Sunday, January 27, 2013

Autobiography Pt. 5: Protestants and Jesuits

I recently have been asked by a few people about how I became interested in antiracism.  In helping myself move forward, I realize that I need to look back.  Also, I hope to convey the sense that I too am on a journey; I am a work in progress.  This is part of my story. 

I had barely finished my first semester of teaching, when I found myself meeting with the director of service-learning at the Jesuit university where I worked.  I explained my idea for a service-learning ESL class, trying to determine if it would be eligible for the grant that had been advertised to faculty.  During that meeting, I got the feeling that I actually knew quite a lot about service-learning from my own experiences a volunteer.     

I intuitively sensed what needed to happen in order to make for a good experience.  I needed to go with my students and convey the idea that we were not “saving” the neighborhood.  In fact, volunteers often caused a mess for the cooperating organization.  Volunteers needed to be trained, they were unfamiliar with the neighborhood, and ultimately, they went back to their own neighborhoods at the end of the day, leaving community folks in the same circumstances as before.  Since the students were not the workers “on the ground” on a daily basis, the focus had to be getting to know people in the community, learning about the community’s needs, and then finding ways to partner with the community.   

I could see how much I had assimilated from my friends at a local, urban Presbyterian church over the years.  I had begun work with them as a know-it-all twenty year-old, but slowly they had been getting through to me.  Here I was, years later, quoting them almost verbatim.  I had told the service-learning director how my understanding of service was deeply shaped by my Christian faith.  For my friends at the urban Protestant church, faith was the driving force and underlying framework for all that they did in the neighborhood where they lived and worked.   

Unlike other Christians I had encountered in my life, these folks talked about “race” and racial inequality.  They were a racially and socioeconomically diverse congregation, and were committed to racial reconciliation, relocation into urban areas, and redistribution of wealth and resources.  They drew from a long tradition in the Christian church, including African American theology, although I didn’t realize it at the time. I only knew that the way they theorized about racial stratification and oppression was very different from anything I had ever heard before, and it had direct practical and moral implications.   

I had listened intently as the service-learning director explained how Jesuits had a similar mission related to service and education.  In fact, the grant was specifically targeted faculty who sought to connect their calling, or vocation, and spirituality with their work in education.  This was a new idea for me; up until that point, I had largely divided "career" and "ministry" into mutually exclusive categories.  I applied for the grant and was one of four recipients that summer, which opened the door to many other unforgettable experiences.

That next semester, I found myself leading a team of two teachers in the fall.  I had ambitiously planned five service projects per class, and I participated in almost all of them.  The next semester, and following semester, the service-learning component of the ESL program exploded.  There was a service-learning component on two levels, then three, and finally all five levels.  The program simultaneously experienced a surge of new students from mainland China; over the course of three years, the program went from thirty students to three hundred. Almost all of them ended up raking leaves and hearing the story of the good Samaritan on various Saturday mornings. 

The dynamics of this Jesuit-Protestant partnership were complicated for some.  For example, anyone who had grown up in St. Louis, a Catholic town, could have mixed feelings about Catholic institutions, the big business side of things, Popes, and scandals.  Growing up as a Protestant, I had to shed my own bias about the Catholic church.  On the other hand, it was sometimes a challenge to explain why we were working with a Protestant non-profit organization.  The reason for me was pretty obvious—they were the only organization that would take more than fifteen ESL students at a time during a service project.  However, for some of my colleagues, evangelical Protestants were just as bad as Catholics, or worse.  To them, Protestants and Catholics might all be hypocritical, but at least Catholics didn't try to "convert" people.  

Over the years, these tensions have caused me to read and listen more widely in search of an authentic faith, a Christian identity that is not based on hostility towards others.  And I think it’s fitting that my roots can be traced back to two groups seemingly opposed groups, Protestants and Jesuits.  I find great inspiration from the tradition of the Jesuits, as they were kicked out of most countries in the world for advocating for the poor and the oppressed.  I love hearing what different Protestant groups are doing around the world in terms of reconciliation, relocation, and redistribution. These people are following the footsteps of Jesus, the rabble-rouser and revolutionary.  Jesus, who hung out with all the wrong people.  Jesus, who’s mission was to find the lost and uplift the poor.  I’m grateful for my Protestant and Jesuit friends who pointed me back to Jesus.  

