About a week ago, I went home to visit the fam and the boyfriend, and to observe a couple of Teach for America teachers in action in their classrooms. When I go to Tulsa, I usually stay with my grandparents, because there is where I get royal treatment and I’ve been booted out of my mom’s house by three little pubescent sisters that need their own rooms.
Gigi, my lovely grandmother, my sister and I went out to lunch to Free Birds—a place I don’t really recommend for grandmothers, but whatever. I don’t really know what we were talking about, but I do remember a very unforgettable one-liner from Gigi.
Now before I give you that one-liner, let me just give you a little background about my grandma. She comes from Jamaica, where she lived until her early thirties before moving to the U.S. Here, she took up a profession as a pre-school teacher. Back in the day (and maybe still today, I’m not sure), you didn’t need a college degree to be a pre-K teacher. So, unsurprisingly given her native country and the times, she didn’t get one.
Let me also note that Gigi is a very…opinionated woman. She’ll tell you how it is without a drop of remorse. She’ll tell you, dear waiter, if she thinks you’re rude or providing poor service. She’ll tell you not to dare call her “honey” if you’re not older than she is. Yep, Gigi is one of those. And yet when she loves, she loves unconditionally and with a love that fills you to the brim.
In other words, my grandmother is a real character.
So when she said during our conversation, “College people think they know everything
,” in the snarkiest tone of voice she could muster (and she is a master at snark), I wasn’t particularly surprised but I was certainly intrigued.
Often when I visit my family at home and start spouting off some facts and figures and theories and “scholarly” opinions, I get the cold shoulder. I get rolls of the eyes and a few scoffs. I get groans that clearly mean, “Oh, for the love of God, here she goes again. Know-it-all.”
Don’t get me wrong: my family has supported me with all the encouragement and love in the world as I’ve pursued my degrees. Gigi gets choked up when she tells me how proud of me she is. My mom brags (a little too much, probably) to everyone with whom she comes into contact. And my entire family has been pushing me to go to college since I was born. Literally.
But such seemingly contradictory behavior can’t be written off as just hypocrisy. Just because the members of my family don’t have a college education doesn’t mean their opinions about college grads and academes are invalidated. In fact, they really have a point. We “college people”—and by that I think she meant students and graduates alike—really do think we know it all. But as I near the end of my college career, I can’t help but feel that while knowing all the facts and figures that I know because of my university education is important, it really doesn’t give me a full picture of reality.
The problem with academia that I have found is that it sucks the life out of life. It reduces reality to numbers and measurements. And while these certainly are important—especially for practically creating and applying policies and programs—it sometimes means that the practitioners of academia lose a little bit of their own humanity. We start to see the world in analytical terms, and we kind of forget that, oh yeah, we’re studying humans.
This is especially true for people who study humanities because it seems like everything we study is relevant to the here and now almost always.
Thinking analytically, though, can kind of take away from living.
It’s hard for me to admit that the thing I love—and I mean love—is also the thing that drains me the most. I am a nerd for school. I see the potential it has for the improvement of individuals’ lives and for the health of whole communities, nations and the world. But something about it has to change. We can’t go to school to gain knowledge only to give up the things that make us human.
I used to write poetry. I used to be an artist. I used philosophize and daydream. I used to read books just to read books, just because they were beautiful. Since college it has become harder and harder to do those things. In some cases, it’s become impossible. I’ve become sucked up in the whirlwind of academia and the pressure to fix this, analyze that. I forget that my reality is beyond a textbook or journal article, that I am not defined by academia, that I am indeed a person. Academia can in a sense desensitize us to our own personhood.
Why is it that our schools—the factories that produce future generations—don’t value good old-fashioned living? Why is it that building up “human capital” comes at the expense of making robots out of humans? Why does the neoliberal agenda reduce education to mere economic investment in the next generation? And most importantly, why do our schools essentially look the same way they did 200 years ago
Somewhere, we’re missing the mark. Our complacency is (melodramatic as it seams) deadening. The standard of satisfaction has remained the same—if it hasn’t lowered—for centuries now, and that just doesn’t
It sounds like we need some good old-fashioned radicalism.
Once upon a time there were these white guys that came together to hash out the structures of government for a new nation. They were pretty smart. In fact, they actually really had a fear of ignorant and just plain stupid people. They also were afraid of tyrants—especially religious ones. But that’s irrelevant for this story right now.
