Monday, April 6, 2015

White Lady in a Tan Lady's Profession: My Ongoing Struggle with Cultural Authenticity

About the title:  No, it's not accurate.  Not all Spanish speakers are tan-skinned.  It's snarky.  It's an attempt at sarcasm, which I am very bad at and often don't respond well to.  I really, really don't like sarcasm :)  So if you are like me and don't enjoy sarcasm, please bear with me and hopefully the reason why I titled this post such will become clear.

Reflections from early teaching experiences, and a problem.

I will always remember one native speaker in my Spanish 3 class during my second year of teaching gently reprimand me for jokingly calling myself a gringa in Spanish class.  "Don't put yourself down," he urged me.  I put myself down more often in that class more than in any other.  All but two of my students only spoke English at home, but as to the two who spoke both English and Spanish at home - I think I thought that by putting myself down it would make them feel more comfortable.  I didn't want them to think that I didn't appreciate their cultural knowledge and native spoken proficiency.  I defended my self-deprecation by telling myself that I was honoring them.  And yet, looking back on it I can see that that wasn't it.  It wasn't even something I consciously thought about, but rather a knee-jerk reaction to a feeling that I had.  A feeling of being uncomfortable, of being out of place, of being somehow unqualified for this position that I had chosen and worked so hard to be good at.

A feeling that I didn't belong.

Here's the thing.  I've had a level of guilt about being a Spanish teacher ever since I made the decision to start down this path.   When I was in college, I secretly looked down on most of my non-Hispanic Spanish teachers.  I wanted NATIVE speakers to teach me Spanish.  In high school, I had three different Spanish teachers.  My freshman year, I had a white lady that didn't seem to be able to speak Spanish very well, and I didn't enjoy her personality.  I remember her once joking around about how she wanted to smack us with a baseball bat when we misbehaved.  She didn't use much Spanish in the classroom.  I sat in the back, as if I were afraid of her imaginary weapon.  The other two Spanish teachers I had in high school were native speakers.  One was from Spain and one from Colombia.  They were awesome, and fun, and used a LOT of Spanish in the classroom.  I sat in the front.  In their classes, I got mad when my classmates used English. "Don't you know that they're using so much Spanish so that WE'LL BE ABLE TO LEARN IT?!" I would think when people would complain that our teachers didn't use enough English.  And I've carried that attitude into my teaching now.

I've pretended this problem hasn't existed for the longest time.  And now, I'm tired of doing that.  If I pretend it doesn't exist, I can't fix it.  So ... Why have I felt guilty about my decision to teach Spanish sometimes?  It's like I feel as if I am somehow robbing my students of the opportunity to have a teacher who was more qualified than me.  Where does that come from?  The reality is that I have plenty to offer, and that this attitude is only destructive to becoming truly multicultural.

Awkward confession:  Sometimes I'm uncomfortable around people who are different - whether it's a different race, a different culture, a different socioeconomic status, whatever.  Realizing that I feel uncomfortable makes me feel even more so, because I feel like the expectation to be comfortable with diversity is higher for me because of the profession that I chose.  I often find myself asking in those moments where I'm aware of my discomfort:  Am I a racist?  What even is racism? Am I part of the problem, or part of the solution?  Or am I walking through this world without changing it in any positive or negative way?

How I came to choose teaching Spanish as my profession.

I struggle with my cultural authenticity.  I come from a monocultural background, and yet I chose a profession where it's preferred that you are multicultural.  I get asked a lot if I have Spanish-speakers in my family.  The closest thing to having Spanish-speakers in my family is that my mom loves chihuahuas and has a dog named Angelita.  I'm just happy that I've taught her the correct way to say "gracias" so her pronunciation of it doesn't conjure up images of grassy butts.

