Thursday, December 15, 2011

If I Were a Writer for Forbes

I don't know what made Gene Marks, a self-proclaimed "short, balding and mediocre certified public accountant" write an essay for Forbes titled, "If I Were a Poor Black Kid." Maybe he meant well. I don't know if he cares, but if I were a guy named Marks who writes for Forbes I'd be sorry I ever pushed send that day.  I don't think Marks was trying to be funny, but his advice was so simplistic it was laughable.  Poor black kids should try really really hard to get good grades.  They should learn how to read.  They should use Google Scholar, SparkNotes, CliffNotes, and Wikipedia.  (I know some English teachers who would strongly disagree, by the way. These are all the things we tell our college students NOT to do.) They should go to magnet schools, or charter schools, or get scholarships to expensive private schools.  They should also win the lottery and buy a big house in the suburbs. They should become professional basketball players and get picked in the NBA draft.  They should become Rap stars.  Okay, Marks didn't say the stuff in the last three sentences, but since the urban in-demand charter schools work on a lottery system, most kids have about as much chance getting in as they do winning the Powerball Six.  Or maybe, as a famous politician recently suggested, we should pay the poor black kids to clean the school bathrooms.  At least then they won't be as poor anymore.

Of course, the most insulting thing about Marks' essay is that it completely ignores the structural racism that created and maintains the educational inequity faced by poor kids from many backgrounds.  Marks' attempt to solve problems that are the legacy of centuries of discrimination with a healthy dose of homespun advice sounded more like something from Stephen Colbert than a serious examination of a complicated problem.  

Like Marks, I'm not a poor black kid.  I'm a middle class white adult.  I'm not about to tell poor black kids what to do.  Instead, I'll tell myself and people like me what to do.  We need to fund education equally, offering all kids a high quality education from preschool through high school. We need to do what it takes to encourage our best teachers and administrators to serve our most needy schools, not the other way around.  We need to put programs in place that support poor families and communities in a myriad of ways.  We need to vote for people who care about helping poor kids, families and communities more than they care about anything else.  We need to stop reproducing the racial/class status quo in education through segregated schools, academic tracking, and a white teaching force that is not trained to think about how their own position of power and privilege impacts their students. And sometimes we just need to shut up.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Sound of My Voice

When I was a kid I got a little tape recorder for Christmas one year (the older folks out there will remember what a tape recorder is). I remember being shocked the first time I heard my own voice coming out of that little machine. That's not what I sound like, I thought.  There must be some mistake.  I went around asking anybody who would listen, "Is that what I really sound like?" I remember my siblings laughing and my parents shaking their heads.  I never did get used to that sound.

Now, as an adult, I often have a similar experience when I look into the mirror, especially on bad hair days. Who is that person looking back at me?  Is that what I really look like? Where did all those wrinkles come from? What happened to my naturally wavy hair? What ever possessed me to buy those glasses, and, am I shrinking or was I always this short?

A few months ago I had the opportunity to talk about my young adult novel, The R Word, with John Drew for his pop-culture website, The Chronic Rift. I'm happy to say that although I still think the voice coming out of my computer doesn't really sound like me, my ideas about race came through clearly during the interview. So many thanks to John for the opportunity, and I hope you'll give it a listen!

The R Word Interview on The Chronic Rift

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Parents, Teachers, Kids...and race?

The other day a Facebook friend posted the following article:
"What Teachers Want to Tell Parents" by Ron Clark
Some of you might remember Ron Clark.  He's a teacher who wrote a book, made it on to Oprah, and subsequently opened the "Ron Clark Academy," a private, non-profit middle school in the Atlanta area. I have nothing against Ron Clark or his school. I'm sure it's a wonderful place for those few students who are lucky enough to attend. But something about this article really bothered me.  

If you don't have time to read it, here's the gist: great teachers and administrators are leaving the  profession, or rather, being driven out of the profession by parents. Parents need to stop complaining and start respecting teachers more. Stop making "excuses" for your children. They need to get school work done no matter what's going on at home, or else they may wind up "25 and jobless, sitting on your couch eating potato chips." And please, says Clark, when a teacher tells you that your child did something wrong, do not turn to the child and say, "Is that true?" Says Clark, "Well, of course it's true. I just told you. And please don't ask whether a classmate can confirm what happened or whether another teacher might have been present. It only demeans teachers and weakens the partnership between teacher and parent."

Oh, and please don't ever question your child's grades. Whatever grade your child got, he or she deserved it. Period.

Ok, I'm a teacher educator, and I do understand Clark's side of the story. Teachers need parental support, that's absolutely true. But I'm also a parent, and I find that Clark has made a lot of presumptions that just don't pan out in my experience. Clark presumes that teachers are always fair, always kind, and always right. Sadly, this just isn't true. I've heard of many, many times when teachers showed bias, disciplined through humiliation, or were just flat-out wrong about a child. I know of a teacher who dumped the entire contents of a second grader's desk out in front of the whole class to show what a mess it was. That same teacher referred to the parents as "stupid" during a parent-teacher conference. Then there was the third grade teacher who insisted that most of her class had ADHD because they were so "chatty." On the other hand, in the very same school there was a first grade teacher who didn't believe in ADHD at all, even when a child's behavior said differently. There was the seventh grade teacher who silenced two talking boys in the class by saying, "Why don't you two get a room?" There was the sixth grade teacher who gave a student an A on a project. When the student modestly admitted, "My mom helped me," the teacher changed the grade to an A-. Aren't parents supposed to help kids with projects? These were not some renegade teachers, either. They were all well-paid, respected teachers in a white, suburban school district who held their positions for many, many years. 

