By Angeline Aow (views are author’s own)
This article appeared in edition XXI of EDDi. The full edition and accompanying articles can be viewed here.
Recent global events have ignited an international call-out for educational institutions to take action towards becoming anti-racist, to decolonise curricula, address systemic racism and do more than simply declare that they believe in diversity and inclusion.
The rise of nationalism in many parts of the world, the inequities Covid-19 has exposed and the advocacy of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, following the death of George Floyd, have ignited personal and institutional learning about social justice issues across the globe. If we wish the steps we take towards becoming anti-racist to have real impact and contribute to lasting change, we need to reflect, recognise and react in ways that will help us completely rebuild our perspectives and institutions.
In her book Becoming, Michelle Obama wrote, “Your story is what you have, what you will always have. It is something to own.” Reflecting on what inclusivity means to us, I believe we must look back in order to look forward, focus on and understand our own stories and recognise how our perspectives have been influenced by our past. I am always keen to deepen my own understanding of how my experiences and expertise have and continue to shape my identity as an educator, feminist, mother, and passionate advocate for intersectional understanding, inclusivity and social justice. I have learned a lot from this process of reflection and recognition and it has helped me to better understand what inclusivity means to me. But I know that I am on a journey that has no real end. In the words of Michelle Obama, I am “becoming”.
“For me, becoming isn’t about arriving somewhere or achieving a certain aim. I see it instead as forward motion, a means of evolving, a way to reach continuously toward a better self. The journey doesn’t end.” ― Michelle Obama, Becoming
In the evolution towards my better self, I wish to share some personal stories and reflections that have shaped my perspectives. I hope that by doing so I may encourage others to do the same, reflecting on their personal and professional journeys, to consider what has influenced their own thoughts and behaviours and what they may learn from this.
I am an Australian-Chinese migrant, born in Malaysia to parents who come from very different backgrounds. My paternal grandmother came from Chinese landed gentry whose family had fled from political turmoil in China to Malaysia to find themselves a new home. My mother’s family have Hakka roots, a nomadic Chinese group, and worked the land as rubber-tappers. My father had servant helpers, and when she married into his family, my mother became an unofficial one. Among the strongest memories I have of myself as an angry pre-teen, in a home with three generations and three families living under one roof, is of me yelling at an aunt who rarely lifted a finger to help out around the house, questioning why my mother was the only one who did that. For me this injustice was hard to understand.
Looking back now, I can reflect on the situation with a deeper understanding of the complex issues of social class, the cultural expectations placed on women who married into wealthier families and the caregiving responsibilities upheld in traditional Chinese family structures. At the time, I was just angry and privileged and it didn’t cross my mind to simply help my mother out. I was another product of our family norm, expecting ‘mothers’ to do the work and as such I was complicit in her exploitation. Our complex family dynamics (and let’s be honest we all have them) continue to evolve and these days I try to take a deep breath and encourage my mother to use her voice to say no. I realise that for me the injustice I perceived as a teen was the start of my awakening as a feminist. A passion I now channel into my volunteer service work as a country network leader of WomenEdDE (Deutschland-Germany).
At birth, my parents named me Aow Siew Siew. Aow our family name, Siew a generational identifier and Siew a second personal name. My sister was Aow Siew Yen and my cousin Aow Siew Ling. By the time I started primary school in Australia, as a Year 4 ESL student, my parents had renamed me Angeline Aow. On my certificate of Australian Citizenship issued in 1988, I officially became Angeline Siew Siew Aow. At the time, I didn’t question the need to change my name to fit a society made up mostly of white migrants. Outside my home, and at family events, I rarely used my Chinese name. I simply became Angeline Aow. This is the name I used when I filled out my form to enter the Department of Education and Training of New South Wales in 1999. My students called me Miss Aow when I started working as a targeted-graduate hire at a primary school in a suburb of Sydney. Later, on my first international school posting, in China, we were given business cards during orientation week, which were double-sided, with English on one side and Chinese on the back. The administrative staff selected phonetic representations of our first names using favourable Chinese characters. I cannot recall the characters chosen for me but it wasn’t my birth name. As an Australian-expat of Chinese descent, working in China, I was almost “reborn” with another Chinese name.
I realise now that my parents adopted an Anglo-sounding name for me because they wanted me to fit in, in the same way that the administrator in China wanted to help new staff fit in by giving them a Chinese name. By the time I arrived in China, I had learned to value and hold onto my name and to be proud of my identity so, at the risk of being the difficult, new hire, I asked to change the business cards to say 歐秀秀 (Aow Siew Siew). I did the same when I married my German husband, choosing to keep my family name Aow, to demonstrate the importance of name and hold onto who I am.
