Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Can Black people be racist?

I have been in several conversations recently where communication has broken down around the concept of racism. In all of these cases, the people in the conversation were operating with different definitions of racism. As my friends in philosophy will tell you, this is a recipe for disaster.

We can’t actually come to an agreement about something, or even agree to disagree, unless we begin with a similar understanding of the topic we are discussing. And it's just not nice to say that the other person is “crazy” or “stupid” or, as my mother would say, we certainly shouldn’t say those things out loud even if we think them.

I am coming from the vantage point of sociology, Critical Race Theory, and education. In all of these fields, there is a certain definition of racism that is understood to be true.

However, MY definition is not the common definition of racism.

It is not even the definition of racism in the dictionary.

In order to be completely fair, I want to address this topic from three angles:
  • I will discuss whether protesters at Mizzou and, more broadly, Black Lives Matter activists, are racist using the common definition from the dictionary.
  • I will give a compelling argument why the dictionary’s definition of racism does not hold up to the logic of its morphological structure, and
  • I will show that, while the definition for “race” given in most dictionaries is common usage, it is based on a concept that has been debunked by modern science.

Point #1: Are Black Lives Matter protesters racist based on the common understanding of racism?

According to Merriam-Webster, racism is:
  1. poor treatment of or violence against people because of their race.
  2. the belief that some races of people are better than others
The full definition is:
  1. a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race
  2. racial prejudice or discrimination
Dictionary.com says that racism is:
  1. a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human racial groups determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one's own race is superior and has the right to dominate others or that a particular racial group is inferior to the others.
  2. a policy, system of government, etc., based upon or fostering such a doctrine; discrimination.
  3. hatred or intolerance of another race or other races.
So here we go.

People who have been protesting in the BLM movement, for example, at Mizzou have not treated White people poorly because of their “race.” They have no official credo that White people need to be treated badly because they are White. The movement leaders do not condone violence of any kind.

They do not believe that Black people are better than White people. They further reject the notion that race is the “primary determinant of human traits” and they reject the idea that “racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.”

Someone might make an argument that they have discriminated against White people because they have blocked highways where White people drive their cars; they have done sit-ins where White people work and shop; they have written blogs about how White people are generally insensitive to the plight of Black people; and finally, they protested until the president of Mizzou, who is White, resigned.

Merriam-Webster defines discriminations as “the practice of unfairly treating a person or a group of people differently from other people or groups of people.” I suppose that might feel like discrimination to some, and I can understand that.

I can understand why it might feel like BLM activists are discriminating against White people.

But also I want to address Dictionary.com’s definition of racism, as well, because it brings out some important points.

BLM activists reject the belief that “inherent differences among the various racial groups determine cultural or individual achievement” because they reject the biological notion of “race,” which I will address later. Because they reject this, they do not believe that Black people are better than White people because they don't believe that White people are fundamentally different than Black people.

Now, could there be some Black people who think Black people are better than White people? Most likely. In this case, according to this common definition, they would be racist. Are there Black people who hate or are intolerant of White people? I’m sure there are. Again, according to this definition, they would be racist.


The one definition that does not support the idea of a Black person being racist is the "a policy or system of government based upon or fostering such a doctrine."

No matter how much a Black person hates White people, the policies and systems in this country do not support that hatred.

Point #2: Even if we accept the popular usage of racism, the dictionary’s definition of racism does not hold up under its own logic.

This may sound like a lot of linguistic mumbo-jumbo, but I think you will know what I’m talking about with a few examples. Most of you have probably heard of the “-isms,” a group of words that end with… wait for it… -ism!

Words like communism (a theory favoring collectivism in a classless society) or atheism (a lack of belief in a god). So generally speaking, if a word ends in –ism, it means “belief in something.”

Your high school English class is coming back to you, right?

The words in a group that have a similar morpheme (or part of the word) tend to have parallel or similar meanings.

Capitalism, consumerism, individualism.