I could go on and on, but you get the picture. Now let me be clear:  THERE ARE A LOT OF GREAT TEACHERS OUT THERE. I believe that, and I hope I've had a small part in training some of them. But Clark's article suggests that teachers know better than parents. According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children's code of ethics, respecting parents as partners is an ethical requirement for teachers. According to NAEYC, teachers need to: 
  • Appreciate and support the bond between the child and family
  • Recognize that children are best understood and supported in the context of family, culture, community, and society
  • Respect the dignity, worth, and uniqueness of each individual (child, family member, and colleague)
  • Respect diversity in children and adults and colleagues
  • Recognize that children and adults achieve their full potential in the context of relationships that are based on trust and respect*
So when parents turn to their children and ask, "Is that true?" (one of Clark's "biggest pet peeves"), teachers need to understand that children have a right to tell their side of the story, and parents have a right to hear it. Yes, teachers are experts in some things, but parents are experts in knowing their children, and it is their responsibility to be their children's advocates.

And what does all this have to do with race? If you look at the picture of Clark and his students you'll notice that Clark is white and most of his students are African American. That tells me something. I don't doubt Clark's motivation, and I'm not suggesting that he's racist. But he needs to consider that he is a cultural outsider to some of his students and their families. He needs to be sure that his "expertise" and his view of parents as "prosecutors" are not based on his position of societal privilege. Lisa Delpit wrote a very famous essay on some things white teachers need to think about in teaching "other people's children."**  Delpit stresses the importance of white teachers recognizing that the classroom reflects a culture of power that often gives teachers the authority to establish their ideas as "truth," superseding the concerns, ideas, or feeling of parents. 

Parents are not the enemy. 

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Class Warfare?

Politicians say lots of things when elections are at stake.  Growing up with my parents' "they're all crooks" mentality has left me with a pretty cynical disposition toward such things.  In my real life relationships I try to be open minded and willing to see issues from a variety of points of view.  As an educator, I think that's important.  So, I don't usually pay much attention to all the little sound-bitable catchphrases that I hear from politicians and political pundits.  But this week I heard one that I just couldn't ignore.

People who oppose higher taxes for the rich are calling the idea "class warfare," which I guess means pitting the lower classes against the higher class as a political ploy.  You know, I'm not an economist.  Some people claim that higher taxes for the rich will eventually hurt everyone, because if this happens rich people who own corporations won't be able to create jobs that the lower classes so desperately need.  While I'll admit this line of reasoning doesn't make much sense to me, that's not what this blog is about.  I simply want to point out a different kind of class warfare that been going on for a very long time.

Last week I had a conversation with a young adult who is in a serious dilemma. This person works hard at a very important position.  Unfortunately, although the position is full time, it doesn't offer medical insurance benefits, and the salary is far too low for my friend to afford to buy private insurance.  Sadly, the person is experiencing some severe medical problems and needs to see a specialist. Without medical insurance, that's not going to happen any time soon (the person already tried to make an appointment and was turned down by the doctor's office).  So, my friend waits for the needed medical treatment while trying to navigate a cumbersome medical/insurance system, which is, as anyone who has been in a similar position knows, a full time job in and of itself.

What's the person's important job?  Child care provider, of course.  This individual provides nurturing, quality, full time care for other people's children every day, but like many, many other child care workers, isn't considered important enough to receive basic, timely, medical care.  This person is not a socialist, and is not looking for a "government handout," but, as one of the working poor, is just trying to make ends meet and continue to serve the community through this important and necessary job. Unfortunately, doing so is a battle.  So here's an example of class warfare that isn't making the airwaves.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Talking While White

I spent the day yesterday at the Collingswood Book Festival, trying to get people to buy The R Word.  While we didn't sell many books, I did learn a lot from the experience.  First, the people around me selling science fiction and horror novels were making a killing.  I started to think we should have put a vampire on the cover of The R Word, even though it's realistic fiction.  We could have explained the vampire as representing a metaphoric theme that runs through the text -- "Racism sucks the blood out of our society" or something like that.

Second, we discovered that there are a lot of Phillies fans in Collingswood, New Jersey.  Maybe instead of police detectives, I should have made my protagonist's uncles baseball players.  Or maybe they could have sold hot dogs at Citizens Bank Park.  In a moment of desperation I did say that The R Word stands for RBIs, but nobody seemed to buy it.  Oh well.

The crowd at the festival was mostly the browsing type, but several people did stop to look at our poster and ask, "Ok, I'll bite. [I knew we should have had a vampire on the cover!] What is the R word?"  When I explained that the R word is Racist, because my story is about a young, white girl who, through her friendships with kids of color, begins to think about race and about what it means to be white for the first time, most people ran for their lives.  Well, not really - this was a very polite crowd.  They nodded, broke eye contact with me, and slipped away as quickly as they could.  A few, though, made some interesting comments.

First, there was a white woman who listened to my spiel with a frown.  She nodded quite confidently and said, "Oh, I know all about this.  I work at [named school here that I'd never hear of].  I deal with this every day.  On the weekends I let it go."  At the last sentence she flicked out her hands in a washing-away kind of movement.

Soon after, another white woman walked by and picked up a copy of The R Word, studying the back cover. When I explained the story line to her she placed the book down on the table and said, "I work at [another school name I had never heard of], so I'm inundated with political correctness."  I tried to explain that my book was not about being politically correct, but about exploring an important topic with young people, but she would have none of it. By the time I finished my sentence she was gone.

The third interesting conversation I had was with an older white man.  When I explained the basic plot of The R Word, he nodded encouragingly.  "I know all about this," he said.  He then told of an experience from back in his high school days. He lived in a white neighborhood, but his high school was integrated, half white, half African American.  (I'm assuming those were the days of bussing, because he seemed about my age and my high school experience was exactly that).  Anyway, the white kids and the black kids used to joke around about dating, the joke being that they all knew it would never happen.  Then one day, an African American girl invited him to a party.  At first he thought she was joking, but when it turned out she wasn't he agreed to go.  He went to her house to pick her up, and when the girl's father came to the front door and saw a white guy standing there waiting for his daughter, he slammed the door in this poor fellow's face.  So this man knew all about issues of race, because he had been a victim of racism himself.  Luckily, though, a few minutes later the mom came to the door, apologized, and off the two young people went to the party where the teller of the story was the only white person present.  "Everybody was as nice as could be to me, though," he assured me.  "We wound up having a wonderful time."

