All posts by Peter

Dehumanizing People of Color

Well Maricopa County, Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio is at it again. He’s been criticized before, by the Mayor of Phoenix among others, for violating civil rights and for ignoring some 40,000 felony arrest warrants so he can focus on rounding up people with brown skin. “Immigrants” and “Criminals”, Sheriff Joe calls them, but he doesn’t seem to care what their legal status. To quote the Mayor:

American citizens and U.S. veterans who fought for our rights are seeing their own rights violated. Immigrants, who are here legally, with paperwork in hand, are being treated like criminals. Vendors, with valid visas and properly licensed equipment, are being detained.

Last week, Arpaio paraded 220 “immigrants”, all reportedly Mexican, from the Durango Jail to the Tent City, and sent out a Press Release to announce this, and be sure media were present. They were dressed in prison stripes, chained, and marched down the street (traffic was rerouted for them), with an enormous force of armed guards around and above them.

This from a Sheriff who has some 2,700 civil rights violations filed against him from 2004-2007 and who has apparently cost the County some $43 million in legal settlements over the jails during his tenure.

Unfortunately, too many in this country see this sort of public humiliation to be permissible for people of color. It’s really unfortunate that we are teaching youth that it’s okay to treat POC not only differently from white people, but it’s okay to humiliate POC publicly.

Two years ago, Tarleton State University, the second-largest school in the Texas A&M system, discovered that an annual MLK Jr-day party at one of their fraternities was predicated on white students dressing up like racist stereotypes of black people.

Last fall, there was the case of the white teacher who tied up two black girls and made them get under a desk to demonstrate how slave traders treated slaves as they were bringing them to this country.

Last week, in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, a predominantly black elementary school called off their “Cotton Picking Day” where students were encouraged to come to school dressed as slaves for the day as part of Black History Month.

Of course these events are offensive and of course they are racist, and there are lots of other events like them. And, you’ll note, they are happening in schools. Not Sheriff Arpaio’s event, of course, but all the local kids heard about that and/or saw it on the tv. So are we talking about these events in schools? Are we, as adults, merely ascribing them to ‘extremists’ and assuming that ‘that sort of thing wouldn’t happen here’, or are we looking, with our students, at the cultural forces that make the people who do these things think it’s a good idea?

What do you do when a student in your class uses a term like “that’s so gangster” or “that’s so ghetto”? Do you punish, or do you start a conversation with the class about what those terms actually mean?

One of the difficult aspects of being a teacher is the constant pressure to be a role model. Not just the I-say-please-and-thank-you variety, but the how-do-I-respond-to-hate variety, regardless of how ‘minor’ the infraction. It’s African-American Month, February is, so will we spend it with platitudes about how post-racial, post-civil-rights, post-slavery we are, casting furtive glances at the black student in the corner to see how he responds, or will we engage our students with actual conversation about real events that still take place and how we must respond to all forms of hate and prejudice, even when someone argues they’re ‘just joking’? Every time a teacher does not challenge these comments (or behaviors, like pulling eyes back to mimic Asians), that teacher has just taught the entire class that it’s not that big a deal to put down or humiliate people of color.

Political Meddling in Youth

When the economy tanks, some people work on helping each other out, and some look for how to mask their agendas.

In Georgia, some State House members are questioning why Georgia’s University System is supporting faculty with listed expertise in topics they don’t understand or maybe agree with, like oral sex. Aside from the fact that this is a terrific example of why we need the institution of tenure to protect faculty from meddling politicians, I have a major issue with this particular example.

In today’s youth culture, much has been made of changing attitudes in sex among youth, and how oral sex is not seen by many youth as being ‘real sex’. Georgia does not apparently collect sexual activity data, but here in Maine, 17% of 8th grade students have had sex, and in Alabama, which I picked just because it’s next door to Georgia, nearly 51% of 6-12th graders have had sex.

The reality is that nearly a third of 15-17 year-olds in this country have had sex. According to 2002 numbers from the CDC, 49.1% of 15-19 year-old males have had vaginal intercourse with females, and 55.2% have either given or received oral sex with females (they don’t seem to break out same-sex data with as much detail). For 15-19 year-old females, the numbers are slightly higher (53% vaginal, 54.3% oral).

The one other set of numbers (from the same source) that could be kinda scary is this: of 18-19 year-olds who have never had vaginal sex, 35.3% of females and 30.6% of males have given or received oral sex.

This means that there are tons of sexually active youth out there who may consider themselves “virgins” and, therefore, may ignore information about STDs.

Damn right I want experts in oral sex studying the topic. Ignoring things doesn’t make them go away, and often makes them worse. If we’d only talked about AIDS before it became the AIDS epidemic….

