Thursday, August 27, 2009

I've MOVED!!!!

So I've been trying to get this audio stuff going on this site way too long, and I finally took Ansel's advice (among others). So - I'm off to Wordpress. There you will see the same great Choptensils writing (with all the archives, comments, etc. from before) with enhanced features. And, most importantly . . .

The Choptensils PODCAST!!!!

So - head on over to the new site for Choptensils:

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Another Camp Triumph: Wasian Pride

This will be a briefer post on another camp triumph – and one that hits even more personally.

It’s about Wasians.

Specifically, it’s about two Wasians: myself, and a camper.

If you’re unclear on what a Wasian is, it’s a bi-racial, White and Asian person. You should already know my mix, but the camper’s mix is White (mother) and Cambodian (father).

This particular camper happens to be one of my middle school students who I had all through last year. The same kid who asked me about my choice in music, and when I told him I listened to “pretty much anything,” he answered, “is that because you’re Wasian, and we don’t really fit in anywhere?”

Outside of his brother, I’m very likely the only other Wasian this kid knows. And so he – being a conscious being – has attached to me. Because he is trying to figure out his Wasian place in the world, and there are not a lot of places to look when trying to find this answer. Especially in Portland.

So I’ve assumed a lot of responsibility for this one kid – because I understand just how important it is for him to have a Wasian role model (since I never had one). Somebody to help show him how a Wasian can be in the world.

And we’ve talked about it a lot. Talked about not fitting in and how our mix determines how other people perceive us. And we unite over it (he often would yell “Wasian Pride!!!” when he saw me arriving at school in the morning) and share a very overt connection over our specific mix.

So when he made it out to camp, we came to a decision: we were going to write a “Wasian rap” and perform it together at the camp’s big Open Mic night.

I’m not really going to go into much more detail than that. It’s not necessary. Just the fact that this kid – self-identified “Wasian” (I’ve never used the term until he started referencing it) – wrote a piece about his own identity and life, and I had the honor of being invited to share the stage with him as he performed it for a crowd of his peers (none of them Wasian, of course).*

I saw his pride. I heard it in his voice when he spoke into the mic and introduced our performance with, “We’re both Wasian . . .” And so I couldn't control the sh--eating grin that spread over my face when the crowd went nuts for him, afterwards. Because he's a great kid, and I get excited for all of my kids when they get to have a moment like that (a moment of bravery when they stand up in front of their peers and share a piece of themselves). But it was even more sweet because I couldn't help but think about my own youth, and how cool it would have been if my specific way of identifying could have been validated like that - so strongly and positively - before I grew into adulthood.

I complain a lot. A lot of this blog is full of negative experiences. But this was not one of those. I got to be a role model to a kid who is currently living an outsider life – one that I can directly relate to - and share a moment of triumph with him.

And he’s not going to follow in my footsteps – Hell no. No, instead, I hope that he can jump past a few years of my own insecurities and, as a result, walk his own path more strongly and effectively. And wherever that takes him – that’s exactly how Wasians do it.

Because that's the ultimate goal here, as a role model: to validate the kids' experiences and identities (however they are) while showing them that those very experiences and identities don't have to be strict guidelines to how they end up living their lives.

Yeah - he's Wasian, and proud of it. And that's a very positive thing. And, more importantly, having grasped that so early, he is now free to do whatever he wants with it.

And that's that.

* The two pieces we spliced together for the performance didn't end up being about being specifically Wasian, but they regarded our identities and how we are as individuals in the world - which, in the end, is about being Wasian for both of us.

** The photo is of Kip Fullbeck, Wasian author of "Paper Bullets," sometimes spoken-word artist, and creator of the Hapa Project.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Girl Power

I’ve been away from the internet (at least on a regular-use basis) this past few weeks as I’ve been working at the arts camp I’ve worked at the last five years. In brief, this is an arts-focused camp for more or less the same population of kids that I teach (in some cases, literally the exact same). Professional artists are brought in to teach various art classes (photography, film, theatre, poetry, sewing, drumming, and more), while other more camp-y stuff happens.

Anyway, I wrote a spoken-word piece addressing gender inequality* (specifically, media oppression of women and hip-hop misogyny) a while back, with the intention of sharing it (at least, an edited version) with my kids. And so, at camp, I performed it for the kids (the high school group).