Autobiography Pt. 6: Education 

Autobiography Pt. 7: Antiracism

I recently have been asked by a few people about how I became interested in antiracism.  In helping myself move forward, I realize that I need to look back.  Also, I hope to convey the sense that I too am on a journey; I am a work in progress.  This is part of my story. 

I think I’ve always wanted a message.  When I was very young, perhaps five years old, maybe so young I only remember because my mom told me the story, I told my mom, “I want a burden.”  I had heard people in church say very solemnly to each other or from the pulpit that God had given them a “burden” for this person or that cause.  It sounded exciting and important, so I decided that I wanted a “burden,” too.   

This would possibly explain my second ambition in life besides being Mexican, which was to be the President of the United States.  I eventually came to realize that not only was it unlikely that I would become the President, but I also saw that perhaps it wasn’t the only way to change the world.  I spent a few years in a non-profit prayer ministry, where I decided that prayer was the only way to change the world.  When circumstances forced me to get a paying job, I decided that I could do something, too.  I eventually trained to be an ESL teacher, and thought that it could be the mission I was looking for.  Teaching very privileged ESL students, however, didn’t feel like changing the world.  My boss and I often commiserated about our move away from social activism.  I think this is why the service-learning component became so important to both of us.   

Only a few short months after deciding to change my research focus in my Ph.D., I found myself standing in front of a small but attentive audience.  I could feel my face flush, and I was consciously taking breaths of air, but I plunged ahead.  I watched the audience respond as I spoke, sometimes with amazement, sometimes nodding in agreement, sometimes shaking their head with remorse.  In some ways, this presentation was the culmination of many years.   

Mostly, I wondered how it could be that I was educating people about “race” and racism, when I had only just begun this topic. To top it off, I was presenting in the building where I attended church on Sunday mornings.  I marveled at the turn of events.  For years, I had wanted to be the one teaching from the front.  However, I rarely saw women in this position, and if I did, they were much older than I was.  Now I was presenting as a doctoral student, which apparently meant I possessed the necessary credentials.   

I gave a historical overview of the social construction of “Whiteness” in the U.S.  At the end, people asked interested and concerned questions.   

“My husband is a White teacher in an all-Black school.  What can he do to be antiracist?”

“I go to an all-Black church.  The people say they have to ‘act White’ all week and just want a place to let down.  Is that contributing to segregation?”

 “So if people of color understand that racism still exists, but White people don’t, how can White people learn more about discrimination and racism?”

Everyone seemed to think I had answers, and to my amazement, I at least had opinions about all the questions they raised.

At the end, a Black man approached me, “Would you be interested in giving this presentation at the school where I work?  I don’t know if I would get away saying the things you said.” He hesitated, “I mean, you can say it, but if I say it…” I interjected, “Then you're the ‘angry Black person.’”  He nodded in agreement.  “I would love to come.  Just let me know,” I found myself saying, feeling a mixture of excitement at the speaking opportunity and frustration at the dynamics of privilege and oppression. 

My friends who had organized the conference posted their encouragement later on Facebook.  It was really thanks to their foresight and support that I had the chance to talk about what I had learned over the summer.  They had shared some of their own story at the conference.  For my friends, an interracial couple, the antiracist message was very personal. 

With the conference, I saw myself shift from insecurity to resolution as I was surrounded by people who also felt strongly about racism and segregation in this country.  The criticisms I had received slowly faded into the background, no longer the dominant voices in my head.  This was a message that could sustain me over the long-haul, through a Ph.D., into a career and beyond.  In my view, it is the critical message for this generation.  Racism has shaped our society in ways that many of us are unable to see.   This is a work I must undertake.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Autobiography Pt. 4: Sociolinguistics

I recently have been asked by a few people about how I became interested in antiracism.  In helping myself move forward, I realize that I need to look back.  Also, I hope to convey the sense that I too am on a journey; I am a work in progress.  This is part of my story.

I somehow managed to not take a linguistics class in my undergraduate or graduate studies.  As I attempted to join the professional world of ESL teachers, read scholarly journals, and discuss grammar with colleagues, I was often aware of my lack of terminology.  So one year into a doctoral program in I decided it might be a good time to fill in the gaps in my knowledge by taking an introductory linguistics course.   

The first few weeks of the course were mostly uneventful.  I reveled in the new terms revolving around morphology and phonology.  I drilled myself on the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), something I always felt was missing over the years, especially when my ESL students all knew it and I didn’t.  But my favorite topic of them all is sociolinguistics.  