So, who are you?

We all develop a sense of who we are, and this process is a juggle of one’s sense of self and our culture’s sense of us. EvenĀ  as adults, we are constantly refining this sense of self and even working on several different versions of it. Much like having several different resumes that highlight our skills in different ways, we all have several different hats we wear, whether at work, with our children, or while pursuing a sport or hobby or other avocation. Right now I am a blogger, but I’m also a Dad, I’m straight, I’m white, I’m a researcher, I’m an employee, I’m a partner. And many things beyond that. As I approach 40, I am still struggling with what it means to be any number of these things, but for school aged youth, this struggle is often what their lives are consumed by.

Majka Burhardt has been blogging about a sense of understanding who she is, especially relating to what I understand is a very U.S.-centric question: “what do you do?” How do we articulate who we are in a one-sentence soundbite? And what if ‘what you do’ is not really fully how you understand yourself? Like Majka, I have climbed for all of my adult life, and this is a major way that I understand myself, even if I barely get out these days because of other responsibilities. So “what I do” is not necessarily who I am. This is also going to be true for many people of color, for women, for anyone who struggles against the culture. I’ve always struggled with the common dinner-party question Majka talks about: “what do you do?” and I’ve never come up with a really good alternative, but I’m certainly open to options. I usually ask something like “what do you do with your days” as a way to allow someone to answer outside of their job, but it still implies “what is your job?” to many people.

If we take this sense of self one step back to a more basic sense of human identity, I am male. But that simple fact does not encompass who I am anymore than the fact that I am a climber. I am male, but I have struggled against culturally-force-fed stereotypes of gender my whole life, especially in classrooms. I like to take students’ comments about being one gender or another and start a bigger conversation about what gender means in our culture: “Wow, so do you really think you’ve got to be ‘tough’ like that to be a man? Can’t women be tough too?”, or, perhaps more commonly, “do you really think women are less valuable than men? Why do you say ‘don’t be a girl’ like it’s a bad thing? What are you actually trying to say then?” 7th graders ‘get it’ when they are encouraged to talk about it, because so much of these gender stereotypes are ‘received knowledge’ that they’ve heard but never questioned. Dollface is talking about these gender stereotypes on her blog and asking what we’re doing to reinforce or break these gender stereotypes. For me, I always enjoyed talking about how I like to sew and quilt and cook and parent and yet still climb and get dirty and use tools and fix things: I can be my own definition of man.

One issue with these cultural stereotypes is the idea of homophily, which the Guardian had a piece on last week. Homophily is “The faintly depressing human tendency to seek out and spend time with those most similar to us.” One of the reasons I always tried, as a teacher, to talk about my own experiences and life (to a reasonable degree) is that I was different than many of my students. I felt that if I talked about this, they would see that the stereotypes (of whatever, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, class, rural/urban, etc. etc. etc.) are just false social constructions. If teachers allow themselves to be vulnerable in this way, students often respond to that with authentic thinking. Other students, especially (in my experience), the LQBTQI students, seem to feel a sense of relief in an adult being open to these conversations and in an adult who is willing to talk about these issues.

So do we surround ourselves with only people like us? Is that a good or bad thing? Don’t we want to have interactions with other viewpoints? To what degree is this line of questions white- or male- or hetero- or able-centric? Can members of any non-dominant group truly surround themselves with only like points of view in a culture so fiercely dominated by straight-white-male-able-culture?

I guess the bottom line to me is that we ought to be having these conversations with youth early on.

When “the Market” runs the school

Over the years, there have been lots of examples of corporate interests making their way into classrooms. Teachers are well familiar with the posters oh so kindly donated by companies which plug their products in one way or another, or even go so far as to steer the politics of teaching.

Is this just the way schools get materials today, since we can’t seem to find the resources to fund our schools fully? Should we see this as schools getting the job done by whatever means necessary, or is it more nefarious than that? Even though, in states like Maine, soda and candy are being banned along with the advertising for them, there are more than enough loopholes to drive a delivery truck through. At the school where I taught, when the ban went through, they changed the sign at the athletic fields from a Pepsi logo to a different Pepsi brand. Inside, the soda machines were stocked with other Pepsi brands, from water to juices, but it is still a Pepsi brand on the side of the machine. Why does the school keep them at all? Because the distributor pays the school a portion of the profits from the machines.

There are also lots of other examples of corporate interests trying to create ‘brand loyalty’ at a young age and pushing their products. There are even companies set up to market to kids in schools. What, then, is needed, is media literacy and getting kids thinking about ways to understand what they see around them and the motives behind that, especially as online marketing to kids gets more and more sophisticated.