And I can’t even begin to explain the reaction it got. All the girls in the audience left their seats, screaming and clapping, because it spoke to them. In appearance and attitude, I kind of represent a lot of stereotypical concepts of “masculinity” in this country, and so I think it shocked the Hell out of them to hear me speak out.

And it only got better – because, that night, when all the kids were getting ready for bed, meeting in their smaller groups for nightly check-out sessions, a number of the girls’ sessions revolved entirely around their reaction to my piece. Talking about how guys mistreat them, how they sometimes let that happen, what they can do about it, etc.

The following morning, camper after camper sought me out to request a copy of my poem to take home with them. And the best part? It wasn’t just the female campers. No – many of the male campers asked for a copy to take home, as well (and this was individually, with no females to see the request – they actually just wanted a copy).
By the end of that session, I had given almost every single camper (and the staff, as well) a copy of my poem.

But it didn’t end there. For the rest of the session, an implicit theme of “being a gentleman” began to trickle into camp – male counselors were teaching their groups how to be respectful to women and having them practice; male campers were asking female staff for tips on how to treat women right; female campers were talking to each other and the males about general respect and how to represent themselves.

And, as all this went down, I have never felt better about my work or what I do. Never. Not even close. This was my life’s work coming together so perfectly. Getting myself to a place where I could consider forms of oppression that I’m a part of; writing down my thoughts as a poem; performing it; and actually hitting my audience. Not just touching them and making them think for a moment – but hitting them in a way that moved them to want to do more (and actually following up).

And it was with kids. Girls/young women at a moment in their lives when they are choosing their paths – and may just be able to alter them a little bit to keep their heads above water in an oppressive world. Boys/young men in a position to either run with their privilege or change how they walk through the world.

And I don’t really expect that it’s going to alter their paths. Certainly not all of them. Probably not most of them. But – for a moment – it hit them. Hard. And maybe that will push them just enough to end up in a position to be hit again later on. And then maybe again. And with enough hits – paths really can change.

It’s like reverse-oppression: pile on enough POSITIVE situations and consciousness and you might just get the strength to blow through that pile of negative ones.

And I’m not writing this to brag – although I am, a little. Because I’m proud. I’ve worked my ass off to get to this point. Because, if I didn’t love those kids and put in the work to really know them and relate to them, they wouldn’t have listened. If I hadn’t earned their respect and kept my integrity, they wouldn’t believe in me. If I hadn’t put in the years of personal work and self-reflection, I never would have written this.

And so I’m proud of this one pay-off. Because there’s not a ton of pay-off (at least not on this type of level) in this line of work, and I think I’ve earned this one. And it inspires me. It gives me the fuel to see that I’m on the right path, myself. It hit me back, and helps me see what I want to be doing, how I want to do it, and that it can really work.

And that – that’s something.

• Here’s the (edited) piece that I shared with the kids (again, it's meant to be spoken, so there's power lost in the translation):

Male Privilege

This one’s for the women that have to deal with these guys
That don’t know how to treat ‘em, always feeding them lies
Brainwashed by the media, every female objectified
Ignore the patriarchy, cuz you’re doing just fine
Ignore the patriarchy, and you’ll do just fine

Easy to say, but harder to do when-
They say you’re too skinny, too fat, or the wrong complexion
Constant messaging starting to make you think that all of this oppression
Is truth – representing a man’s ideal of perfection
But you
Can’t do
Your life under faulty conventions
But don’t take this man’s word – just look in the mirror
And I know this world has tried to instill in you a fear of
Seeing yourself raw, stripped of all that you’ve been taught
By a man’s world, constantly trying to hide what you’ve got
Wouldn’t want you feeling confident enough to rely on your mind
Cuz then the job you rightfully got would likely be mine
Get you to compete with each other so you’re not competing with us
So when you catch your men cheating, you call the women the sluts
And that’s messed up – we’ve kept you down enough to fight with each other
While this brotherhood of men tries to forget the first mother
Cuz that’s the secret, you see
We keep you down out of jealousy
All the same abilities, but men have one piece missing
The act of creating life, God-like in a human form
Men feeling less-than because our only contribution is our sperm
7 minutes to your 9 months
Insignificant to creation once the mating is done
So we flip it – our insecurity makes you the objects
Increasing our own importance by taking away the meaning from sex
So come on ladies – don’t pander to your man
If he’s not treating you right, make him spend his nights with his hand
Cuz you’re the Gods on this Earth, creating life
While he’s just a sperm-donor that just happens to look like . . . a man

This one’s for the women that have to deal with these guys
That don’t know how to treat ‘em, always feeding them lies
Brainwashed by the media, every female objectified
Ignore the patriarchy, cuz you’re doing just fine
Ignore the patriarchy, and you’ll do just fine

If you can get some help . . .

