“I ensure that I… get my respect because in my culture respect is very important. Um… I find that sometimes, people in this country tend to talk to people in ways that are disrespectful and condescending, and from my cultural perspective that is just unacceptable, you know? So… I live my culture every day, I try to display it while I can, and I certainly use it to inform my teaching and to bring fresh perspective to my students as well.”
Amanda is an Afro-Guyanese woman, a mother of three, an immigrant, and a high school teacher. She bravely dealt with the various hardships of immigrating to the United States in 2003 out of a desire to earn more for her teaching. Starting in New York, Amanda faced a significantly different culture and attitude from her home in Guyana and found incredible ways of overcoming culture shock and isolation. Eventually, she moved to Los Angeles, where she works to incorporate her unique life experience into her teaching methods to this day.
As an immigrant, Amanda faced immense difficulty in terms of adapting to life in the United States. The differences in culture immediately became prominent to her once she had begun teaching in New York:
“I had the expectation that teaching was… just teaching, you know, the way I did in Guyana when I went into the classroom, the kids stood up and said: “Good morning, miss!” and you know, I’m like, okay! And then I got to New York City and uh… first week I was in shock! I’ll be honest with you, um… kids walking in, not saying hello, just… [pauses] just complete culture shock. Um… there were many times when I thought of like- I just need to go… back to my country where kids respected their teachers.”
Having grown up in a country where teachers and older figures were well respected by youth, encountering the drastically different American attitude towards teachers proved to be especially shocking for Amanda. Teaching as an immigrant was a massive hurdle in both attitudes and methods of teaching. Not only did she yearn for the similar respect that she’d receive back in Guyana, but she also had to completely modify her methods of speech and teaching in order to do her job:
“Teaching itself was um… quite a shock, I had to adjust to a new way of doing things, I had learned the history of the United States from a Caribbean perspective, and now I had to learn the American perspective to be able to teach it to the um… students there.”
“When I moved in New York and I was teaching there and the kids would be like “I don’t understand what you’re saying” right? And um… or I’ll talk to someone and say, “what did you say?” and I mean, I’m like saying what I’m saying, I’m speaking English… right? So that for me was a huge adjustment, having to kind of… assimilate a little bit in terms of my speech patterns and my enunciations and so on so that people could understand me… here [laughs] this is where I live.”
Amanda constantly had to accommodate the culture and attitudes of the United States as part of her experience as an immigrant both professionally and personally. In a profession where students didn’t respect you in the same way, didn’t understand you, and wouldn’t understand the way in which you had known to teach history, it was an understandable pressure for Amanda. She described the experience as if she were “drowning teaching in that setting”. Though, beyond the struggles of her professional life, immigrating put a significantly further strain on her personal life. Having had to leave her family and home behind, she would oftentimes miss what she had grown accustomed to:
“I would miss that [family and life in Guyana]. In New York when winter rolled around, I felt really, really, really depressed… um… [pauses] that was really- it was cold, um… [pauses] this bleak and just really, really… really depressing, so I feel like at that point in my life I felt like I left behind so much and I was so tempted to um… return home.. but I really felt like… disconnected from my family and from the… relationships that really grounded me when I was there… during that time period 2003 to 2006- there about, it was crushing… the loneliness I felt and the longing I felt for home.”
When immigrating, one has to make a lot of personal sacrifices. For Amanda, these sacrifices amalgamated in a variety of aspects, even in something as seemingly neutral as the weather. This type of isolation was heavily explored in the documentary Unsettled: Seeking Refuge in America, where many of the featured immigrants had experienced extreme loneliness and isolation, even when attempting to escape from extreme situations in their home country. What I hear in Amanda’s story with immigration perfectly supports the ideas presented in this documentary, showing that the type of struggles those in the documentary faced aren’t mutually exclusive to those who experience dire push factors. Many who stay native to their home, and who have the privilege to never need to immigrate would never know of the many hardships that Amanda had faced. Even when it is the seemingly small aspects of life like food and weather, or the larger aspects like family, culture, familiarity; this type of change and loss can deeply impact an individual, and Amanda acknowledged this much:
“I appreciate throughout the years being able to lean on those people for emotional support for them to tell me [laughs] basically what I wanted to hear, you know, and that’s important at some point, but at other points you need to really deal with yourself in ways that are real, and so that meant for me some therapy.”
Amanda shows incredible strength in her awareness of what she needs for herself in order to thrive as an immigrant. She’s one to acknowledge the need to strike a balance in holding onto the culture of your home while also working to embrace the culture of where she lives now. When asked about how she incorporates the aspects of her culture into the lives of herself and her children, Amanda explains that she “likes the idea of making sure that my kids know where they came from… but I don’t want them to be stuck too, in the Caribbean way of doing things only and not embracing the fact they’re also American”. Even though she is just referring to her kids in this moment, this is also something that Amanda tries to bear in mind as someone who is Guyanese yet lives in America. In our immigration module, we discussed the loss of language and culture as being one of the many unfortunate results of immigration. Amanda works to not lose this part of herself, though she also acknowledges the different attitudes of her current home. It is incredibly difficult to balance, but it is extraordinary to see it be done time and time again by such brave women.