Okay, I'm not trying to be mean here, or overly critical of white people.  However, I couldn't help but notice some common motifs that ran through these comments. The first two women, who worked as either teachers, counselors, or administrators at schools with high populations of color, found talking (and presumably reading) about race somewhat distasteful, and certainly not something they wanted to think about in their free time.  They got enough of "that" at work. They are faced with race every day, but perhaps they believe that a good educator must be colorblind, so they'd rather not think about it.  Some whites fear that just talking about race puts one at risk for being called a racist (there's that R word again).  Lots of researchers have found the colorblind approach in full force among school personnel.  Teachers and school administrators don't think about race because, after all, what does that have to do with education?  Education isn't about race, it's about working hard. Race doesn't matter, and anyone who says it does is "playing the race card." "I don't care if my kids are black, white, or pink with purple polka dots," I've heard many a white teacher say, "I treat them all the same." Now, if we were working from an equal playing field the colorblind approach might work.  But unfortunately race has mattered from the beginning of our nation's history and still matters today. Schools that take the colorblind approach have more, not fewer, practices that perpetuate racial inequity.  How sad for the students of color who attend the schools represented by these two women who view the topic of race as either distasteful or politically correct.

The last man I spoke to jumped right into the "reverse racism" argument that is also a common response when whites are confronted with the issue of racism. He seemed like a very nice, thoughtful, intelligent guy. He was certainly no Archie Bunker, and I'm not calling him or anyone else a racist. Just to prove how nice he was, he ended his story on a positive note --"See, African Americans are nice people, too!" Yet, when faced with the topic of race, the first thing he thought of was the one time in his life when he was treated unkindly by an African American. He didn't think of all the opportunity and benefits his whiteness had ensured him throughout his life. He didn't say, "Yes, I lived in an all white neighborhood because the realtors kept blacks out, or the banks wouldn't grant them mortgages.  Although my school was integrated, the presence of whites in the student body ensured I got a quality education. I slid easily into my first job, where I was promoted regularly, because I'm white." He referred to all of this in our conversation -- all except the being white part, that is. He didn't recognize how, along with his own hard work, his whiteness functioned to help him achieve. To him, it all happened very naturally. But he did remember that one time a black guy slammed a door in his face, and he felt it was important to share that with me, someone he had just met, to show solidarity with people of color. He'd been a victim of racism, too.

P.S. He didn't buy the book.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Talking about The R Word

Yesterday I had the opportunity to share about The R Word, my young adult novel, during the chapel service at Valley Forge Christian College. As I said in my talk, it can be difficult to talk about race, especially for white people.  The prevailing cultural belief seems to be that we're supposed to be colorblind, that somehow noticing race makes one racist.  But closing our eyes to inequality doesn't make it go away.  The R Word focuses on a certain kind of inequality, the inequality in education experienced by our nation's students.  Tavis Smiley's documentary, "To Important to Fail," which aired on PBS last week, stated that somewhere near 50% of African American males will drop out of school.  We all pay the price for this, as Smiley points out. It's too important to ignore.

Check out the link to my talk, if you're interested:

And here's the Smiley documentary:

Saturday, September 10, 2011

I Really Love This Book

It's been a while since I've posted, mostly because I'm in the middle of studying for preliminary exams for my PhD program at Rutgers University. This is a somewhat scary experience for me, because of the high stakes nature of the exams. But there is one part of the exam prep that I love, and that's the part that allows me to read and reread fiction. I've just finished American Born Chinese, by Gene Luen Yang, for probably the fourth time. I know I'm sort of sentimental, but I have to admit that I love this graphic novel more every time I read it.

Yang tells several parallel stories that are eventually connected, all of them dealing with the psychic wounds sustained by characters when they internalize white standards of beauty and behavior. There's way too much going on in the novel to really do it justice here, and besides, I don't want to ruin the many surprises in the story by revealing too much. I'll just comment on one of the plot lines, the story of a deity named The Monkey King, a well known figure in Chinese mythology.

After getting kicked out of a heavenly dinner party by the other gods and goddesses, The Monkey King transforms himself into The Great Sage, Equal of Heaven, and insists that all monkeys in his kingdom must henceforth wear shoes. (Shoes serve as a symbol of colonization because “civilized” people wear them.) For The Monkey King, internalizing the standards of acceptance prescribed by the dominant culture (in his case, the other deities) results in seemingly unstoppable rage. He perfects the “four major disciplines of invulnerability” and in comic book fashion smashes and pounds his adversaries into submission. Finally, the other deities cry out for help from Tze-yo-tzuh, whose name means "HE WHO IS," reminiscent of the name of God given to Moses in the Bible, “I AM” (Ex. 3:14). Tze-yo-tzuh subdues The Monkey King, trapping him under a pile of rocks for five hundred years. The Monkey King is finally released only when he returns to his true form and gives up his shoes - in other words, when he stops conforming to the standards of the dominant culture and instead embraces and appreciates his own origins. He reflects later about his experience, saying “I would have saved myself from five hundred years’ imprisonment beneath a mountain of rock had I only realized how good it is to be a monkey” (223).

If only he'd realized.  And if only the deities around him hadn't made him feel like an outsider, like they were normal and he was "other." If only they'd treated him as an equal, welcomed him to the dinner table, and extended to him the same status in the community that they, themselves, enjoyed. 

Now, if mythology about animal characters isn't your thing, don't worry. American Born Chinese has plenty of human characters.  I think that's apropos, given that it's humans, and not animals, who have the ability to reject their own kind so efficiently. 

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Help

Last week I saw The Help. Before the movie even started I noticed something – the audience in the full theater was almost exclusively white, a total reversal of my experience last year when I saw For Colored Girls at a theater a few miles away.  That time I was the only white person there. So I wondered, what is it about this movie that draws white people, but not African Americans?  Was it the different location, or is there some other reason that The Help caters to white audiences?

Maybe you’re aware that the blogosphere has been in analysis-overdrive about this topic. One of the problems folks have with the novel/movie is that, like so many other stories that explore racial relations, The Help puts a white person in the role of savior, and depicts African Americans as unable to help themselves. I get that. It was all over The Blind Side, a movie in which almost every African American character was a criminal, and which downplayed the self-serving motivations of the Christian school that offered Michael Oher a chance. (Sure, he couldn’t read, but he could play football! What about the kids who can’t do either? Where are the white saviors then?)

