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.  #OITNB

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 systems 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.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Keep calm and don't White flight

I love positive affirmation. Who doesn't? But I also get that the design of social media allows us to present ourselves only in a positive light. Even when we write about our weaknesses, we are afforded the exact words, phrasing, and humor to make ourselves seem just slightly less than perfect.

So in that spirit, I would like to invite all of you over to my house each weekend to see me cry, threaten to quit everything, and go back on all my principles.

Can't make it? Okay, here's the next best thing:

That time I freaked out and applied to a magnet school.

For those of you not from St. Louis, you should know that a magnet school, true to its name, is a school designed to attract White families to St. Louis Public School (SLPS) district and St. Louis City. Like a magnet. Get it?

It's sounds kind of far-fetched now that we are all "post-racial" (or not), but it wasn't at the time of it's creation. Magnet schools were part of the desegregation program, the Voluntary Interdistrict Transfer Program (VICC), begun in the 1970s. The program had a few goals: 1) increase White student population in the city, 2) increase Black student population in the county, and 3) increase the number of Black teachers. Unfortunately, the last objective has failed miserably. But a limited number of White students did come to the city. However, the Black students who left the city to go to school in the county were the predominant participants of this program, and they continue to be.

*Read "Stepping over the color line: African American Students in White suburban schools" by Wells and Crain for an in-depth look at this phenomenon in St. Louis.

At this point in time, very few White students come from the county into the city. Middle-class White people have been slowly moving back into the city, and magnet schools serve as their first choice for their children. Also, getting into a magnet school requires entering a complicated lottery system. The result is the resegregation of SLPS, as parents with high-status networks navigate the complicated system of magnet and charter schools.

For example, in the Lafayette Square area (i.e. gentrified, upper-class neighborhood) word on the street (i.e. my mother-in-law) has it that a bunch of upper middle-class families (i.e. mostly White) were going to leave the city if they couldn't start a charter school for their kids. In the end, they were able to start a charter school, so we can enjoy their tax dollars for years to come.

Do I sound cynical? Yes, that would be my principles talking.

Because when reality meets my principles, apparently I freak out. Only a few weeks into sending my son to the neighborhood school, I panicked. He was having a really hard time adjusting to school. I felt that the school might not have all the resources that he needed. And so I applied to a magnet school.

Now again, the lottery system is super complex, so to increase your odds of getting in there are a few tricks. Apply early. Select your top two choices carefully. Alter your racial identity if needed. No, seriously, that is the advice that White parents have suggested, only sort of jokingly. Because that last one is illegal.

After I had carefully weighed my options, entered my choices, and maximized the possibility of getting selected, I submitted my application. And then I did some actual research about the magnet schools.

And oh, my gosh, I just replicated the research on school choice.

As a middle-class, White parent, I relied primarily on the reputation of schools rather than concrete information. And what I found in terms of information was disheartening.

While it is true that Metro and Kennard are at the top of the state in terms of test scores, there are quite a few magnet schools that are "failing" according to MSIP, the state accreditation organization. Additionally, the schools that have been labeled as "failing" are also the schools which White middle-class parents have mostly abandoned. Curiouser and curiouser.

This realization shocked me back to my principles. It made me angry. Because while I know you can't tell the whole story from an MSIP score or MAP test results, you would be hard pressed to convince the general public of that. What they see in terms of statistics is what they believe. At the same time, it was a reminder that school quality is largely a social construction. And magnet schools have been perceived as yet another magic bullet, when in fact, they are not.

It made me realize that my son is just a well off in a neighborhood school that actually has a passing MSIP score. And it reminded me that my school is what I put into it. As much as we have already invested in the school in terms of time and money, we will have to stick around for the long haul to see the pay off. Because school reform is a long, slow burn. Solidarity is a commitment.

This leads me to my final point. I had a conversation with a friend recently who suggested that I am really advocating for gentrification. In other words, sustainable social justice requires some that people with resources to join arms with people who have fewer resources. At the time, I internally resisted but couldn't see the nuance for all rehabbers. Here is my delayed come-back.

Absolutely, there is a place for privileged folks like me. However, I see gentrification as a move to replace the local population with privileged people. Solidarity, on the other hand, focuses on low turn-over rates and sustainable growth. It's a subtle, but important different.

So to all my White and middle-class people working for social justice in marginalized spaces (and to myself):

Keep Calm Font Poster

and solidarity on.

Friday, September 20, 2013

The blog post that sparked a civil war

Okay, I'm being dramatic.  But only slightly.

I was going through my old blog posts and noticed a big shift starting last summer.  Not only did I dramatically change topics, from granola and chickens to the social construction of "race," but I picked up quite a few more readers along the way.  Not that granola and chickens aren't interesting.

I think the major change was my level of passion.  And by passion, I may mean that I got angry.  Really angry.  See, there was this blog post.  This "look-mom-I-went-to-the-library" blog post.  I was excited.  I was motivated.

And White people attacked me.  People I knew.  People I cared about.  They said that racism wasn't real.  They said, if racism did exist it was because people like me went to grad school and got brainwashed.  If I could just stop reading about it, it would all go away.  I actually lost friends over this first post.