Communism, socialism, despotism.

Asceticism, humanism, hedonism. 


*I couldn’t actually find any more words like this; in fact, this is also a highly contested word.

And then we have the –isms you probably learned in a social justice-oriented class in college (depending on when or if you went to college):

Classism, racism, sexism, ableism, heterosexism.

The last two were created with the logic of parallelism, to match the other three terms, and are more self-evident in meaning. The first three are the ones I want to focus on, however, because I find that the dictionary is inconsistent in defining them.

We reviewed the definitions of “racism” above, so I will give the definitions of classism and sexism below.

Classism in Dictionary.com:
  1. a biased or discriminatory attitude based on distinctions made between social or economic classes.
  2. the viewing of society as being composed of distinct classes.
Classism in Merriam-Webster:
  1. unfair treatment of people because of their social or economic class.
  2. prejudice or discrimination based on class.
This definition is somewhat neutral. We can see that classism is a belief that there are “classes” of people based on social standing or because of wealth. We get the sense that it is not directly linked to income, per se, but also to intangible elements like reputation or status. And of course, there is the aspect of discrimination, prejudice, and/or unfair treatment based on this status.

It is NOT clear, however, who is discriminating against whom.

For all we know, impoverished restaurant workers could be giving the snub to Yale graduates on a regular basis when they stop in to get a cheeseburger at McDonalds.

This is, of course, a ridiculous assumption. We know classism to be all about an elaborate system wherein people climb a social ladder in order to be more prestigious. In order to climb this metaphorical ladder, these people typically scorn the people below them. The people at the bottom of the ladder inevitably resent this and say nasty things about the people above them, but we would hardly accuse the people at the bottom of the ladder of being classist.

That’s just not how it works.

That's not how any of this works. 

But let’s look at sexism.

Sexism in Merriam-Webster:
  1. prejudice or discrimination based on sex; especially : discrimination against women.
  2. behavior, conditions, or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex.
Sexism in Dictionary.com:
  1. attitudes or behavior based on traditional stereotypes of gender roles.
  2. discrimination or devaluation based on a person's sex or gender, as in restricted job opportunities, especially such discrimination directed against women.
  3. ingrained and institutionalized prejudice against or hatred of women; misogyny.
This definition is much more straightforward. We can see that sexism supports “stereotypes of social roles based on sex,” which is further clarified as discrimination, such as restricted job opportunities, especially directed against women. The last part explicitly states that one definition of sexism is institutionalized hatred for women.


Sexism describes attitudes which support traditional and stereotypical gender roles, which any student of American history can tell you is the belief that women should stay in the home and raise children, that they are not capable of intellectual work, and that they should therefore not be paid as much for the same work as a man.

According to the second and third definitions, women are the victims of sexism, although in the second one a man might also be discriminated against. Since the first definition indicates anyone can support "traditional gender roles," it would follow that a woman could be sexist towards men by supporting stereotypical male roles. (Ex. Expecting all boys to be aggressive or to be an athlete.) I would argue that the stereotyping of men still ultimately supports a male-dominated society, although it also harms men in the process.

Nonetheless, this leads me to my critique of the definition of racism in the same dictionaries.

The definitions of racism in both Merriam-Webster and Dictionary.com are imprecise and vague. There is no reference to the hierarchy that was clearly established at the inception of the modern concept of “race.” There is no indication of the institutionalized nature of discrimination, as with sexism and classism. As such, it leaves the debate open about who can be racist or rather, or who can be the target of racism.

Where there is typically no such confusion with sexism, classism, ableism, and heterosexism, “racism” is left open to interpretation.

This leads me to my last point.

Point #3: Some dictionaries do not even historically situate the definition of "race," let alone racism.

I will start with Merriam-Webster’s definition of “race.”

