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Stop perpetuating the idea that South Asian kids are perfect students: Dr. Punita Rice

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Low teacher cultural proficiency and bias, discrimination are challenges many South Asian American students face, says ISAASE founder.

Dr. Punita Rice

Dr. Punita Chhabra Rice is an education researcher and writer, whose work focuses on South Asian American populations. She is the founder and director of the ISAASE (“Improving South Asian American Students’ Experiences”), which aims to improve the overall experiences of South Asian American students. She is currently writing a book about South Asian American stories and experiences in post-multicultural American schools. Born in New Delhi, India, Rice grew up in the United States. She lives near Baltimore with her husband and son.

In a freewheeling interview with The American Bazaar, Rice discusses her organization’s work and various challenges Asian students are facing in schools, among other issues.

What are some of the common problems South Asian American students encounter?

South Asian American students have really diverse experiences; some love their K-12 experiences, others have painful experiences, and still others are somewhere in the middle. The problems one South Asian American student faces might not apply to a second student, but there are some common themes that emerge when we look at the kinds of things they face in school. My research findings (through Johns Hopkins University’s School of Education) included a survey of 85 South Asian Americans reflecting on their K-12 experiences, and suggest that many students have to contend with low teacher cultural proficiency and bias, overt discrimination from peers, and sometimes teachers (and this has certainly increased to a degree in recent years and in context of the current political climate), less support than they might want from teachers, and low connectedness to school. Ultimately, the common thread is that when South Asian American students have great experiences in schools, it’s typically in spite of instances of some of the aforementioned things, or they’re just the exception. For many South Asian American kids, their overall K-12 experiences are less than ideal, and there’s room for improvement.

Tell us about your ongoing projects.

My main focus is running ISAASE (“Improving South Asian American Students’ Experiences”), which offers resources, tools, and services aimed at improving student experiences and addressing factors that contribute to negative experiences. The key projects I’m working on through ISAASE are developing resources for teachers, our #ISAASEinspired project, and creating and distributing booklists through the Brown Books Project.

We just put out the 2017 ISAASE Toolkit, which is a free download for teachers (and for people to share with teachers) that includes things that can improve teacher cultural proficiency: a Name Pronunciation Guide, Fast Facts about South Asian Americans, Quick Tips for Supporting Students — that kind of thing. The idea is to better prepare teachers to understand and support South Asian American students.

The #ISAASEinspired project is a series of interviews and vignettes of South Asian Americans who embody diverse images of success, to inspire the next generation of South Asian kids. The idea is to normalize and validate aspirations that are maybe outside what’s typical among South Asian communities. In a similar context, we’re working with organizations like Kitaab World to develop and put out diverse book lists — for teachers and students, but also for anyone who might want them — that feature or highlight South Asian experiences, stories, and voices.

Outside of ISAASE, my other major project is a book based on my research findings, which I hope to finish in the next two years.

How prevalent are stereotypes?

Stereotypes are pretty prevalent, especially given that we’re living in an era in which multiculturalism is emphasized so heavily. A lot of the survey items in my study focused on the experiences students had in context of being stereotyped or dealing with teachers who weren’t necessarily culturally proficient. One of my findings was that most of the participants (77.7%) actually felt their teachers believed the model minority stereotype about them. This is the harmful idea that Asian and South Asian kids are these perfect students — they’re all highly intelligent, capable, respectful, quiet, and hardworking. It sounds positive, at first glance, but it creates a lot of problems, not least of which is that the kids are then less likely to get support they need, are more likely to be expected to fit the ‘quiet good kid’ role, and it creates divides between student groups.

Stereotyping tends to happen when we don’t have enough working knowledge about a group, right? So it makes sense that most participants (72.9%) also felt that their teachers didn’t really understand their cultural identities, backgrounds, etc. The picture this paints is that teachers aren’t necessarily adequately prepared to support all students. I come from a teaching background myself, so I can say in defense of teachers that this isn’t really our fault exactly. Part of the issue seems to be a lack of training in overcoming these kinds of stereotypes and biases. It’s hard to overcome things that seem like they’re born from a grain of truth.