The prospect of immigration is fraught with various mental hurdles, and it is something that requires immense strength to power through. As seen in Amanda’s own experience with immigration, it is oftentimes something that makes everyday life all the more difficult to navigate. Being expected to function the same as everyone around you, despite carrying the burden of immense homesickness and unfamiliarity makes the experience that Amanda has gone through incredibly inspiring.
FEMINISM, #BLM, AND REPRESENTATION
Although Amanda faced many struggles in adapting to life in America early on, she also recognizes the many differences in American attitudes that surprised her both positively and negatively. We specifically discussed the ideas of feminism and the mainstream resurgence of #BLM, and Amanda had incredibly interesting responses about how these ideas differed from Guyana to the United States.
Starting with Feminism, Amanda recalled the more progressively immature attitudes of her home in Guyana, expressing the restrictions she knew women had faced. She mentioned how “women were still expected to be… housewives for the most part” and “the men were the authority… in the home- and moving- also dating, like a woman was expected to date one guy. And- and that was it!”. It wasn’t until she moved to New York when she began to see a completely perspective:
“Um… women [in New York] were much more open about their sexuality, women were much more open about what they wanted, tended to go after what they wanted more… some of it… in the beginning was a little shocking to me. To be honest with you, you could know something intellectually, but to see it… was um, quite different. And that actually opened up my perspective a little more. Opened me up a little more to thinking I could do more, I could be freer, I could express much more than I could have at home and I fully embraced the whole idea of feminism and that women can do whatever they want in whatever realm they wanted.”
It was clear that Amanda wasn’t unaware of the differences in women’s freedom and ability in different places around the world, but to experience it first-hand was something that heavily influenced her perspective. This is one area where Amanda had a positive experience in immigrating since, despite the many problems the United States faces, feminism is a prominent and expressive force in this country.
In this course, we had talked about the many ways in which feminism has fallen short over its history, especially in the exclusionary period of 19th and 20th century feminism. As Bell Hooks describes it in her book Feminism is for Everybody: “Sisterhood could not be powerful as long as women were competitively at war with one another. Utopian visions of sisterhood based solely on the awareness of the reality that all women were in some way victimized by male domination were disrupted by discussions of class and race” (Hooks, 3). This failure to unite women under a specific cause greatly isolated the outreach of this movement to non-white, LGBTQ+, and non-American women. Though, Amanda’s empowerment by what she saw in New York in the 21st century proves that sisterhood has indeed made incredible strides. Her move to New York had positively impacted her view on her own autonomy and freedom, and it’s clear she wasn’t ever excluded from practicing the freedoms feminism strives to give all women in the present day.
In many different places, Amanda recognized positive progress in regard to not only feminism, but representation as well. This topic came up in light of just how unique Amanda’s life experience and identity is. As a female Afro-Guyanese immigrant, I was exceedingly curious to know her thoughts on representation in media, and how important it was for her. Her response was frankly surprising, but in an incredibly positive way. Amanda went on to describe contemporary representation:
“[L]ooking at the streaming services and so on that, black women are well represented um… in media, on the news, the view, the- everywhere you look, black women are well represented and I think I’ll say… even more, for me, even more proud is that black women are more represented in their authentic selves um… online… I’m seeing more and more of that [women represented as their authentic selves] and that makes me happy, I think we are well represented um… and I will even go further to say Caribbean women, you know, Morning Joy, she’s of Guyanese descent and she’s on MSNBC or something. So, more and more, I’m seeing myself in media.”
Amanda has seen herself in media as of late, and that was an incredibly pleasant surprise on my end to hear. There was a lot of discussion about how little representation marginalized women receive in mainstream media, though there is something that Amanda sees that I hadn’t fully realized prior. The more I thought about it, I had realized that women have been getting significantly more attention in media as of 2020, especially since Stacey Smith’s TED Talk “The data behind Hollywood’s sexism”. Since her data, we have seen groundbreaking films such as Hidden Figures, Black Panther, Captain Marvel, Little Women, and many more films that encapsulate a variety of different types of women. There are even plenty of shows that normalize LGBTQ+ individuals like in Brooklyn 99, without even making it the primary focus. As Stacey Smith had said herself, “So, let’s agree to take action today to eradicate the epidemic of invisibility, and let’s take action to agree today that you as audiences and global viewers demand and deserve more” (Smith, 15:03). Well, from Amanda’s perspective, it seems that viewers have indeed gotten more, and I believe that this representation that Amanda perceives in media and news help to make her feel less alone, while giving her the strength to continue being who she is.
