Office of Inclusive Excellence

Da Paradox: To Exist, Resist, Assimilate…Not

March 22, 2022

By Stephanie D’Costa

My family immigrated to North America when I was four to provide more opportunities for us. Acquiring an education was a value that was not simply told to me but modeled by my father who went to school during the day and worked nights in a gas station to pursue his dream of living in the United States. We believed strongly that if we worked hard, went to school, that we would succeed in this new land.

From a young age the US education system taught me that certain parts of me should be celebrated such as my curiosity and independence. Those same parts of me were a constant source of strife with my family whose cultural values celebrated respect for elders and interdependence. The education system was designed to promote assimilation of students with diverse backgrounds to accept and uphold the importance of dominant culture values (Smith & Geroski, 2014). For me, this led to feeling shame in my parents, my identity, and my community.
When I decided to pursue a career in education, I was alarmed to find out that if you were a person of color, had a disability, or was a gender or sexual minority that your outcomes were vastly different then if you were white, able-bodied, and male. Data indicates that educational disparities for minoritized populations have been pervasive for much of the U.S.’s educational history (The Condition of Education, 2011). Through my graduate training I was taught in my own power to “save” these minoritized kids.

Something changed for me as I was working alongside kids and families from different communities. I began to listen deeply to stories of pain, injustice, triumph, and joy. I recognized so much of myself and family in the minorized communities I served. These communities also worked hard, valued education, and had hopes and dreams of being successful in this land. Yet they were still struggling.

I started to ask different questions– not “How can we help this group of people adopt the dominant culture’s definition of success?” but instead “What are the structural barriers that limit this group of people to achieve their goals and dreams?”

I learned that the equation my family believed upon our arrival to the US (hard work + education = success) was simply not true. There are systematic structures that make it incredibly challenging for minoritized people to pursue life, liberty, and happiness (Tourse et sl., 2018). I also had to take a hard look at my desire to save minoritized communities. I had to acknowledge the ways that I too had bought into the idea that the dominant culture’s definition of success was something that all people needed. When I sat with people in the communities I served, I learned about goals and dreams that had nothing to do with profit or productivity but instead centered relationships with people, nature, and the land.

The U.S. education system taught me that I was valuable in my ability to contribute and be productive. And my community reminds me that I am valuable because I exist.

Stepahanie D’Costa, PhD, is a consultant with the Office of Inclusive Excellence & Sustainability and a former assistant professor in the College of Education