Immaculée Harushimana is Assistant Professor of TESOL and Language and Literacies Acquisition in Secondary Classrooms at Lehman College, City University of New York. Formerly a lecturer at the University of Burundi, Harushimana came to the United States in 1993 on a Fulbright scholarship to pursue her graduate studies. Her major area of inquiry is in critical linguistics and its implications for literacy instruction for urban adolescents. Her research interests include immigrant and refugee youth’s school integration, multilingual identity, and alternative discourses. Harushimana’s research on the education and adaptation of African-born immigrant and refugee youth has been published in edited volumes and refereed professional journals, including the Journal of Border Educational Research, the Journal of Urban Teaching and Learning Research, The Journal of Praxis in Multicultural Education, and the Journal of Peace and Justice Studies. Her most recent publication, Reprocessing race, language and ability: African-born educators and students in transnational America (2013), brings together the experiences of African-born teacher educators, k-12 teachers and secondary youth in the USA and Canada. | June Interviewer: Ana Solano-Campos
1. Dr. Harushimana, would you share a little bit about your life journey and how it has influenced your scholarship?
Without being a centenarian, my life journey can fill volumes of biographies. I am not sure how much of my half-century life experience I can squeeze in this interview. I like to describe myself as an African-born academic, fascinated with and dedicated to promoting the acquisition of multilingual proficiencies. I am proud to be literate in–and attached to–my native language, Kirundi, to the point that I have been able to reinforce it as the language of secrecy in my small family of three (mom and two sons). I also enjoy my fluency in French and the fact that my French accent is more accepted by native speakers of French. I still feel pleased with my level of mastery of the English language despite the fact that Native English-Speaking audiences are not always welcoming of the “thick, African” accent they claim to hear when I speak English.
I was born during a very important era in African history: The sixties. The sixties constitute the independence decade for many Sub-Saharan African countries. As a child of the sixties, I did not experience the atrocities of colonization. To the contrary, I am the eyewitness of the post-independence euphoria. During my time, the government was eager to promote the education of its own people to show the “white man” that African people are not monkeys, that they too are capable of logical thinking. I was lucky to grow up in a geographically prominent area; my hometown, Gitega, was once the capital of Burundi. We had good schools and good teachers who were proud to educate us. I will never forget my 4th– 6th grade teacher, Ms. P* N*. She was known as the best French speaking woman in the country, and rightly so. She taught us French with so much passion that I still remember the pronunciation drills she used to make us repeat on a daily basis to make sure we spoke French like “Parisian girls,” she would say.
For example, to practice the contrast between rounded /eu/ and open /è/, she made us read the following sentence in front of a mirror:
e.g. 1: J’ai peur, que mon père ne soit pas a l’heure (I fear that my father won’t be on time)
Thanks to these drills, with no after school opportunities for further practice, I was able to minimize the African accent interference in my French diction. As I grew up and advanced in learning, my mastery of the French language grew accordingly. At one point I thought I would become a French teacher, but that was before I discovered the English language. In 9th grade, I heard the first English expression–“Good morning class”—from the English teacher, as he entered the class. Without any delay, we were invited to “repeat after me: ‘Good morning class!’”, first as a class, then in rows, and finally individually. It was fun! With no extra efforts needed to pronounce the laryngeal /r/, as in “peur” and “pere”, or distinguish between nuanced sounds like round /eu/ and open /e/, I found English much simpler and friendlier to learn than French. I immediately became hooked on it.