1.  a breeding stock of animals
  • a family, tribe, people, or nation belonging to the same stock
  • a class or kind of people unified by shared interests, habits, or characteristics
  • an actually or potentially interbreeding group within a species; also : a taxonomic category (as a subspecies) representing such a group
  • breed
  • a category of humankind that shares certain distinctive physical traits
4.  obsolete : inherited temperament or disposition
5.  distinctive flavor, taste, or strength

The only part of the definition that this dictionary labels as obsolete is the fourth one down, which is so archaic I am have never heard of it. However, the FIRST definition refers to ANIMALS. While we know that we as humans are part of the animal kingdom, we also distinguish ourselves from the other animals with what we consider to be more evolved traits, such as cognition, emotions, and volition.

The second definition includes a classification of types of humans. I will now insert the Dictionary.com definition, which is more up-to-date and indicates that this usage is no longer backed by science.

1.  a group of persons related by common descent or heredity.
2.  a population so related.
3.  Anthropology.
  • (no longer in technical use) any of the traditional divisions of humankind, the commonest being the Caucasian, Mongoloid, and Negro, characterized by supposedly distinctive and universal physical characteristics.
  • an arbitrary classification of modern humans, sometimes, especially formerly, based on any or a combination of various physical characteristics, as skin color, facial form, or eye shape, and now frequently based on such genetic markers as blood groups.
  • a socially constructed category of identification based on physical characteristics, ancestry, historical affiliation, or shared culture:
  • a human population partially isolated reproductively from other populations, whose members share a greater degree of physical and genetic similarity with one another than with other humans.
4.  a group of tribes or peoples forming an ethnic lineage:
5.  any people united by common history, language, cultural traits, etc.:
6.  the human race or family; humankind:
7.  Zoology. a variety; subspecies.

While this entry does acknowledge a certain common usage of the word “race” to represent a group of people, it ALSO includes the fact that the classical racial divisions of humans are NO LONGER IN USE.


Please, for the love, somebody notice here that CAUCASIAN was created in conjunction with MONGOLOID and NEGRO, and if you wouldn’t say NEGRO, you shouldn’t use CAUCASIAN. 

*End rant*

My point in including this deluge of dictionary definitions is to point out that common usage and the correct technical terms are not always the same thing.

I also hope to point out that the term “racism” is based on the term “race” and literally means a belief in the idea of “race.”

The modern concept of “race” came from the idea of a hierarchical classification of groups humans, arbitrarily divided by physical traits. In this hierarchy, it was widely understood that the group labeled “Caucasian” or “White” was the apex humanity. This further indicates to me that the meaning of “racism” should indicate a belief in White superiority.

And this is why I don’t believe that Black people can be racist against White people. However, according to my definition Black people can believe that White people are superior, and so be racist against people of color. And we call this internalized racism.


According to this understanding of racism, Asian, Latino/a, and "other" groups can also be racist, that is, believe that they are superior to another group.  It just usually isn't White people they feel superior to in the the context of the U.S. 

But coming full circle... Yes, Black people can hate White people. It's understandable. And it's awful. It might be, and probably is, wrong.

But I would just call that regular old “hatred.”

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Police State Schools

All day, my head and heart have been hurting over a cell phone video clip of a Black GIRL being brutalized by a police officer in a school. She was a quiet student, we later find out. She had just lost her mother and had been placed in foster care. This makes the situation all the more unbearable.

I wish I could say that this one incident was just that—only one incident. But we know that it is not.

We love the Hollywood stories of the tough, gritty urban teachers who whip the class of rowdy Black and Latino teenagers in shape. The story of the principal who traveled the halls of the high school with a baseball bat in hand. 

THIS is what THESE kids need, we say.  

Tough love. A firm hand. Respect. Grit. 

Of course it’s racist. Of course that would never, could never happen in a predominantly White and middle to upper class school of any kind. But we have bought into this. 

And we don’t care.

I say we don’t care, because if we did I think it could be, would be different. Schools would have more funding for counselors and social workers. Teachers would get paid better and have budgets for supplies, professional development, and planning time. Classes would be smaller. We wouldn’t test children for four weeks out of the year. 