Cuz to the rappers of color – what the Hell are we thinking?
We get ‘em saying “those people” say “those things” about “their own women”
And the messed up thing is that we let them
Misogyny’s the b, so let’s get it out of our system
These are our mothers, our sisters, and someday our wives
Ones who tried to raise us right and even gave us our live
Get over the creation-envy and stop oppressing our own
Cuz the oppression we dole out is the oppression we bring home
So it’s time we grow up and start acting like a father
Drop the macho act and raise every girl like a daughter
Cuz if they were our own, could we look them in the eyes
When they realized our lyrics held them objectified?
Talking about hos, degrading women in our videos
As if we don’t even know where all that money goes
Back in the pocket of the patriarchal regime
Who appreciate our part because it keeps their white gloves clean
Laughing at how we always do exactly as they want
Crushing our own to keep others happy at the top
So if we really want all of this oppression to stop
We should start with our own actions and words and turn our misogyny off
Start acting like real men and turn our misogyny off

This one’s for the women that have to deal with these guys
That don’t know how to treat ‘em, always feeding them lies
Brainwashed by the media, every female objectified
Ignore the patriarchy, cuz you’re doing just fine
Maybe if we restore the matriarchy, we could be just fine.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

On a "Chinese Bride"

So, I am officially headed to China in the Fall (end of September/beginning of October). Since this is the official plan and where my near-future is taking me, I - of course - have found myself talking about it with many different people.

There are a number of reactions to this news - mostly positive - but one of the most common comments I've gotten back (especially from acquaintances, but also from real friends) is a reference to me coming back with a "Chinese bride." Seriously. I've heard this many more times than could even slightly be due to coincidence.

And it's not a coincidence. Not at all. It's a "funny" joke just as creative and new as a really tall person being asked about the weather.

"Oh - you're going to live in China for a while? I bet you come back with a Chinese bride!" Ha. Ha. Ha.

Do I really need to break it down for folks? It all just falls into the theme of race-based objectification of women. In this case, it's part of the whole "exotic, yet submissive" meme that always flows around stereotypes of Asian women. It's that damn Asian fetish rearing its ugly head, yet again. It's also part of the general exploitation and de-humanization of non-Western countries and women of color by the Western (generally white, but not only white) world.

So - people's first thought when I talk about going to China? That I must be going to pick up a bride. Like I'm going shopping for a woman. And since we all know how submissive and eager-to-please Chinese women are, of course I could buy one while I'm there. It's a lot cheaper than mail-order, and this way, I can have a pick. Let's think back to the "good old days" of opium dens, "dragon ladies," and cultural exploitation. Right off the bat.

This pisses me off on so many levels, but it's that first thought aspect of it that kills me the most. I say I'm finally going to China, and that's what I hear. Nothing about how great that is, from a cultural sense. Nothing about my identity or how much I'll probably learn. Nothing about learning the language, maybe seeing family, etc. No - time and again: "Chinese Bride!! HA HA HA!!!"

And that just shows how insidious racism is in this country. It's like me talking about China is my own version of the Implicit Association Test** - I say "going to China," and everybody else spits out their first association: "Chinese Bride." Cutting through all the bullshit. Friends, acquaintances, whatever - that's what comes out. People that know me and my background, and they jump right past respect and support to a triggering stereotype.

And I'm not saying that any of these people are actually racist. I don't think they even know what they're saying, really (or how I take it). Some probably mean something entirely different by it. But it just sums it all up for me. No matter the intentions, or how much we talk about it, the racist power of the media and popular culture wins most of the time. I can't be "on" all the time.

This is the thing, too - if folks took two seconds to think about it, they would never say this to me. I'm mixed, Chinese/white. My dad is white. My mom is Chinese. I constantly fret about that being the vast majority of interracial Asian/white couples: white male, Asian female. I battle against the "Asian fetish." I don't fully believe that all of those relationships are based on love and not an objectifying, disempowering racial stereotype. So why the Hell would I head to China - where the power dynamic between me and the women would be even more lop-sided - and be a participant in exactly what I loathe most in American society?

