Together, Our Differences Make a Strong and Beautiful Community in School
I listened… the sound slowly crept into my ear, triggered my reaction, and confusion started to consume my mind. “What’s your name?” the teacher questioned. My heart raced as I tried to search the blankness of my memories and whispered, “My name is Sovandarid Prom.” I was ten when my family and I immigrated from Cambodia – an underprivileged country in Southeast Asia – to the United States with dreams of new life and fresh opportunities. Upon arriving, I met a society that was rooted in more racial bias than I was prepared to confront.
In America today, immigrants are constantly detained and deprived of their basic rights. We live in a society where people’s survival and existence is criminalized. The criminalization of immigrants in this country has contributed to a surge in anti-immigrant views and bias. Over the past several years, I have been constantly reminded through the eyes of the government and the media that I am not welcomed here; that I need to go back to my country, and that even if I learned English, I will never be accepted. This type of bias and hostility towards immigrants in our society has filtered down into our school systems resulting in greater discipline for immigrant students, an increase in dropout rates and incarceration, and lower educational outcomes. The issue of immigrant rights are sewed into the fabric of this country and we can’t turn a blind eye to this issue any longer.
As a queer immigrant coming from a traditional Asian family, home was never a place for me to fully express my queer identity. As a child, I thought school would provide some of the safety and freedom that I did not have at home, but I later found out that wasn’t the case. In school, I listened to classmates make dehumanizing comments about immigrants and queer folks far too often. Xenophobia and queerphobia were ingrained into the minds of these students as they joked about invasions, crimes, deportation, trans identity, and so much more. The nastiness of comments from my peers about immigrants and queer people catapulted me into an isolating darkness of self-doubt and self-hatred, yet educators did little to nothing to aid the struggles of students like myself who held these multiple marginalized identities.
Racial and queer biases in our society have been integrated into the environment of many schools across the country, as it normalizes the aggression in which young people interact with their peers from different countries and cultures. According to the GLSEN 2017 National School Climate, 87% of LGBTQ students experienced harassment and assault based on their personal characteristics, including their race and ethnicity. We need to realize that our society will improve only when we breakdown the boundaries that are stacked among people of different races in schools. Boundaries create rejections that lead to the lack of opportunities for the growth of relationships and diversity. Let’s build relationships and solidarity, NOT walls and boundaries within our schools!
One of the best ways to support queer immigrant students is to build a more relationship-centered school; meaning, educators must promote a sense of belonging and diversity in classrooms. Fostering an environment of connectedness plays a huge role in students feeling respected, accepted, and supported by teachers and peers. Simple practices such as identity activities can dismantle individuals’ feelings of isolation and helps build conversations about commonalities in classrooms. GLSEN’s Identity Flowers are a great tool in increasing familiarity with differences; which ultimately, can alter perspectives, facilitate acceptance and diminish the misconceptions and prejudices that fuel discrimination.
In addition, by simply creating policies that enable students to properly address students of a different identity, we can tackle issues like name calling. Having a proper layout of what words are okay to use will allow for a more efficient and inclusive learning space. By doing so, it will provide the appropriate outlets to encourage students’ voices and action in celebrating diversity. Immigrant students deserve to feel a sense of safety and community in school, and GLSEN’s resource for anti-slur policy can be the first step in helping to make this a reality.
Together, our differences can make a strong and beautiful community. Even in the face of intolerance, discrimination, and violence, we must not forget to spread the words about the importance of inclusion and diversity and to respond to hatred with love and a celebration of our differences.
Darid is a member of GLSEN's National Student Council.