Today I stood helpless in class as the only Taiwanese aboriginal student at the predominantly Han Chinese school I teach at got torn apart by his Han classmates, who systematically debased and dismissed him as stupid. At this school, when my coteacher is teaching a class, I am not permitted to interrupt or participate in any way besides working with students one on one, and I was busy helping a special needs student when it happened.
It started with small comments here and there, “Oh, he can’t spell his own (English) name,” “Ugh, you messed up again?” and then culminated with my teacher pulling him in front of the class in a group for an activity. During that activity, a Han Chinese girl kept shouting again and again that he wasn’t doing the appropriate actions, even as a Han student stood next to him also do nothing.
"He’s not doing anything!” she shouted finally, pointing directly at him.
And that’s when I felt the stab of pain hit me, as I watched from the side of the classroom as he got hurt in a way so familiar to me, and paralyzed momentarily, did nothing to intervene. That’s when I watched him leave early from the activity and slump back to his seat. That’s when I walked over to him, and as I put my arm around his back, he immediately broke down in tears in my arms.
And as I sat there comforting him, his tears rolling down his cheeks, my Han Chinese coteacher and his classmates didn’t say a word and just continued on with class like nothing was happening.
Their dismissive approach to his pain was possibly even worse than the ridicule itself, because I could see how viciously dominant culture operates in these situations, and having gone to basically all white school myself for much of my life, I felt it too. I know how much it hurts to feel that you are never good enough, no matter how hard you try,and that your pain is meaningless to those operating from a position of power and privilege. And I could see the oppressive nature of it all here, bitingly hitting this bright, 11 year-old aboriginal kid with so much hurt.
As I comforted him, I switched into Chinese and told him that his classmates were incredibly mean, and that it was like that for me as a kid too. And then I told him again and again that I “believed in him” and that he needs to “believe in himself” too because I know how smart he is, even if the others said otherwise. At the end, as he started to wipe away his tears, I asked him if he knew he was smart too, and he said:
"… I know."
And I proceeded to help him go over the material we had covered in class until the bell rang a few moments later.
But I wish that I could have done more. I wish that I had done something to stop this blatant discrimination against my student based on his aboriginal identity (which has been institutionalized in Taiwan). I wish I had stepped in and stood up against my Taiwanese coteacher, rules be damned, and could have helped him or done something. And I wish that he didn’t have to feel the pain caused by these painful systems of oppression, even at his young age.
And as I sit here almost in tears remembering it all, I know that, if something like that ever happens again, I need to stand up and stop it from repeating. Nobody may have been there for me as a kid in my predominantly white elementary schools, but I will be there for this student and others. Dominant culture be damned.