But what if the corporate interests in the classroom are not so obvious as that Proctor and Gamble poster trumpeting the glories of their products? In the world of pharmaceuticals, many drug companies are paying universities for research on their drugs. This, in and of itself, is fine, but what happens when they pay the university to create a course based on their products? Several years ago, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Medicine and Public Health started coursework around the benefits of hormone therapy, even though a clinical trial had actually been halted five years early because of the dangers of this therapy. For six years, doctors took this online course that was sponsored by, you guessed it, Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, the makers of the hormone drugs! Now that someone asked questions about it, they’ve halted the course, but how many students (in this case doctors who will then go treat patients based on this information) were given information that is not only wrong, but potentially deadly to women who undergo this therapy?

There are plenty of subtexts here about how our culture values women (this sort of thing never seems to happen in clinical trials of men, or white people, does it….), but we need to find more effective ways to be sure that education is a completely free-standing institution that presents lessons based on the best information available, no matter if it’s 2nd grade or medical school.

American Apparel

Dov Charney is a sexist lunatic who is given huge amounts of power by virtue of being the CEO of a hundreds-of-millions of dollars a year company. He founded American Apparel and seems to have the business acumen to keep it rolling, although I do wonder if it’s the corporate version of a Ponzi scheme and once it stops growing at 100% or more each year, it’ll catch up with itself and fold under its own weight.

But until then, Charney likes to dismiss domestic violence (contrary to all available evidence, he seems to think that nearly all DV is perpetrated by women). Charney likes to have sex with employees. Lots of them, and the models for their photos too. He doesn’t seem to grok that as the CEO, he has an enormous amount of power in the company and no employee under him should be expected to be able to make any decisions that do not take that power into consideration. He still claims these are consensual sexual acts.

Is it any wonder that American Apparel advertisements are criticized as being pornographic? I won’t even bother you with the link to the most pornographic AA ads, but suffice to say, collected, they are over the top.

So where do conversations about companies like this happen? Young people are buying this stuff, and a lot of it, and they continue to be the target of their marketing. Where are responsible adults talking to their kids about what these advertisements are actually selling? Can we have these conversations in schools? Because if we don’t, then people like Dov Charney will continue getting away with everything they do and making monster piles of cash off it…

h/t to Womanist Musings for the original post that got me looking at this. My response there was the start of this post….

questions or answers?

Questions are the most brilliant way to learn things. It has been said that when students ask more questions than the teacher, that is the definition of success in a classroom. I myself have too many questions and the older I get, the more experiences I gather, the more wisdom I accrue, the more questions I have. I think this is a good thing, and I certainly hope I can transmit it to students.

However, too much of our educational system is about answers. In the form of a number. And a class rank. We do such a disservice to students to lock them into numerical measures of success and tons of science indicates that what and how well students learn decreases when they are graded, but still the system persists.

What is the actual point of formalized education, then? If it is for students actually to learn, we would do whatever supports that goal, but unfortunately it is not. What is the actual goal? I don’t know exactly, but it seems to have to do with controlling the population. Don’t forget that the one of the reasons the original public schools in this country were conceived and created was to turn young people into better workers (ergo things like factory bells between classes).

If we actually revamped this system to create young people who can think for themselves and question critically, would that threaten the status quo? Would it threaten those in power? Is that why we don’t do that? Is that why standardized tests continue to prevail, even in the face of so much research showing they don’t actually measure learning?

Does that darn teevee reflect our culture?

The January issue of Harper’s Magazine, which has been out several weeks, has just made it to the top of my magazine pile. The delightful Harper’s Index, which routinely shows about 40 factoids that reflect in various ways our current culture, is, for this issue nearly trebled in size. (Harper’s is worth the subscription for the Index alone, fwiw.)

In this Index, two statistics jumped out at me about the “number of incidents of torture on prime-time network TV shows”:

From 1995 to 2002: 110

From 2002 to 2007: 897

These are the Bush Doctrine formative years, with Donald Rumsfeld at the Department of Defense (01-06) (and Paul Wolfowitz as his Deputy (01-05)), and the rise of Extraordinary Rendition and Guantanamo detainees and U.S. use of torture and U.S. citizens willing to give up rights to perceive some semblance of safety.

Of course, then, US policy affects how we treat each other as human beings.

Not necessarily because people are imitating what they see on TV, but because people come to feel that violence is a permissible response, because people come to feel that they cannot and should not trust each other, because people come to feel that we are not all working for the collective good, but for the good of ‘our people’. But how does one define ‘our people’? US citizens? Republicans? Men? White people?

So then: does TV cause us to be violent, or is it part of that big cultural biofeedback loop where US policy affects cultural views which affect TV portrayals which affect cultural views which affect US policy?

