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Confronting Racism and Intolerance Caused by COVID-19

26 Apr 2020 3:07 PM | Anonymous

by Yvette Cuenco, Middle School Counselor at GEMS American in Abu Dhabi and ISCA Task Force Member

When COVID-19 broke out in China, the problem that initially seemed so distant from our everyday routine hit home for many Asians around the world. Stories of hate crimes against Asians and prejudice against Asian businesses in the US, Canada and Europe started making headlines. Moreover, the recent problems African immigrants are facing in Guangzhou/southern China exposed longstanding issues with racism and prejudice non-Asian people of color experience in Asia. Clearly, this is not just a Western problem. It is a problem we all share. 


As an Asian (Filipino) American international school counselor - this hits close to home for me. I was raised with an awareness of my own intersectionality - Filipino. Asian. American. Female. Daughter of immigrants. First generation college graduate. Woman of color. I was fortunate enough to have learned how to manage these intersecting boundaries either from my parents leading by example or through my own life experience building on the identity I was born with. I celebrate the joy of being all of these things, but I also know the path isn’t always easy. I utilize this knowledge of self all throughout my counseling practice. So when COVID-19 started to become more of a reality for all of us around the world, I began to think about how we can help our students and school communities grapple with these challenges - especially issues of racism, privilege, and intolerance that unfortunately inevitably occur. Our students need us to step out in front of these issues and truly model the international-mindedness we advertise on our schools’ websites.

Committing to diversity, equity and inclusion

As international school counselors, it is partly our responsibility to help our schools engage our students/families in understanding their own intersectionality as cross cultural kids and adults. We have to go into these conversations with the knowledge that our students are still developing their own sense of self and will make mistakes along the way. Reactive measures such as disciplining students for making racist comments is appropriate, but there are also proactive steps we can take to ensure our community is a safe space for everyone. These steps will help our students develop a deeper understanding of not only their personal identity, but how they can address issues of racism and intolerance when they come across them.

1. Equip ourselves with the right tools without reinventing the wheel

The beauty of our profession is that we are experts at seeking out resources that benefit our students. One of my favorite resources for lessons on racism, tolerance, and diversity is Teaching Tolerance. Lessons are free and run across multiple subjects. You can narrow down the search to specific age groups. Furthermore, they have a section specifically dedicated to the coronavirus with a plethora of articles, tips, and resources. Their 4-step plan in How to Respond to Coronavirus Racism is a great starting point.

2. Provide training and empower all staff members to be agents of change and positivity

In order for staff members to have the confidence in confronting racism or bias within their school community, they need to understand the historical context of racism geared towards different groups. According to Teaching Tolerance, pandemics originating from areas that are populated with people of color often get the most scrutiny through the Western gaze. Historically, this has led to laws of exclusion and acts of racism/violence towards people from these regions. More recently we’ve heard disturbing news such as Africans in China being kicked out of their homes or Asian American families being attacked as they shop for groceries. Equipping staff with knowledge and providing them a safe space to ask questions and challenge their assumptions will help educators feel better prepared when addressing these issues with students.


Organizations like the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, Teaching Tolerance, and the Antiracist Research and Policy Center (host of the #antiracistbookfest) provide a WEALTH of resources from articles, books, and workshops for educators. 

3. Clear and transparent policies related to racism, bias, and intolerance

As of this writing, there have not been many organizational statements speaking out against racism and implicit bias related to coronavirus from any of the major international school organizations. The radio silence is deafening. While ISS has put together the Diversity Collaborative, there is potential to do so much more. The Diversity Collaborative has conducted a research study on cultivating diverse leadership as well as sub-committees to address issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. However this is just a drop in the bucket. We need to do better. 


On the macro level - counselors need to advocate for our students and push organizations like CIS, ISS, AAIE, etc. to provide clear guidelines on how we as an international community of educators can combat racism and implicit bias. The Association of International Eduators and Leaders of Color has been at the forefront of this push. At the school level - counselors can engage leadership in collaborative conversations. Making a statement and developing clear policies that are made known to our school communities will help us jump ahead of the curve. It provides the structure and transparent boundaries our students need as they grapple with these issues and make choices based on the knowledge and information about diversity, equity, and inclusion that we provide.


I’ve always seen international schools as beacons of change. At many international schools we have the privilege to work with diverse student bodies and afforded a great amount of resources to support our students. It’s time to turn our attention to this issue and speak up. Our students look to us to ensure schools become safer spaces for everyone.



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