See, I grew up in a town that was 95% white.  From kindergarten to eighth grade I went to school in the same building with the same kids, two of which were black, and the rest were white.  In eighth grade a Hispanic family moved to our town and we got a new classmate.  She only spoke Spanish.  She was the only student in our school who did not speak English.  None of the teachers in the school spoke Spanish, but we had one aide who accompanied her to her classes.  Ten or so of us started out spending recesses with her playing word games on the chalkboard.  Then, the other kids slowly started going outside with everyone else, until it was just me and her staying in, looking at the computer's encyclopedia program and saying the English words for what we saw.  She rode with me and my friends to a middle school dance once.  Her family left after a few months, and I never found out where they went.

But when she left I was left with wonder, and desire. As much time as I had spent with my friend, she never really learned English and I never really learned Spanish.  She remained a mystery to me.  If I had been able to speak Spanish, maybe I would have known more about my friend.  Maybe we would still be friends.  I would have known about where she came from.  I would've been able to help her more.  She's the reason why I wanted to study Spanish in high school.

Here's a secret about me:  I went to a residential high school from grades 10-12 that didn't offer Spanish 1, and required a placement test to get into Spanish 2.  I took the test and ... I failed it.  I was so upset.  "It's okay," the paperwork told me when I received it.  "You can take French, German, Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, or Russian."  Somehow, I found the courage to call the school and I found myself on the phone with one of the Spanish teachers in the department, and he explained to me that I failed the placement test because I didn't show that I could use the preterit tense (a past tense) effectively.  But we had never learned that in Spanish 1, I told him.  And I really want to learn Spanish.  I remember him asking me why I wanted to take Spanish, and I talked about my friend from 8th grade.  I convinced him that I really wanted to study Spanish, and thankfully, he believed that I was motivated, and I was permitted to take Spanish anyway.  (Thank you Sr. Palos!)  I enjoyed it and feel like I did pretty well, but not really because of being naturally much more skilled than others in the class.  I did well because I worked hard to actually use the language.

Eventually, as a sophomore in college, I went through a simple thought process that led into my decision to major in the Teaching of Spanish:  I'm not enjoying the majors I've tried so far.  First it was English, because I love words and writing.  Then it was Computer Science, because I love patterns and puzzles.  Yet even though I loved words, writing, patterns and puzzles, I wasn't enjoying those majors, and I didn't think that I'd enjoy the careers those majors would prepare me for.  I wanted to study something that would prepare me for a career that I would enjoy. So that simple, magical thought came: "My Spanish teacher in high school seemed to have a lot of fun.  Maybe I would have fun teaching Spanish."  (Thank you again, Sr. Palos!)  And that was the beginning of the process.

Surely, I wasn't prepared to teach Spanish when I made that decision.  My level of spoken Spanish wasn't much higher than the average student who had taken four years of Spanish in high school and a few college courses in it.  But I loved it.  And another formative thought came to define my choice of career:  if I study the teaching of Spanish, it'll be a really good excuse to become really good at something that I enjoy.  I heard it said once, "You teach best what you need to learn."  Well, I wanted to learn Spanish.  I still do.  I consider myself a lifelong student.  I think that gives me a leg up.

Studying Spanish as my major connected what I loved most about studying English (words) and Computer Science (patterns).  Choosing to teach Spanish as my profession connected my studies to what I loved the most about LIFE:  people.  I really wanted a job where I'd be interacting with people.  I definitely found that!  And this is why it is a struggle for me sometimes during this time of staying at home full time with my son.

Racism is not my problem; maybe fear is.

Coming back to this strange, uncomfortable, often unhealthy nervousness about my choice.  I wrote that I have found myself asking, "Am I a racist?  Am I part of the problem when it comes to racism?"  But, if racism is believing that a particular race is superior to another, I don't think that is my problem.  My problem is how I approach the differences.  I've never consciously thought - oh, I'm better than this person because of my race - or, oh, they're better than them, because of the color of their skin.  It's not about superiority for me.  Really, the problem stems more from wondering what other people think about me.

Exhibiting some problematic things I do and believe.

Exhibit A:  I avoid telling Spanish speakers about my career choice.
Exhibit B:  I often avoid speaking Spanish with my son in a store when I otherwise would want to.

Why????  ... because I'm nervous.