I think I should mention at this point that while the professor was once at the top of her field, she was at this time having some short-term memory issues.  So sometimes we got the same PowerPoint presentation three days in a row, for example.  By the time the professor launched into the sociolinguistics portion of the course, I was a little frustrated, to say the least.  One particular incident stands out in my mind that revealed my deep commitment to sociolinguistics, as well as an underlying antiracist streak that surfaced with unexpected passion. 

During the second half of the semester, we arrived at the part in the textbook which dealt with dialects.  There were several activities that asked students to “translate” British English into American English; the phrases were all Harry Potter excerpts.  On the next page, students were asked to “translate” similar phrases from African American Vernacular English (AAVE) to Standard American English.  These phrases were almost indistinguishable from popular slang as seen on TV, with a few example of AAVE grammatical structure thrown in.  

I didn’t pay much attention to these activities, but our instructor was fascinated. During one particular class period, we spent the majority of the time going over the answers.  She spent several minutes reveling over the different idioms from British English, asking us if we were familiar with each phrase.  “Do people really say this?”  The students seemed a bit confused by her questioning.  “Um… Mrs. Weasley does?”  

After spending a few minutes trying to explain to her the differences between the British phrase “to knock something up” and the American phrase “to get knocked up,” we moved on the AAVE phrases.  Again, the instructor repeatedly asked if we had heard these phrases and whether Black people really talked like this.  

After several rounds of this game, I finally commented, “I don’t know if we are the best people to ask about this, since we are all White.  I mean, we have heard these phrases, but…” 

“Oh, yes,” she replied, “You probably don’t really hear this kind of language since you are at this university and most people at this university are very educated.”

I felt slightly ruffled.  I should have known to take it easy on the arguing, since the turns of conversation would soon get lost in her fading short-term memory, but I went on, “Well, I don’t know if it has anything to do with education.  I mean, like the textbook says, dialects have to do with group solidarity and identity.  And every dialect is a fully comprehensive language, capable of any thought possible to humans, right? It’s only that some dialects are afforded more power than others" (Smitherman, 1985). 

“Oh, yes, that’s true.”

She didn’t seem very convincing, so I kept going, “And someone who is educated could use this dialect. In fact, most Black people who use this dialect code-switch to Standard American English.  That actually requires more mental resources than just speaking one dialect. 

“Oh, yes, code-switching, that’s right.  But of course, it’s mostly less educated people who speak this way.” 

At this point, I was having a hard time listening to what she was saying.  I was becoming agitated, mentally contemplating how to respond as the words came out of my mouth, “You know, I am finding your comments to sound really racist.”

“Oh, no, I'm not racist.  You are misunderstanding me.  I am just trying to explain… it’s just that these people don’t really make it to this university.”

I was now shaking.  Almost in an out of body experience, I saw myself packing up my books even as I thought, “Am I really going to walk out of the class?”  The instructor was still talking, but I was no longer contained within myself.  As if in a dream, I was up and walking across the room, as I mumbled something like, “I’m sorry… I’ll come back when I calm down.” 

I was across the lawn, walking fast before I realized I had actually left the building.  As I walked into the other building, the adrenaline let down but I was still shaking, my teeth chattering slightly.  I must have looked upset because the two instructors in the copy room stopped talking and asked what had happened.  I recounted the incident quickly, still shaking. The instructor shook their heads, “Wow, she is really losing it.  You know you don’t say those things.”  

“Right…” But there were questions looming in my head.  Wasn’t what she said wrong to believe, too? And why wasn’t anyone else upset at all?  Was I going crazy?  I felt crazy, but I also remembered the feeling I had in class.  What if there had been a Black student sitting there listening to the instructor go on and on?  How would that student feel?  And why did I feel the need to defend this hypothetical Black student?  

A few days later, I sat in the department chair’s office.  I had met with the chair a few times this semester to talk about how the class was going.  This time, I explained to him that I had walked out and why.  I wasn’t officially reporting this instructor, since I knew she wouldn’t remember what exactly had happened; in fact, a week later she didn’t recall the details of the incident.  As I finished the story, the professor leaned back in his chair, folded his hands and looked pensive. 

“Well, now, let’s think about what she actually said,” he intoned. “Nothing she said was factually wrong... but you were upset, in any case.  In my experience, the African-American students who have come to this university have been… well, deficient in their education.”

