants face this dilemma. We should try to learn people’s names if we have a relationship with them, especially if they are students and family members in our schools.


  1. Disabilities. Through working with colleagues, such as my friend Carrie, I’ve learned a lot about disabilities justice and how it is interwoven with race. I still have a lot to learn, I’m a baby-novice on this topic. Most likely in your classroom or in your network are people with disabilities – visible or not visible. Carrie reminds me that twenty-percent of the population has a disability but many do not share their disabilities because of fear, anxiety, identity, etc. 

    Deepening our learning about disabilities and pocs is important. The impact of a disability is different for many pocs, and in some cases, pocs are over or under-represented in diagnoses. And learning about different disabilities is required as well – e.g. mental health, physical disabilities, learning disabilities, chronic illness, etc. If we will ever achieve racial justice we also have to focus on disabilities justice. One place to ease into learning about disabilities is Ablelism BINGO.

    One practice I’m embedding more into my daily work is pausing to ask what people’s access needs are. At meetings, we pause and invite people to say what they need whether it is a disability or language accommodation, or something as simple as “I need to leave the meeting early.” I tell people they can slip me a note or send a text message if they don’t want to announce it. Hat tip to Fakequity team member Jondou for bringing this practice to us.


  1. Child development, bias, and identity. Each of those deserves a topic of their own, but for expediency sake I’m lumping them together. We need to learn about child development because understanding how children (and really all of us) develop helps us understand life better – hang out with a good child development person and you’ll feel like you got a free therapy session and you’ll understand yourself better. For students of color, we need to understand child development because too often we assume too much or too little of our students of color and don’t see them as individuals or understand their family context, our personal assumptions and biases play out. Identity is the in-buzz thing (as it should be) – learn about it, including understanding the experiences of our poc LGQBTIA communities.

A new school year offers so much promise. Hopefully by focusing on a few things we can make important changes that last beyond the school year.

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