Does government policies play any role in propelling a set image about a culture, or is it just the lack of awareness or limited exposure to other cultures?  

Government policy is absolutely a factor in the image projected about a culture.

First, from a data collection standpoint, part of the issue behind low cultural proficiency is that there’s a tendency to view South Asians — and really, all Asians — as a single homogenous population, which means we ignore all the individual-level differences (and this definitely impacts teacher cultural competence and the ability to meet individual students’ needs). This can be traced back to a data aggregation issue; Asian kids are often a minority in schools, so we collect data on them as through they’re all part of the same group. But if we lump all these people together when collecting data on them, we’re not going to get a clear picture of who needs what! The White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders has been pushing for data disaggregation on Asian Americans for a few years now, which is great. Last year they also offered grants for school systems to apply for in order to fund their own data disaggregation efforts. Under former Secretary of Education Dr. John King, this was something this seemed to gain a lot of traction. But the AAPI isn’t mandating data disaggregation for anyone right now. They’re just offering guidelines and best practices. Committing to data disaggregation takes a lot of time and effort, and most systems aren’t doing it.

Secondly, and more seriously, the current government administration’s efforts to implement xenophobic policy is absolutely playing a huge role in propelling an extremely dangerous image about South Asian Americans as an entire group. The current Presidency is doing a lot of harm to society through the rhetoric that creates associations between the concept of “them,” and all Brown Americans — which is really dangerous and awful. In my experience, teachers do a good job dispelling clearly offensive or harmful ideology in schools and trying to foster an environment that’s tolerant and respectful, but they — and the students they teach — are still impressionable human beings, and the language in American politics right now definitely seeps into our perceptions of Brown Americans. Even kids, which is just awful, and doesn’t help anything.

Outside of all this, there’s also the issue that there is still such a gap in representation of South Asian Americans in diverse roles; not just in Hollywood and on tv, but in real life, in nontraditional settings.

What initiatives is the organization taking to help eradicate the existing gap? 

The main focus right now for ISAASE are three key initiatives: the Teacher Cultural Proficiency Initiative (TCPI), the Diversity & Representation Initiative (DRI), and the Family Outreach Initiative (FOI). Under each of these, there are a variety of projects that are all aimed at the primary mission of improving students’ experiences. Through the TCPI, we’re hoping to address the issues of teachers’ beliefs in stereotypes and the lack of cultural proficiency related to South Asian American kids through developing and sharing resources (like our toolkit). We’re also trying to help address the gap in representation and diversity through things like the #ISAASEinspired project. Role models who look like you matter, so by offering profiles of South Asian American success stories — writers, journalists, people in the athletic world, business owners — we’re hoping that can kind of help increase visibility. Hopefully, it will be something that can help to inspire the next generation of South Asian Americans, and their diverse aspirations and visions for the future. In the same spirit we’re pushing for more diverse book lists through the Brown Books Project, to increase visibility and diversity in book lists for teachers and students.

What role do families play in improving the interactions between their wards and teachers?

Family can be such a valuable source of support for students who aren’t necessarily getting the best support from teachers, or aren’t feeling as connected to school as they could be. Being reasonably involved with a child’s school experience — not just the academic stuff, but the socioemotional stuff as well — can be really valuable. Making it a point to connect with teachers, can also help. I don’t think all parents of South Asian American students always know that their kids are having less-than-ideal experiences in schools. I think explicitly asking about how connected they’re feeling to school, and how supported they’re feeling is a good way to get a sense of their needs.

ISAASE is a self-funded initiative. How have you been doing so far with reach?

We’re sharing our findings with diversity and equity organizations, and with individual school districts nearby. Right now we’re connecting with teachers and principals in Howard County Public School System, and reaching out to individual schools in the Maryland area. ISAASE is in its startup phase, so we’re actively looking for people to volunteer their skills, expertise, and time, to help us with our ongoing projects (or even just to help us disseminate findings). The best way to connect with us is by email at contact@ISAASE.org.

(Dr. Punita Rice can be reached via Twitter @PunitaRice, or through her website PunitaRice.com.)