“But that has to do with the education system.  There are fewer opportunities in poorer neighborhoods and fewer schools to choose from… and discrimination…” I was fumbling for arguments that weren’t formulating clearly or quickly in my mind. 

“Yes, but everything you just said were reasons why they might be deficient. You haven’t disproved my initial statement.  Now, I know that that there are physical differences between the races, like a wider nose and lips.  I don’t know if there are mental differences,” he paused and stared at me intently. “I don’t think you do either.” 

I was painfully silent.  I didn’t know.  I couldn’t argue against him, even though his logic felt instinctively wrong to me.  The arguments were elusive and slippery.  I was surprisingly calm this time, as I felt resignation wash over me.  

Later someone congratulated me on walking out.  But I really felt inadequate and helpless.  I didn’t really feel proud of verbally sparring with an aging professor who was really very sweet and confused.  At the same time, I wondered why the other students in the class weren’t upset.  I also felt that there had to be some way to refute the argument that the department chair presented, but I just couldn’t work it out.  It wasn’t until much later, after several courses on racial identity, discrimination, and the social construction of racial difference that I started to put things together.

While I had a good foundation laid in sociolinguistics, I was sadly ignorant about the way racial difference is constructed socially.  Over the next summer, I saw Race: The Power of an Illusion, which documents how new genetic evidence has completely debunked the premise of essentialist racism, the idea that different "race" are biologically distinct and hierarchicalAs it turns out, only about 2% of our genetic make-up accounts for the way that we look, or our phenotype.  "Race" has been and is socially constructed through daily interactions and laws that determine who fits into which category.  Those categories are essentially arbitrary and have changed over the course of history, affording privileges to White people and denying privileges to everyone else.  So in this way, "race" has real consequences in terms of opportunities and life outcomes. 

That day, I was kind of like an untrained cannon firing wildly.  I didn’t have a plan of action to refute those kinds of comments in a more effective, less accusatory way. Sometimes it’s hard to anticipate those very physical and emotional reactions, though.  Maybe it was good for the other students to see my reaction to those comments, even though they didn’t seem to understand why I was upset.   The biggest lesson, though, was that I needed to get educated, so that next time--because there will be a next time--I will have something to say when it matters.

Autobiography Pt. 5: Protestants and Jesuits

  • Herbes-Sommers, C., Strain, T. H., & Smith, L. (2003). Race: The power of an illusion [Television Series]. San Francisco, CA: California Newsreel & Independent Television Service.
  • Race: The Power of an Illusion Website. (2003). PBS. Retrieved August 14, 2012, from   
  • Smitherman, G. (1985). Talkin and testifyin: The language of Black America. Wayne State University Press.  

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Autobiography Pt. 3: English as a Second Language

I recently have been asked by a few people about how I became interested in antiracism.  In helping myself move forward, I realize that I need to look back.  Also, I hope to convey the sense that I too am on a journey; I am a work in progress.  This is part of my story. 

Eight o’clock in the morning is early on a Saturday and even more so if you are a college student.  And if on top of that, you are getting ready for a day of yard work, it can seem daunting.  I know from experience.  I had dragged myself out of bed on many a Saturday morning to go on volunteer work days over the years.  Now an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher, I was making sure my students from mainland China spent a morning raking leaves and cleaning gutters. 

I came onto the ESL scene at a time when “service-learning” was all the rage in higher education.  It was working its way down to K-12, and had only made a dent in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages).  However, I had taken an elective in my master’s degree courses that required me to design a course syllabus.  One of the options was to design a service-learning course, and through a series of events, that course design launched me into a full-time teaching position.   The problem came when none of the literature prepared me to teach disgruntled teenagers from China.   

As I have said before, my interest has always been Mexico.  I speak Spanish.  I found myself repeating that mantra internally through the rocky first, second, and third semesters I spent teaching classes comprised primarily of mainland Chinese young adults.  They resisted me at every turn, and I pushed right back.  I often said that it was like I was teaching English as Foreign Language in China, except I had skipped the “honeymoon stage” of culture shock, and skipped right to “disorientation” and “aggression.”  I was annoyed by a group of people I didn’t understand and who I felt didn’t understand me.  We had different goals and different worldviews.  This discord was only compounded in teacher workshops as we sat around “student bashing,” commiserating about our shared “problem children.”  I watched myself move from a progressive stance on language learning I had acquired in graduate school, to a more conservative, “Speak English!” approach. It wasn’t always that way, though. 