This bunch really liked democracy, thought it was a nice idea, believed in rights and stuff. But they were smart enough to realize that in a democracy, if the majority of citizens are just plain idiots, that doesn’t really make for a very functional, beneficial government
. So instead, they turned to the idea of a republic. This republic was supposed to act as a buffer against tyranny by the stupid mob.
But, said these men, if citizens of this new country are going to vote—even for representatives—they had better be at least somewhat educated so that they can make proper decisions when voting. It is, after all, a social contract, in which each person gives up some freedom to ensure that the liberties of everyone are protected by the sovereign entity to which all subscribe.
Unfortunately, all the buffers that those genius old men put up over 200 years ago have snapped under the weight of the complex nation that arose from those thirteen initial colonies. Since then, we’ve gone through events that have contorted the pretty American picture painted by the Founders’ idealism. We’ve been participated in genocide of Native Americans, Civil War, slavery, eugenics, imperialism, terrorist attacks, secret operations to exploit others, a Civil Rights Movement, assassinations, the “war on drugs,” anti-immigration policies, corporate takeover, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Instead of being an “informed” polity, Americans overdose on stupefying reports by the media. Yes, stupefying. Because the way the media (and even our classroom textbooks) report what’s going on in the world—domestic and abroad, past and present—literally makes those who read it unconscious to reality.
There is no simplified version of reality, and yet everything we are taught is served to us on a silver platter comprising out-of-context clips and quotes and a deluge of facts without anyone to critically analyze or question them.
Let’s think about how we got to this place. For centuries—indeed, since before the founding of this nation—white colonists and later Americans have been denying access to the marketplace of ideas to specific groups: women, any person of color, any non-land-owning white person, immigrants, etc. Denying access means that these groups have been denied the ability to contribute to the production of mainstream public opinion, sentimentality, ideology, and culture.
In other words, we have a long history of unquestioningly accepting whatever the “authorities” say. There have been only brief periods in our history in which people have really challenged authority, but this is not one of those eras.
Today, among hippy college kids, being outside of the “mainstream” is “cool.” But face the fact that mainstream America holds the power because of their numbers and their political clout. So if you’re under the impression that you’re cool because you think mainstream is uncool, you should realign your values: You should give a shit that mainstream tends to mean unconscious to reality. You should give a shit that being “mainstream” means being part of the majority that just floats along the political and social brook of ignorance.
Whether you sit along the edge of the river or you’re floating along in it, it’s going to continue to erode the foundations of that democratic republic those beloved old men created. And then we’re all just shit out of luck, because when everything’s flooded only those at the top will be fine. Even more, they’ll be the ones that throw you the lifeboat…or not.
I have always been a nerdy lover of books. Gigi, my super cute grandma, used to take me to the library every summer so that I could gather up a collection of books and read until I was rewarded with a fine, shiny medal, which I proudly wore.
At 22 years old, I still like to go to the library (or my friendly Amazon.com) to gather up a collection of books to read. The reward I claim is even better than a shiny medal. I gain insight into my world, myself, and everything in between.
And sometimes the reward, i.e. the insight, is a little bittersweet. In my reading today, I learned—or rather I learned to recognize—something slightly disturbing about myself: I often act from a sense of entitlement.
Why did it take me 22 years to figure this out? Because I grew up totally believing in equal opportunity and equal rights and all that American jazz. So for 22 years I’ve been making up excuses about why I “deserve” preferential treatment.
This is something the author of my Uprooting Racism book, Paul Kivel, taught me about myself. He lists a number of excuses in the book that I admit I have absolutely felt before:
1. I am better educated
2. I have more experience
3. I am more rational
4. My time is more valuable
5. I worked hard to get where I am
6. They probably don’t need as much to live on
7. I don’t actually have direct contact with them so I am not responsible
8. I need to get there on time
9. I’m doing more important things (this is my personal addition to his list)
These kinds of excuses are just the foundation of persistent inequality in our society. Most of us would never stand in a long line, see a person of color and think: “Because I’m white, I should be able to cut him/her.” We live in the twenty-first century.
But recognizing that we think in these more subtle terms of entitlement, as listed above, is almost worse because they’re so hard to be conscious of if they’re not brought to our attention. And furthermore, it’s kind of embarrassing to admit that we may think this way sometimes.
This sense of entitlement is a very surreptitious way of manifesting our latent beliefs that people really are unequal. I don’t mean in the sense of socioeconomics or politics (we all know that’s the case). I mean this sense of entitlement reveals a hidden belief that people are unequal at the human being level.
