The idea of cultural mismatch is an inadequate explanation for some of the difficulties minority parents encounter with their children’s schools.
Over the last 50 years, attitudes about parent participation in the public schools have changed dramatically. Not long ago, most educators kept parents at a distance, telling them to come no closer than the playground (McGeeney, 1969). Today, however, teachers commonly urge parents to spend time in the classroom and participate in a wide variety of ways. Indeed, the general consensus today is that parent participation is a critical element of academic achievement, a link that completes the home-school connection, and a reliable predictor of children’s social and emotional well-being (Epstein, 2011; Henderson et al., 2007; Jeynes, 2003).
The research literature on minority parent engagement has come a long way, too. Over the last two decades, especially, numerous scholars have sought to understand why so many minority parents experience a distant relationship to the schools their children attend. For the most part, they have concluded that cultural mismatch is to blame: When they come from very different backgrounds, parents and teachers tend to misunderstand each other (Lee, 2005; Lopez, 2001), and few schools have made serious efforts to become culturally sensitive to the needs and concerns of minority and immigrant parents (Case & Davidson, 2018).
For example, in a recent Kappan article, Jung-Ah Choi (2017) recounts her own experience with her child’s kindergarten teacher, who, Choi explains, failed to recognize the inherent cultural differences between a minority child’s home culture and the norms and expectations set by the school. Choi states that the teacher’s interactions with her and her child sent the message that the school’s set of norms are superior to that of their home culture and communicated these norms in a one-way, top-down manner. In closing, Choi calls for a system of true parent school partnership based on mutual trust and a culture of respect for families from diverse backgrounds.
Similarly, Madeleine Case and Kristen Davidson (2018), in another recent Kappan article, call attention to the lack of cultural sensitivity toward immigrant parents in schools and the need for educators to examine and expand their knowledge about minority families and cultures. The authors describe how one school district created and put into practice a culturally sensitive program that resulted in a democratic model of parent participation in which both the minority parents and the school experienced mutual respect and understanding.
Articles such as these highlight the importance of moving away from White middle-class ethnocentric notions of parent participation to recognize the nuanced ways in which families from different cultures define and practice parent participation. This literature has awakened educators and policy makers alike to the need for changes that address minority families’ situations. However, despite these developments, there’s more to be said about the relationship between minority parents and schools, especially how race and power play into the position of minority parents in the American school system and, more important, how this positioning becomes a pathway for racial discrimination. Keeping the spotlight on matters of cultural difference and cultural sensitivity can inadvertently mask the real issues at the base of the relationship between the school and parents from minority cultures.
Keeping the spotlight on matters of cultural difference and cultural sensitivity can inadvertently mask the real issues at the base of the relationship between the school and parents from minority cultures.
It is hard to deny that the silencing of minority parents in schools is, in reality, about the exercise of racial privilege. It is about our skin color and all the social, cultural, and political nuances that come with it. Whether we admit it or not, the silencing of minority parents is about the habits of racism and the racial apparatus inherent in the everyday working of schools. Unless we acknowledge this, reflect on it, and actively work on it, changes at the policy level can only be a Band-Aid solution to the deeper and more unrelenting problem of racism in schools.
My own story
It was 7:10 a.m. on a Wednesday morning before school, and my husband and I were sitting in an empty classroom in our son Peter’s school across from the principal and two teachers. We were there to discuss a racially discriminatory remark Peter’s science teacher, Ms. H, directed at Peter. We are Korean and we live in an upper middle-class neighborhood in upstate New York. To my dismay, I had found out about the incident after receiving two phone calls from parents of other students in my son’s class. Peter, who is in 7th grade, put the story out on the dinner table only after I asked him directly, “What happened in your science class today?”
The story goes that Peter had asked for clarification about something written on the board, and Ms. H replied in a pointed manner, “You don’t know what this says? You need to learn some English to live in this country.” Peter was born in the United States, and though we do speak Korean and English at home, Peter’s main language is English. He was initially confused by the comment that suggested he didn’t know English, and then the hostility and the inappropriateness of the comment hit him. I could sense the pain in his voice as he talked. He felt embarrassed and ashamed and thought he was being attacked by the teacher. As for his classmates, some kids giggled and others looked at him with pity, neither of which he felt he deserved. He is a 12-year-old boy, already different from his classmates in race and culture, and the last thing he wants is to be singled out in public in a way that not only highlights his differences but also treats them as a deficiency.