Without knowing what I was bringing myself into, I decided that English Language Learning, not French, would be my area of expertise. This choice determined my destiny in an unanticipated way. After graduating from the University of Burundi with a Bachelor degree in English, I spent three years teaching high school English and another three years teaching college level English. I was then awarded a Fulbright scholarship to come and pursue graduate studies in the United States of America. The idea of going abroad at the age of 32, leaving my 2- and 4-year-old sons behind, came at a big cost. While I earned a MA in TESOL, and a doctorate of Philosophy in English (Rhetoric and Linguistics), I lost very dear people along the way, including my husband, my mother, my brother, my sister and a host of relatives due to political turmoil that has claimed millions of lives in my country since 1993. Forced to seek political asylum and find employment in the United States, I have witnessed challenges, epiphanies and surprises. The biggest surprise of all was the discovery that as an African-born intellectual, I was not judged by the worth of my brain, but rather by my foreign name and my multilingual accent. In response, today, through scholarship and advocacy I am committed to letting it be known that being African-born is not a curse, that African-born youth are educable, and that African-born professionals are capable of adapting to and contributing to the making of this great nation that is the United States of America.
2. In your work, you give us a powerful-and very much needed-insight into the particular journeys, challenges, and strengths of African immigrant youth and teachers (Harushimana, 2007, 2010, 2011, 2013;Harushimana, & Awokoya 2011; Harushimana, Chinwe, & Mthethwa-Sommers, 2013). Can you illustrate for our readers how you envision the learning/teacher experience of African immigrant youth and teachers in classrooms around the country?
My experience described above mirrors the experiences of many African-born professionals who have been fortunate enough to find employment in academia and schools. We are defined in terms of our speech patterns rather than our academic credentials and achievements. Based on my own experience, my research, and available research literature, the learning experiences of African youth, like the teaching experiences of teachers in USA classrooms and colleges, are full of challenges. There is an immense gap of mutual misunderstanding between US natives and African natives. On the one hand, African immigrants are not psychologically prepared for the rejection they experience from the American people. While I cannot generalize, the large majority of adult Africans who can afford to immigrate are not from the common population. They come from a well-respected category of people, most likely with a good education and well-paying occupations. When these people immigrate, they expect to receive the same respect they were accustomed to being given in their home countries only to experience the opposite. In particular, teachers are the ones who undergo the highest culture shock.
Whereas the teaching profession is the least financially rewarding profession, African teachers are highly respected in the classroom. From elementary school to college, the authority of the teacher is uncontested. Given the scarcity of textbooks in Africa, the teacher’s knowledge is a rarity and a rarely contested commodity. The students are expected to listen attentively to the teacher and eagerly take notes as instruction is being delivered. Nobody is allowed to interrupt the lesson without raising the hand, and the teacher reserves the right to ignore it. Any student’s attempt to challenge the teacher’s knowledge is looked at as insubordination and is met with severe measures, including possible expulsion from school.
The reality is otherwise when African teachers find themselves in the American classroom. Whether they are US-educated or not, whether they consider themselves near-native speakers of English or not, whether they hold terminal degrees or not, in the eyes of American colleagues and students, African educators are viewed as intellectually ill-equipped and linguistically unfit. They find themselves rudely interrupted at every sentence with derogatory comments such as, “I can’t understand your accent”, or “that is not how you say it”. This attitude is totally unexpected and can be devastating for the African-born teacher who expects utmost respect and trust and all of a sudden finds him/herself at the mercy of the students.
Another conflicting practice is the teacher evaluation system for those who are in Academia. In Africa, student evaluations are not given high consideration, for it is well known that students see them as an opportunity to take revenge on tough graders. Chair and decanal evaluations are given more weight during promotional decisions. In US academia, to the contrary, student evaluations seem to determine the fate of the faculty. It is not unusual to hear American native faculty saying that they give easy exams to avoid bad evaluations. African faculty do not seem to have that option; there is evidence showing that whether they give good or bad grades, African faculty tend to receive low evaluations from American students. Additionally, few are those that are ready to compromise their integrity in exchange of good evaluations. Under these circumstances achieving tenure and/or promotion is a major battle for African faculty and teachers, particularly those in non-scientific domains, such as arts and humanities, which many US-natives faculty and students tend to claim ownership of.