But school is not about the whole child. School is about meritocracy and keeping the less intelligent masses in their place. Let the cream rise to the top. That was the philosophy of the creator of the now ubiquitous SAT. 

Before that, school was about keeping the upper class in power. That has really never changed. With the onset of standardized testing, the upper class was quickly populated by the best and brightest… White people. Because Black, Brown, and Native people were not allowed in the same schools, anyway. 

We are now almost as racially segregated in schools as we were BEFORE Brown v. Board of Education. I ask myself, in this “post-racial” society, how we sleep at night with this knowledge. 

I also wonder why we are okay with POLICE OFFICERS in schools. I have heard teachers explain that they need to feel safe. And yet study after study makes it clear that this militarization of schools has only created a quicker route to prison than dropping out, aptly called the “school to prison pipeline."

I can only conclude that we have justified this with the very same logic that we use to justify mass incarceration, which is the belief that Black and Latino people are inherently more violent, and therefore, prone to criminal activity, than White people. And this logic also governs the way we school (I dare not say “educate”) Black, Brown, and Native children. 

We have to confront this lie head on. We are all made in the image of God. “Race” is not really a thing; we have created it. No person is inherently more violent than another. White people are just as likely to commit violent crimes, and are more likely to sell or use drugs.

This situation is further compounded by the growing poverty faced by children and families nationwide. We have cut ONLY the kinds of welfare that help poor people, so that families are facing nearly insurmountable housing, food, transportation, and child care costs. The environment in which people of color living in poverty find themselves is often one that is without resources, but WITH many possibilities for police encounters, many of which end up being fatal

This brings me what I have been thinking about in terms of the parallels between between the police state and schools. Both are professions that are being asked to pick up the pieces of a mess that resulted from society pulling out the rug from under people living in or close to poverty. Both professions are underpaid, predominantly White, and not nearly trained enough to work in an increasingly diverse society. Neither profession can fix all of societies ills. Policy and changes in laws must do that work.

However, one very obvious difference between police and schools is that in most schools where common sense prevails, teachers don’t have guns. Nor should they. Further, when left to their own devices, schools are places where de-escalation is possible. Counseling is possible. Provided that schools don’t resort to suspensions and continual in school suspensions, it is a place where a community can grow. Schools hold potential for comforting and healing the whole child in ways that police cannot.

Police do not belong in the mix of schools. 

If police have not shown they can be trusted on the streets, then they most certainly should not be trusted with our children. 

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Looking Back

Since I started my Ph.D. six years ago, I
...had three babies.  Three human beings grew in my  body. I pushed them out.  I fed them from my breasts.  And now they are with me almost. all. the. time. 

...presented at 3 professional conferences, two of them WITH A NURSING BABY.  (The presentation did not include the nursing babies, by the way. Their daddy took care of them.) I also presented at several community workshops and consulted for several courses. 

...lost two advisors.  They both left for other universities, one after the other.  My current advisor was a very happy accident. Like my department forgot to assign me a new advisor when my other one left and the secretary recommended her to me.  She has been a gem.  

...changed research topics.  Like majorly changed, from ESL to teacher education and the social construction “race.”  Changing topics happens, but when it is so drastic, like in my case, you have to start over on developing a literature review for your dissertation, switch the professional organizations you belong to, read different journals, learn new jargon, etc.  

...lost good friends and gained new ones.  What’s that song?  Make new friends and keep the old… Well, we all can’t be perfect, I say. 

...acquired 42 credits beyond my master’s degree. This is mostly due to the fact that I changed my topic, but also because I...

...almost obtained a teacher certification in K-12 ESL and Spanish. I did a practicum, finished most of the required coursework, and I literally was only missing 2 courses and a semester of student teaching when I had to stop because of baby #3!