Language, learning and culture
Understanding more now about the iterative relationship between language, learning and culture, these days I intentionally ask students and others how to pronounce their name if I am unsure. I want to get it right because I know that each person’s name has a story and is a reflection of their identity, their cultural heritage, ethnicity and race. When building a learning community I believe that this deceptively simple thing is the first step towards anti-racism and intercultural understanding.
In a recently published article entitled Where are you from? Your English is so good!, Jessica Wei Huang, a Chinese-American teacher working in an American international school in Taiwan, outlines the daily microaggressions she has witnessed both in the States as an educator abroad and the experience of being a perpetual foreigner when working in predominantly white institutions. A lot of what she writes resonates with me as her experiences closely match my own. I can recount a multitude of times when I have asked myself did that just happen? Is that person being racist towards me? Too many times I have asked colleagues “Is it just me, or did you notice that…?” I have also found myself asking, more often than I would like, did he really just say that about women? Did she just make a biased comment about another female colleague’s commitment to their work because they have kids? Did I really just get bumped down on the payscale during that year I was out on maternity leave? These experiences leave me with many questions and wonderings.
The truth is that behaviour that marginalises others happens everywhere and comes in many forms, as I know from my role as a workshop facilitator and school visitor across four continents. Like many, I have myself stumbled when trying to find the correct words to best describe identities I am still learning about but I keep moving forward, evolving, trying to be a better version of my diverse self. I now want to direct my energies to understanding how we can guide others to do the same, in order to facilitate institutions to become truly inclusive and anti-racist.
The journey I have outlined in this article has led me to a number of understandings and beliefs that now shape my thinking and behaviour and, I hope, may support others on their journey to becoming their better selves.
1) Understanding my own identity is keyin helping me interpret the beliefs and values that underpin my thoughts and actions both personally and professionally.
2) Diversity is a fact, it is a right and it is an important resource.
3) Understanding intersectionality is essential to taking action against implicit biases and the marginalisation that minority groups face in their daily lives (Crenshaw, 1989).
4) Systemic inequality and injustice does not magically appear. Cultural norms are upheld by collective groups that share values reflected in their communities. This is where behaviours that marginalise any cross-sectional group grow and become what is considered a norm. Most of this happens implicitly.
5) Meaningful change occurs when individuals or groups use their voice to question common practice or protest injustice and take action to bring about greater equity.
6) Active citizenship and raising social capital is essential if we want to cultivate a truly civil society (Cox, 1995). All active citizens share a common characteristic underlying acts of service and kindness; they care about a cause that matters to them and that matters beyond themselves.
7) To be totally inclusive as educational institutions we need safe spaces that promote a deep understanding and exploration of the ideas outlined in 1-6 above. This should involve all stakeholders including leaders, formal or informal, who are influential in creating safe spaces and are able to hold people to account.
I try to be an active citizen. I make personal and organizational commitments. I was recently asked to join the Council of International Schools (CIS) Board Committee on Anti Racism, Equity, Diversity, Inclusion. A wave of imposter syndrome came over me before I recalled the words of Shonda Rhimes from her inspiring book Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person.
“Who you are today . . . that’s who you are. Be brave. Be amazing. Be worthy. And every single time you get the chance? Stand up in front of people. Let them see you. Speak. Be heard.”
I accepted the invitation and look forward to serving in this role. Our international schools have the potential to be totally inclusive communities. I have hope that together we will continue to care, speak up, keep moving forward, evolve and continuously be better personal and professional versions of ourselves. The journey is just beginning.
By Angeline Aow (views are author’s own)
Edited by Dr. Helen Kelly
Alemán, R. (2017, March 29). What is intersectionality, and what does it have to do with me? Retrieved July 28, 2020, from https://www.ywboston.org/2017/03/what-is-intersectionality-and-what-does-it-have-to-do-with-me/
Cox, E. (1995, December 13). A Truly Civil Society. Lecture presented at The 1995 Boyer Lectures, Radio National. Retrieved July 28, 2020, from https://www.crcresearch.org/files-crcresearch/File/cox_95.pdf
Crenshaw, K. (1989) "Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine,Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,"University of Chicago Legal Forum: Vol. 1989: Iss. 1, Article 8. Available at http://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/uclf/vol1989/iss1/8
Huang, J. (2020, July 19). Where are you from? Your English is so good! Retrieved July 28, 2020, from https://medium.com/@huangjaz/where-are-you-from-your-english-is-so-good-ef3f2fac3143
Obama, M. (2018). Becoming. Crown Publishing Group.
Rhimes, S. (2016). Year of yes. London: Simon & Schuster.