Let me paint a slightly humiliating picture. The time when my feeling of entitlement is most noticeable is when I’m in the car and I am in a serious hurry to get somewhere. If I’m in a hurry to get somewhere, it is obviously somewhere important that I need to be. So typically, I get extremely frustrated (and frustrated is a euphemism) when other people get in my way, go below or at the speed limit, or just look at me.
My thoughts, which are peppered with expletives I won’t write out, follow these lines: “Why the hell are you in the fast lane when you’re going the speed limit?” “I HAVE SOMEWHERE TO BE!” “DEAR GOD, YOU SHOULDN’T BE DRIVING!” “I don’t have all day, and you clearly don’t have anywhere to be.” “WHY ARE YOU ON THE ROAD?!”
And my actions follow these lines: I weave in and out of cars. I tail cars that won’t yield to me. I throw up my hands in the air to signal my frustration so they can see. I speed past people when they finally move over and then I glare hard core.
All of these thoughts and actions are just the manifestation of me thinking I deserve the road more than anyone else because I “have somewhere to be,” automatically assuming that no one else does because they’re not as important as I am.
That’s hard to admit, and I’m definitely not thinking that explicitly when I act or think that way. But we really do rarely look at the root of the reasons we say or do things. Beneath the superficial reasons, there is usually a much bigger reason for the way we act than we’re willing to admit.
But if we can come forward, see where we err—even when it is incredibly embarrassing in retrospect (like my road rage)—we can really begin to address the ways in which the culture of power is ingrained in us. That culture of power is characterized by a sense of entitlement at the expense of others.
Am I going to be an angel every time I drive in my car, even and especially when I’m late and in a hurry to get somewhere that is important to me, now that I recognize what my actions mean? Probably not likely. But I will certainly be more conscious and aware of what my actions imply about my beliefs.
It was the great Mahatma Gandhi that wisely said:
Just the cutest, sweetest face I've ever seen.
Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.
Fortunately, all of these things are in our control. With practice and dedication we can be and become exactly who we want to be.
I’m reading an excellent book right now called Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice, by Paul Kivel
. As you can imagine, the book is about the way in which white people benefit from our racist society, what the implications of being a person of color are, and how white people can really grapple with issues rather than stare, dumbfounded, at them.
The other day, I was having a discussion with a group of people about—you guessed it—racial inequality. I was railing on about white privilege and the injustices that plague this country until one of the group members shrugged his shoulders, held up his hands, and said, “I’m not denying that any of that exists, but what am I supposed to do about it? I’m going to be an engineer. I have no say in these things.”
I opened my mouth and said something to say something, but his question was actually thought-provoking, honest, and at the same time extremely saddening.
Okay, I thought, so maybe people aren’t born to be activists for the rest of their lives. My friend is going to be an engineer, and let’s be real: most engineers don’t take up social activism on the side.
So his question about what he was supposed to do to address issues of race and class in this country was legitimate—especially for someone who doesn’t study this stuff for fun (like I do…because I’m real fun).
Moreover his question indicates a genuine (and expectable) misunderstanding about the root causes of social injustice. In America, because we are a materialistic society, we think about social justice in terms of resources allocation—the distribution of wealth, resources, social positions, jobs, etc.
When we think of socioeconomic equality, we think about fettering out goods, services and money in a more equal way.
Thinking in these terms is problematic for a couple reasons:1. By thinking of social justice as the more equal distribution of certain resources, we take ourselves out of the picture. We think like this: As your normal, middle class white girl or boy, what could I possibly do about the allocation of resources? Isn’t that the government’s job? Isn’t that the job of big-time organizations and lobbies that focus on this stuff?
2. Associating justice exclusively with the distribution of wealth and resources misses a huge component of socioeconomic inequality: domination and oppression.
Domination and oppression manifest themselves in the institutions that those in power—white middle and upper class Americans—create and maintain in the U.S. They are the results of age-old prejudices against people that are historically and presently perceived as “different” from what is white, male, and Christian.
Here lies the answer about what we simpletons can do to address the issues of racism in this country: we can acknowledge that domination and oppression exist not just in the faceless “system” but in everyday social interactions that occur within the institutions we comprise.
We—every single one of us, no matter whom we are or what we plan to do with our lives—can do something about racism in this country. It begins with recognizing that we have indeed crafted a culture of power and understanding what that culture’s message is to excluded groups
If we have the power to oppress we certainly have the power to stop.
More on this later.
I had a conversation with someone the other day about racism in America, because, frankly, if I’m around a person (or group of people) for more than an hour, I will start proselytizing about social justice. It’s what I do.