...passed my comprehensive exams, after only studying for 2 weeks, not that I was planning to do it that way—it just happened. 

...passed my oral dissertation proposal with distinction.  After crying when my advisor marked up my draft with 100s of comments.  But my committee is lovely and they have helped me so much.

...logged 18.5 hours of interviews for my dissertation, which amounted to 370 pages of transcriptions.  I also wrote 43 research memos about those interviews.  However, I...

...PAID someone to transcribe the 18.5 hours of interviews.  Because what do you think I am—crazy?! 

According to my therapist, I am not supposed to think about what I have LEFT to do, because it will send me back into the death-spiral of depression. So please don’t ask. But let’s just say, my funding runs out in May 2016.  

Monday, June 15, 2015

How to be a White person

I have written in previous blog posts about my obsession with Mexican culture.  I forgot to mention that during the time I was studying in Mexico for the first time, I actually permed and dyed my hair in order to be Mexican.  Yeah.  That happened.

It's only been in the last week that this experience was recalled to my mind because of the situation with that one lady who said she was Black and it turns out, she isn't.   And then there was a blogger who explained the model for White racial identity development, in which we can see that sometimes White people lose their damn mind and try to pretend like they aren't White.  It happens, apparently.  *internal cringe*

So this blog post has been a long time coming, but I think this is an appropriate time to discuss the big question, "What does it mean to be a White person?"

When I first thought about writing this, I had hoped to give some good pointers.  How White of me.  But as time has passed, I can see that, despite my best efforts, being White in this society means that I end up being part of the oppressive regime now and then.  That should at least give me a sense of humility when I share with other White people my hopes for myself, my husband, and my kids (all White).

I should also say--this is not a sob story.  I'm not trying to garner sympathy as a White person about how hard my life is.  This is for my White brothers and sisters out there, asking, "But what can I do?"

The first time I heard a Black scholar talking about eradicating Whitenesss, I cringed.  It felt like he didn't like me because I was White.  But let me tell you, I ate Philly cheesesteaks with the man and he doesn't hate me.  He hates racism.  He hates White supremacy.

And as a theologian, he dreams of a day when Whiteness isn't a thing anymore, when we really just judge each other by the content of our character and not by any external factor.  He has a dream, but, just like Dr. King, he is also radical as hell.  And not afraid to call out the system as he sees it.

The question for White folks is how can we simultaneously eradicate Whiteness and still maintain a sense of self.  After all, I am a White woman.  What does it look like if Whiteness goes away?  Does that erase me or who I am?

Of course, it should go without saying (but I'm gonna say it), this doesn't mean I lose my skin color.  My skin color is part of me, it is beautiful, and it will only become orange if I try to make it darker in a tanning bed.

I can celebrate my appearance and not be ashamed.  

Whiteness, however, took skin color and other arbitrary features, along with ancestry, and projected value onto certain phenotypes over others.  This can be called the political project of Whiteness.  At some point, White people were categorized as "Caucasians," while other people were categorized as "Mongoloid" and "Negroid."  There was a hierarchy implicit in this psuedo-science, which is why today I dislike using the word "Caucasian."

The psuedo-science of eugenics props up an economic system that is unbalanced.  It's like in the Bible when God talks about hating the "uneven scales."  That is the system that we have created.

That is what racism is--unjust scales.

That analogy hails back to the days when people would bring their produce and other products into the market place and the vendor would set the scales so that he got a bigger profit, cheating the farmer out of his income.  But we see the same thing today in real estate, health care, law enforcement, schools, and most every other arena of society.

What can I do in this system?  Can I get rid of the privilege that I have in all of those areas I listed above?  Some people say that you can't get rid of your privilege, so you just have to use it on the behalf of others.  I think that is a realistic approach.

However, I also want to be a dreamer.

What would it look like for me to "empty myself" of my privilege?  

Isn't that what Jesus did?  What would that look like?