We must be mindful of these forces when we teach civics and history, as well as how we talk about interpersonal relationships. Our politicians are certainly aware of how to harness these forces to change public perception as a fore-runner to changing policy. But it is dangerous to teach students that policy changes happen in a vacuum, just as it is dangerous to allow students to assume that just because they see it on TV, that is how people interact with each other. One of the most important things we can teach students is critical thinking and the ability to question information and form their own opinions, right along with being respectful of others and trying to be aware of what others’ experiences are.

Beyond race in the U.S.? Yeah right….

So many in the punditry will have us believe that we now live in a post-racial America, but this is, of course, bunk. Ask nearly anyone of color (if you can’t see it yourself). There’s still lots of racism in this country.

Of course, the more, um, ‘subtle’ forms of racism (not a very good descriptor, granted) are the ones that many whites refuse to recognize, like being followed in a store, being questioned or pulled over by the police, or simply being scorned in public settings (“how do you know that’s about your skin color?!” some will ask). I’ve heard from many white people things like “I don’t see color”, which is intended to prove that they are not racist, while actually demonstrating that, at the very least, they are not seeing the whole person, and more likely that they are demonstrating racism in one way or another whether they want to think so or not. The things that whites agree are racist are ascribed to the extreme few (like the KKK and the Skinheads) and are therefore dismissed as being minor experiences for the greater public.

We believe we are, personally anyway, not racist anymore. We live in a post-civil rights country now, right?

Wrong.

Even if whites don’t ask anyone of color what their experience is (and let’s not forget that the vast majority of the punditry who are exclaiming this post-racial world are white people trying to define the experiences of people of color), we now have actual research to show for it.

Last week’s issue of Science Magazine has a piece of research that shows that white people think they’ll be really upset at an overt act of racism, but, when actually presented with it, they’re just not that upset and may not do or say anything about it. As CNN notes, these are some of the people involved in Project Implicit, based at Harvard, which has lots of tests people can take to see what their underlying prejudices are. (A warning from them is that if you are not prepared for learning what your underlying prejudices are, be wary of taking any of their tests.)

The upshot of all this is that, duh, racism is still rife throughout our culture. But if we talk about it and think about what it looks like and how it can manifest, we will be better prepared for those situations when we do encounter them. A white person who hears a racial slur has the privilege of ignoring it and walking away, and so it is incumbent on us to prepare ourselves for how we will respond when that happens (because it will happen).

These are conversations we need to have in school, in class, in groups of young people, starting at very young ages. Considering how much race- and ethnicity-based bullying there is in schools, we must help give youth the tools to use in those situations. If we do not, we will simply raise yet another generation of white people who will look the other way. It is the responsibility of white people to work to end racism.

h/t to Macon D over at Stuff White People Do on the CNN article.

Disney influences

An excellent post by Stuff White People Do about the influence Disney has on children’s perspectives. It’s not only scary to have that much ingrained racism, sexism and other oppressive perspectives being foisted on children, but it’s also deeply troubling that so many parents are so uncritical of Disney’s products and movies without any real thought to what they are teaching their children.

So how do the rest of us navigate school when our children will be influenced by their children?

BTW, the Media Education Foundation, the creators of the first clip on the SWPD post, is fantastic, and I recommend their films. They tend to be expensive, but find them at the local library and check ’em out….

Privilege of sleep

Last night I woke to use the bathroom at about 1:30 and had some trouble falling back to sleep because one of the fire alarms in the hall was emiting periodic chirps to announce a dead battery. This was frustrating because I didn’t want to change the battery then, but also because the chirps were infrequent and irregularly timed, so, even after standing in the hall for 5 minutes, I couldn’t figure out which one was making the infernal sound. I drifted back off, but at 4:00 I was back in the hall changing batteries for both of them just to be sure.

This lack of sleep is affecting me today in both my concentration and brain power; I’m just not firing all cylinders today. It has gotten me thinking (to the degree that I can) about how simply having the quiet space to sleep a full night is a privilege that not everyone has. I think many students who come to school and fall asleep in class or are cranky or who can’t concentrate are likely suffering from other stuff going on in their homes. An abusive household is certainly not conducive to the sense of safety required to allow yourself to drift off to sleep, and fighting parents, lack of heat, having to put your siblings to bed, or having to care for a parent can all put a young person off their sleep patterns.

It’s worth remembering that many of these lives we come in contact with are complex and that their behavior in the classroom is not necessarily a reflection on their teacher or the school. Coping mechanisms developed to respond to home life may not be terribly well suited to school life, and we need to be aware of this and respond from that knowledge. This is also one more reason why so-called zero-tolerance programs are not necessarily effective since they tend to punish students for things that may be beyond their immediate control.