I found it painful to sit and listen, to see his face change, and to notice his body melt down on the dinner table as he spoke. I emailed the teacher requesting a meeting and I copied the head of the upper school and the principal, which is protocol at his school.
The meeting did not go well. We felt like the teachers and principals talked down to us — almost bullying us — and I could feel what Peter felt in his science class. Instead of discussing the incident with Ms. H, they sought to divert the conversation to Peter’s behavior. No one acknowledged that Ms. H’s comment was just plain wrong. However, the head of the upper school made a point of telling us that when Peter finished reading a novel ahead of his English class’s schedule, he told all his classmates the ending, forcing the teacher “to throw the whole lesson plan out the window.” The underlying message was that Peter deserved whatever happened in the science class. When the conversation finally turned to the incident, Ms. H claimed that her comment had nothing to do with who Peter was. It was an innocuous comment that could have been directed at anyone. After all, she said, “It’s true. We all need to know English to live here. There is no exception to that.” For the next 10 minutes, the conversation stayed on the issue of Peter’s English proficiency, an issue no other teacher had ever brought up since he was in 1st grade. If there was a problem with his language proficiency, surely it would have come up before now.
The morning school bell rang and we had to end the meeting. My husband and I walked out of the school building dazed and angry. Peter’s pained voice as he talked about his science class rang in my ear, and I felt a knot in my chest. As I thought through this incident and our meeting over and over again, I wondered why those three educators believed they could speak to Peter and to us in such a manner. Was there any justice in that meeting, and what would have been the right outcome?
Beyond cultural mismatch
My husband and I came to the U.S. from Korea as graduate students, finished our degrees, found jobs, and decided to stay. Our son was born here and has lived here all his life. I am now a college professor in a teacher education program, with expertise in language and literacy education for linguistically and culturally diverse students. During the past 15 years, I have been teaching in both in-service and preservice programs, working mostly with teachers in urban contexts. However, despite my professional training and career in the field of education, I still find it challenging to raise a child in a country where I did not grow up, in an education system that neither my husband nor I have been through. We deal with the challenges as they come, one at a time. Some are challenges common to all parents, but some are unexpected, disconcerting, and emotionally brutal.
This was not our first experience feeling disrespected because of our ethnicity. Unfortunately, I have had a number of encounters with teachers and school officials with a similar storyline. Preschool teachers have lamented the fact that we speak a language other than English at home; teachers have asked why Peter, an Asian boy, is not particularly interested in math and science; and school officials have tried to coach us on the “American way” of raising a child.
The problem facing my family stems from more than just cultural insensitivity and misunderstanding, and to frame it exclusively in those terms is to let people off the hook too easily.
Such incidents constantly remind me of my minority status and suggest that many educators view minority and immigrant parents to be living in the dark — at school, we’re thought to be uninvolved, uninformed, different, and incapable (though well-intentioned). But the problem facing my family stems from more than just cultural insensitivity and misunderstanding, and to frame it exclusively in those terms is to let people off the hook too easily. Educators must also acknowledge that what we regularly experience in school is racism, pure and simple.
More research into the dynamics between minority parents and schools, with a focus on the role of race and power, is critical to understanding how minority parents’ voices are silenced and ignored within the school system. That is why, for example, critical race theorists have called for the use of counter-storytelling, a way to capture stories of the marginalized and expose the imbalance of power in individuals’ everyday lives. Counter-storytelling enables us to view the experiences of minorities from their own perspectives, something that stories based on the experiences and knowledge of more powerful groups fail to do. Such an approach may deviate from conventional scholarly norms, but such new models may be needed to give voice to parents and students whose experiences tend to be lost, altered, or overlooked in the academic literature on schooling (Goldberg, 2000; Merriweather, Guy, & Manglitz, 2006).
Even more important than new scholarship, though, will be new efforts by practitioners to acknowledge and confront racism within their school buildings. First, schools must keep discussions of power and race at the forefront of their mission. Unless educators acknowledge the full weight of racism within schools, both historically and in the present, and look closely and vigilantly for acts of covert racism in their operations, those acts are bound to remain normalized in the day-to-day lives of schools.