It might look like setting a stage for myself using my privilege, and when the time comes for me to speak, I get off the stage and give the mic to someone who has been marginalized.  I want to keep thinking of possibilities like these.

My goal for myself at this point in my life is to do the work where I am.  I am done with false dichotomies of "bad suburbs" and "good urban" churches or schools.  I'm done with my White savior complex.  The more I try to "save" people, the more I perpetuate White supremacy.

I am really interested in being an "accomplice," as I have heard some Black scholars say.

This is maybe similar to being an "ally," but it comes with idea that as White people, we have our own work to do.  We are in the business of eradicating the political project of Whiteness, which is another way to call racism.  We are ready to be done with a system that gives me, a White woman, economic advantage over my Black and Brown brothers and sisters.  We know that system damages us all.  And we are ready to talk to other White people about this.

That is how I want to be a White person.  I want to be about the business of restoring humanity to us all, starting with myself.

Share your thoughts with me.  What questions do you have?  What issues are you wrestling with? 

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Following God to... the "gifted" school?!

I don't claim divine inspiration often anymore. At this point, I am also opposed to claiming, as if under duress, "God made me do it." Yet, when I find myself in a pickle, not knowing which is the right way to go, I do fall back on my old habit of "praying about it."

Which is what we did last night. We had just finished touring my three-year-old son’s new school for next year, and we were all sitting on the back porch. I wrestled with all of the reasons I didn't want to go to this new school.

There are so many obvious reasons why anyone would want to go to the school. First, they have a full-time nurse. Second, they have bathrooms for the preschoolers right next to their rooms. Third, they have a drama teacher, Spanish teacher, a science teacher, a music teacher, as well as other extracurricular clubs. And this is only an elementary school. But it's the "gifted" elementary school. Or one of them, anyway. And so you can begin to sense my ambivalence about going to the "special" school.

To start, the school is located in a neighborhood that is middle-class and predominately White. Anyone who lives in that neighborhood gets preference when they enter the lottery for the school. This "gifted" school is also very close to the other gifted elementary school, also in the same ZIP Code. The irony is that, in a city that has a majority Black population, the gifted magnet schools are made up of over 50% White children. The magnet schools, while part of the city's school district, get more money from the state because they are part of the court mandated desegregation order from the 1970s.

In addition to extra money from the state, the gifted magnet schools boast a strong PTO of educated, entitled parents, who regularly raise over $20,000 a year to buy things like a new playground. And yet, as a parent informed me gravely, "There's always more work to be done." I imagined she wouldn’t have a clue of what my experience was like in a school with a lack of funding for basic things, not to mention PTO.

It's not that I don't want the school to have all of the resources it has. It's just that I wonder when another parent will turn to me and say how much work needs to be done in the whole district. How it is not equitable that the "gifted" students get more funding than other students with special needs. How it is strangely coincidental that the gifted schools are also located in the most affluent neighborhoods of the city. How the gifted school populations are more White and middle-class than in any of the other schools.  

I don't hear anyone taking up that line of argument within the gifted school conversations, and it bothers me. Mostly, the “gifted” school parents just talk about how lucky they feel to be in the school, and how they can’t beat the price (e.g. “free”).

I also realize that in a "White space" like this gifted school, there is the potential for students of color and poor students to be marginalized. All the research points in that direction. I can already sense the competition coming from the middle-class moms, with their perfect hair and cardigan sweaters. And I also wonder how much I contribute to that competition by my very presence (sans the perfect hair). I’m just one of many nervous White mothers who needs to tell the principal “how special my son is.”

So back to the porch. We all decided to ask God what was the right choice. After a few minutes of silence, my three-year-old informed me, "Mom, it's the right choice. God already gave us peace." My husband also felt the same way. I am happy to go along with their sense of direction, and it gives me a sense of peace to know that they feel okay about it.

