“So kids, we’re going to discuss ____, and I know none of you have experienced this but…” I have had so many teachers and fellow students who have made assumptions about the make up of their classes. In classes that were supposed to encourage discussion, the majority just sort of assumed that the minority wasn’t there. This kind of assumption is dangerous and shows the issue with progress in our country.
In one of my classes in high school, we were having a discussion about transgender people and their rights and experiences (here is a link to another student’s post about being inclusive with regards to transgender students and I highly recommend reading it). Now, people who are transgender comprise only 0.3% of the US population according to this survey (although due to stigma, danger, and just a plain lack of awareness this number could be pretty inaccurate). That may seem small, however it amounts to almost one million people (956,700 to be exact). My school had probably around 3,000 people, meaning that it should have around 9 people who are transgender. I knew of at least 3 transgender students during my senior year and over the summer 2 more came out. One of the students who had came out during high school and the 2 that came out over the summer were close friends of mine and were in many of my classes the last 2 years of high school.
So, back to the discussion of transgender people in my class. The teacher assumed that there were no transgender students in her classroom. She started out the class with “Now, I know you guys probably don’t know much about transgender people, but…” That is an incredibly small comment but it had a huge impact on my trans friend. He, to this day, will mention that class and that discussion. The teacher, in trying to have a meaningful conversation about what it means to be trans, effectively silence the one voice who was equipped to talk about that.
In addition, the issue of teacher makeup not reflecting students comes into play here. See, that friend of mine who knew they were trans in high school is also asexual. And, during a previous discussion while introducing students to the meaning of different labels in the LGBTQ* community, defined asexual in a way that wasn’t completely accurate (at this point I’m going to add a disclaimer because I don’t 100% understand the nuances involving the asexual identity and do not pretend to have any authority on it). So my friend politely corrected the teacher by saying that she was mistaken and that wasn’t completely the way it worked. This student wasn’t out to most people, however he was pretty outspoken about his status as president of the GSA and was knowledgeable about the LGBTQ* community.
Not only did that teacher refuse to concede that there were debates within the community about the label, she flat out refused that she could be wrong in any capacity. This solidified her as someone who my friend couldn’t feel comfortable having real conversations about his identities. This was a huge loss to that class, that really could have benefitted from an actual perspective of someone within the LGBTQ* community to create contrast with the overwhelming voice of the majority.
It isn’t necessarily ridiculous to assume that a class full of 28 students would not include anyone who identifies as trans or ace, but in this case that assumption was harmful. These same assumptions are made of students who suffer mental illnesses also. I’ve heard these more commonly used by both teachers and students in conversations where they make it pretty clear that they don’t realize that someone could actually experience a mental illness without telling everyone about it.
I am guilty of making this assumption about autism. I had no idea how many people who I knew who had autism. Too often do we assume that with conditions like autism that it is easy to see. I wasn’t trying to harm anyone with those assumptions, but for all I know I could have. A friend of mine got her IB diploma, which is no easy feat, with autism. She isn’t someone who fits the stereotype of some people who have autism being socially awkward geniuses (see Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory). Going through the oral examinations and presentations that are required for IB was difficult for me and I could not imagine how difficult it must have been for her (her main symptoms of autism included social anxiety and made it difficult for her to talk in front of people who she didn’t feel comfortable with).
I was so incredibly lucky during high school to have friends who made me rethink the assumptions I had made. They made me see how these assumptions can isolate people who are often already isolated. I ask all of you, please don’t assume that someone in your class isn’t trans or has a mental illness or has autism. Please stop assuming that nobody you are talking to couldn’t possibly be a part of a certain community.