But then there were other friends who were intrigued.  Specifically, one friend, a Black woman, asked me to write about what I was reading.  She wanted to know more.  So I kept writing, clunky at first, figuring things out as I went along.  It was dry.  But I was learning.

I have stopped being so shocked and hurt about that initial reaction.  I am better at seeing through the rhetoric.  I don't get confused when people go all "colorblind" on me.  I try to remember the positive dialogues that have happened, the encouragement along the way.  I'm still angry, but I have more compassion. 

So I've come a long way.  I have a long way to go. And we have new chickens.

My question for my readers: What would you like to see more of?  Do you have questions about my journey, urban education, anti-racism, or anything else? Let me know!

Monday, August 12, 2013

That time I forgot the title of my blog

The other day I mentioned my blog to someone. They said, “Oh, you mean 'Urban Restoration'?"  It took me a minute to register what they were saying. I had forgotten the name of my blog.

Okay, “forgotten” might not be the exact word I’m looking for, but neither is “remembered.” It was somewhere in the subconscious, so familiar that I didn't notice it anymore. In the moment the other person said it, though, all I could think was how presumptuous it sounded.

It was at least three years ago when I started blogging about our move back to the city. We were committed to the ideals of anti-racism, social justice, and some vague concept of solidarity. I had dreams of little projects with the neighborhood kids. “Urban Restoration” had a nice, self-congratulatory ring to it.

Three years later, we barely know any of our neighbors. The houses are being bought up one by one by young, wealthy entrepreneurs, and renovated to the point that the original occupants of the neighborhood can no longer afford to live there.

And I’ve been growing and learning about the topics of "race," racism, White privilege, and solidarity. I came into the neighborhood believing that I would be the one to restore it. The more I learn, the more I am convinced that my “renovations” had as much potential to bring harm as they did good.

More than that, I began to realize that it was me who needs restoration.

I don't say that flippantly or as a false attempt at humility. I absolutely believe that I am deficient. My experience of White privilege all my life, my middle-class, sheltered socioeconomic status, and my lack of diverse friendships have all left me culturally and spiritually bereft. My ability to view the world is suppressed and stilted. In other words, I don’t even have a good grasp on reality or my own identity. Further, I don't know what the neighborhood needs because I haven't done the long hard work of solidarity.

I looked up the word "restoration" in the dictionary and have included the first three definitions here.

a. bringing back to a former position or condition
b. restitution, a making good of or giving an equivalent for some injury
c. a restoring to an unimpaired or improved condition

The first definition feels consistent with the ideology of the developers, entrepreneurs and young, White hipsters who have moved into our neighborhood. They are trying to preserve the past, capturing something nostalgic about a time gone by on Cherokee Street. You might even tack on the third definition, and that would include my husband and me as we tackle renovation projects on our house.

However, the second definition, that of restitution, is the one that I think resonates with me the most at this point. It’s also an ideal that I hear from non-profit and social justice ministries around the city. The idea is that things are not right, there are blatant injustices, and "we" have to do something about it.

This last group is made up of well-meaning people, mostly middle-class White folks, including myself, who come in to the neighborhood on a mission. "We" adopt a mostly traditional missionary role and set out to help “these people.” At face value it seems like a good thing. I might be tempted to think, “What’s the harm in it?”

The answer is, “A lot.” The feedback I hear from Black brothers and sisters is that within these “missions,” White privilege is reproduced. Subtle, unconscious racism is enacted. Some people are helped. Some people are harmed. But in the end, the SYSTEM is not changed. Social inequality and the status quo are maintained.

For example, many organizations have tutoring ministries. These are much needed, but in the end there are not enough tutors to go around. Many children fall through the cracks. In the meantime, none of these “missionaries” will even put their own children in the public schools. They make comments about what they think is wrong with the schools, but in reality, they don't actually know. They just watched some documentary and decide they have the problem figured out.

These social justice ministries become spaces where White people contend to be the White person who "gets it." I myself am implicated in this foolishness, and not only in the past, if I am honest with myself.

The truth is, I don't "get it" and I never will. 

I will always need to rely on the voices of the marginalized to help me see clearly. I will never know what the neighborhood needs. I will always have to draw from the funds of knowledge of others who have lived "in the neighborhood."  They have the clear vantage point that I do not have. My capacity to listen and learn is the only thing that can grow in order to prevent me from reproducing injustice.

What I have to bring to the neighborhood is a pipeline. When resources come my way, I direct them and put them in the hands of the people in the neighborhood. I don't insist that I remain in charge of these resources, because remember, I don't have the knowledge to know where these resources should go. I don't know better than the people in the neighborhood. They know what they need.

My question is when will "we" really throw in our lot with our neighbors and their children? We must stop working outside the system, when the system is what perpetuates injustice. We must stop running the show and trying to save people, when we should be coming along side people, allowing that they are capable to know what they need. After all, “we” are implicated in this very system. We are the ones in need of restoration.

This is pretty hard-hitting, so I would love to hear from folks.  Please feel free to comment.