And I think this is one of the situations where I must claim the divine intervention. Because I honestly don't know if this is the best choice. I still feel conflicted about all of the systemic injustice in the system. I realize my son will be socialized into that inequitable system. But I do know, that God is also concerned about those issues. And if we feel that this is where he is leading us, we can trust him to help us navigate and combat inequity.

Pray for us, won’t you?

Friday, March 14, 2014

Little Pink Pills

Long story short, here I am getting ready to propose my dissertation.  I just finished my written comprehensive exams. "How do you DO it all?"  Or "How do you do it ALL?" Whatever version of the question is on the tip of your tongue, in the back of your mind, let me put it to rest.

Little pink pills. 

This is your mind on little pink pills.  It goes something like this:  for the first time since I have had children, I felt a happy, peaceful feeling while snuggling with my babies, instead of a panicked, terrible feeling like someone is about to strangle me.  When I look at my dog, I feel a nice feeling on the inside, instead of feeling like my skin in crawling from the inside out.  I can't describe it in too many words, because it mostly comes in overall feelings that maybe only people who have struggled with mental illness will understand.

I have gone to therapy, I have prayed the prayers, I have exorcised demons, and something is still not right in my head.  It makes me curl up on the floor in a fetal position, pressing my face against the cold floor, just willing the room to stop spinning.  It makes me plan a bus ride far away from my life and responsibilities, thinking all the while that "they'll be better without me here."

This is how I DO IT ALL.  I don't.  And I take medicine that helps my brain remember what pleasure is, what "happy" feels like.  My husband does all of the house work. I don't see any friends. I don't have a social life.  My "all" is considerably reduced compared to previous years.  Praying, "God, just let me finish this dissertation."

It's important for me to write this because of all the "judgy feelings" that circulate on social media.  All of the feelings of inadequacy looking at what someone else does or does not do.  All of the feelings of superiority at what I do better or more of than someone else.  And in reality, you don't even know me.  I don't really know you.  Whatever I'm good at is probably not as impressive as you imagine.  And my bad side, I'm sure, is a whole lot worse than you think.  You should know about the little pink pills because that's part of what makes me work right now. 

What kind of image do you protect about yourself?  What do you imagine others do that makes you feel inferior or superior?  How does that impact your view of yourself?  I hope you feel free to share. 

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Working it out in the neighborhood school

Many people have asked me how things are going at my son’s school. I realized it's been a while since I have written an update about our initial adventure in the neighborhood school in SLPS. I have attempted several times to put into writing what our experience has been, and yet it’s has been hard to do considering we were in the middle of that experience.

In taking time to reflect, I first have to look at what my son and I have brought to this school experience. First of all, this is the first time I have ever enrolled a child into any school. I don't know quite how to behave as a parent. I am constantly surprised at my "mama bear" reactions. This is a new facet of my identity that I am figuring out.

Add to the mix my son, who is quite exceptional. Quirky, actually. We have gone through all kinds of testing to see if he qualifies for special education, both for disability and gifted services. While this is all part and parcel to the school experience, it certainly intensifies everything. On the other hand, I can’t forget that this is the first time that my son has gone to school. And he is only three years old. So of course we had tears for the first few weeks and even months. There are still days where he begs me not to go to school so he can stay home, watch TV, and play with his brother. Even though I know he and his brother would drive each other crazy at home, I still feel guilty.

The only other experience I have had with school is when I was a student myself. Regardless of the school that I attended, the world is admittedly a very different place from when I was in school. My son will experience technology that I did not. He will be required to take tests that I was not required to take. But on the other hand, I intentionally enrolled him in a predominately Black school, while I went to school in a predominately White, segregated community. His experience is already vastly different from mine in that respect. So it has been hard for me to parse out what is the experience of being a new parent and a new kid at school, and the experience of what is "urban" and the neighborhood school.