The glorious moments with the Chinese students came as I continued to teach my class on social justice with the service-learning component.  I was invigorated as I planned lessons about issues of social inequality.  In fact, I was getting an education right alongside my students, as we learned about stereotypes, racism, global warming, and urban development.  I even invited my old friends from non-profit organizations to give lectures about refugees, "White flight," and racial inequality.  They had been the ones to first teach me about the history of St. Louis in a different way than I had grown up with.  I learned how racism had left an indelible mark on the landscape and people.  My friends introduced me to authors who wrote about racial inequality, which led me to other books that I read in my free time, including Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? (Tatum, 2003)  and The Souls of Black Folks (Du Bois, 1973).  It really came home to me that I had to move in the opposite direction of history trends of White segregation, and I taught this to my students with a passion. 

Again, the practical application of this knowledge came slowly.  I remember one semester I had a very honest discussion with my students after we had reached a moment of impasse.  They were consistently failing to meet my expectations.  Many of them didn’t do the homework I assigned, they tended to not participate in class, or they didn’t show up at all.  At this point in my teaching career, I didn’t think to ask them about their perception of the class or the ESL program.  I was frustrated and I could tell they were, too. 

“Don’t you want to pass ESL and go to academic classes?” I asked in a bewildered tone. Silence. Finally, someone ventured a response.  “We don’t care about ESL.  We just care about business classes.” I retorted, “But you have to pass ESL if you want to go to business classes!”  Silence.  Again, someone bravely attempted a reply, “You are angry.  Do you hate Chinese students?”  Now I was dumbfounded.  “Of course not.  I don’t hate you. I guess I’m just frustrated because I thought Chinese students would be good students.  We have a stereotype here in the U.S. that Chinese students always work really hard, come to class every day, and get good grades.  And they are good at math.”  Now the students grinned broadly and a few chuckled.  “Well, of course we are not all good at math!” one student responded.  “We are very lazy,” another added.  “Well, I guess there are lazy people in every country,” I said.  “Right,” they agreed and smiled knowingly.  They seemed relieved that they were not the only ones who experiences discomfort as they encountered the “other,” especially if it was their teacher who was supposed to “know it all.” 

Interestingly, at this very same time we were learning in the class about the dangers of “positive” stereotypes.  Specifically, there is a view held by many Americans that Asians are the “model minority.” This is similar to belief that Asians (i.e. Chinese, Japanese, and Asian Indians) are “almost White” (Bonilla-Silva, 2003), which akin to saying they are “inferior, but better than the other people who are more inferior.” This monolithic view of Asians is just as damaging as negative stereotypes, since it reduces individuals to a caricature (Lee, 1994).  Also, the students who don’t fit the mold are treated as deviants, which is what I had unintentionally done to my students.  Further, it ignores extreme diversity within the group we label “Asian.”  My students had been born in mainland China, which is very different from being of Asian descent born in the United States.  Further, certain groups of immigrants from Asia tend to have high levels of education.  Other groups, especially refugees from Laos and Cambodia, who do not have very high levels of education and tend to have dark skin,  experience more intense levels of discrimination when they come to this country.  

My biases against speakers of other languages besides English, against Chinese people, and even against Asians were thrown into sharp relief at this time in my life. I was a trained ESL teacher, who was supposed to value all languages, but I didn't value anything I couldn't understand. For the first time in my life, I was in a situation where I could not speak the language of dominance.  Although I had been to other countries, I had been fluent in Spanish for a long time, and so I couldn’t remember a time when I didn’t know what was going on.  I thought of myself as very multicultural, but I really only liked Spanish and Mexico.  I was generally uninterested in Chinese culture, and what I did know, I evaluated on the basis of my own cultural norms and values.  I slowly learned to see my Chinese students’ culture and language as beautiful and complex. While I mostly wince in pain as I recall the damage I must have done to those poor students, I am grateful for the lessons that they taught me.  

Autobiography Pt. 4: Sociolinguistics


  • Bonilla-Silva, E. (2003). Racism without racists: Color-blind racism and the persistence of racial inequality in the United States. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield. 
  • Du Bois, W. E. B. (1973). The souls of Black folk. Millwood, N.Y: Kraus-Thomson Organization Ltd. 
  • Lee, S. J. (1994). Behind the model-minority stereotype: Voices of high- and low-achieving Asian American students. Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 25, 413–429. 
  • Tatum, B. D. (2003). “Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?”: And other conversations about race. New York, NY: Basic Books.