If teachers have a difficult time affirming themselves, one can only imagine how African immigrant students are treated. Worse. From peers who call them all sorts of derogatory epithets, such as monkeys, smelly, booty scratchers, etc., to teachers who embarrass them publicly in reinforcing the stereotypical image of Africa as being the jungle and African people primitive, savage, diseased, and starving. Despite the fact that most of the African kids who immigrate under “normal” circumstances (i.e. not as refugees) have most likely attended good schools and may speak and write better English than most students in mainstream classrooms, they get frustrated for being placed in ESL programs just based on the simple fact that they are from Africa and their names sound foreign.
Finally, another challenge unique to African-born immigrant is their confusion about blackness. Despite instances of interethnic wars, African people tend to treat each other like brothers and sisters. That is the attitude that most of them have towards African Americans upon meeting them. Unfortunately, the acknowledgement of brotherhood and sisterhood is not always reciprocated. African immigrants find it extremely difficult and disturbing to be rejected by people of their own race, that is, African-American colleagues and peers. Several testimonies have concurred on the fact that African Americans tend to be more hostile towards African immigrants, who they accuse of uncle-tomming, at times. Whereas a background in the history of slavery and colonization may help African people to understand the racist attitude of white people towards them, nothing prepares them for the rejection they suffer from African American people.
3. You highlight the potential of youth literacies (such as video games, teen chat sites, i-pods, and mp3s) to help speakers of other languages learn English (Harushimana, 2008, 2009). In one instance, you mention how youth literacies provide youth with opportunities to practice code-switching, to develop strong voices, and to nurture creative expression. In what ways do these spaces contribute to African immigrant children and youth’s perpetuation or resistance of stereotypes about their linguistic repertoire and of linguistic assimilation?
First, I must agree that exposure to youth literacies constitute a double-edged sword for African immigrant youth and their families. However, I also recognize that they constitute an important aspect of the American youth culture. Today’s youth have been designated as digital natives, and the digital influence seems to have gone viral in the youth all over the world. The use of videogames, teen chat sites, ipods and mp3’s, facebook and my space is globally ubiquitous. The United States being a consumer culture, it is not possible to prevent its influence on immigrant youth, who may associate coming to America with fulfilling their digital dreams! The overabundance of advertisements of youth-enticing technologies, be it on the streets, on buses and subways, and on television, is irresistible for easily impressionable teenage immigrants. What I find to be problematic about these literacies is the lack of censorship or educational agenda. If there were a centralized monitoring system, like the movie ranking system, to regulate chatroom, music distribution and videogame use by the youth, perhaps there would be less profanity and gangsta (e.g. fights, drug use, street robberies, disrespect of authority, etc.) attitude among the youth, especially those living in urban neighborhoods.
As for ways in which youth-enticing literacy spaces, such as facebook, ipods, iphones, videogames, chatrooms, etc., contribute to African immigrant children and youth’s perpetuation of or resistance to stereotypes about their linguistic repertoire and of linguistic assimilation, there is a lot to say. You know, many concerned African educators have remarked that African immigrant children tend to overembrace these cultures, and that worries me very much. It is not much about the perpetuation of or resistance to stereotypes of their linguistic repertoire and of linguistic assimilation as it is about their seeking of acceptance among peers and age mates. The majority of African immigrant children attend urban public schools with peers who are not excited to be in school. As a result, they very quickly learn that doing well in school is uncool and that to survive in the urban youth community one needs to be on the same page as their peers regarding the most popular rap album or videogame, which unfortunately antagonizes with mainstream language or behavior. They must stay caught up with facebook friends’ and peers’ shout out posts and messages, which must conform to the dominant urban youth discourse. In their minds, if they can achieve some level of acceptance and bring down the teasing and shaming associated with being African, they may think that they have attained their adaptation goal. For, they may not realize that adoption of gangsta discourse goes far beyond the street lingo or rap music. It implies a certain attitude towards authority, drug use, violence and sex activity. It is unlikely that an African child who was not born and raised within that cultural frame will be able to fully assimilate into it no matter how hard s/he may try.
