I don't cry anymore or have the feeling like I could. I've realized his lately, especially when I've watched or heard sad things that I'm sure would have made me fall into a sad stupor before. It's strange, but I feel like my heart is hardening. And this time, not just the exterior. I mean the whole thing is just hardening. I don't feel compassion in the literal sense of the word: I don't "suffer with" anyone anymore, it seems. In fact, I feel almost nothing. Like a robot with all the answers--or at least a calculated response to things. Like a machine that just carries on to do its job.
I don't delve into the lives of my students anymore, and frankly--oddly--I don't particularly care to. I did in the beginning, but...not anymore. And I know that upon reading this, your eyes have probably narrowed and your brow has raised and you're wondering why this post seems so at odds with everything you'd expect. And you should know that I titled it "Lessons Unplanned" for a reason because I too have been wondering why this experience is so at odds with everything I'd expected.
But I expected a lot of things when I entered this commitment, and probably nine of out ten of those things did not go as planned. This has been an experience unlike any other in that everything I've ever done before now has been done exactly according to plan.
Well, Hello, Real Life, nice to meet you.
I thought upon entering this experience of teaching what we like to "politely" call "underprivileged children" (or "children from low income communities" or "high-risk children" or anything else that places humans with unique lives in very generalized categories) that I was very much aware of my identity as a privileged white girl. In fact, I wrote about it obsessively, and I certainly still stand by the things that I wrote about.
But teaching my kids--the beautiful little souls that fill up my classroom daily--has changed my identity in a profound way. It has changed me almost radically--almost as if it has changed the very makeup of who I am and who I have been all this time.
Before this experience, if you'd asked me to describe myself in three words, I would almost always say these: passionate, ambitious, and compassionate. But I'm replacing "compassionate," now, with something else to be determined when I sort through things.
In the first few months of the school year, there were so many days I'd go home and feel heavy. Some days, I would just lie in bed. Many days, I would just cry. Sometimes it was more like a desperate weeping. Because my kids would tell me things that would break my heart. I would see things that would break my heart. I would think about things that would break my heart.
Nothing has changed in their lives, but I did.
It wasn't that the weight of their problems became too much for me to bear. Indeed, I shed a lot of tears, but still it wasn't that. In fact, when I cried for them, I felt almost ashamed and weak. I wasn't actually crying FOR them. I was crying BECAUSE of them--as if their existence was just too hard on privileged me to witness. Crying because of them wasn't fair. How dare I drive home in and to my privilege, crying on the way and crying there--feeling sorry for these children who deserve better?
No. Because they would come to school the next day and they'd be humans just like me but better because they didn't go home feeling sorry for themselves. They just lived and trudged through--experiencing the range of human emotion and being--just like everyone else. And who was I to feel sorry for them when their very lives gave them the resiliency to keep going every single day? Just waking up means that despite ANY hardship they experience, they have a relentless hope and strength I couldn't even fathom rivaling.
They are incredible.
Incredible means "impossible to believe." And they are. To so many people. It really is nearly impossible to believe that people who experience the hardship they do can rise every morning and be excellent when I demand for them to be excellent.
The default stance is that "those" people already have a story written for them. Well, they don't. They wake up every day to write their story until society closes the book on them or takes the pen out of their hands. They don't choose to fail. And if it seems like they do choose failure, it's really that they just don't even know their own greatness. Consider it humility to a fault.
They are my teachers. They are the wake-up call I've needed since I was born into my privileged existence. Feeling sad and sorry, I have learned, is absolutely useless. Feeling sad and sorry sapped me of the energy I needed to be something useful. I don't delve into the lives of my kids because it doesn't matter the way we might think it does. Being their shoulder to cry on, I've decided, is not the role I'm best at playing, nor is it the role I want to play. Sure, when they talk, I listen. But I don't pry. My duty is to be for them what I know I can be: someone who loves them so much I'll look past their pains and push them to reach greatness because they've proven, just by living, that they CAN.
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.
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.
If we’re going to discuss education, we cannot leave out the family. Students are children first, which means they aren’t born in a classroom, they’re born into families. The family forms the first environment in which a young child develops.
One of my dearly beloved professors and I have wonderful debates on a weekly basis about social justice and education—because I make him have these debates with me, and he kindly obliges (probably secretly rolling his eyes when I walk through the door).
In my last post, I discussed the issue of teacher quality and the lack of strategies established at the state and federal level to consistently recruit, teach and develop excellent educators. But my professor decided to rail me in our discussion, insisting that, essentially, teachers are only half the story. Parents, he fervently asserted, parents are part of, if not the root of, the reason for students’ lack of achievement.
While there is no doubt evidence that family environments have a crucial impact on a child’s cognitive and non-cognitive development, I think a concerted and genuine effort to bridge the gap between parents and educators can help to mitigate the challenges that parents and children from lower-income communities face.
