Skip to main content
Migrant child abandoned and depressed.

June 25, 2019

Dehumanization and Indifference: Responding to Anti-Immigrant Narratives in Schools

Two things I remember quite clearly: One, I never told anybody, not my parents, not my teachers. What good would it do?


Share On Facebook
Share On Twitter
Share On Pinterest
Share On LinkedIn

Note: This post contains sensitive content regarding the pain and stories related to dehumanization and indifference.

I don’t remember the first anti-Semitic slur that was directed toward me in elementary school. In fact, when I mine memories, they come like a photograph with multiple exposures. F- - - ing Jew. Kike. Christ killer. One layered on top of the next, bodies and words aligned at slightly different angles. Each of them now blurred.

Two things I remember quite clearly: One, I never told anybody, not my parents, not my teachers. What good would it do? Two, the cumulative effect hurt. It felt lonely. I wasn’t sure anyone would take it seriously. Well, my parents would have; but I feared their responses would only make it worse. I, we, were perceived as different enough already, I didn’t want to stand out.

I also don’t remember what factored into my decision not to tell the teachers. In retrospect, I think I understand. They should have seen what was happening. I don’t know how it would be possible for them not to notice. If they didn’t notice, what would that say? Were slurs just part of the way that “kids are kids”? No matter how many years I thought about this, I knew whose side the teachers were on. Most of them were part of the community in a way that I was not.

Dehumanization: My past is present

None of this is unique. Versions of the dehumanization I described are happening in schools all over, all of the time. In a recent study with American principals, UCLA education scholar John Rogers and his team noted that:

This matters. As Rogers noted in a previous study, the current climate is impacting the social and emotional well-being of students as well as their academic performance. Kids internalize what they see and hear around them. A few years ago, my colleagues Carola Suárez-Orozco and Marcelo Suárez-Orozco asked immigrant-origin youth how they believed they were being perceived. The results of their study feel like a fist in the throat, and take me back to my own experience with dehumanization in school. Here is how we summarized it for a piece in Phi Delta Kappan last winter:

To gain some insight into the extent to which immigrant children register the antipathy directed toward them, we conducted a study, beginning in 2012, of newcomer children (12 years old, on average) in Boston and Northern California arriving from five points of origin in Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America. We wanted to understand how they are adapting to schools and to their new society. One of many questions we asked was a simple fill-in-the-blank: “Most Americans think that most [people from the respondent’s birthplace] are _________.”

Sixty-five percent of the children filled in the blank with a negative term. The most frequent word was “bad,” although many children wrote more elaborate responses: “Most Americans think that Mexicans are lazy, gangsters, drug addicts that only come to take their jobs away,” one 14-year-old boy wrote. Not only did many respondents choose words associated with criminality, but many also chose terms related to contamination (“We are garbage,” another 14-year-old boy said) and incompetence (“We can’t do the same things as them in school or at work,” said a 10-year-old girl). 

We found also that the kinds of words students chose were related to their families’ countries of origin. While a little less than half of Chinese youth completed the sentence with negative terms, 75 percent of Mexicans and 82 percent of Dominicans and Haitians did so. We repeated the task annually for five years, and these percentages changed little.

Why I am writing this? Because words matter. The words our kids use to and with each other. And, words can pollute the air like smog. I am borrowing a metaphor from Beverly Daniel Tatum, scholar and author of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? She describes racism this way: “Sometimes it is so thick it is visible, other times it is less apparent, but always, day in and day out, we are breathing it in.”

The effects of dehumanization: Immigrant teenager depressed and alone feeling ostracized.

Dehumanization: What are our students learning?

In today’s environment, I am particularly concerned about what we are breathing in about immigration and immigrants and the way we talk and teach this topic in our schools and how it relates to dehumanization. In addition to the earlier findings I cited, Rogers’ team at UCLA found:

Too many students—particularly Asians, Latinos and Muslims from across the globe—can share personal stories of dehumanization and indifference, provoked consciously and unconsciously, about how their identities as Americans have been questioned by peers, school staff and in society. I’ve spoken to numerous African immigrants who have shared stories about the pressure to conform to explicit and implicit ideas about what it means to be black in the United States.

As educators, we are not immune either. Here are some questions we might ask ourselves: When is it useful to make distinctions between newcomers, immigrants, English learners and everybody else? When do the labels and groupings of students that we use reinforce the idea of “us” and “them”? Why are issues relating to immigration so often the domain of teachers of English learners? When do English learners engage meaningfully with their peers? What assumptions do we make about our students’ identities, immigration status, and their lives? Are our schools and classrooms truly culturally responsive?

