by Ruslana Westerlund
You may have noticed the little globe when you check your notifications. Or may be you haven’t noticed that there is actually a globe as you rush to check your notifications. I admit I haven’t until I was in Thailand. When I logged into Facebook in Bangkok, I have noticed that the globe was reflecting the Eastern Hemisphere.
Then I was checking in Tokyo, the globe changed again. Originally, I thought FB had only Eastern or Western Hemispheres, but when I got to Tokyo, the globe shifted slightly to reflect the location.
Why does this matter? It is significant to me because it reminds me of what happened when I first came to the US. I was used to seeing maps of the Soviet Union and when I came to the US, instead of the world map, the maps showed North and South Americas. It reminded me that “we are not in Kansas any more”, but I also will never forget the feeling that somehow I was excluded here. Of course, the way the Soviet Union had its 15 republics portrayed as “the center of the universe” was hugely problematic. Many other countries do that, I am sure. I wonder if it is a reflection of ethnocentrism. It’s okay to be proud of your country. It’s another matter to be so self-centered that the diversity around you becomes unimportant. We choose to display things with a purpose. I argue that the purpose sends a message regardless whether it was intentional or not.
When I visited my brother in Holland, the map hung in the classroom where his children went to school was of Western Europe, I’m not even sure if it was of all of Europe. I wonder how many immigrant children in that classroom felt the same way I did – excluded. Many immigrant children are very globally savvy. Many of them have traveled and lived in other countries before arriving to their final destination, especially refugee children who didn’t even know they were called refugees, they were just escaping their country to be safe. Yes, children escaping Central America are also refugees even though they are treated differently from the refugees from Syria as an example. In fact, the UN Officials were advocating for the refugee protection be given to the unaccompanied minors escaping violence in Central America. Messages around who gets to be called a refugee and who doesn’t are also strong. Some get the protection and the benefits, and others are called illegal immigrants.
A positive example of inclusivity in Holland was a row of apartment buildings that I have noticed on that same trip. The side of the building had a list of cities representing the immigrants who occupied those buildings.
How sensitive are we to the people from other countries who come to the US, especially children and how excluded or included they feel from various messages in the environment around them? I remember a woman going through the security in the Madison airport who didn’t speak English and slowed down the process for other people by two minutes at the most (if you have ever been to Madison airport, you might have noticed that the longest line to go through security is about 10 people). When it was my turn (and there was only one more person behind me), the security guard apologized for the delay and sighed impatiently even though the delay wasn’t significant at all. I wonder if the reaction would have been the same if it was some high ranking official or just a white slow person speaking “perfect English”. Maybe, maybe not.
How about the messages we send to our children in schools and in our communities? Some messages I have witnessed are: your name doesn’t matter. There was this one girl in first grade who came very happy to school and introduced herself as Star. I asked her if that was her real name and she whispered that it was, in fact, Estrella, but her mom said to use Star because that’s what Estrella means and that’s the American word, people would know. Where did that mom get the idea that her daughter should be called Star and not Estrella? You tell me.
Other messages we send to the children of immigrants at schools are: you are here, you learn the history of the US from the US perspective, even though it may be the history of their own people such as the war the Hmong fought in Vietnam. It was retold from perspectives in which the Hmong didn’t matter that much in that bloody war, when in fact, they died by the thousands fighting for the US on the front lines. Or the messages that your languages don’t matter here are” This is America. Speak English here!”.
To end on a positive note, I’ve taught in the ESL classrooms and visited many where the teacher would show the world map to help students see themselves and feel that they matter and that the place where they are from also matters. I remember taking that map out of my classroom and displaying it prominently in the common area where other students would see the diversity of our world as represented by our ESL families.
Displaying world maps reminds us of the diversity of our world and allows all of us to connect to a place of our histories or to connect with other people who may have come from places we don’t know how to pronounce. Choosing to only display certain maps sends a message. What we display or not display sends a message.
P.S. If you want to read more about the change of the Facebook notification icon, read this.
Ruslana Westerlund, Ed.D. Ruslana has almost 20 years of ESL teaching experience at the K-12, undergraduate and graduate level. She is a proud immigrant from Ukraine who is fluent in 3 languages and has a rudimentary level of German. She is blogging to reconnect with teaching.