Where in the world does this nervousness come from?!  Well, I feel like I've pinned it down pretty well at two unfortunate thought processes: 1) I am afraid they'll judge my Spanish speaking ability, and 2) I'm afraid they'll think, "What right does that lady have, thinking she knows all about my culture?"  These are the very same reasons why I have felt uncomfortable with native Spanish speakers that have taken my class.  And they are very salient thoughts.  I can recognize that the thoughts are not healthy or productive, but even with that intellectual recognition it's hard to strip them away from my mind.

I am not proud of this.

So, that's why I'm writing this entry - I feel that by bringing it out in the open, I can more effectively change it as I move forward.  Also, what are the odds that I'm the only white lady Spanish teacher out there who has had these thoughts before?  My guess is that plenty others have found themselves in this situation, whether they've admitted it or not.

It's funny that I'm such a perfectionist, and yet I've chosen a career where I can never reach perfection.  I inherently lack something that native speakers have.  The best I'll ever be able to do is to approximate the speech of a native speaker when it comes to my Spanish.  And yet, I think that it's good for my perfectionism to be in a career where I can never be perfect, because the fact of the matter is - no human being on this earth can ever attain that.  When learning a foreign language you WILL make all sorts of mistakes, and your speaking skills will be the better for it.  How can I expect students to be comfortable making mistakes if I'm not comfortable with my own mistakes?  How can I spur them on towards growth if I'm not aware of my own areas of growth?  I'm grateful for the opportunity to be reminded that I shouldn't strive for being THE best ... I should just strive to do MY best.  Personally, my struggle with wanting to be THE best has only resulted in jealousy and a lack of appreciation for the skills of those that are around me.  And yet, when I compare what I'm doing with my own best, instead of comparing myself to others (which may or may not even be an appropriate expectation), I am so much happier, more confident, more teachable myself and a better teacher for it.

Professional implications: On finding a job in the future, and being confident.

The reality is ... I doubt it sometimes, but I have plenty to offer.  Cultural knowledge from a semester abroad in Spain and a month doing volunteer work in Ecuador.  Graduate level coursework in Spanish linguistics, culture, literature and translation.  (One day I hope to finish that master's degree when finances and childcare opportunities allow!)  Years of experience teaching all four levels of high school Spanish; extensive curriculum design and lesson planning experience.  Two years of tutoring Hispanic friends in their English skills.  Reflective, enthusiastic, team player.  Event planning experience including high school prom and a few benefit dinners.  Social emotional skills lesson planning.  Study skills.  Musical knowledge.  Computer knowledge.  Social media savvy.

When it comes to getting hired for a teaching position, I know that some people will look at me and say, yeah, I still want the native speaker.  And that's okay.  On the other hand, some will see my strengths and want me knowing that I understand what it's like to build fluency from the ground up. Everyone has their strengths, and everyone brings something different to the table.  We can't be everything to everyone, and we shouldn't try to be.

Conclusion: A heart primed for belonging.

So, I want to joke less about being a gringa, knowing that it may be interpreted as self-deprecating.  I also am committed to recognizing that my monoculturalness often is a weakness to overcome, and even in the overcoming of it I can push myself and my students forward in helpful ways.  A way I overcome that is by not pretending that I know something, when really I don't.  Instead, I'll be honest when I don't know something and practice the helpful skill of seeking out answers.

As for my cultural authenticity - I may have been closed to other people and other cultures in the past, but now I desire to be open, and this desire has helped to propel me into the profession that I chose.  Who better to teach openness than someone who has been closed?  Who better to teach than someone who desires to learn herself?

I've learned the hard way that putting yourself down, or even downplaying or hiding your strengths so that others don't think you think you're better than them is NOT a good way to earn respect or to encourage others to be open to different points of view.  So I am taking a stand against the disruptive thought that occasionally runs through my brain and tries to convince me:  "You don't belong here."  It's an error to think that this profession does not belong to me.  If it didn't, what motivation would anyone have to study another culture?  That's false, unhealthy thinking and I want to hold myself accountable to stop those thought processes for good.