Earlier this month, a teacher in Texas was let go after tweeting to President Trump that her school has been “taken over by them,” meaning undocumented students (whom she called “illegals”) and she wanted him to have them removed.

Of course, schools do not exist in isolation. As both of Rogers’ studies reveal, the language of dehumanization of politicians and the press seeps into the classroom. We need to be proactive in creating structures, frameworks and background knowledge to do the best we can to make these interactions authentic learning opportunities.

Just this week, a furor erupted when U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York tweeted: “This administration has established concentration camps on the southern border of the United States for immigrants, where they are being brutalized with dehumanizing conditions and dying.” While many scholars would agree with her characterization, Ocasio-Cortez was condemned by numerous politicians and media figures who argued that she was trivializing the history of the Holocaust. Are we prepared to respond when these debates make it into our schools?

AFT President Randi Weingarten and other international leaders gathered in Geneva, Switzerland on June 17 to demand that the United Nations Human Rights Council address human rights abuses against children at the U.S.-Mexico border:

While there is a renewed call for meaningful civic education, too many educators that I have spoken to describe the messages, sometimes direct, they have received requesting that they steer clear of politics or controversy. Historical analogies are often difficult and imprecise, but I can’t help but recall what my mother told me about her own education in Memphis during the Jim Crow era:

My teachers carefully avoided any mention of colored and white water fountains, seating arrangements on city buses, and other manifestations of Jim Crow. There was a powerful silence about race and racism. ... I look back at my teachers and wonder: Was there a conspiracy of silence? Surely all of my teachers were not racists. Were their voices stifled? If so, who silenced them? … My classmates and I were betrayed by that silence.

Her description feels awfully familiar.

Dehumanization: What can we do?

Teachers must create a space in which all students feel social and emotional well-being. Without that, they will not be able to fulfill their full academic potential, never mind their human potential. Migration, whether voluntary or involuntary, has defined the American experience. Studying migration is an interdisciplinary endeavor; questions of migration are central to civics, history, literature, science and social studies. To break down isolation, we should find ways for young people to share their families’ stories of migration, whether from this generation or in the past. Moreover, helping students to recognize historical patterns and discontinuities can empower them with knowledge and understanding to counter myths and misinformation. To help guide curriculum and instruction, my colleague Veronica Boix Mansilla is leading our efforts to create Re-imagining Migration’s actionable framework for teaching about migration. We believe it will be helpful in providing a vision of teaching about what is essentially our shared experience as humans.

Migration is one of the most important civic issues of our time, and our children are watching to see how the adults around them will respond. Failing to thoughtfully address the toxic narratives about immigrants and immigration that are in the air does not keep the narratives from infecting us. They impact how we think about ourselves and others. They can lead to a sense of hopelessness for some students and legitimize bigotry for others, and of course, they can do both at the same time. I remember that feeling of isolation; even as I write this, my chest tightens. Immigrant students and their peers will be the doctors, teachers, police officers and civic leaders of the future. The future of our democracy requires that they can live and work together in inclusive and welcoming communities.

If you are an educator serving immigrant-origin students, be sure to check out this self-care guide with strategies for educators.

Adam Strom is the Director of Re-Imagining Migration. Throughout his career, Mr. Strom has connected the academy to classrooms and the community by using the latest scholarship to encourage learning about identity, bias, belonging, history, and the challenges and opportunities of civic engagement in our globalized world. The resources developed under Strom’s direction have been used in tens of thousands of classrooms and experienced by millions of students around the world including Stories of Identity: Religion, Migration, and Belonging in a Changing World and What Do We Do with a Difference? France and The Debate Over Headscarves in SchoolsIdentity, and Belonging in a Changing Great Britain, and the viewer’s guide to I Learn America. Before joining the Re-imagining Migration Project, Strom was the Director of Scholarship and Innovation at Facing History and Ourselves.

Originally published, June 25, 2019.

Re-Imagining Migration

Re-Imagining Migration'smissionis to advance the education and well-being of immigrant-origin youth, decrease bias and hatred against young people of diverse origins, and help rising generations develop the critical understanding and empathy necessary to build and sustain welcoming and inclusive com

Post a comment

Log in or sign up to post a comment.