And sure - some of it is based on the assumption that I want to marry a Chinese woman, period. The unfortunate stereotypes associated with "Chinese brides" being coincidental to the assumption that that would be a way for me to connect to my identity, or satisfy my dead grandparents, or something like that. But again - those who know me should know that I'm not stupid enough to work that way. A Chinese romantic interest isn't going to make me any more Chinese than I already am. It also annoys me that the assumption is that - since I'm half-Chinese - I must need a Chinese lover to make me whole. Doesn't really work like that.

For those who think I'm "overreacting" and/or "misunderstanding" - that's exactly the point. Again - race doesn't happen in a one-time-only vacuum. If all these other bits and pieces hadn't been piling on for the last two decades, I wouldn't be "so damn touchy" about all this. But they have. And I am. And I have every right in having those reactions. In fact, it would be kind of amazing (or maybe sad) if I didn't.

So think of this as just one more lesson about the power of race in this country. How it all piles on. How one stupid, "joking" comment can just blow things up. Yeah - I can take a joke. And I can also work from experience. If only one or two or even three people said it, I could "relax" and just "take a joke." But when it becomes an over-arching theme?


And don't even get me started on the lady whose only reaction was to keep telling me, "You don't even look Chinese!"

And now that I've written all this? How mentally-twisted would I be if I ended up falling in love in China . . . Thanks, media-influenced racial stereotypes.

Aiyaaa. Can we ever win?

* I should note here that the image with this post is a painting by Chi Tung Chiang. I don't actually know him at all, but I wanted to give him credit, and if you are interested in seeing more of his work, go to:

** If you don't know what that is, read my reference to PRIMING, then go to this website: I highly recommend you check out the tests - you'll learn a lot about your thoughts in a short time.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

On Sex and Male Power, Part I

I suppose I could have used a more titillating image to go with this piece. But if I had - wouldn't I just be playing the same game that I'm about to challenge? As a male, would using an image of female subjugation to draw attention to injustice be anything but exploitive?

I don't know. Mt. Rushmore may not be sexy, but it gets part of the point across, and it does so without blurring boundaries.

Because that's what this post is about: the blurred line between "consensual" sex and male dominance in U.S. society. A big jump-off from my usual line of questioning, but one that is late in coming. I should have written this a long time ago, but I think I only recently have been able to touch on it effectively.

So here goes:

I start with a premise that few would deny - we (U.S. citizens) live in a patriarchy. In this society, males dominate. Males dominate positions of political power. Men make more money for doing the same jobs that women do. Men dominate the media - making it so that women in the media are often objectified and sexualized; even those bringing us the "news."

I don't think I have to go into any more depth there. That's all patently obvious.

Level Two:

Due to the level of male dominance in our society (and especially in the popular media), all things being equal - things are not equal between men and women. From birth, girls in this country are inundated with messages about their "roles" as females - generally about the need for being "attractive" (and how to do so), the need to be submissive (to some degree) to male desires.

Yes, men are also told their roles throughout life. And most men don't actually fit within those roles. However, there is a much larger pressure on women to focus on how they look, how they present themselves, and how they put in the effort to gain male attention - in all contexts, including "professional" areas where those ideas should seem irrelevant.

Level Three:

I am now going to focus on a sub-set of male-female relations in this society: heterosexual sexual relationships. Because it is within this realm that I believe the media plays the most direct role,* and it also happens to be within my realm of experience.

So, recently, I've had some discussions with friends (one in particular) about whether or not it's possible for sex to be "just sex" between men and women in our society. More specifically, we've discussed the man's responsibility in those situations. To start, we'll go with the "random hook-up" scenario.

So a female (call her "F") and a male (call him "M") are at the club (or the bar, or wherever), and they're doing their thing. Having drinks, talking with friends, looking around at those of the opposite sex around them. At some point, F and M see each other, and they're intrigued. They come together, maybe dance a bit, do some groping - they get excited. A while later, they're at F's house, having sex. Numbers are exchanged, nobody makes a further call. End of story.

In this scenario, let's say that all F wanted was sex. She felt the need, she went out and did something about it. Nothing wrong with that. M was doing the same thing. Totally mutual. Totally consensual. Totally equal. Right?

Well . . . the problem is this: we've got that whole "Madonna/Whore" thing going in our society. I.e. a woman that is fully comfortable with her sexuality and demonstrates that is a whore, while a woman who is not and does not is of virginal purity. There is no in-between. And I know the minds of men, and I'd say that that belief falls out far too often (among women, too, although more submerged).

