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  • Cindy Candelario

Unveiling the Minority & Diversity Issues in America, through my Experience at Somali Bantu Tutoring

  In today’s modern world, we live within a society that has many weaknesses and flaws. No world is perfect. Most people don’t spend too much time thinking about the disadvantages of the world, but unfortunately, some people within our society, simply because of their history or background, automatically exists within their disadvantage. These groups are called minority groups, yet there are a surplus of different subgroups that make up, even that term. Multiple dialects, histories, languages, cultures, and forms of living, all add up to equate a group of people that are grouped together as the “different”. This semester, I was a volunteer at the Somali Bantu After School Program, where I met a subset of individuals who fall into these labels and disadvantaged roles, and got to experience the effects of a few of the serious controversial existences within our society right now.

                  When first arriving, I was surprised to see that 98% of the children were darker toned. Soon after, it was brought to my attention that the program was created as a location of safety and comfortability for people from Somalian descendants. Being welcomed at this center, however, seems to be just about the only thing that all of these children have unanimously in common, each one seeming completely different form one another. At the Somali-Bantu program, I have spent most of my time with the same group of four older kids. My main student for tutoring, Somo, and his friends are always speaking to each other in their native tongue, the language of Zulu. However when I asked him what language it was that he spoke, he told me that it depended on which specific conversation of his I was referring to. He explains that he knows eight different languages, including Swahili, Bantu Mahh, Maay Maay, and Zulu. Although most of those languages come from African dialects, they are learned in different locations within Africa that all sound very different from one another.  He then asked me what language I spoke and I told him I was only fluent in English and then Spanish, because my parents grew up in the Dominican Republic, and never really caught on to the English language, even though they’ve been here for multiple decades. I thought the fact that I said “only” was a very interesting piece, because in America, whenever we think of Africa, we stereotype the association of poverty and little education. Unfortunately, individuals who know nothing other than life in a first world country often have minimal knowledge on the happenings of third world countries, especially Africa, which also tends to be the most stereotyped.  We tend to stereotype the entire country, and those who originate from there, especially those who just recently left, like the boys at Somali, as uneducated, impoverished individuals who are searching for a better living. However, speaking to these boys, who are younger than me, although only by around two years, I felt inferior in the aspect of language and knowledge, if only for a second.

                 This moment really got me thinking on just how much we, as a society, place power in stereotypes derived from race, and in specifically, in relation to darker toned individuals. This derives from the history of slavery that we have had in America, light skin meant wealth, ergo becoming the dominant group, and a dark tone meant you were, simply, worth less than that. The idea of this actually stems even further back into the idea that human beings were meant to equate to any worth that can be compared to anything else, but that is for another essay’s discussion. However, although slavery has been long over, the ideologies that were ingrained into the society at the time have been passed down, naturally yet unfortunately, to create a stigma of “disadvantaged” for colored people, which often also translates into stigmas like dangerous, scary, or uneducated, as well. This issue, therefore, carries on to create racial stratification, where now society is molded to feel these similar feelings to minority groups, so that jobs now have to specify if their Equal Employment Opportunity or Affirmative Action companies. Companies now feel the need to brand themselves under a stamp that says they are fair, equal, and in AA’s case, even placing extra resources towards making minority employees feel comfortable at work. This structure for companies hiring people, send a strong message that people of minority decent, like these Somali children, are obviously ostracized. Culturally, this issue has not improved either as, of course individuals tend to circulate and connect more with those that look and act like them, so the separation continues, even subconsciously. Out of all of the social constraints that follow this silent segregation, the fact that culturally, no real change has derived, and instead we have people of all tones sharing similar spaces, yet speaking in different slang words, with different accents, and not feeling comfortable hanging out with groups of people that don’t look or exist in the universe like them. We now live in a world that is secretly segregated, through the natural norms of society’s undertone foundation. That’s the scariest part, because it seems as though no portion of either party are really aware, nor really know, or care, to change this. This is why I think the best possible solution for a change within this system is simply to inform and education people on difference, so that we can transform the idea of being different from something that we consider outside of the norm, to something that we realize is in every single person, as each person is their own. Yet, “...Black Americans with more Afrocentric features, such as darker skin, coarser hair and fuller lips, tend to be perceived more negatively and more stereotypically than are those with less typically Afrocentric features—even by members of their own racial group”says this quote by Keith Maddox, PhD, which proves that we are far from done with educating and changing the topic. To dissect this quote, I want to first mention that race, by definition, is “a classification of people into distinct groups by heritable phenotypic characteristic and physical appearance” (as stated by our class notes) Dealing more with the conversation of biology, race has to do with the physical, observable characteristics of an individual that derives from that being’s genes and biological makeup. Which, although varies between every single person to exist, is often close to 99% similar or identical to those of many other people, of other ethnicities and skin tones. This is super important as most people think that the way that you look, externally, is directly linked to who you are. However, as revealed in the documentary we watched in class, someone could have a practically identical genetic makeup to someone across the world, that looks the polar opposite of them. Does this not count as a connection? That is something we can only answer after enough of our society is deducted on their own genetic makeup, as well as the minimal differences between theirs and others’. Do you think if the world was more educated on this, they would still feel uncomfortable breaking the cycle of generational linking? Would you not feel like that person was as related to you, as anyone of your own skin tone or ethnicity?