This requires incorporating social justice classes into teacher education, first and foremost.
What often happens among white, middle class teachers is the otherization of parents from lower classes. This kind of otherization is, I believe, the result of a grave misunderstanding—a misunderstanding that is rooted in the fallacious meritocratic theory of success. When teachers harbor this kind of misconception of the “other,” i.e. parents from lower classes, they not only marginalize those parents further but they also maintain an ideology within the classroom that marginalizes those parents’ children.
There is a serious and detrimental lack of cultural synchronization between teacher and child, and teacher and parent.
Too often parents are dismissed as negligent or are perceived as not caring about their child’s success. This kind of assertion teems with misunderstanding and prejudice.
For parents from the working class, caring about their child’s academic success—whether they’re doing well on tests, turning in their homeworking, behaving in class as the teacher demands, learning the essentials—is often not feasible in the way many educators would like. Not all parents have the time to check their child’s homework, study with their children for their tests, or give them a quiet room in which they can do their work. Many of these parents work multiple jobs, work the night shift, and/or just don’t have the resources.
Furthermore, too many parents—especially those that come from lower-income communities—don’t understand the inherent value of school because they didn’t experience it. Many parents’ aspirations for their children are to land a job out of high school so they can contribute to the family income. Too many parents have been jaded by the system that has oppressed them—a system that is so ingrained into the fabric of American life that they don’t even think to fight it.
The issue is so much bigger than just parents. I would venture to say that a tiny fraction of parents actually don’t care about their children. The majority just doesn’t have the time, the resources, or the hope that education will be their ticket out of poverty.
The bigger issue—and the issue that future and current teachers alike absolutely must understand—is that our country and the institutional and social structures that comprise it are riddled with racism and classism, which ensures that people of color and the poor are locked out of middle class privileges.
If our teachers learn only pedagogical methods in school and fail to learn and comprehend the social workings of this country (which seems like the very thing a school in conservative Oklahoma would leave out) then they are only half qualified (if even) for the profession.
We cannot blame the oppressed for their own oppression.
When my family came to the United States, they endured the struggles of immigrants who’d left everything behind on their island home. But they left as upper middle class white Jamaican Anglophiles and arrived, fairly well-received, as middle class whites with strange accents but similar cultural nuances. Assimilation was not exceptionally difficult. America was certainly a far cry from the slow and steady pace of island life, but they still enjoyed certain middle-class luxuries.
A great majority of people in this country would say that racism is abhorrent. But what most people don’t understand is that racism is more than just overt prejudice against people of color. Certainly, we can all agree that facial racism unfortunately does still exist, just as it did in the past.
But there is an even more dangerous aspect of racism that is easy to ignore if you don’t know how to see it. It’s a kind of racism that remains hidden because it is so deeply embedded into the system and into American ideology.
There is a distinction to be made between prejudice and racism. The semantics are important because word meanings translate into ways of thinking and perceiving. I subscribe to David Wellman’s definition of racism as a “system of advantage based on race.” This definition implies that it is not necessary to “embrace overtly prejudicial thinking” in order to be part of the racist system. The system incorporates “cultural messages and institutional policies and practices as well as beliefs and actions of individuals” that place people of color at a disadvantage, writes Beverly Tatum in her book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?
This system has produced and maintained “White Privilege.” As white men and women we benefit from a racist system. Without doubt, we do not benefit equally—there are too many other “isms” at play: sexism, classism, ageism, ableism, heterosexism, etc. Nonetheless, we are beneficiaries whether we know it or not.
What is most striking about systemic racism is that the consequences are particularly dire. Poverty rates for people of color, specifically black and Hispanic people, are more than twice that of white people in America. “In 2010, 27.4 percent of blacks and 26.6 percent of Hispanics were poor, compared to 9.9 percent of non-Hispanic whites and 12.1 percent of Asians.”
Welfare programs, affirmative action policies and the War on Drugs have done little—if anything at all—to get at the root of the issue. They instead slap a Band-Aid onto the problem, hoping that covering it up will solve it. In reality, the primary source of the poverty trap lies within public schools and the public school system, which fail to provide children of color and children from low-income families the skills and attention they need to succeed.
Instead, schools promote the maintenance of the status quo, which belies the tenets of the American Dream touted by citizens and immigrants alike. The American Dream is about social mobility, and it relies on the premise that we live in a meritocracy. For many this might be at least partially true. For instance, for me, it has been. My mother raised me as a struggling single parent for much of my life, but I’ve been able to work hard, get good scholarships, go to college and graduate with three majors and with highest honors. Even so, my hard work has only done part of it for me. I have also enjoyed white, heterosexual privilege.
But the reality for too many other people is that hard work and good decisions are often not enough to realize that great American Dream. The idea that social mobility is a possibility for all is nice. However, it is only an idea right now.
Realizing this is the first step to making it a reality. But we have a long, long way to go.