So men want to date and love the Madonnas, and they want to use and cast away the Whores. The problem being, of course, that there is no true dichotomy like this, so women run a constant risk of being cast as the Whore in men's minds - which often precludes an opportunity of further connection and a true relationship (because men close that door when their judgment comes down).

So we go back to F and M and their "consensual" sex. If F really only wanted sex, then she's okay - as long as she doesn't mind the possible judgment that will come from M (and/or his friends or whomever) about it all. But what if she finds, somewhere along the line, that she is actually attracted to M on a different level? What if she decides, sometime during the rise to sex or afterwards - that she would like to get to know M?

Well - then she's in trouble. Because our society has pounded into M's brain that F must be a slut because of her willingness to have sex (or engage in sexual acts) right off the bat. Even though he did the same thing and gets off un-judged. So he decides that F is decidedly un-dateable and won't give it a further thought. Because, if she's a "slut," then she must be more likely to cheat, less likely to commit, less intelligent, less "worthy." All a bunch of BS, of course, but the truth seldom does people any good when ingrained bias rears its head.

On the flip side - M can roll both ways. If he just wanted sex - he just got it. However, if he wants more, he can go for it - still with no guarantees, but without being cast as "undateable" simply because he was willing to have sex.

And that's the man's power in this situation. His power is that he gets to cast a judgment with the weight of society behind it. He gets to have a one-night stand without losing anything, while the woman makes a choice (conscious or otherwise) to give up a further opportunity by having that one-night stand.

Okay - so there are a lot of questions and arguments against what I'm saying here. But the guy could want more and get rejected, too, right? If the woman just wants to have sex and the guy wants more, then doesn't she have all the power?

Sure, to answer the first question. But that doesn't change the inequality of the overall situation. A black man can be a white man's boss, but that doesn't mean that the black man isn't oppressed by overall institutional racism. Same here. A woman can have more power in a given situation, but that doesn't empower her on a societal level. I often hear women talk about "taking back power" over their sexuality - and I'm all for it - but you can't do that operating within a vacuum. Part of that must come knowing that there is a sacrifice to doing so. Hopefully at less cost than the benefits, but a sacrifice comes. One that a man never really has to make.

As for the second question, what I just said applies, and so I disagree. The woman doesn't have all the power because she has to make that choice, before sexual contact has occurred. The choice between doing what you want in the moment, at the possible cost of a loss of further connection, versus holding back on immediate desires, so that future options are available. And going with the latter still guarantees nothing, possibly making things worse if all the guy wants is sex in the first place. A lot of possibility of disappointment here (and I'm not even talking about the fact that most guys are terrible lovers).

Finally, Level Four:

I've tried to lay this out as concisely as possible, but it's a deep dilemma - one not easy to explain. But I think we've finally gotten to the point where I can write about the man's role in all this. Right now, I'll just use myself as the example.

So - say I'm in M's place in the previous scenario. I think F is sexy, and I want to do something about it. She says she wants to do something about it. We're agreed. So shouldn't we just do something about it?

The problem is - I've already thought through everything I wrote above (and so much more). I know I have the power here. I know that there's a risk that F might not actually want "just sex" - that she may want something more and feel that that's a way to get that. I also know that - having the power - I'm in a position to have F feel used when all is said and done. I also know that maybe F really does just want sex, and has no interest in more - which maybe I have interest in. I know that - maybe - F is making a conscious choice to forgo further opportunities by choosing to have sex.

Okay. Okay. So there are a lot of possibilities. Some end with "no harm, no foul." We fulfill basic needs, we part ways, both none the worse for wear. But a number end with negatives: maybe she'll feel used; maybe she's doing something she doesn't really want to try to get more; maybe I'll end up wanting more, and she's already eliminated that option - so I'll get hurt; maybe I just have flat societal power over her, and that just doesn't feel good, no matter what she actually wants.

So, in my position, with all the possible negatives that can come from this, how can I go through with it? How can I feel okay about possibly using a woman? How can I feel okay in a situation where I might be abusing my societal power?

My personal answer? I can't. So I don't put myself in those situations. I will make sure women feel wholly safe with me (something that takes real time - not a night, not even a few days), so that they can make an honest choice for themselves, without the pressure of patriarchy influencing it.