Research consistently points to the fact that during their early arrival period, African immigrant children are well behaved and focused. That is the propitious moment when teachers in collaboration with parents can socialize them in the school discourse and keep them away from adopting the urban youth lingo. I need to clarify that there is no malice or prejudice in stating that immigrant youth tend to live in urban neighborhoods and attend urban schools. There is a reason for that. Many immigrant parents tend to settle in cities where it might be easy to find a job. Due to parents’ limited financial means, the only apartments that these parents can afford are located in the inner city, in high immigrant neighborhoods. Usually in those places unconventional discourses tend to be the norm on the streets. Unless a child has a strong personality to resist influence, strict parents who monitor his or her linguistic and school socialization process, and caring teachers who create a safe and supportive atmosphere for the child to thrive, it is hard for an African-born teenage child to escape or resist the influence from the community of peers around him. Unfortunately, as we saw earlier, some teachers are part of the problem and not the solution. I wish I could say that acquisition of youth literacies could lead to African-born youth’s resistance to stereotypes about their linguistic repertoire and assimilation to non-standard linguistic discourses. It is not so easy. An attitude of resistance requires power and confidence, as we see among African American rappers. Constantly made to believe that they do not belong, African-born immigrant youth do not have the guts to resist.
4. You work at the intersections of race and language. What is your advice to other teachers and scholars looking to incorporate intersectionality in their teaching and academic practice?
Although intersectionality (or what I call intertwinement of identity attributes) theory and methodology are associated with feminist discourse, I find it critical to look at positionality in terms of race, language, gender and nationality. I feel saddened when math and science faculty, or faculty at predominantly white Ivy League universities, fail to recognize the place of language and race in their disciplines. Pretending that academic expertise is the determining factor in obtaining employment is just an illusion. Despite the fact that applying intersectionality in pedagogy and academia is a risky undertaking, not recognizing it sends the wrong message to uninformed immigrant students of color who may believe that, as long as they are in the right field or they are attending an Ivy League institution, finding a job will be easy. Yet, we know that if an Asian and an African-born job applicant with similar expertise in math or computer science went to apply for a job, the Asian candidate might be retained for the job because of the positive stereotypes that associate Asians with expertise in mathematical and scientific domains. On the other hand, it could happen that if an Asian woman was competing for a similar job with an articulate African male, most likely the man might be retained, given the sad reality that we live in a male-dominated world. It is therefore important for critically-conscious educators to find a way to incorporate an analysis of the impact that gender, race and nationality have on people’s access to economic mobility.
I strongly encourage every faculty to incorporate a critical or sociological component to their discipline, so that minority students of color, especially the foreign-born, may become aware of the challenges that are ahead of them as far as advancing economically is concerned. I remember once a critical pedagogue and scholar who had been invited to address matters of literacy and numeracy using statistics of how many teenagers of color get pregnant while in school compared to whites, how many of them have a private gynecologist, etc. The audience looked surprised, perhaps because they would have never thought about using math to promote literacy from a critical race lens. This approach is possible in every discipline, as long as the faculty in charge does not turn a blind eye to it. The reason why a lot of African-born and other foreign-born, non-western, professionals get shocked when we experience racial and intellectual discrimination is that we grew up color blind, having evolved in an environment where white people were a rarity and had limited power to meddle in sovereign nations’ running of business. Given the respect that the African intelligentsia, males in particular, are given in the African contexts; they assume that things will remain the same if they emigrate to Europe, the United States, or Asia. Their egos become terribly crushed when they experience rejection in those societies to the point that some have opted to go back home. One can attribute this naivety to the implementation of the Eurocentric curriculum in non-western universities without allowing room for a critical lens. Issues of race, power, and discrimination must become part of the university curriculum in third world countries if today’s global generation is to be adequately prepared to secure a place for themselves in a society that runs on competitiveness and exploitation of the poor.
5. How can scholars in different fields (TESOL, Critical Race Theory, Immigration Studies, etc) better collaborate to bridge disciplinary boundaries affecting the way we approach educational and societal issues such as linguistic and racial oppression, and more specifically colorblindness and the native speaker fallacy?