Anyway, even though the movie version of The Help failed to deeply explore how African American resistance (and not white altruism) resulted in the great gains of the Civil Rights Movement, one might argue that the African American maids in The Help did have a voice and used it at great risk to themselves and their families, and that white allies, though not central in the struggle for racial equality, have always been important. My concern about The Help isn’t about the movie itself. The Help depicts racism during a particular time and place, and apart from a few frustratingly one-dimensional characters, depicts it fairly well. My problem is that it lets us white people off the hook in a few different ways. First, class is an issue. How many of us grew up with maids of any color?  Likely not many. Second, there’s geography. If you’re from the North (like I am), it’s easy to blame the South for our country’s racist past. But I think most problematic is that whites watching a movie like The Help can easily think, wow, that’s awful!  Things were terrible back then. I’m so glad it’s not like that any more! And the very same people who are appalled at the racism of the past might not be equally appalled at how racism manifests itself in the present. If fact, they might deny that racism still exists. It’s easy to sit in a comfy movie theater and pass judgment on those malicious racists of the past. It’s easy to feel compassion for the African Americans who suffered in this blatantly racist society. We might even shed a tear. It’s much harder to recognize how our own present day white privilege, whether we know it or not, works in our favor to perpetuate systems that keep racial inequity alive and well.

Don’t get me wrong. Books and movies like The Help, as depictions of American history, serve an important purpose, but only if we realize that, as Carter Godwin Woodson said back in 1933, “the conditions of today have been determined by what has taken place in the past.”* The racial segregation and oppression that we see in The Help was not a purely southern phenomenon, and did not disappear with the Civil Rights Movement. The racist policies of the past are directly related to the present, and the legacy of racism continues in our country in a myriad of ways. Our educational system is one of them. Go see The Help. It’s a good movie. Get angry. Cry if you want to (I did). But don’t for a minute think it lets us off the hook.

P.SHere's a statement from The Association of Black Women Historians regarding The Help.  They point out the way that the story reinforces stereotypes and distorts both the history of the time and the experience of the African American domestic workers it tries to depict. Perhaps this helps explain why it's the white audiences that are flocking to the theater.

*The Mis-Education of the Negro, p. 13.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Oprah, Foucault, and Coincidences

A long time ago I used to watch Oprah almost every day. I know, people make fun of the show’s combination of household tips and celebrity interviews interspersed with stories of horrific tragedy and the giving away of cars, and all held together by Oprah’s special brand of pop-psychology.  But once in a while I heard something on that show that stuck with me, and here’s one of those things. According to Oprah, there are no coincidences when it comes to human behavior. We behave in a certain way because we get something out of that behavior. So the woman who bemoans, “just my luck, I fell in love with a creep who stole all my money and had an affair with my Aunt Gertrude” chose that rotten boyfriend for a reason, because it met some unexamined need in her. It wasn’t a coincidence. 

Once I started grad school there was no more time for Oprah. Sometimes it felt as if my head would explode with all the new ideas I was required to read and understand (or at least make believe I understood, although I’m pretty sure I didn’t fool anyone). I noticed that certain names kept popping up in my course readings, names of people I’d never heard of in all my years of watching Oprah (nor in all my years of undergraduate and graduate education, but that’s another story and it sort of proves the point that I hope I’ll make in a minute). Anyway, one of these people is a French guy named Foucault. Now, Foucault said a lot of pretty heavy stuff, and I wouldn’t presume to do justice to his ideas in this little blog. But he wrote a lot about power and about the relationship between power and knowledge. He questioned the things that people, especially people in certain fields of study, believe to be true, or accept as “scientific” – that’s what he meant by knowledge. Foucault said that power and knowledge (that stuff that everybody assumes is true about a given subject) are related. They need each other to survive. They feed each other, in a way. So, power is achieved and maintained by people’s believing some things, and not other things, to be true or scientific. Then that knowledge, those things that people generally accept to be true, grows into whole areas of study, whole industries that keep the original people who promoted them in power. Seems a little confusing, I know. But I think that, in a way, Foucault, like Oprah, is saying there are no coincidences.

Take ability tracking in schools, for example. You know, that’s where they separate kids according to ability level, in order to teach them more effectively. This is done between schools (smart kids go to a specialized high school, and everybody else goes to the neighborhood or the vocational school), and even more often within schools (smart kids take certain classes, and everyone else takes the other, easier classes). The commonly accepted knowledge about tracking is that it makes sense; it’s a smooth and efficient way to educate kids. This way the teachers can focus on the specific needs of each group, and everybody’s happy. The only problem is that there’s a ton of research out there that says it doesn’t work, at least not for the lower-tracked group.  The higher-tracked kids, however, do great, but that’s just a coincidence, right?  Well, let’s apply Foucault’s theory. First of all, power has been exercised. The people in charge of the school districts (did I mention that they’re mostly white?) decided a long time ago that tracking was the way to go. They created this knowledge, this discourse, about how to best educate kids. The knowledge (because it has all this power behind it) takes on a life of its own and becomes widely accepted as scientific fact.  But, in reality, the kids in the lower-academic schools or tracks (did I mention that in integrated school districts they’re mostly students of color?) receive a substandard education, and are more likely to drop out and wind up unemployed or involved in the criminal justice system. Ah, but that’s not all. The exercising of power in the decision to divide up our kids into smart and not-so-smart groups creates a problem – it seems some kids are being “left behind.” (Sorry I’m oversimplifying here.  I’m aware that tracking is not the only system that creates educational disparities, but it is one of them). Now we need another body of knowledge regarding what to do about this problem.  How do we educate these low-tracked kids?  Commissions are formed. Acts of Congress are passed. Standardized tests are created and administered. Special education teachers are trained and hired to write IEP’s. Teacher educators are hired to train the special education teachers. Books and articles are written, making money for publishers and providing jobs for academics. Etc., etc., etc. Not to mention that the mostly white middle and upper class kids who are receiving the better education will graduate, go on to college, and replace their parents in positions of power, where they will maintain the knowledge about ability tracking that got them the better education. Hence, the groups in power stay in power because the knowledge they create serves to keep them in power. It’s not a coincidence.

