The Spokesperson Phenomenon – EdWeek

by Punita Rice Teaching

Education Week Teacher Punita Rice Spokesperson

Last week, Education Week Teacher published an essay I wrote about the spokesperson phenomenon — that thing that happens in a classroom, where a student (almost always, a student of color, though other minority and/or marginalized identities also experience this) is expected or positioned to serve as a representative for their entire culture, race, or other category of people.

(I’ve also touched on the spokesperson phenomenon in Brown Voices — read more about the project here.)

In the article, as a general rule, I advise against this behavior on the part of teachers, but there’s some nuance there (I definitely don’t prescribe that culture be ignored):

This is not to say teachers should never ask about students’ backgrounds or invite them to share their heritages with their classes. But there is a fine line between inviting them to share, and pressuring or positioning them to speak as representatives of their culture.

Read more here.

3 practical tips for how to support students’ cultural backgrounds without positioning them as spokespersons:

  1. Treat students as individuals – get to know them, understand their backgrounds and their comfort level (and/or ability!) to share.
  2. If inviting students to share something, do so ahead of time (plus this lets you vet what they’re sharing and put it in a broader context) — and also lets you avoid putting them “on the spot,”
  3. As a general rule, avoid singling out POC students.

Some final words from the piece:

When we invite our students to share their backgrounds and values—all of our students—then we foster inclusion and respect for diversity. But when teachers position students of color to serve as spokespersons for their culture, we risk making them feel othered and we detract from their own opportunities for enrichment, learning, and growth.

Read more here.

You can read the whole piece here, and you can read about another piece I wrote for Education Week Teacher here.

About the Author
Punita Rice

Punita Rice

Punita Rice is a mother, educator, writer, and founder of ISAASE. She is the author of Toddler Weaning: Deciding to Gradually Wean your Toddler & Making it Happen, and the forthcoming South Asian American Experiences in Schools: Brown Voices from the Classroom, and blogs about motherhood at Happy Mom Guide. Her work centers around multicultural education and equity, and South Asian American experiences in school. You can read more about Punita and her work here.