But the more I do “proselytize,” the more daunting the whole agent-of-social-change thing becomes. I don’t know if it’s because I live in Oklahoma or if the lack of racial diversity in Norman, Oklahoma, where I am currently residing, has anything to do with it, but any mention of White Privilege or systemic racism and I get snide comments, complete apathy, or a roll of the eyes.
Suddenly, because I care about equality and about reversing the systemic socioeconomic stratification of our society, I am a “radical.” That title alone prevents me from being taken seriously at all by some leftwing groups and individuals and by most if not all “moderate” or right of moderate groups and individuals.
Why does my unwavering passion for justice make me a “radical” when the very reason we created this nation was because “all men are created equal” and because a government should protect their “unalienable rights” to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?
(I get it that our dear Founding Fathers really weren’t talking about black people or Native Americans when they wrote those words but I think it’s safe to say that if they lived in this day and age, they would be. They were pretty progressive guys.)
The other day in class another incidence occurred whereby my peers surprised me by deeming me a “radical.” We were discussing—off topic, I’ll admit—the purpose of primary and secondary education in America in a small group of about five of us. Education in America is my thing—my obsession, as I’m sure you can tell if you read this blog. Therefore, when one of my peers said that the exclusive purpose of education was to prepare kids for college and/or the labor market, I jumped on him.
No, no, no, I said. The real and primary purpose of education in America is the ideological homogenization of students and the deliberate socioeconomic stratification of society based on class and race.
As soon as the words left my mouth, each of their faces contorted in this look of disgust and fury. They threw their arms up and lashed back:
"You’re a radical!"
"That’s a bit extreme…"
"You should probably leave the country if that’s the way you feel."
I was slightly taken aback at how vehement—and unified—their responses were. We weren’t in a science or math class, where students don’t really study society and therefore probably don’t learn much about it unless they make an extra effort. We were in a political science class that studies religion and the constitution. These people are supposed to have some idea of the way the world, let alone this country, really works.
Why, then, should it come as any kind of shocking surprise that the world isn’t as neat and fair as we’d like it to be? More importantly, why is even a mention of this idea so outlandish and radical that the entire issue was brushed aside as irrelevant and unworthy of discussion altogether?
The lack of a critical attitude toward our society and the apathy so many people have for the injustices they know exist is disheartening, to say the least.
In moments like these, I turn inward—to my roommate next door who does understand or to my boyfriend who does understand—so that I can forget that there are so many people who just don’t understand and don’t care to. But this in itself is detrimental because when I go back to the real world and discuss these issues with everyday people, I’m just unpleasantly surprised and even more frustrated at how backward mainstream mentality is.
Happy Monday, everybody.
The First Amendment to the Constitution provides for us one of the clearest examples of what our Founding Fathers wanted for this country. And perhaps even more than the First Amendment itself, but the history behind the making of it tells a grand story about our Founders’ values and hopes for their new nation.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and the petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
That collection of rights was deemed by the Founding Fathers to be the most important of all rights that the government is obligated to protect. Each of these rights, furthermore, gets to the heart of what is most central to the development of humanity: “what Justice Jackson termed the ‘sphere of intellect and spirit’”. This sphere is “at or near the heart of what makes us human. The protection of that sphere against unwarranted intrusion represents the most fundamental of all human liberties” (Galston, 2003, p. 127).
Why is it, then, that our public schools are allowed to be the premiere locus for government entanglement in the sphere of intellect and spirit?
The fact that the first priority of the Founding Fathers is preventing any establishment of religion and preventing the prohibition of religious free exercise reveals two things: 1) the Founders were terrified of a government controlled by religion; 2) the Founders wanted religions to flourish because man’s first duty is “to his Creator.”
The truth of the matter is, though, that our Constitution must adapt with the times. Religiosity, secularism, humanism, environmentalism, veganism, etc.—each of these is a manifestation of the intellectual and spiritual realm.
With the promotion of secularism in American institutions, so many life philosophies have sprung from it that take the place of deistic religions. The Constitution must adapt to this phenomenon in our society.
By forcing public schools to adopt a strictly secularist (and by that I mean non-religious) approach to education, we seriously restrict what students can and should learn. Moreover, we limit parents’ freedom to choose what their children should learn in schools.
Increasingly secularized public schools completely belie the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses in the First Amendment, because the government chooses to advance and support a specific intellectual/spiritual matter at the expense of what parents may deem far more important, necessary and preferable.
I strongly believe that the only way to uphold the values of the Founding Fathers is to privatize education and let our institutions reflect and respect the pluralistic nature of this nation. Homogenizing society was never one of the Founders’ values.