On a more general level, I just ask men to be aware of their power. And the devastating effects it can have (not that it always does, but can have) on another human being. To be aware that, in our society, sex is not "just sex." There is history and pressure and injustice and inequality behind it. To be aware of that - and to make subsequent decisions with that awareness in full view. You all might not make the same choices that I do - maybe mine aren't the right ones - but awareness never hurt anybody.

As for the women? Bring that same awareness. Make your choices for you - knowing that - most often - the men aren't going to bring that awareness. Know what you want - and go for it. I'm in no position to be giving any other advice on this one - since you are all the experts, and I'm just working on suppositions.

There is so much more to be said and written on this topic. I know I've left glaring holes and haven't made myself fully clear. But this part of the fight needs to be mentioned - by me, in this space - and waiting to say it "just right" likely means that it won't be said at all.

When it comes to gender and sexuality - I'm the oppressor. I'm the privileged one, here. I don't have many answers. I'm starting to find the right questions. And I hope all you experts out there (women, LGBT) wouldn't mind helping me out on this one.

I'm out of my element here. And that's where the learning happens.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Don't Expect Us to Thank You

So I just got back from a one-week training for the arts camp I work at during the summer. The camp is for more or less the same kids I teach (same background - poverty, abuse, etc.), so we do some heavy training for staff to help them best serve our kids (at this point, I am involved in leading some of that training).

Each year, as part of this training, we have a discussion about "difference" (usually focusing on race and ethnicity, but not tied to that alone) with new staff.* This is an opportunity for these folks to have a real conversation about their experiences of race (with some guidance and facilitation, of course) to better understand where everyone is coming from. It's also a chance for our staff to become a little more comfortable with this conversation, as it is one that very much affects the kids we work with (whether they are kids of color or otherwise).

And I always love it. Just watching people get real and say what they've always actually thought, but in a respectful way. People really listening to each other, whether or not they fully understand or agree with each other.

We started at 7pm and just kept it going until 1am - because it needed to go that long. And now, because we gave it that time, it can keep going - which is the whole point (because even 6 hours of conversation doesn't even skim the surface).

And, this year, we got to a point where some of the white youth workers got hung up: the lack of appreciation they get for the work they put in with youth of color. As best as I can summarize it, it goes like this:

People of color, in general, have a lot of assumptions about white folks and their level of being able to be allies, and their true willingness to do so (as well as their intentions behind doing so). We assume that white youth workers don't get the kids, aren't willing to put in the work, and aren't as able to successfully work with kids of color as an adult of color might be able to.

Okay - a lot of assumptions. Not always there, but I would agree that they are there pretty often.

So the issue was for these white youth workers who have done the work. Their experience was that they have busted their asses for kids of color, only to watch the kids' parents dismiss them as "rich white men/ladies" even though they had crappier cars than the parents. They worked their asses off in schools, at camps, in any number of ways for kids of color - and yet they still run into social workers of color who dismiss their level of competency or caring.

And it chafes. It frustrates. It even leads to some resentment and bitterness aimed at the very families and people of color that they are trying to help.

"I'm putting in the work, so why can't they see that!?? Why can't they appreciate that!??"

All very valid frustrations. Totally understandable. Unfair, even.

And yet.

And yet, my response is: don't expect us (people of color) to thank you. Because we shouldn't have to.

Let me be clear here: when I mentioned the kids I serve at the beginning of this post, I very intentionally made no reference to race. And yet - I bet the majority of readers assumed that "the kids we serve" are largely kids of color. It's inherent in the work I do that it involves working with racial and ethnic minorities. And yet - 50% (or more) of our kids are white. With many of the same family and social issues as the kids of color.

But that often gets left out of the picture. Because, in youth (and social work), there's this unstated sense that the kids you work with don't really need help unless they are kids of color. That the "roughest" kids are kids of color. That "urban" youth are kids of color. It's like a youth worker badge of honor to talk about all the black kids, or Latino kids, or brown kids they work with. It shows that they are a "real" youth worker. That they're doing the "hard" work.

The implications behind that? That people of color can't help themselves. That people of color are helpless victims. That they are exactly as the media says they are: lazy, criminals, drug abusers, and unable to take care of their own children.

And this frustration with a lack of acknowledgement for their work by white youth workers plays into all of that. I don't hear these youth workers sighing, "why don't the white parents thank me for working with their kids?" When race is mentioned in that context, it's the parents of color - or else it's just "all parents." There is the implication that these white youth workers are "helping" the kids of color in spite of the adults of color in their community. That it's the white folks who are better able to supply that support - so "why can't they appreciate that!?"

