A critical conversation

When you start getting into those scary, emotional and triggering conversations, that’s where the most revolutionary education happens; that’s where you change a person’s perception,” says Maria Ishikawa, program assistant for Friends of Simon Tutoring Program, Simon Fraser University (SFU).

Born and raised in Washington State, Ishikawa is half Japanese half Polish. Her article, Validating Cultural Identity in the Classroom, published in the BCTF Social Justice Newsletter addresses issues of cultural identity, oppression and discrimination.

“It’s not something talked about, but it’s very apparent,” she says.

Subtle discrimination

Ishikawa recalls a memory from first grade regarding subtle discrimination toward her Japanese heritage.

Maria Ishikawa discusses her article on Validating Cultural Identity in the Classroom. | Photo courtesy of Maria Ishikawa

“I brought a bento box to school, a little Japanese lunch box with rice, soy sauce and sushi,” Ishikawa explains. “When the bento box leaked soy sauce in a bin of lunch boxes, in front of the whole class, the teacher said ‘that’s why you don’t bring that kind of food to school.’”

Ishikawa says that was one of the first times she felt that being Asian and bringing my Asian food is not accepted. So during her high school and middle school years, she recalls pushing her culture aside to fit in.

“I look half white and I remember people saying, ‘you’re cool because you act really white.’ At the time it was awesome,” she said.

She decided to keep acting this way, and pushed aside all those little things, including natural mannerisms and thoughts about her culture to be the person others would think of as cool.

“My self confidence is incredibly impacted by wanting to be white all the time. I’ve always wished my eyes were bigger or that I was at least an average height or that my hair wasn’t so straight,” says Ishikawa.

Ishikawa says even though it may seem very surface level to some, this physical identity crisis engulfed her sense of being.

“I don’t have a voice. I don’t feel like I have power or that I can change anything and that’s kind of what I wanted to bring to life,” she says.

Ishikawa says her education in her younger years was very factual, reciting teachings about Japanese internment camps.

“To that student who is learning that factual way, on a very subliminal covert consciousness, it was like a Japanese person being put into an internment camp is just normal,” she says.

A shift in thought

It was at SFU when taking a Social Issues and Education class that she read the book Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire.

“Reading that and learning about identity and culture, about the oppressed and the oppressor, hegemony and ideology, is how I got my foot into these kinds of topics.”

It was then Ishikawa realized how colonial representations are influencing curriculum and how she was being subtly discriminated against for being Japanese.

“That was the moment I realized, I can’t be the only person in the world who feels like they want to be the race and culture that’s most dominant and powerful,” she says. “I felt comfortable enough to say, I’m reading about this oppressed society and I want to be the oppressor even though I’m the one being oppressed.

The teacher-student relationship

I’m not a teacher; I understand it’s not easy,” says Ishikawa. “You have to have a strong trusting relationship with the teacher to discuss cultural inequalities and things that are difficult to talk about. “

She wanted to open up to teachers who were sincere about these issues, not like that teacher in first grade who embarrassed her. She credits her mentor Eleanora Joensuu for pushing her to have meaningful, critical conversations. Ishikawa says it’s important for students to feel their voices are being heard and that it directly correlates with their learning experiences.

“I bring it back to this thing of the oppressed and the oppressor and I think the reason why we have this conversation is because we have a huge systemic and societal issue at hand with inequality and these inequalities affect people at an emotional level. It affects our moral perceptions towards one another,” says Ishikawa.

To read Maria Ishikawa’s article, please visit www.bctf.ca/uploadedFiles/Public/SocialJustice/Publications/SJ-Newsletter/2017%20SJ%20Summer-Fall%20Newsletter-web.pdf