Labels matter – Creating an “us” and “them” harms students

Image: Jacobs Foundation
Image: Jacobs Foundation

If you ask a teacher in Europe today about diversity in their classroom, they will probably mention the number of “migrants” in relation to German, Dutch, or Belgian students. If you read a psychology or education science article from continental Europe you will likely see similar comparative language. But who falls into each of these categories? How does the use of such seemingly neutral terms relate to histories of inequity? If we understand such terms not as neutral but as loaded with historical and contemporary meaning, what implications do they have for the sense of belonging and academic success of today’s youth?

According to Eurostat, the official database for EU research, migrants are, “people changing their residence to or from a given area (usually a country).” Yet, in practice, “migrant” tends to encompass not only individuals who have moved from one country to another, but also their descendants, as well as anyone perceived as having foreign heritage. Although officially different from “migrant background,” a generation-spanning social category created in the early 2000s, these terms are regularly used interchangeably, often signifying a broad “them” in opposition to a constructed national “us.”

Each time a teacher, researcher, or everyday person employs these demographic labels in a way that homogenizes across generations, heritage countries, and self-selected ways of identifying, the “us” vs. “them” divide is reinforced, with potentially damaging consequences for youth development.

Yet, after decades of deficit-oriented research on ethnically diverse youth in Europe, there is now a growing push to stop problematizing marginalized individuals and instead focus on marginalizing systems. This entails taking a broad view – recognizing the ties between macro-level norms and policies related to citizenship, immigration, and religion, and the micro-level of teacher bias, peer relationships, and school curriculum.

“Educators tend to downplay racism and discrimination, including between students, instead supporting ‘colorblind’ approaches to diversity.”

Within the classroom, these levels often collide. For instance, textbook analyses from multiple European countries have found that children tend to be taught a culturally homogenous national understanding, glossing over links between historical and contemporary racism, including in relation to histories of colonialism. Educators tend also to downplay racism and discrimination, including between students, instead supporting “colorblind” approaches to diversity.

Although it may seem positive to focus on our commonalities, recent research shows that when schools promote colorblind and assimilationist approaches, school belonging and achievement diminish over time among minority students, whereas the opposite is found in schools supporting multiculturalism. When youth feel their identities are valued and discrimination is addressed in the classroom, this can foster strong engagement and a positive classroom climate for all students.

“Teachers’ lower academic expectations based on students’ heritage and religion pose threats to those students’ school engagement.”

Yet, such a climate is not possible if teachers themselves are engaging in ethnic and religious discrimination, which happens all too frequently. This can take the form of microaggressions, small, often unintentional slights that add up over time to have a negative psychosocial impact. In diverse classrooms, teachers may be unaware of the biases they hold and enact against minority students, yet research shows that teachers’ lower academic expectations based on students’ heritage and religion pose threats to those students’ school engagement.

Being reflective about one’s biases is incredibly important, but it’s not enough just to address discrimination at the interpersonal level. Instead, we need to zoom out, recognizing the long history and ongoing reality of systemic inequity. As teachers and researchers, we need to acknowledge that we are all socialized into unjust systems, and that we may be reiterating exclusion through what and how we teach, through the research questions we ask, and the labels we use to describe those around us.

Only by actively recognizing the existence of inequity on both the micro- and macro-levels, as well as the interplay between the two, can we begin to work towards greater equity for all youth.

“We need to zoom out, recognizing the long history and ongoing reality of systemic inequity.”

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