When I get really honest with myself, I also realize that I have been worried that people are secretly waiting for us to fail. I imagine that they will be relieved when we finally confess that actually the neighborhood school is full of "dangerous" Black children, that the quality of education is inferior to whatever school they have chosen for their children. This is compounded by my own secret fears that I am doing damage to my child. Perhaps it stems from the little comments from my family members about my choice. Comments from well-meaning friends about the psychological damage that can be done to a White child in an all-Black school.

And yet, I have research to back up what I am doing. Evidence to show that explicitly teaching my child about "race" and racism will result in “race”-consciousness, anti-racism, and a healthy White identity. That getting involved in the school and maintaining a relationship with the teacher can add to the overall resources of the school. I have to reassure myself that I really do know what I'm doing. I just haven’t ever done it before.

All of this reflection is similar to the work I do with my research. I have to constantly "separate out a sense of self" from my research activities. That is, as with everything, "me" gets mixed into anything that I'm doing. So even as I try to be objective about getting involved in the local school, "me" is bound to get tangled up in the issues that are already at hand. The activity of separating out what I contribute to the experience in the school is helpful, and only serves to show how much more complex the situation actually is. The value in this activity is that I do not resort to quick and easy answers. I have quoted Charles Payne before: If the problems are complex, then the answers cannot be simple.

I have wanted to be able to write some kind of definitive statement about our experience, but it has seemed so messy and I have not been able to settle on what I want the public to know about this neighborhood school. I feel the need to protect it from the public’s tendency to call anything urban "bad.” But I also want to loudly proclaim that what we really need is more funding. That the education my son receives in the neighborhood school is inferior if for the mere fact that the teachers are paid less and there is no budget for preschool supplies.

I think I have at least come to the conclusion that our school is a good school. And more to the point, it is not a "bad" school. In fact, it would seem that the teachers are all that much better if they can teach without all of the funding and resources that wealthy districts enjoy. So in the end it's a very complex picture. That is, I think, the very point I hope to encapsulate here.  

We are too accustomed to thinking about schools in absolute terms. 
We talk about which schools are "good" and which schools are "bad." We have no paradigm for anything in between. But the truth is, that's all we have. Apparently, there are problems that stem from opulent wealth (e.g. “affluenza”), as well as from abject poverty (e.g. hunger, homelessness).

We have violence in all schools. We have children who are struggling to test "proficient" in all schools. There is racism and discrimination in all schools. There are very bad teachers in all schools. And there are wonderful, magical teachers who, despite all the odds, still teach and care for students. And let's not forget the parents, who pack up their children every morning to drive them or send them on the bus to school, including those parents who people say "don't care about education," and yet there they are at the bus stop, waiting in the freezing cold.

The truth is we don't have any perfect schools. We don't have any perfect experiences because schools are made up of humans, who are fundamentally flawed. But we know that there are better experiences than others. And we know that when children have full bellies, they can learn better.  We know that more money in education-terms always improves the overall experience. We know that a good teacher can make all the difference in the world, and that children need engaging instruction and curriculum. And we know deep down that not all children learn in the same way nor on the same day.

That is not to say a "good" school does not have many good things about it, or that a "bad" school doesn’t have many problems that the "good" school never has to face. But this is another example of a "chicken or the egg" scenario. Is the school "good" because people believe it is good, and therefore send their children and their money there, which causes "good" teachers to seek employment there? Is the "bad" school really bad because people believe it is and then send the kids there that nobody else wants? And then situation is compounded when the teachers believe they are teaching the "worst" students, so the students figure, "To hell with it. They already think I'm bad. I might as well go all out.” I believe this is the case.  

Because we construct our own reality, we can help to deconstruct it. 

We have encountered various issues that might be specific to an "urban" school, but I think they are also issues that all schools face. This means that my son has as much chance as anyone else. In fact, he is already privileged. He is getting a free, public education at the age of three years old. That puts him on track to be reading by kindergarten, which puts him on track to enter Harvard University, provided that we are making less than $60,000 a year so he can go there for free.

So my messages is, the suburbs can keep their schools. We're doing just fine in the neighborhood school.