The whole idea of coincidences becomes its own sort of discourse, too – a widely believed truth that serves to maintain the present power structure. For instance, recently I was involved in a conversation that went something like this (paraphrased):

Person A: A new study says that white men with criminal records are more likely to be called back on job interviews that black men without criminal records.
Person B:  Why do you make everything about race?
Person A: Well, while the whole middle class has suffered in the recession, the African American middle class has been hit especially hard, being the first to be laid off when budget cuts require downsizing.
[In fact, the wealth gap between African Americans and whites has more than quadrupled in the past few decades.]  
Person B: That’s just a coincidence.  It’s not anyone’s fault, and it’s certainly not related to color. It’s simply about seniority. African Americans in professional positions get laid off first because they happened to be hired last.

Hmm.  It’s a coincidence that African Americans were hired in professional positions later than whites? Certainly nothing to do with discrimination in hiring there. And I guess it was a coincidence that for decades our government stopped African Americans from purchasing homes in middle class communities, which stopped them from acquiring wealth.  It’s a coincidence that the only housing available to them was in the urban areas, where their children received the substandard education that I talked about earlier. Gosh, it’s amazing how one group of people can suffer from so much bad luck!

All right, maybe I’m getting a little off-track.  Let me just end this by saying that I have to agree with Oprah and Foucault (but maybe not in that order). There are no coincidences.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

On Being Human

It has all the makings of a bad joke – a vampire, a werewolf, and a ghost walk into a bar… Being Human, my most recent TV addiction.  While the BBC version is far superior to the American, I have to admit that I watched both this past year. I found something so poignant about the story of these three friends, none of whom have chosen their current condition, finding each other and trying to live as normally and “humanly” as possible. Longing to be human is a common theme in literature and modern sci fi/horror stories; Pinocchio, the Frankenstein monster, Data, the Cylons, and Neo’s enemy “machines” are just a few examples of non-human entities wanting to be human, or at least wanting to emulate certain human qualities, such as love.  Even the Borg, in their quest for automaton perfection, relied on a very human-like queen to keep the collective running.  In many of these stories, it’s the humans that actually caused all the problems between themselves and the artificial intelligence they created, by maintaining their dominance through oppression.  (Trek fans will remember that even Data narrowly escaped becoming the progenitor of a new slave population in the episode titled, “The Measure of a Man.”)

Maybe you see where I’m going with this. Sadly, the world of fiction is not the only place wherein human status was sought by some and denied by others.  Historically, one did not have to be a cyborg, or a machine, or supernatural in any way to be denied human status. For example, the Atlantic slave trade was justified, and slavery was allowed to persist for centuries, based on the supposed belief by whites that slaves weren’t really human. An essay I read the other day reminded me of a scene from the miniseries, Roots, where the captain of the slave ship weakly suggests that the slaves be treated a bit better, since, they are, after all, human beings.  The first mate, responds, “Of course they’re human beings…and if we’re to profit from this enterprise we’d best convince them and everyone else that they’re dogs or mules, anything but human beings.”  (I searched youtube for a clip of this scene to no avail – if anyone can find it, or can post it, let me know.)  It was necessary for whites to convince themselves that slaves were some sort of subhuman species, that they didn’t have the same feelings, desires, needs, hopes, etc., that we normal white human beings had, in order to justify the horrors of slavery.

Once again we can shake our heads and say, how sad.  Boy, those people were crazy back then.  I’m so happy that I’m part of the enlightened 21st century.  I think it’s interesting, though, that the being human theme persists in literature about race.  I see it in two of the most prevalent “antiracist” texts still used in classrooms today: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird.  Both are still read in my kids’ high school.  I’ve written before about the continuing debate about Huck – whether or not to leave the racial slur “nigger” in the text.  But what’s interesting to me is Huck’s gradual realization that Jim, the runaway slave, is actually a human being, with human emotions.  It’s this realization that prompts Huck to help Jim (albeit ineffectually) in the end. Mind you, never once does Huck view Jim as an equal, or as an adult, but at least he admits that he’s human. Of course, for Huck human meant white, and in order to justify saving Jim from slavery Huck tells himself that Jim is “white on the inside.”  I guess that was big stuff back in 1884.

Then there’s To Kill a Mockingbird.  Everybody loves that book/movie, and many would argue that Lee’s work has led many whites to realize the pain and devastation caused by racism. But what does the title mean? “It’s a sin to kill a mockingbird,” Atticus tells his son, because, a white neighbor explains, “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.”  Obviously there’s a metaphor at work here.  Who are the mockingbirds in the story, the innocents that “don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us”?  African Americans, of course!  Inexplicably, Lee chooses to compare African Americans to the little birdie that sings in the tree, not very bright, not good for much, but so entertaining with its sweet little song.  It’s enough to make Archie Bunker join the NAACP.

These two examples are from texts written by whites (and still, arguably, the most popular “multicultural” texts out there…hmm…coincidence?). I could give lots of literary examples of how the withholding of human status has wounded the psyche of people of color.  The theme permeates the realistic and fictional slave narrative, both historical and present day. Bigger Thomas, the main character in Richard Wright’s Native Son, is viewed by himself and others more as a monster than a real human being. Walter Dean Myers follows up on this theme in Monster, the story of an African American teen on trial for murder.  Sherman Alexie’s protagonist in The Absolute True Diary of a Part Time Indian has 42 teeth, “ten teeth past human.”  And for a really devastating read about a teenage girl fighting for humanness, there’s Push: A Novel, by Sapphire. 

So, I’m not sure where all this leaves us.  I guess what I want to stress is that when we think about race and racism, it’s important to remember that recognizing people as human, both legally and emotionally, is something that whites gave themselves the authority to do centuries ago.  It’s part of white privilege. And, like all aspects of racism, it can’t be changed until it is faced.  It’s the human thing to do.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Good People

Good People: I’ve heard that expression used many times to describe many people. The neighbors who take your mail inside when you’re on vacation are good people. The mom who drives your son home from soccer practice because your younger child is sick is good people. The teacher who enters your daughter’s name in a district drawing contest, the sales clerk who gives you the discount even though the coupon has expired, the friends who help you move (again) – these are all examples of good people. 