Because, I do.  I belong.  How exciting it is to know that I have a place here.  And if there's ultimately one thing that I want students to learn, this is it.  You belong.  You have a place here.  What you do and who you are matters.  This is what I love about teaching foreign languages.  Well, there are so many things about learning a foreign language that I love - but what I love the most is the journey from closed doors to open doors in relationships.  It is an amazing one to walk.

Here's to open doors.


  1. I learned a long time ago that I needed to strive for progress instead of perfection. I didn.t try so many things when I was young because I had the fear of failure. You are a uniquely wonderful person with so much to give. Never stop trying to learn and grow. As one old man told me" I'd rather be green and growing than ripe and rotten". You do belong.

    1. Thank you :) Love that quote! I must say though, that ripe and rotten-seeming bananas make good banana bread! hehehe

  2. Molly, don't ever doubt your abilities as a Spanish teacher! I had always realized the importance of learning Spanish, but it was not until you became my teacher that I finally gained the motivation and the confidence to do so. You always found a way to explain new concepts in a way that I would understand, and I will always appreciate the extra time you'd spend with me after school for extra practice in Spanish conversation and for telling me stories about your time abroad. I am ashamed to say I have lost some of the proficiency I worked so hard for in high school, in part because I have the same insecurities you do about wondering if people are judging me or if I have a right to use Spanish whenever even though it is a language that is not necessarily "mine." I had been feeling down about losing some of my Spanish skills, but earlier this year had resolved to start practicing again and review my grammar, in hopes that I can begin teaching my husband so that we can someday teach our children. This topic had been on my mind quite a bit recently, and I have felt a new wind of inspiration after reading this post. Thanks for once again giving me a little push forward just when I need one; you always knew when to do that :) You were always an amazing teacher, and I am so thankful that I had you as my mentor.

    1. Kathleen, aww, your comment is a balm to my spirit! Thank you so much for your encouragement, both then and now. I am so tender about how you have those same insecurities too ... I have a sneaking suspicion that more people than not have them. That's part of what finally goaded me into posting this entry. If I have them, how much more will my students be likely to have them, right? ;) I think that even becoming aware that they exist helps to get over them. You know, after I first drafted out this entry I went to Target and just used Spanish the whole time, pointing out different objects to David. I walked by a Hispanic family, and thought, "maybe I should switch into English," but then I remembered what I had just written, and I continued using Spanish. The woman (who also had a toddler in the cart) told her son, in Spanish, to say hi to the other baby, and was very friendly - and let off no hint that it was out of the ordinary that here was a white lady speaking Spanish with her white toddler ... nothing out of the ordinary except maybe a little bit more excitement about saying hi than might otherwise be there. It was validating!

    2. What an awesome and positive experience for you and David! I bet this was an important step, and that it'll get easier each time this happens. I agree with you that being aware of our insecurities is the first step towards tackling them. I hope you continue to have validating experiences such as this!

  3. Molly, I think you are an excellent role model for your students, who are also mostly Caucasian and being required to learn a foreign language. I suspect a great many foreign language teachers in the US are not native speakers--but maybe you feel more self-conscious because of the changing demographics. You are a lot more likely to run into a native Spanish speaker at the store than I am to run into a native German speaker! I think racism might come into play if you assume all native Spanish speakers think this or that about you. It would also happen if you claimed to have special knowledge of or affinity to Hispanic or Latino cultures--but you don't, because you have such a wonderful spirit of humility. Learning any foreign language is good for Americans, who tend to have provincial views on other peoples; and learning Spanish in this day and age is smart, given the demographic changes. So I agree: don't apologize for yourself or your profession. Keep learning! And your students will learn with you.

    1. Hallo Kristen! It's a good reminder to make sure that I'm checking my assumptions of people - and freeing both myself and them of those assumptions. Better to let people speak for themselves, whether it's representatives speaking on behalf of a group, or individuals. We run into so many problems when we speak for others and don't let them speak for themselves! Or when we assume that they think the worst of us, because they usually don't. I'm giving myself a little lecture here! ;) Thank you for your encouragement. I appreciate your perspective!!!