Interdisciplinary collaboration starts with self-awareness. Some scholars only identify themselves with mainstream theories in their fields and are blind to the multidimensionality of their discipline. It is important that education keep up with changes in the demographic and economic make-up of society. My perception of (foreign) language teaching prior to coming to study in the United States was completely different from my perception of it today. Prior to coming to the United States, I was not aware of the impact that having a different (and non-western) accent could have on a foreign-born intellectual’s credibility and academic acceptability. I guess I learned it on myself.
Before writing my comprehensives I used to identify myself as a composition studies and TESOL scholar. My self-perception changed when I researched issues of minority literacy and, later, chose to do my dissertation on the professional writing experiences of African-born and Middle Eastern faculty in US academia. It became apparent, through this research, that judgment of one’s writing ability was not solely based on the mastery of grammar, style, and vocabulary. Race and country of origin had something to do with it. This awareness led me to change the way I used to look at my discipline. While I still approached teaching composition from a mainstream perspective, I also made sure that I addressed the sociological aspect of it in the suggestion of writing topics and during writing conferences. Today, the critical race perspective pervades my pedagogy, and I try to be open-minded and inclusive of as many intersects as I can think of (gender, race, age, class, nationality, language, sexual orientation, religion, etc.).
One way in which different fields have tried to integrate other disciplines’ perspectives is through the implementation of special interest groups (SIGs). Unfortunately, I have also noticed that SIGs can promote self-alienation and self-exclusion. While SIGs allow scholars of the same interest to share matters that are of common interest to them, it is not evident that they attract people with different views. The one solution that I can think of that can help bridge disciplinary boundaries is by encouraging professional associations to invite keynote speakers from outside of their disciplines who are knowledgeable in both worlds. For example, a critical race theorist who feels comfortable in Mathematics can be invited to research and address critical race issues in Mathematics.
The other way interdisciplinary collaboration can be fostered is through major professional associations promoting SIGS to the status of independent associations so that they can hold autonomous conferences and edit autonomous journals. Delimitation of a journal’s scope, the breadth in calls for papers and journal themes and special issues (though another marginalizing practice) can contribute to the broadening of perspectives and interdisciplinary collaborations. Co-authoring across the disciplines is another way to promote interdisciplinary understanding. Staying within the confines of one’s discipline accentuates self-marginalization. Finally it is very important that scholars from non-mainstream fields become proactive and express interest in serving as board members and conference organizers for major associations. I firmly believe that collaboration begins with having a voice in a multi-vocal community.
Harushimana, I. (2007). Educational needs of linguistically and culturally underrepresented immigrant youth. Journal of Border Educational Research, 6 (2), 69-83.
Harushimana, I. (2008, August). Literacy through videogames. Journal of Literacy and Technology,9, 35-56.
Harushimana, I. (2009). Out-of-School Multiliteracy opportunities: Tools for fostering literacy among newcomer and generation 1.5 urban learners. Journal of Urban Teaching and Learning Research, 35-45.
Harushimana, I. (2010). Majority teachers’ perceptions of urban adolescents and their abilities. International Journal of Progressive Education, 6,6-26.
Harushimana, I. (2011). Mutilated dreams: African-born refugees in US secondary Schools. Journal of Peace and Justice Studies (JPJS), 21, (2), 23-41.
Harushimana, I. (2013). Foreign-born minorities and American schooling: The African-born Adolescent’s plea. In Harushimana, I., Chinwe, I., Mthethwa-Sommers, S., eds., pp. 140-155. New York: Peter Lang
Harushimana, I., & Awokoya, J. (2011). African-born students in US schools: An intercultural perspective on schooling and diversity. Journal of Praxis in Multicultural Education, 6, 34-38.
Harushimana, I., Chinwe, I., Mthethwa-Sommers, S. (2013). African-born educators and students in Transnational America: Reprocessing Race, Language, and Ability. New York: Peter Lang