Why Transculturality Matters: Immigrant Discrimination in Chilean Education
By Irma Galani
“Mom, what is a Peruvian?” asked my son, who, at that time, was almost six years old. I had just arrived to pick him up from kindergarten and, as we were walking home, he suddenly asked me that question. I remember I answered him, thinking that his teacher must have taught him about nationalities. However, to my surprise and shock, when I asked him where he had heard that word, he confided to me that he had heard an older kid during a break, yelling at one of his classmates: “Shut up, Peruvian!”
Discrimination and xenophobia aren’t foreign concepts to Chilean society. According to a 2020 study from the INE (Statistics National Institute of Chile), the main groups of foreigners residing in Chile come from Venezuela (30.5%), Peru (15.8%), Haiti (12.5%), Colombia (10.8%) and Bolivia (8.0%) (INE, 2020). These percentages are the result of multiple immigration movements in recent years, which have culturally transformed our society: from associating the Plaza de Armas as a territory that has been ‘appropriated’ by Peruvian immigrants, to hearing in the daily news the word ‘immigrant’ next to words such as ‘poverty’, ‘delinquency’, and most commonly ‘illegal’. There have also been several policies that have transformed our administrative and public system around the context of immigration and, of course, the educational system is no exception.
In this blog post, I would like to reflect upon what it means to be an immigrant, or the child of an immigrant, within the Chilean educational system, and analyze how we have reacted as a country and as teachers, as well as how far we have come towards inclusion. Along with this, I propose what a transcultural approach should mean to teachers and future teachers (like me), to build a space that accepts everyone’s differences, instead of discriminating against them.
Prejudices and Implicit Bias within the Chilean Educational System
When my son finished telling me about what he had heard, I have to admit that my first reaction was to not immediately answer or comment. I knew that my words had weight. I knew that if I said the wrong thing, I could play an important role in shaping a person who, in the near future, could behave the same way as the older kid did. But, do other people also think about these things before they respond? Do Chileans know the damage of our attitudes, words, and gestures when they are discriminatory and xenophobic?
According to the Chilean digital newspaper, El Desconcierto, migrant children constitute approximately 4.4% of the students enrolled in the Chilean public education system. Due to the negative reputation of public education in Chilean society, immigrants are already exposed to constant prejudice and discrimination. A 2017 study (Salas et al.) showed how students from primary schools with a high percentage of immigrants viewed their immigrant classmates. Even though they were kids, the results showed that at least 23% of the children interviewed objected to children from different countries going to their school. In addition, another 37% believed immigrant students negatively affected the academic performance of their class (ibid., p. 6).
However, prejudices and implicit biases do not always come from students and classmates. Alarmingly, they come from teachers as well. The same study showed that around 34.1% of teachers also believed that the presence of immigrant students negatively affected the academic performance of the class, and 20.5% even felt it was detrimental to the prestige of the school (ibid., p.7).
These numbers made me think about one of the live events from the HSE Autumn School program, in which Amarachi Igboegwu talked about implicit biases and teaching consciously, mentioning that no one is exempt from having implicit biases. This made a lot sense to me, because our brains work in a way that generates thousands of thoughts per second, and there is a biological need to classify some beliefs and ideas into categories inside our minds, shaping the way we think. Two of the kinds of biases she talked about were the attribution bias and the confirmation bias, which are, respectively, the attribution people give to a person’s behavior according to situational factors, and the way we interpret information to confirm our previous beliefs. The study mentioned above relates to these biases, because there was a group of teachers who attributed the origin factor of immigrant students to the class’ negative academic performance and school reputation. And, probably, they saw their beliefs confirmed in the way the media and popular opinion have portrayed the immigrants in Chile.
The Meaning of Transculturality and Why It Should Matter to Teachers
Finally, I opted to ask my son what he thought it meant to be from a different part of the world. “Do you think it is a bad thing?”, “Is it something someone should make fun of or be ashamed of?” I tried to ask him in a way that he understood what I meant, and, to my surprise, it took him a few seconds before answering. He said no, and his reason was very simple: “He was just a boy, mom. A boy, just like me.”
There are no excuses to promote discrimination, xenophobia and racism. No matter the circumstance, society is inherently diverse, changing, and varied. Within these differences, we find certain elements that make us unique, compared to the rest of the world, that do not necessarily have to do with ethnicities, origin, gender or beliefs. The refusal to accept these facts is something we must overcome, as a global society.
Teachers and future teachers can contribute to the construction of a world that accepts the voices of those who are and feel different, and a transcultural approach seems like the proper way to do it. Transculturality is understood by Wolfgang Welsch (1999) as a “consequence of the inner differentiation and complexity of modern cultures. These also encompass […] a number of ways of life and cultures, which also interpenetrate or emerge from another one” (Welsch, 1999, p. 4). Such a permeable culture model is based on multiple intertwinings and penetrations, considering the variety and differences within a culture. This is presented as a way to work against the notion that the other person, the one who is different from me, is a problem that must be eliminated or ignored; instead, what sustains is the idea that the other is a valuable contribution.
This is what it should mean to us. We, teachers and future teachers, have in our hands a task that is not easy, but that is crucial for shaping the society that will follow in the future. Acts that may seem small, but resonate more than a thousand words, are crucial for our students’ development, such as never attributing their behaviors to their origin, ethnicities, cultures or beliefs, creating sensitive language that takes into consideration those whom it may affect, not judging students by their accents or their names, always keeping track and being aware of our own explicit and implicit biases, raising awareness about prejudices, discrimination, biases, destroying myths based on stereotypes, ending the normalization of xenophobic attitudes, and discussing our differences as something that adds rather than subtracts. All these steps can generate change in us and in others. Whether it is in the long or short term, the important thing is to generate a space in our classes that is safe, tolerant and accepting, because it’s in our classrooms where we create the world of tomorrow.
Student at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso, Chile
Chile, Instituto Nacional de Estadística [INE], 2020. Retrieved from: https://www.ine.cl/prensa/2020/03/12/seg%C3%BAn-estimaciones-la-cantidad-de-personas-extranjeras-residentes-habituales-en-chile-bordea-los-1-5-millones-al-31-de-diciembre-de-2019
El Desconcierto, 2019 Retrieved from: https://www.eldesconcierto.cl/educacion/2019/08/16/alumnos-extranjeros-aumentan-matricula-publica-luego-de-anos-sin-alzas.html
Salas, N., Castillo, D., San Martín, C., Kong, F., Thayer L. E. and Huepe, D. (2017) Immigration in School: Characterization of Prejudice towards Migrants Schoolchildren in Chile. SciELO. Retrieved from: http://www.scielo.org.co/pdf/rups/v16s5/1657-9267-rups-16-s5-00161.pdf
Welsch, W. (1999). Transculturality—the Puzzling Form of Cultures Today. From: Spaces of Culture: City, Nation, World, ed. by Mike Featherstone and Scott Lash, London: Sage 1999, 194-213.