Tag Archives: teaching cultural competencies

The ethics of TV ‘experiments’

Macon, over at Stuff White People Do, picked up on the ABC show “What Would You Do?“, specifically an episode on racism in public settings and how people respond. It is in some ways reminiscent of some early ‘instigation research’ where researchers purposefully instigated some conflict to see how people would respond.

Macon tackles the issues of racism and white apathy, so I’ll largely leave that aspect to him, even though it is germane to this blog also.

Beyond that obvious issue, however, the concerns I immediately hit upon were those of human subjects in a research setting. All research that takes place which involves human subjects must be approved by an Institutional Review Board (IRB). IRBs function under the Office of Human Research Protection (OHRP), which basically is checking to be sure that researchers are not doing anything unethical, as in the classic Tuskegee Siphilis Case (which ran from 1932 to 1972 and, interestingly, the last widow to receive reparation payments after the Tuskegee case just died about two months ago). So if all research has to have oversight when human subjects are used, several questions arise about what the host of this TV program describes as an “experiment”:

  • Who approved this ‘study’? Does it have any IRB oversight?
  • Have they even thought about informed consent? Doubtful considering how upset several participants were.
  • What about debriefing? Every time I watched the film crew follow one set of people out on the street to do a post-interview, I wondered about all the other customers who were not interviewed and debriefed and who just slipped out the side and wandered off into their lives, unaware that what they’d been through was a con.
  • What about the effect on people of color? This ‘experiment’ is ostensibly to see how people would (or would not) respond, but people of color have no need to have this sort of store-front racism shoved in their faces since they are, in fact, living this reality every day.
  • Were participants compensated for their time, their discomfort, their trauma?

One of the questions IRBs consider when looking at a potential piece of research that involves human subjects is whether it stands to increase knowledge. Aside from the fact that most all people of color can testify that this is the reality in stores everywhere, upscale or down, there is also quite a lot of research that shows this as well. So what do we learn from ABC’s ‘experiment’ that we didn’t know before?

Another IRB question is whether a given piece of research does harm. Watching the responses by some participants (and only the ones that they chose to show, even thought the voiceover cites ‘more than a hundred’ people they filmed), I think it’s fair to say that, yes, it did harm: many people were really upset with what they witnessed. And what about the people who left the store but didn’t get caught by the film crew…. many of them may be left with the idea that this behavior is acceptable and appropriate, especially by someone with authority (the store security guard), because that’s what the silence of bystanders encourages.

And by silence of bystanders, I mean both the white people in the store who said and did nothing, but also those people accosted by the film crew who said and did nothing to stop this sham.

Unfortunately, the silence of bystanders is one of the strongest reinforcements for bullies, domestic and dating violence perpetrators, and people everywhere who would hold power over others.

This is the reason why all schools should be talking about talking: what do you say or do when you see or hear bullying? If we’re not talking about it in schools, youths grow up to be the callous adults who say nothing in episodes of “What Would You Do?”, as well as in the pre-production meetings of shows like “What Would You Do?”, as well as in their day-to-day lives.

So how are we talking to youth about their moral and ethical responsibilities to each other in our culture?

Treating girls differently

NPR did a short piece on ‘sexting‘ yesterday on All Things Considered. They opened with two 16-year-old girls who took a cell-phone picture of themselves naked together. One girl had erased the pic, the other sent it to a friend and, after one thing led to another, everyone at school had it on their phones, the administration had print outs, and lawyers were involved.

But here’s the catch: both girls were punished (suspended from being cheerleaders), but no one else was. Aside from issues of what the school has jurisdiction over (can they suspend students for weekend behaviors?), the fact remains that the administration saw fit to suspend the girls from their team–the cheerleading squad–but none of the football team who apparently forwarded the photos on were punished at all.

So why do we still insist on holding girls and women to different standards than men and boys? This school is simply reinforcing the gender double-standard that says that boys can be sexual, but girls must be chaste. The adminstration may not see it as such, but when they use the defense “The girls understood that as athletes, they would be held to higher standards of behavior”, but don’t hold the male football players to that standard, they are underscoring the old saw that women should know better. Never mind that one of the girls involved didn’t forward the picture on and deleted the original, meaning she did less than the football players.

Schools, of course, do this sort of thing all the time. It’s called abstinence-only education. We pay for it as taxpayers and the curricula developed for it, while differing state-by-state, seems all to reinforce the double-standard. Statements like “girls have a responsibility to wear modest clothing that doesn’t invite lustful thoughts,” and blaming a victim of rape based on her reputation for having sex (i.e. being a ‘slut’) coupled with the fact that the boy was drunk and therefore, didn’t really know what he was doing. Pretty awful stuff.

So what is your school teaching your kids? Have you asked? What are you telling your kids about being a boy or being a girl and what that means? Are you having authentic, non-judging conversations about sex or just telling them “don’t do it” and letting them figure it out on their own (they will!).

Youth Sexuality

According to data collected by Hunter College with the Human Rights Campaign, men are 12 when they first think they might be gay or bisexual. Women are 16 when they first think they might be lesbian or bisexual. By the time LGB people hit college age, they have, on average, had sex with someone of the same sex and have decided for sure that they are LGB. So it is no surprise that so many people come out before or shortly after graduating from high school and explore these aspects of themselves during those years.Regardless of an individual’s sexuality, these are the sexual development years and so many youth are exploring sexuality during this time, with whomever they are drawn to be with.

So how are our cultural views on sexuality during youth changing? Last weekend, Ryan Allen, under the stage name Reann Ballslee, was named Homecoming Queen at George Mason University, a school with some 30,000 students. While there are some who are nay-saying his being named to this position, this is a title given to the person with the most votes after they performed at a qualifying pageant in early February, so clearly an awful lot of GMU students were comfortable with a drag queen being named Homecoming Queen and cast their votes for Reann Ballslee.

On the other hand, high schools across the country are grappling with staging a newly-released toned-down version of the musical Rent. It seems that many communities are not yet comfortable with the idea of high school students talking about sex, STDs, and drugs. Oh, and there are two gay couples in the show. Perhaps the parents and administrators ought to attend the Homecoming this weekend at GMU?

Meanwhile teens across the country are now being booked on pornography charges for texting pictures of themselves nude to friends and partners. Some of this is certainly warranted, as when a boy takes pictures of his girlfriend and texts them to his friends, but much of it is the same fear of human sexuality, especially among youth as probably drives the people fighting Rent productions. I’d be interested certainly to see gender breakdowns; I’d assume that these photos are more often of and by young women trying to live up to cultural expectations of being sexualized. Where is the line here between allowing youth to be sexual as human beings and protecting youth from being victimized by our culture?

So how are we talking with youth in Sex Ed class about sexuality? What sort of language do we permit in schools? Is language that puts women down or sexualises them laughed off by teachers? Does homophobic language merit merely a “hey, cut it out!” or more conversation about what homophobia looks like and means? What messages are we sending youth through both what we talk to them about as well as what we do not talk to them about?

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. Even  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.

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?


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….