Sunday, October 21, 2012

just us

I was born a middle-class white child.

As a girl growing up in the 1970s, I was lucky to have had a generation of pants-wearing, bra-burning, whistle-blowing, union organizing women pave the ERA way for me & my sparkling red banana-seated bike.

As a teen in the 80s, I was placed in advanced math and never made to set foot in Home Ec. I was encouraged in my bid for ASB VP and weird desire to run track. No doors closed in my face when I applied to colleges and jobs and volunteer positions.

I cannot remember a time when I missed a meal, couldn't replace worn shoes or jeans, opened no presents on a birthday, wasn't able to pay a school fee. My parents gave each other the silent treatment now and then but no one ended up with bruises or scars, physical or mental. We went to Texas every summer, stopping all over the nation to visit tourist attractions & amusement parks.

And since falling in love with 6th grader Jimmy Hendricks (swear) on my bus when I was six, I have never questioned my sexuality nor the guarantee that I could legally marry any of the subsequent boys/men on my Potential Husband list.

In short, I have no real idea what it means to be a minority. To be discriminated against. To be degraded or discounted as a valuable member of society. As a teacher (and reasonably sensitive person), I wince when I notice these things happening to students and their families; I am dedicated to resolving these situations but ultimately feel overwhelmed because it is unbelievably rampant. I feel naive saying it's unbelievable, and disgusted that it is rampant.

I spent yesterday at the Teaching for Social Justice conference in Portland, hoping to find a useful balance between misplaced raging against relatively small machines and real sensitivity to differences & acting on injusitices. The conference has been hit & miss the last few years; one year I took home a lot of helpful tips but the next I was glared at for mentioning that stereotypes come from legitimate observation and are sometimes accurate descriptions (specifically "scream like a girl").

This time, I learned more about effective strategies & programs for my students. But more importantly, I learned to remind myself of where I come from and understand how that shadows any conversations I have with kids. I saw how I tend to project my own experiences as a How To [DO ANYTHING YOU WANT]. I know I do this with positive Pollyannaish intentions - Yes You Can! - but I see how it cannot possibly resonate when students see a wealthy, white, educated, well-dressed, happily married homeowning woman who has never known real hunger or want or cold or terror. No matter how often I tell them about my college hardships and that most of my wardrobe is from clearance racks & Goodwill and that I'm lucky to have an engineer husband + lots of bargains to afford vacations, the fact remains that my whiteness, social status, and even sexual identity give me a free pass in this world. I don't believe I need to feel guilty or ashamed about these advantages but I do need to acknowledge them, and not overlook their absence for many of our students.

In the midst of a workshop, I remembered a conversation I had this week with a student after school. He was telling me about his life as part of a gang in his former town and how he was so glad to be with us now, then he mentioned how he's still in touch with a friend who wishes he could get out. I stupidly asked, "Why doesn't he just stop, or leave?" I knew the instant my mouth opened that this was the most ignorant privileged-white-person thing to say yet I couldn't stop it; as soon as it was in the air between us, this sweet boy graciously did not laugh in my face but he did smile before telling me that was not possible. I said, "But you did it!" He told me he was lucky his mom wanted to move and had a place to go, but he is still afraid of that gang because even from hundreds of miles away, they could still decide to 'get him' for 'acting white.' I wanted to cry - for this boy, his friends, all of the kids out there like them, and our world when it misses out on the potential words & music & dancing & inventions & cures & joy & genius they could leave for us, if we could only provide the social justice, and future, they deserve.

I still want to cry, but more than that I want to rage. And act. Please help - seek brilliance, practice equity, recognize intolerance and crush it with ferocity.