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Unintentional racism in school: an unaddressed and problematic taboo in everyday life

Updated: May 18, 2020

Although I was born and lived in Paris, France until I reached adulthood, people have always asked me where I was from. I politely told them that I was from “here,” but they insisted “no, your origins.”

Explaining that I was French, felt French and lived in France my whole life was not enough. Kids are by nature curious and want to build and confirm previously formed patterns (stereotypes) to help them understand the world. At a very young age, kids already start asking about colors and physical differences. What kids want to understand is the scientific explanation that people are born with a different skin color or other physical attributes. What they see is the variety of genetic markers amongst people. Their blank slate did not make them aware of the cultural, religious or socio-economic factors that are related with the physical appearances.

Without proper knowledge of my situation myself, I kept dealing with the annoyance of discrimination on my own, which built my character and curiosity for the topic. Annoyance is a better word than pain since over the years, it’s something I’ve somewhat gotten used to.

Although being Asian had a few perks, like being praised for the softness of my long black hair, I didn’t know how to make the questions about my origins stop. Kids don’t purposely want to discriminate or hurt others, but the subtle comments may contribute to slow marginalization of visible minorities that may feel like newcomers when they’re actually not. Moreover, parents who choose to raise their kids color-blind are furthering the denial of racism.

In school, teachers did not help reduce my discomfort.

In fact, one of them asked my mom if I had just arrived in France due to a bad grade in a French class. My mom explained that I was born here. The teacher insisted on sending me to the museum of immigration to understand my roots. While none of us understood the link with this suggestion, my anti-confrontational family chose to ignore the comment and they walked away from the meeting. Although my teacher probably had my best interest at heart, this was an example of unintentional racism.

My parents immigrated from Cambodia to France in 1980 after escaping the Pol Pot regime. They settled in Paris and their main concern was surviving and adapting. They successfully learned French and got decently paid jobs in IT. When my sister and I were born, it didn’t occur to them that we could be discriminated against. They chose French names for us; we only spoke French at home, and they made sure that we had plenty of friends.

The French consider racial discussions huge taboos. This country doesn’t have a census on how many people represents each ethnicity, although it’s obviously multicultural and multi-ethnic as it has wonderfully been accepting new immigrants. My parents choose to keep labeling themselves Cambodian even if they gave up their citizenship and became French. Their true soul and roots lie to their birth country and that’s how they identify themselves. My sister and I define ourselves as French since this is the culture we were raised in. At this point, genetic markers didn’t matter. Identity was based on culture. In France, I was aware that I was part of a minority, but no one really talked about the consequences of being different.

In the US, people don't shy away from their ethnicity

When I moved to the US, I discovered that people were open about their ethnicity, which almost served as their primary identity. Holding a passport, a birth certificate, or speaking fluently a language made no difference. People still identify themselves based on their physical appearance, and this posed a big issue for transracial kids or adoptees.

Americans imposed an Asian identity on me, although I barely related to the Asian culture. When I told them I came from France, people insisted that I had an identity crisis or that I was denying or ashamed of my roots. Perhaps part of me was a little ashamed of my family’s differences but this was no excuse to satisfy someone’s narrow mind to tell me who I was. What I was perceiving was their judgments on racial stereotypes, what they probably wanted to know was more along the lines of my genetic markers.

Several times, teachers in college embarrassed me by asking me if I could read or understand some Chinese characters. I once took a chemistry class in Pennsylvania. The teacher called each student by their first name to come pick up their corrected assignment. When she reached my copy, she put it back at the end of the pile. At the end of her round, she came to my desk and dropped my sheet on my desk. Her goal was to avoid the embarrassment of saying my name since she had trouble pronouncing a French name.

In college, I quickly learned that my physical appearance impacted me further than small annoying comments from people. It also impacted how I was perceived as a student and how studying science would put me in a more favorable position than trying out fields that required dexterity or manual work (Thompson, 2013).

The role of educators in combatting racism: be a role model

Although discriminations towards visible minorities won’t suddenly stop, I learned over the years that educators represent a powerful image to kids. Since schools are a microcosm of our current society, it only makes sense to learn to live with our cultural, physical, religious and personal differences. Tolerance isn’t enough, acceptance is better. Curiosity and open-mindedness will yield better future cooperation and less fear and judgments for the unknown.

Since school is an undeniable place for discrimination, educators have a tremendous power to stop racial slurs, mockeries on accents and dressing customs. Educators who chose to not react to racist behaviors will only perpetuate discrimination in school. Kids don’t realize the impact of their words on others. They’re learning to gauge what’s appropriate to say or do as part of their growth. It’s the educators’ role to use their power to put boundaries based on what’s respectable and encourage open-mindedness to other cultures so they’re not perceived as “exotic.” Moreover, having a role model who will stand up against acts of discrimination will encourage kids to do so in other settings, but failure to stand up for an abused child will result in disengagement. This betrayal will put the kid at increased risks of dropping out, therefore missing out on career opportunities.

It is not considered “too sensitive” to raise one’s voice when something feels off.

Some of my family members get amused by racial jokes because they somewhat did find the stereotypes funny. They also entered the game and made fun of other people’s ethnicities. As minorities, when they were made fun of their entire time, it’s only fair to also have the right to make fun of others.

Many people call it humor. If a person felt offended by these racial jokes, it’s because “they couldn’t lighten up.” The sad truth is that many people enable this discomfort because they want to make revenge jokes, feeling accepted by peers or don’t realize the impact of their mockeries.

Everyone has been taught about the taboos or non-taboos of racial discussions. Travelling is one of the best educational tools for children to learn about diversity and cultural differences. Unfortunately, it’s not affordable for all. In the meantime, giving proper explanations of genetic and historical facts, and remaining an open-minded role model for curious kids is already a superhero job.


Thompson, D. (2013). The 33 whitest jobs in America. Retrieved from


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