Lastly, I would like to discuss the conversation Amanda and I had in regard to #BLM, especially considering its recent resurgence in mainstream media. Being an Afro-Guyanese woman, Amanda had an especially unique interpretation, providing incredible insight into the differences between African Americans and Afro-Guyanese individuals, and also providing insight on how her home country perceives #BLM. First, Amanda discusses her own relationship with the movement:
“Um… [pauses] I just- I don’t like that Black Lives Matter movement has been demonized and politicized. I think, from my perspective, I’ve seen myself first, as black, before anything else, and I see African Americans as black people and so absolutely it tears my heart apart to see… African Americans being gunned down in the way that they are to see the systemic racism that’s been happening here. So, I completely identify with African Americans in that regard… I actually started a foundation to work on supporting African- Afro people in terms of education. So that’s the part I think I can play [laughs] instead of being like my cousin on the street protesting and being locked up and stuff by the police… I think the one thing I can do is to become active in some way in terms of what I know to do, which is education.”
Amanda also mentions the fact that she “wouldn’t call it a resurgence”, though she mainly focuses on the response to recent events, primarily including the tragic death of George Floyd. As a woman of color, Amanda feels greatly for the unnecessary deaths of many POC by the hands of police officers. She has even started her own foundation (no name specified) which utilizes her greatest skill, education. As an educator, Amanda has been shown to strive to not only use her role as a teacher to “take a rubric and make it your own”, but to also take it even further by using her affinity for education as a means to participate in her own form of activism. This really shows that activism comes in many different shapes and forms beyond typical protests, and when mobilizing individuals to make a difference, their skills and passion should be recognized and utilized for a cause. Amanda shows an admirable skill in being able to take what she loves to make a difference in the world.
Amanda is also well aware of the issues that are more prominent towards African Americans more than any other POC. She uses this understanding to not only provide sympathy, but to also understand the complex ways that racism is systemically rooted in the United States. Amanda explains one common distinction she has noticed in her life:
“I can’t tell you why or what’s responsible for that… but from everything I’ve studied, I think that the idea of the angry Black woman is more likened and with African Americans, like people expect certain attitudes… and expect… I don’t know, but like once the accent is there or whatever then they’re: “Where you from? Oh!” and they’re more curious to know more, and so on and so forth.”
Amanda recognizes the common generalization that African American women are oftentimes associated with violence and anger. This idea was explored in a very recent reading by Nicole Gross, who discussed the issues involving African American Women and mass incarceration. One of her points provides merit to Amanda’s own observation, “Criminal anthropologists assessed female deviance, in part, by subject’s proximity, or distance from, Western ideals of femininity, morality, and virtue- standards against which black women failed to measure up” (Gross, 28). It is clear that women who fail to be feminine by Western standards will be perceived to be dangerous in the United States. Though, beyond this point, Amanda also recognizes that a lot of this anger stems from the various issues within the United States, anger which “demonized and politicized”. Combining these two factors that attribute to this negative perception of African American women, it makes sense why Amanda has had conversations shift the moment someone heard her accent. As Amanda herself had mentioned before, Guyanese women are typically raised with a more “traditional” image of femininity. Thus, it isn’t an unfair parallel to draw that Afro-Guyanese individuals wouldn’t have the same “angry” attributes applied to them.
Despite Amanda recognizing this distinct difference, it doesn’t stop her from continuing to run her foundation. Because, at the center of it all, Amanda is a person to recognize that, despite differences, she sees the importance of community and togetherness. Amanda truly is someone who works to see the best of the world first and foremost and strives to make that perspective all the more realized.
MY PERSPECTIVE / CONCLUSION
Amanda is the embodiment of positivity and determination, and through many hurdles, she managed to acquire a priceless outlook on life and its many hardships. I couldn’t begin to imagine the work it took to get to where she is currently, but I admire her story and unique experiences. Even though I am a white, middle-class American who will likely never need to immigrate anywhere else, there is a lot from Amanda’s story that personally inspires me with my own struggles. I was particularly inspired as I was told about all of the different factors that made teaching uniquely difficult for Amanda. She felt overwhelmed at times, but she never folded under the pressure and kept pursuing her profession. Not only does she still stay true to that, but she also manages to incorporate things that were once struggles into fresh perspectives and tools to make what she does all the more unique to her. In my daily life, I too face struggles that most would not consider, yet am expected to do the same amount of work as if I didn’t face these challenges. Amanda helps me realize that I am not alone in unique trials, and that inspires me to use my life experience as a fresh perspective for whatever career I decide to pursue.
Amanda and I had an amazing conversation that covered a broad array of subjects, some that I simply didn’t have the time to fully explore here. I would implore anyone to fully listen to the entirety of our interview so that you may hear these experiences from Amanda’s own mouth. I am grateful to have learned from this dedicated woman for a period of my life, and I hope she continues to bring fresh perspectives to her students and peers alike.
Listen to the entire interview with Amanda here: