Teaching tolerance in an atmosphere of racial prejudice and hatred is particularly challenging for the international schoolteacher. As an outsider in a foreign culture, a teacher has to recognize, respect and understand the individual cultural differences of the students involved, and do so while immersed in a culture that may well be completely new and unfamiliar.
As outsiders, international teachers can’t pretend to understand the idiosyncrasies of another culture, especially one we have just recently been introduced to. Many host-country international school students, well aware of our “outsider” status, perceive foreigners to be lacking in the cultural credentials to establish credibility when it comes to telling them how to think and feel towards minority ethnic groups. This attitude is exceptionally prevalent when students’ prejudices are intimately linked with national and personal identities; and reinforced in the media and at home.
Through my experiences teaching tolerance to Chinese students forcefully discriminating against Japanese students, I discovered culturally engrained racial prejudice could be destabilized through an exploration of the inconsistencies between racial stereotypes and real people. In the following paragraphs I’ll relate those experiences on to you.
May was a month marked by political turmoil between China and Japan. China and Taiwan were again contesting Japan’s claim to the Diaoyutai islands, located in the East China Sea to the east of Taiwan and to the west of Okinawa. Sino-Japanese relations had taken a nosedive and anti-Japanese sentiment was on the rise. In response, the Japanese Government closed its consulate in Beijing.
These tensions were also present at my Canadian/Chinese independent school, located in Eastern China. Here, anti-Japanese sentiment, in the form of angry posters, dramatic performances, and spontaneous demonstrations, echoed throughout the entire campus. Even at the schools’ official flag raising ceremony, one student representative turned his Monday morning speech into a passionate harangue against Japan for its war-time and pre-war atrocities, for the denial of these atrocities in certain Japanese school textbooks, and for its “imperialist” designs on Diaoyutai. As a teacher of social studies (history and geography), it fell to teachers such as myself to devise a way to teach against this hatred and prejudice. But how? How was a Canadian teacher to address the ancient animosities many Chinese people feel towards Japan?
My first approaches to the issue, I admit, were failures. I began by asking the question “what did the Japanese ever do to you?” A number of students respectfully replied that their grandparents or grandparents of neighbors had been affected by the Japanese occupation, and that this gave them a right to also hold anti-Japanese feelings. Moreover, some argued that I was a foreigner and that I had no right to judge the relative validity or fairness of their feelings. I quickly realized that I was in no position to de-legitimize their rage. Although they had no firsthand experience of the Japanese occupation of China, these students had every right to feel angry about this period in history. In any case, they were not about to be swayed by the half-baked ideas of some foreign teacher.
My next attempt involved educating my students as to the political context of this recent upsurge in anti-Japanese sentiment. I pointed out to the students that they were instruments of the Chinese policy-makers that sought to pressure the Japanese Government with an aggressive foreign policy. This, I thought, would appeal to their pride as individuals, and make them think twice about participating in the current upsurge of anti-Japanese activity. However, those few that understood me either did not agree or did not care. Again, my reasoning failed to pacify their hatred.
On the heels of these two failed approaches, I came up with something more effective. I was already aware that racial prejudices are formed through generalizing particulars and decided to attempt to undermine such prejudice by reversing this process. In other words, by particularizing general stereotypes and having the students try to match generalizations with real people. I began by having them brainstorm words that they associated with “Japan.” It wasn’t a pretty list, to say the least. I then drew their attention to a certain Canadian-Japanese teacher at the school, one, thankfully, who was very popular with staff and students alike. I asked them if any of these words described this man. They agreed that they did not. I then asked if this man was at all responsible for the Japanese occupation of China, for falsifying textbooks, or for occupying lands claimed by China. They agreed that he was not.
To reinforce my point, I asked them why they did not hate me as they claimed to hate the Japanese. I added that my Scots-Irish ancestors had helped perpetrate the Opium War against Imperial China, that the negligence and cruelty of white Canadians helped cause the deaths of many Chinese migrant workers during the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway, and that some white Canadians continued to commit acts of racism and harbor racist attitudes against Chinese immigrants to Canada. To my relief, they found it ridiculous that they should hate their teacher for these things.
Once I had them in agreement that their Canadian Japanese teacher was not directly responsible for “crimes against the Chinese people,” we could then proceed to talk about clearly identifying the target(s) of their anger, as well as discuss appropriate expressions of that anger. I walked them through a process of elimination, whereby non-guilty parties of Japanese people were exempted as viable targets of Chinese animosity. Then we talked about appropriate, non-violent ways of expressing anger, and at the end of the lesson, I had the students write personal responses to the day’s topic.
On reading these written responses, it became clear that my efforts at confronting their hatred had had a limited effect. A number of students still maintained that ALL Japanese were responsible for crimes against Chinese people, but most admitted to me that certain individuals and groups within Japanese society bore the brunt of the blame. Although one might argue that all Japanese people share a collective responsibility towards victims of Japanese war crimes, this exercise of assigning degrees of responsibility did encourage my students to think more carefully about the targets of their hatred, as well as to reflect on the individual humanity of Japanese people. While a few students maintained that all Japanese people were equally responsible for past war crimes, most admitted that “not all Japanese” were as responsible for these atrocities as the Japanese military and government of the 1930’s and 1940’s.
Having made progress, I moved on to have the class consider appropriate ways of expressing of their anger. Student responses revealed that, although a few students maintained that violent reappraisals against Japan were justified, a larger number were willing to concede that violent protest was not an acceptable means of expressing anger. I took this as a victory.
My encounter with racial prejudice in my Chinese-Canadian classroom pointed out that reasoned argument had limited effect on prejudice that is intimately linked with national and personal identities. This realization was reinforced by the words of one of my students who informed me that Chinese students learned about the crimes of Japan from an early age. He and then challenged me with the question, “Do you think you Canadian teachers can change our minds in just one class?”
Yet this does not mean that international schoolteachers are powerless at combating racial hatred in their classrooms. International teachers can play a positive role by encouraging their students to recognize the inconsistencies between student prejudices and real people, and to think about appropriate ways of expressing their anger. My own example, whereby I encouraged my Chinese students to explore the mismatch between their prejudices and personal examples from their own lives, provides one possible approach. I’m sure there are others.