Schools must also work to redistribute power by creating local systems to counter the effects of racial discrimination against minority parents and students. For example, they can reserve specific time during staff meetings and professional development opportunities to discuss incidents involving minority parents and students. Or they can hire parent advocates to help minority parents negotiate the school system and make sense of the discourse of schooling. (And note that it’s not sufficient just to provide interpreters and translators for immigrant parents. Language isn’t the sole barrier to minority parents’ participation; schools should also make efforts to help parents understand local policies, school rules, and expectations for student behavior and performance.)
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Lastly, teacher educators must become more proactive in pushing new teachers to confront racist ideas and practices in the schools. Teacher education courses are, in many cases, one of the first places where preservice teachers are introduced to the intersections of race, power, and parent participation, be it through literature or fieldwork. Teacher educators must enable teachers to position themselves as persons of racial identity who are always doing “race work” with students and parents alike, with the understanding that we are all capable of discriminating against racial minorities, regardless of our own race. There are multiple venues for the work of teachers’ racial self-exploration, but a good starting point may be in the practice of rigorous self-reflection: reflecting on one’s own racial identity as a teacher and a professional. Such work goes beyond intellectually light and dumbed-down work on race and identity to push preservice and in-service teachers beyond the comfort zone as they acknowledge their racial identity as a social construction molded by history and colored by personal experiences.
How it feels
When considering the experience I described here, it’s hard not to think of W.E.B. Du Bois’ (1903) enduring question, “How does it feel to be a problem?” For Peter, the meeting with the teachers and the principal did nothing to improve his experiences or his feelings. Peter continued to be ridiculed in his science class, and he gradually withdrew into himself, avoiding his peers and teachers. We left the school at the end of that school year because we felt vulnerable to the insidious incidents of racial discrimination, and we were without redress.
The problem of racial discrimination against parents and families of minority status in schools is much more pervasive and taxing than we may want to believe (Leonardo, 2013). And the issue of minority parent participation is larger than one of cultural mismatch or cultural differences. At the roots of this phenomenon is one group’s exercise of racial privilege over others on the basis of race, which functions as a visual hierarchy that marks certain people as different and subordinate to others (Harris, 1995). The realities of how race becomes a central construct for creating inequity in America (Du Bois, 1903) become salient when we listen to the stories of minorities, not allowing them to be overshadowed by the dominant discourse of majority groups, which tend to corroborate and strengthen the exercise of racial privilege (Merriweather, Guy, & Mangliitz, 2006). Counter-stories from minority parents must enter the public discourse, and the education community must work in unison to acknowledge the racial inequity against parents in schools and then take action to address the race work that we may have been avoiding. Such work goes a long way in our progress toward freedom, justice, and respect in education.
Case, M. & Davidson, K. (2018). Building trust, elevating voices, and sharing power in family partnership. Phi Delta Kappan, 99 (6), 49-53.
Choi, J. (2017). Why I’m not involved: Parental involvement from a parent’s perspective. Phi Delta Kappan, 99 (3), 46-49.
Du Bois, W.E.B. (1903). The souls of Black folk. New York: Penguin.
Epstein, J.L. (2011). School, family, and community partnerships: preparing educators and improving schools (2nd ed.). Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Goldberg, D.T. (2000). Racial knowledge. In L. Black & J. Solomos (Eds.), Theories of race and racism: A reader (pp. 154-180). New York: Routledge.
Harris, C.I. (1995). Whiteness as property. In K. Crenshaw, N. Gotanda, G. Peller, & K. Thomas (Eds.), Critical race theory: The key writings that formed the movement (pp. 357-383). New York: The New Press.
Henderson, A.T., Mapp, K.L., Johnson, V.R., & Davies, D. (2007). Beyond the bake sale: The essential guide to family-school partnerships. New York: The New Press.
Jeynes, W.H. (2003). A meta-analysis: The effects of parental involvement on minority children’s academic achievement. Education & Urban Society, 35 (2), 202-218.
Lee, S. (2005). Selective parent participation: Structural and cultural factors that influence school participation among Korean parents. Equity and Excellence in Education, 38, 299-308.
Leonardo, Z. (2013). Race frameworks: A multidimensional theory of racism and education. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Lopez, G.R. (2001). The value of hard work: Lessons on parent involvement from an (im)migrant household. Harvard Educational Review, 71 (3), 416-437.
McGeeney, P.J. (1969). Parents are welcome. London, UK: Longman.
Merriweather, L.R., Guy, T.C., & Mangliitz, E. (2006). Who can speak for whom? Using counter storytelling to challenge racial hegemony. Paper presented at the Adult Education Research Conference, Minneapolis, MN.