                    In America, it is praised to be bilingual, and knowing anything other than English fluently is a big advantage. These boys know eight to ten, because they picked up a different language each time they visited different parts of Africa. When I asked then when they learned English, they said that it was integrated into their school lessons, so it was easy to pick up, “easier than Zulu and Maay Maay was to learn” said Somo, who I’m always willing to help with his homework but always finishes in under 20 minutes from arriving because he was placed in the 7th grade when he got here two years ago, even though he’s seventeen and can fly through the ninth grade curriculum with little strenuous effort. Fatima, another of the students at Bantu,  is a feisty sixth grader, who started coming to the later sessions. She is always helping the boys with their homework when she’s finished with hers. I asked her once, if she feels her work is too easy for her, but she responded saying that she thinks she was placed in the wrong grade because the translation of knowledge from Africa is different within different grades in America, which I only really understood when she gave me the example “we learn different things at different years in school, so some things you learned in 3rd grade they teach in after 3rd, and some things you learned in 5th grade, we learned before.” This conversation with Habiba reminded me of The White Privilege Checklist, in which Peggy McIntosh brings to light, through a checklist of questions, the subconscious diversity issues that wealthy, elite, or lighter skinned people often don’t even think about, yet is constantly in the conscious mind as barriers that people in poverty, or of darker toned, or females, have to overcome. Numbers 7 on the checklist is “I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.”, which Fatima has just proven to be untrue for her. Already, she is set in disadvantage, simply because of the translation of teachings mentioned earlier. She is also very open about the curriculum being tailored to white people, as in between conversation with her and her friend she very bluntly says “...That’s because it’s a white family”. Meaning, this twelve year old, in 6th grade, already exists within a race difference construct of society, and not only that, realizes the unequal representation in the curriculum that she is learning. This issue becomes even more complex when you realize that, even when she is being educated on a culture that belongs to people of her own complexion and statute, it is still not indicative of the culture that they, as Somali descent, hold, because the culture they are learning are now, inevitably, American, regardless of race. This is exemplified through Number 16 on the checklist, “I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.” Will Fatima ever be sure that her children will learn about Somali culture in school? Or, even with her friends, through societal experience? The answer to that is, very minimally. So where do you exists the most comfortably, within a culture that is prominent but opposite of your history? Or through the culture of those who relate to you in some ways, but have an abstract representation of who you are? Personally, being an product of Dominican descent, it is extremely hard to find that place to fit in, be yourself and not have to think about any of the questions on the checklist. I suppose this is the root of the issues that come with being a minority.

               In today’s modern world, we live within the constraints of a society that creates the labels and molds for people, in attempts to regulate and make sense of all the diversity. Although, yes it is somewhat necessary to keep order, it is very disorienting for those individuals who may not fit into any of the molds held here, for an American standard of what we consider normal during today’s day and age. A society of any kind always has its strengths and weaknesses and living in the 21st century means understanding that the world functions on a slope of disadvantage. Where a very small percentage of individuals run a huge percent of the business happening within our society, so that we as a society take in, normalize, and engage with, even subconsciously, on a daily basis, a market that isn’t made for us.

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