Good people help each other out. They care about the welfare of others. They give of themselves unselfishly for a greater cause. Right? The person who runs the bake sale, the car wash, or spearheads a charity collection – good people, through and through. But is outward activity what makes a person good? Can someone with racist attitudes still be a good person? Maybe racism is a cultural thing, to be excused or at least explained with the words, “that’s just the way they grew up. They’re still good people on the inside.”

A few cases in point:  Remember To Kill a Mockingbird, that classic of children’s literature that kids have been reading in school for decades?  Or maybe you remember the movie, with the amazing Gregory Peck playing Atticus Finch.  Remember how he bucks the white, blatantly racist, status quo by defending Tom Robinson, an African American who’s falsely accused of raping a white woman (the story is set in the South during the 1930s, when apparently the accusation itself was a death sentence)? Well, something about good ole’ Atticus jumped out at me during a recent re-reading of the novel. Tatum says there are three states of being regarding racism – you’re either actively racist, passively racist, or anti-racist. As much as Atticus Finch fought the racist legal system of his day, putting the safety of his own children on the line, he was, in my opinion, passively racist. What does that mean? The passive racist doesn’t go about spewing racial slurs or telling racist jokes. The passive racist is silent, maybe doesn’t approve of racist behavior, but doesn’t say anything about it, doesn’t confront the racist. I think of the passive racist as sort of a racism enabler. Now, one might argue that Atticus was fighting racism by defending Tom Robinson, and I guess, in part, that’s true (although the text makes it clear that Atticus was assigned the case – he had no choice in the matter). What bothered me was that throughout the novel Atticus excuses the racism of his community to his children. “No matter how bitter things get,” he tells his daughter, Scout, “they’re still our friends, and this is still our home.”  As a result of this conversation, and following her father’s instructions, the next day Scout fails to confront the racism of a schoolmate, walking away from a fight for the first time in her life.  Later in the story, Atticus tells Scout that their neighbors are “entitled to full respect for their [racist] opinions.” Even more troubling is Atticus’ attempt to define the term “nigger-lover” to Scout, telling her it’s “‘just one of those terms that don’t mean anything—like snot-nose. It’s hard to explain—ignorant, trashy people use it when they think somebody’s favoring Negroes over and above themselves.’”  Huh? Snot-nose? That’s a watered down explanation if I ever heard one. I was so frustrated when I read this! I wanted more from Atticus. I wanted him to say, “Hey, you freaking racists!  Get a grip!”  Okay, maybe that’s a little strong, and certainly it would have been culturally out of place. But at least he could have told his daughter that people who use that term are racist, and that we must do everything we can, short of physical violence, to show them how wrong that kind of thinking is. But, alas, Atticus never confronts racism head-on, not even in his polite, southern-gentlemanly way. To him, his community is filled with good people who just have an unfortunate opinion about something.

Another example – remember the Clint Eastwood movie, Gran Torino, of a few years back?  Eastwood plays a character that is so over the top racist that it’s actually funny (at least it was to the all white audience in the suburban theater where I saw the movie). I won’t go into any detail here, but, of course, the Eastwood character, who might be described as “a racist with a heart of gold,” winds up redeeming himself in the end. I remember being a bit disturbed by that. Was this movie trying to say that it’s possible to be completely hateful on the outside and still be a good person on the inside?  Can a lifetime of racism really be swept away by one sacrificial act at the end of one’s life?

People are complicated, I know, and to suggest that they are either all good or all bad is simplistic and fatuous. I know people who are good in lots of ways, people who would do anything to help a friend in need, people who are very religious, but who, truth be told, harbor racist attitudes. I’m not suggesting that we write them off as evil and have nothing further to do with them. I’m not even suggesting that we call them “racist” to their faces – as I said in my very first blog post, calling names never helped anyone. But, if we really care about these good people, I am suggesting that a conversation is in order. I tried to explore this idea in The R Word (there it is!) through Rachel’s eyes, as she grapples with the racism she sees in the good people (friends, family, neighbors) around her. “What do you think we are, monsters?” Rachel’s grandmother asks. No, they aren’t monsters. In many ways they’re very good people, just like the good people I bet many of us know. But that does not excuse them of racism, nor does it excuse us from holding them accountable. 

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Is Race Like a Cookie?

I admit it, I like food. Holidays, to me, are excuses to cook and eat. Some of my closest and most wonderful friendships revolve around food, and I can't help feeling (unfair though it may be) that people who don't relish food the way we do are suspect. As that great philosopher, Jack Black, said in School of Rock (years before eating was "discovered" in Eat, Pray, Love) "I like to eat.  Is that such a crime?"  

Along with appreciating actual food, I also enjoy the use of food as a metaphor for all kinds of stuff.  Life is like a box of chocolates, for instance.  In The R Word (my young adult novel, and yes, I am going to find a way to mention it in all of my posts from now on) I use food as a metaphor all over the place, and for decades people have been using food as a metaphor for race relations in the U.S.  It used to be said, for example, that American society was a melting pot, where all races would eventually melt together.  After a while that idea went out of fashion because it implied total assimilation.  Race is more like a salad, it was then decided, where all the vegetables lay around next to each other, the lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, and radishes coexisting in a kind of raw food bliss.  That didn't exactly work either, though, because it implied a "separate but equal" mentality.  Oh, thought someone else (I don't know who), race is like a stew, where the ingredients blend together and give each other flavor,  but still remain true to their essence.  I've always liked that one.

