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Racial Ambiguity, Educational Access, and Social Impact
From the Classroom to the Ivory Tower
by Lorri J. Santamaría, Ph.D.
California State University, San Marcos
The first day of the semester is always the most interesting for me as a young assistant professor of color. Often prior to classes starting, having seen me out and about on campus, students assume that I am one of them. As I make my way up to the front of the classroom, syllabi in hand, curious eyes bore holes into my back from head to toe.
"She looks so young," a student often says as I write my name on the board, 'and so not White,' I imagine other students are thinking. While setting up the Power Point Presentation I hear a cacophony of whispering and the exchange of uneasy glances go around the room like a rampant case of chicken pox.
"Uh, Dr. San-ta-muh-rye-uh, is that the way you say it? Um anyways, will we be staying the whole period today"? Every class that I have ever taught begins with the bravest, most impatient soul, who tries me as soon during the term as possible.
"That's Dr. Santa-mah- ree-ah," I annunciate with a natural Spanish accent, "and yes, we will be here all period long." The rest of the class is intrigued with the correction and encouraged by parameters laid out clearly and plainly for all to see and hear.
Respect does not come easy in the ivory tower. At the beginning of every semester students beg to hear of my pedigree, in detail. Where did you get your doctorate? Are you a Ph.D. or an Ed.D? How many years did you teach students and in what grades? What was your dissertation about? Is this your first year? How many years have you taught university students? Why do you speak Spanish? Which one of your parents is Spanish? Are both of your parents Black? The questions go on and on. I wonder if other young professors are similarly accosted.
Rather than let students put me into their own self-contrived boxes and categories, I tell them who, why, and what I am. No matter the subject, I let them know right away that I not from a privileged background as many assume and that I am the first person in my family to attend a university and graduate. Both of my parents, I share, are of mixed race ancestry (African American, Native American [Creek], Irish, and Creole). They hail from two different Parishes in rural Louisiana, Bayou people and share croppers, the whole lot of them. I explain that in an effort to improve the status quo for his little family, my father joined the United States Air Force. This simple decision changed his and our lives forever. We spent ten years in Spain, where I was born, and traveled the world over. We lived in more than five different states from coast to coast. Even though we moved a lot, my siblings and I were fortunate to have gone to good schools that prepared each one of us to go to college if we so chose.
I know for a fact, I tell students, that education and exposure can change children's lives. I know this because more than half of my relatives in Louisiana live in such extreme states of destitution and poverty that I lose sleep some nights knowing the same blood that flows through my veins flows through theirs and that when all is said and done we are one and the same.
Speaking Spanish doesn't help matters much, as it more often than not confuses people into believing I am Cuban, Puerto Rican, or from the Dominican Republic. I remember being referred to the special education process when I was in the third grade because I floated in and out of Spanglish and spent most of my classroom time socializing with my peers, claiming to the teacher that I was bored out of my skull.
To the referring teacher's chagrin, test results indicated that I was gifted. "That is special education," my mother retorted and thus began my own personal self-fulfilling prophecy. I was gifted, the special teacher told me because I was able to read, solve questions, and puzzles a lot better than the other kids in the third grade. I didn't feel so much smarter than other students, but I always felt (and tend to feel) different.
Being pulled out of the classroom once a week to write stories and create art projects with Ms. Barbara was okay by me. I think my classroom teacher liked it too because for one hour a week she didn't have to entertain me.
When we moved to Spain a second time, I was nine years old. My family had been away for four years. There were other children of color at the American School we attended in Zaragoza, but none of them looked like me, well, not really. There were children from Hawaii, Mexico, Columbia, Thailand, and the Philippines. There were Spanish children too and even a student from Africa. Lots of the children had parents who did not look alike or come form the same town or country. Angelina's mother was French but her father was Black. Brenda's mother was Japanese but her father was East Indian. Blanquita's mother was Spanish but her father was Filipino. José's mother was Spanish but his father was German. Like a mini-version of Disney's Small World we learned and grew together not paying much mind or attention to who spoke what, where, when, how or why. We were a sophisticated little universe unto ourselves.
Back in Southern California five years later, my induction into public high school was grave indeed. Before my classmates discovered my linguistic identity, I made friends easily among the Islander, African American, White, and multiethnic athletes, as well as back and forth between Latino and Asian groups of students. No one questioned my allegiance. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was working a public relations campaign as a means of survival. By the time I was a senior I'd secured enough friendships across such a vast number of diverse students that I'd won the student body race for president in a landslide election. Teachers at the school had high expectations for me as well and with their blessing I went on to continue my education at the University of California.
During those years I never had a sense that I was 'selling out,' was never confronted with such damaging slurs as 'oreo,' 'coconut,' 'tío taco,' or otherwise. My small frame, caramel colored skin, thick wavy hair, and almond shaped eyes enabled me to wander aimlessly from group to group. In many ways I think I was looking for myself in the faces of countless others throughout my journey. Life's path eventually lead me to the desert Southwest.
In Tucson, Arizona I found comfort as a bilingual elementary school teacher working with students from families who had recently come to the United States from all over Mexico and other parts of Latin America in search of some semblance of the American dream. Having moved to and from all of my life negotiating a myriad of languages and cultures, I felt that my students and I were like kindred spirits learning to swim in the murky waters of bilingual life along the US-Mexico borderlands.
A few years later as a graduate student, I studied bilingual special education, school psychology, and rehabilitation, in response to the alarming number of Latino students being unfairly referred to special education while acquiring English as a new language. Many of the referrals lead to placement in special education perpetual remedial instruction and an inflated drop-out rate for Latino students in the region. Injustices supporting biases inherent to testing practices, poorly translated assessments, and over referral issues kept me busy in academia while I continued to teach, conducted pertinent research, and eventually completed a terminal degree. Arizona accepted me for who I had chosen to be. A black Spanish speaking advocate for bilingual education, social justice, and equity issues for children in public schools.
Returning to Southern California, Ph.d. in hand, I learned while securing a position as an assistant professor, exactly how controversial, political, and important it is to be who I am right now in history. For every interview that I was invited to attend, committee members sought to unearth my hidden agenda, weigh my impact, and check my potential for malleability and fit. A good match for someone like me was hard to find; but alas I found a university with a mission statement that I could actually live and breathe without offending or hurting anyone's feelings.
My appointment was not an accident. I was in the right place at the right time. Those who hired me knew precisely who they were hiring and what they were doing. In this position, I know that I am supported and feel the possibilities are endless. The sky is the limit where glass ceilings have been shattered. Where I am, I have been given the freedom and impetus to become, and been given free reign to inspire others to do the same.
Professionally, my reputation outweighs racial ambiguity as a point of confusion. When unconscious colleagues see me they are still confused, but the bottom line and of utmost importance is what I represent; a bridge connecting divergent perspectives and unadulterated access to education for all including those who have been historically oppressed or absent from essential educational conversations.
By semester end, most students have come to appreciate my comprehensive worldview and educationally inclusive attitude. Many come to embrace multicultural/ multilingual education and new found appreciation for the role of culture, language, and diversity in public schools. They leave my classroom enriched and in a way expanded more compelete versions of themselves than they were at the beginning of the term. I know that my work is critical and imperative for the success of students of color in American schools from kindergarten through higher education. I am grateful for this rare opportunity to impact the next generation of teachers. In this way I feel I am able to serve, touch, and thus change the future for countless generations to come.