Critical Lessons & Educational Change

Dear Mom

Fernanda Tebexreni Orsati

December 15, 2009

Dear Mom:

I would like to tell you that you are just an amazing person. I think it is true when people say that we just remember the good things when we are away from them. J But seriously, I am not exaggerating when I say what a great parent you have been to me. You really supported all my choices even if you didn’t believe in it 100%. You supported and still do because you trust in me. You genuinely do. You are so amazing that when I had to make one of the most important decisions of my life you were there supporting me the way I needed, and giving me strength to go ahead and come work on my PhD in the US. I know that unsaid questions came to your mind as “Why is she leaving us? Why is she going so far? Does she really need to do that?” But being as supportive as you are you have never shown any of these doubts to me. So, now I want to try to explain some of the reasons of my choice. This explanation comes to be necessary, especially when I am away and something important happens there or when you let escape for a second how much you wanted me to be there.

Firstly, I have to admit that the reason is becoming clear with the time. It is starting to make more sense, or maybe I am starting to make sense of it just now. Yes, mom, I left the shell that you took so many years to build around me. And I am experiencing things that I haven’t imagined. I am learning, I am learning so much that sometimes I can’t process it all. And the beautiful thing is that I am learning and I am experience at the same time, so in the end I am growing.

Mom, I want to tell you what I have learned so far. I learned that context determines who you are. I found out that race is a totally flawed concept and you are never secure in the race group you think you belonged to. I am learning to be critical about racial issues. I am learning that the categories we put people in with the intent to make things easier can be really harmful for a lot of people. These categories, as race or gender, for example, come associated to stereotypes and expectations. These sometimes can be positive as I always had towards me. However, you see that due to people’s race, or socio-economic background you can expect less, invest less and as a consequence receive less from them. I am also learning that it is not ok to make jokes or call people names, even when you don’t mean to hurt anyone, because in the end it hurts anyway. It hurts not just as an insult, but it hurts because this comments feed on beliefs of superiority, and that hurts people’s future. Mom, we need to have a better way to referring to the ones around us. We have to be more respectful to the ones around us. You were able to teach me that at some level; I always observed the caring way you deal with everyone around, but still we have a long way to go. Mom, when I say we, I say the whole world.

Being outside our country I can see that people can be intolerant to difference. I learned that the caring way you always treat people implies that you are better than them, and that they need you to care for them. This way of being comes from our culture, but here people try to take care of their own lives. People reclaim their right to be different and have value. I reclaim that mom. I reclaim the right to be myself with my language, my ideas and my culture. Sometimes mom, I feel that people here are angry. People are angry towards the different and that is why this reclamation is so important for them. I know angry sounds too strong but that is how it can be perceived. Minorities have to prove all the time that they are worth, that they need to be valued, and they get tired. They don’t want to prove it anymore; they just want to live their lives. They don’t want to have to prove themselves every day.  I don’t want to be proving myself every day. But sometimes I have to.

Mom, I am not white! Here I am considered a person of color. See my point about the concept of race: what is race? Mom, I am now in the “minority group” with the least social status that I have ever had. Yes mom, I get some discriminatory questions, and I listen to some stereotyped assumptions. Yes, sometimes people don’t understand me and judge my ideas by the way I speak; as well as they complain all the time about the way I write saying it is not clear, it is confusing and full of mistakes. I know if you knew all these you would be asking: “So why are you going through all this?” Sincerely sometimes I don’t know, and sometimes I would tell you that I want to get back to that shell. But I can’t anymore. I have seen too much going on here, outside, I can’t go back. How do I go back? How do I forget inequalities, privilege and power relations once you feel it? The reality is the opposite, I have to stay outside. I have to stay outside because I can see now, I can see from a different perspective.

Mom, now I able not just to see but feel the privilege I have back home. I can see how passive I am at home even though you always believed that I was doing things for others and criticizing how things were. Sincerely, it was not enough. Mom we benefit from the system, that’s why we don’t want to change it. I thought the society was fair and that I got where I did due to my own effort and dedication. No, I am just taking advantage from a system that is already biased toward my direction. You thought me that white blond Barbies were “normal”, that choosing between private and public school was “the norm” and that all my friends had moms and dads not two moms, two dads or none. Yes, mom, I am out of the shell and that was the best thing that has happened to me.

Another mistaken assumption that I realized: I thought that I would come here, accumulate information and bring this “wisdom” back home. I was wrong. You can work towards a goal with people, you can share experiences and exchange information, but you are not the owner of knowledge. I definitely can work with people and try to change some inequalities around, try to bring new perspectives, and still can have the hope to make a difference in people’s lives (which is a romantic view of engaging in the community). However, I am not going to change people’s lives. Do I sound pessimistic mom? I hope not, I think I sound more realistic. But one thing that I didn’t lose was the ability take action. Things are not right the way they are. I sometimes get frustrated due some drawbacks in my everyday life, but you taught me to keep going. You encouraged me to pursue my goals, and that is what I am doing.

I wanted to explain to you why I am not there when you needed me last year, and now. I just wanted you to know with this letter that I am here to learn, to grow, to acquire critical awareness and in the end to take action in direction of improving equality in society. Sounds ambitious? You taught me I could do it. Besides that, I will do it one step at a time.

From your daughter that loves and misses you a lot,



The idea of this letter was to explain to my mother why I am doing my PhD in the US. I came from a middle class family in a society that is extremely socially unequal. I have always had resources and privileges that are not common in our society, but it was always common for me. Writing this letter allowed me acknowledge how it is has been hard to build a bridge between my life back home and the life I have here. It is not to say that I am not a privileged person in the US, but the experiences are drastically different. Some of the believes I had about race, ethnicity and my own identities have been drastically changed in the past year. I was always a person that acknowledges the inequalities and tried to work to change it, but it is totally different when you experience it. Things get clear and actions make more sense.

As I said in the letter, I am really learning a lot with this experience here. However, I get worried and excited at the same time about what will happen when I get back home. Will the privilege take me over? Will I keep being critical when I am the one being benefited from the system?