Yesterday I had occasion to watch a friend eat one of those delicious black and white cookies pictured above.  I used to love those cookies back in New York -- I have a memory of buying them in the subway, but I'm not sure now if that really happened or if I'm making it up.  Anyway, wouldn't you know that this morning I came across an article about the problem with the "black/white binary" in critical race theory.  The author argues that seeing race as a black/white thing leaves out all the other people that have experienced racism, such as Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans.  I have to admit that I'm guilty of thinking about race as a binary; you might even notice this in The R Word (you know, my young adult novel).  I'm not sure why, but I do tend to think about racism mostly in terms of black and white, even though I understand that people from many groups have and still do experience racism, and even though I've read some great books that explore racism from different perspectives (among them Kira Kira, The Absolute Diary of a Part Time Indian, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, and, most recently, The Woman Warrior).  I'm not sure why I give in to black/white binary ideas about race so readily, but I think it might have to do with where and when I'm from. My very unscholarly observation is that when I was growing up in Queens there was sort of an assumed, mostly unspoken racial hierarchy.  Whites were on top, of course, and African Americans were on the bottom.  Hispanics and Asians flittered around somewhere in between, and I never thought about Native Americans at all. Like I said, this is not a scholarly assertion with supporting evidence, except for the fact that over the years my old neighborhood and the surrounding area have allowed access to Asians and Hispanics, but not to African Americans.  Not that there isn't racism against these groups (whites from that area talk about the "Asian Invasion," for example), but the fact remains that Asians and Latinos were allowed to buy property in the area, while African Americans were not.  Also, lots of whites still live there, which tells me that white flight has not been as big an issue there as it has been in other parts of New York (areas that were once white but are now almost completely African American).  So while I'm not denying that many groups have and still do experience discrimination, I do believe that black/white binary thinking about race exists for a reason. There's something to it, or at least there was when I was growing up in the northeast. I need to think more about this.

In the meantime, anybody want a cookie?

Monday, June 13, 2011

A New Twist on School Inequity

Educational inequity is nothing new.  In 1896 the Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson  declared "separate but equal" schools were legal. Of course, schools were never equal, and finally, in 1954, through Brown v. Board of Education, the Court ruled that school segregation was illegal.  Hence, bussing came into being; in order to create racially integrated schools kids had to be bussed from different neighborhoods, since those neighborhoods were (and in many cases still are) segregated.  And we all lived happily every after, right?  Not exactly.  Through a series of more recent court decisions, bussing and the integration it ensured was no longer deemed mandatory, and, the saying goes, geography now does the work that the Jim Crow laws once did.  Racially segregated neighborhoods once again result in racially segregated public schools. Back to separate.  But are they equal?  

No.  Because of the way we fund (or in some cases, fail to fund) public education, poorer areas (mostly urban but some rural, too) have less money to spend on education, so their schools have fewer resources.  A pivotal scene in my young adult novel, The R Word, explores this inequity when the characters in the novel visit each others' schools.  Rachel, the white protagonist, is shocked and shamed to discover that her new friends' mostly African American, urban school is not so nice compared to her suburban school.  You see, she's always taken her school for granted -- it's just a "regular" public school, she's always thought.  I wrote that scene several years ago, and the sad fact is that school funding is more of an issue now than ever.  The slashing of state budgets around the country is hitting public schools everywhere, and especially hard hit are the already under-resourced urban schools. Well that's sad, you might be thinking, but what can you do?  We all have to tighten our belts in this rough economy.

As my mother used to say, one thing leads to another.  All this tightening of belts is leading to more and more privatization of public schools.  That means that private corporations running charter schools are taking over low-achieving urban public schools.  Governor Christie of NJ is proposing this, and, like educational inequity, it's nothing new.  It was done in Philly and other place years ago, with mixed results.  But did you know that in some places, like New York, privately run charter schools exist in the same building as the publicly run school?  And since the private corporations use private funds for these public charter schools (charter schools are free, public schools -- parents do not pay tuition), there's more money and more resources to be had. 

So now we have the odd situation of unequal schools housed in the same building.  As NAACP president Ben Jealous describes, "Classrooms with peeling paint and insufficient resources sit on one side, while new computers, smartboards and up-to-date textbooks line the other. One group of students is taught in hallways and cramped basements, while others under the same roof make use of fully functional classrooms."*  What does this have to do with racial inequity?  Are these schools racially segregated?  Not necessarily.  Most charter schools in urban areas accept kids through a lottery system.  However, we do need to ask ourselves a few questions.  Why were the urban schools failing in the first place?  Do we value public education, and, if so, why do we fund our schools unequally?  Why do we depend on private, profit-making corporations to education some, but not others, of our children? Why do urban kids need to "get lucky" through a lottery system in order to receive a decent education?  The answers to those questions have everything to do with race and social class.  Because one thing leads to another.


Sunday, June 5, 2011

It's Not About Race!

In her book, Colormute, Mica Pollock talks about dilemmas we face regarding the way we think about race.  For example, she says, "Race Doesn't Matter, but It Does."  In the high school that she researched, Pollock found that race was either talked about too casually, among students, or not at all in public, by teachers. Both were problematic because too easy talk about race took attention away from the serious analysis needed to determine race's roll in students' education. On the other hand, Pollock claims that teachers and staff were colormute, not colorblind, because they did see race (it was impossible not to) but chose not to talk about it with the students (they did talk about it with each other). This approach was damaging because, Pollock says, "The adult habit of deleting race labels from most discussions of 'discipline' actually left the question of race's relevance just festering within all student-adult conflicts" (46).  In other words, the issue of race was there, everybody knew it was there, but the adults didn't want to admit that it was there, probably due to the fear of being called The R Word (racist).

