Within recent years many in the United States have become fearful of immigrants, refugees and anyone seeming “other” due to false information and hateful messages being spread through conservative media outlets and the Trump administration. Islamophobia, which was heightened exponentially after 9/11, was reignited when, after one week in office, Trump signed the “Muslim ban,” barring people from seven primarily Muslim countries from coming to the United States. Equating Muslims to extremist terrorists has created a false narrative that many American people believe to be true. Crowds of people chanting “build the wall” were a direct correlation to Trump calling Latin American migrants seeking asylum “illegals''. The fear mongering incited by his administration labeled these refugees as rapists, drug traffickers, and murderers who were invading the United States. Trump’s repeated reference to Covid-19 as the “China virus” spawned a new wave of hate directed at Asians and Asian Americans. After the murder of George Floyd and the protests against police brutality, organizations like Black Lives Matter were demonized causing racists in this country to feel emboldened enough to storm the United States Capitol. These types of harmful narratives have been used throughout its history to oppress non-White races. They are carefully crafted by those in power to uphold systems of White supremacy. For multilingual, immigrant, and refugee youth in middle school, these explicitly negative narratives can have a damaging effect on an already difficult stage of life where identity becomes increasingly important.
School can be a place where the complexity of students’ identities are celebrated; however, teachers must be aware that the present-day education system in the United States is not structured with multilingual, immigrant and refugee students in mind. It is constructed and maintained to disproportionately benefit White, middle to upper class students through processes like standardized testing, a singular focus on academic rigor and measurement, unequitable funding, and overvaluation of Standard English. Although schools are no longer segregated by race, many multilingual, immigrant, and refugee students experience segregation by alienation and isolation which stem from a perception of illegitimacy. Julio Cammarota explains, “National/American identity entails a specific look, certain type of speech, and even a particular geographic orientation. If just one of these qualities is in question, the individual may be placed in an undesirable category and challenged as an American.”9
Many times, students who are learning English are seen as being at a deficit. The focus is on what they cannot do and what they still need to learn. Shifting mindset towards the assets of being multilingual helps students to be empowered and understand that they are gaining knowledge in addition to what they already know. This can put them at an advantage over people who can only speak one language. An empowered identity can be transformative in a students’ education. Educators have the ability to disrupt these false narratives by constructing environments where students are accepted and seen as valuable members of the school community. Through thoughtful curation of representative texts and materials and using students' knowledge related to their identity and experiences to produce meaningful work teachers can avoid what Adrienne Rich describes in the following quote:
When those who have power to name and to socially construct reality choose not to see you or hear you, whether you are dark-skinned, old, disabled, female or speak with a different accent or dialect than theirs, when someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing.10