I've just finished reading Richard Wright's modern classic, Native Son.  Devastating!  The main character, Bigger Thomas, seems to have no redeeming qualities.  Throughout the story he's followed, haunted, by images of whiteness -- snow falling, a white cat, a blind woman dressed in white.  The story takes place during the Jim Crow era, when oppression of blacks by whites was stark, in-your-face, brutal.  Bigger is oppressed to the point where he doesn't feel human.  Squalid but expensive living conditions in apartments owned by rich whites, lack of work, poor education, social segregation, and the shame and anger of  continual "othering" by the white population take their toll on Bigger and convince him deep within that he is less than human.  He feels like a monster, so he begins to act like a monster, and like a trapped monster, at that.  (Caveat for those who read YA fiction -- I recommend Walter Dean Myers' MONSTER as a companion to Native Son.)  Anyway, Bigger, feeling no connection to the human race, kills two women to save himself from falling into the hands of whites. His capture and subsequent trial are fascinating, as the prosecuting attorney vacillates between the "it's all about race" and "it's not about race" arguments.  "Your Honor," he says, "I regret that the defense has raised the viperous issue of race and class hate in this trial." Read:  this is a murder trial.  This person killed and must be punished.  It's not about race, it's about human decency and responsibility! Next paragraph: "Every decent white man in America ought to swoon with joy for the opportunity to crush with his heel the woolly head of this black lizard, to keep him from scuttling on his belly farther over the earth and spitting forth his venom of death!" (408, 409).  Hmm, kinda sounds like for this guy it is about race after all.

Now, back to present day.  A good friend of mine mentioned that she was reading Sharon M. Draper's YA novel, Tears of a Tiger for a grad class.  It's the story of the aftermath of the accidental drinking and driving death of a high school basketball star.  So, it's about death, guilt, identity, relationships, etc.  All of the main characters are African American, attending an urban school, while some of the teachers and counselors are white.  When my friend analyzed the role of race in the novel she was warned by her prof to be careful not to come across as racist in her paper.  Did my friend write, "These characters are all losers because they are black!"  Of course not -- that would be racist!  She simply pointed out some obvious elements of the story that dealt with race -- the white teachers' low expectations toward the black students, the African American dad's desire to be accepted by whites in his business dealings, the belief of the white counselors that "Black kids are tougher that white kids.  They'll get through this," etc.  These were obvious points in the text, clearly there to stimulate readers' thinking and conversations about racism.  But this grad school prof (a conservative, Christian, white, woman, btw) insisted that this novel was not about race and should not be construed that way.  "Be careful," she warned my friend.  "You don't want to come across as racist in your paper."  In this prof's eyes, I guess, Tears of a Tiger is a story about kids who "happened to be black." (It always cracks me up when white people say stuff like this.  They'll say, "I went to dinner with my friend who happens to be black."  I picture that person falling out of bed in the morning, looking in the mirror, and saying, "Wow-- I happen to be black!").

So, being colormute, whether because of fear or something else, is nothing new.  Confusion about the role of race in human relations is nothing new (as Wright illustrated in 1940).  Failure to recognize the role of race in a book that clearly explores the subject is nothing new, either, but is sad for the missed opportunity it represents. Talking about race does not make one racist and not talking about race does not make racial tensions or inequities go away.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

There's them that's us, and there's them that's got culture

Last weekend I got to attend a conference hosted by my very own Childhood Studies department at Rutgers University in Camden, NJ, where I'm a PhD student.  There were lots of great presentations, but one paper I heard especially sparked my interest.  I'll tell you about it in a minute, but first, this little caveat. On the second day of the conference I woke up with pain and blurred vision in my right eye.  My first response, as usual, was to go online and diagnose myself.  Here were the options:  brain tumor, stroke, or acute glaucoma.  Every site I went to said the following:  "This is a medical emergency.  Seek medical attention immediately."  Thankfully, I was able to get an appointment with my eye doctor right away, and it turned out to be nothing serious (just a treatable virus).  Here's the interesting part -- not wanting to miss the conference, I asked if I could still drive to Camden.  After all, my left eye was fine!  The doctor didn't blink an eye (sorry) about my driving at high speeds on a major highway with less than perfect vision.  Instead she said, "Ooh, Camden.  You don't want to get lost there." Concerns of race and social class win out over general health and safety every time!

Anyway, I made it to Camden just fine and attended a session where a woman presented a study she'd done as part of her master's thesis.  She'd analyzed children's books in preschool classrooms, looking at various views of childhood as depicted through characters in these books.  To do this she'd created categories, such as body size, gender, class, age, sexuality, and ability, and counted how many characters she found that fit into each category.  Her last category was culture.  If you've been reading this blog for awhile, perhaps you see where I'm going with this.  Culture as a category?  Curious. What is culture?  According to the dictionary, it is "the attitudes and behavior characteristic of a particular social group." Since we're all part of a "particular social group," or of many particular social groups, we all experience the cultures of those groups.  We are all products of those cultures that in a variety of ways work together to make us who we are. So I asked the presenter what she meant by culture. (When I told my son about this a few days later he wondered if I'd stood up and shouted, "Are you SERIOUS?" and thrown a chair.  Gotta admire the direct approach.)  Did she mean things like race, ethnicity, language? And why had she grouped them all together?  Of course, that's exactly what the presenter meant.  She explained that she'd grouped any characters that weren't white under the heading of culture.  Further, she said that she'd done this because "the master's had to get done really fast."  People in the audience chuckled at this -- those darn master's degrees!  Gotta get 'em over with!  No time to think about race or ethnicity!  Just lump it together under culture -- that's good enough when you're in a hurry! Oh, and did I mention that the presenter was white?  Didn't have to, did I?

I know, I'm being facetious.  Nothing against this presenter, but I could not help but notice how her grouping of characters in children's books so perfectly reflected a common disposition among whites -- we're white, we're just regular.  Culture, and by extension race, is something other people have.  I know I've posted about this before, but it just keeps jumping out at me.  

Dyer* notes that traditionally, the study of race has implied the study of races other than white (p. 9).  The tendency of whites to see themselves as raceless allows them to believe that “other people are raced, we are just people” (p. 10).  This, Dyer believes, keeps whites in the position of power, because while others can only speak for their particular race, whites believe that they represent the interests of all human-kind.  Dyer suggests that as long as whites continue to see themselves as “normal,” white power will continue to reproduce itself (p. 12).  This is important, because whites won't see how our race and culture interacts with others (both historically and in the present) if we don't think we have a race and culture. 

Amazingly, all of these reflections, and this wonderful conference, took place in Camden.  Who would ever have thunk it.

*Dyer, R. (2005). “The Matter of Whiteness.” In P. S. Rothenberg, White privilege: Essential readings on the other side of racism, NY: Worth Publishers.