More importantly, this line of thinking is completely counter-productive in terms of what should be the mission of these workers: to help redress wrongs; to help empower kids born with less systemic power; no matter their background (racially, or otherwise). Because that mission is simple - it's just doing the right thing. And so - if that's all this work is really about, why should anybody be thanking you for doing it?

When did this world get so fucked up that we get frustrated when we're not applauded for doing the right thing?! When did things get so flipped that we want to quit because the kids we're working with don't validate us? When did it become okay for us to resent a group of people for their ingrained distrust of a system that we are actively working to change because we don't believe in it!??

Folks of color in this country do not get to opt out. It's not an option to quit dealing with race, or to quit battling the system. It's not an option. They are in it for life. So maybe one year, or two, or even ten years of working side-by-side with us isn't enough for us to fully trust that you're not going to quit on us. Because we've watched so many before you come in with fire and passion, only to get frustrated and quit a few years later (often blaming us for the difficulty).

That frustration you feel when things aren't changing, and we're not giving you medals of honor for being in the fight with us? Just a taste of a lifetime of disappointment. Just a taste of the permanent frustration of watching young, idealistic, white social guerillas bail out a couple years in when they start running out of money or get beat down by the impossibility of the situation. From watching the government "apologize" for stealing Native land without reparations. For "apologizing" for slavery without actively doing anything about it. For being the "land of the free" while we target Mexican immigrants and Arabs. Knowing that we're not so far removed from the government passing laws to specifically exclude rights to people of color.

Nobody thanks me for working with white kids. Nobody thanks me for always having white bosses. Nobody thanks me for living in the U.S. as a person of color and not giving up.

And I'm not so naive as to think anybody should - or would. I would never expect it. Sure - it would be nice. And validation to some degree is important. But I still continue to do what I do in spite of all that.

So here's my final message to white youth workers: don't expect us to thank you. Don't condemn us and judge us and blame us for the difficulties of changing the system, and then expect us to excuse you of your white privilege or to trust your intentions. If you're doing the right thing, then be satisfied with that - and don't have us doubt that you really are by demanding accolades for it.

Join us in the trenches. Work with us, side by side. Better your understanding. Feel how f-ing hard it is. And don't you ever quit on us. Don't you ever give up on the fight to do the right thing. And realize that we don't have that choice.

And you will receive our respect. And our trust. Maybe.

But we've been burned before. We've seen a million people just like you come and go. Maybe it will take ten years for us to believe you won't enact your privilege and quit on us. Maybe twenty. Maybe a whole lifetime. We've been burned so many times before - by people that looked and acted and spoke just like you.

So don't expect us to thank you. Ever. It might happen. It might not. It's not your right. We don't expect you to thank us for working with you, do we? No. So don't demand the reverse.

Finally, though - to any white youth workers that made it through this whole post: thank you for reading. Now - go do something with it.

* For more information on the diversity of the staff, read my post from last year, "On Real Diversity."

Friday, June 19, 2009

No Goodbyes

It's been a full few weeks. Wrapping up the school year. 8th grade promotion. Getting ready for my summer job. And leaving this job behind.

This week has been my "close-out" week, meaning: no kids (more or less, I've actually spent some kid time this week, but no classes). It's just adults cleaning up and organizing our classrooms, closing out student files, running inventory, and preparing our spaces for next school year.

Of course, for me - there is no "next school year." I'm out. Going to China in the Fall, and so I'm not part of this school's future plan. Which is all sorts of crazy.

And so the process has been a slow one for me. I should have been finished yesterday - but it's going to be a push to even be finished by the end of today. So I'm alone in the school, packing up my things, saving the taking-down of kid artwork from my walls for last . . .

And, in the end, it's perfect. Because this job has been all about loose ends and a lack of closure. Kid after kid comes in here, becomes part of my life (and I their's), and we form a relationship. Then - suddenly - they just disappear.

Maybe their family moved to try to get work. Maybe they can't afford to live in town, anymore. Maybe the parents shipped them out to another family member in a different state. Maybe Mom is back, or relapsing, and she drags the kid back down, and they stop showing up. Maybe it's got to do with gang activity. Who knows?

It's literally - one day, the kid is smiling and talking about how they are "finally getting it," and then the next day they're just gone. No goodbye. No warning. Nothing.

And I've learned to get used to that. And so it only seems reasonable that that's how I'm going out (in some respects).

For my goodbye present from my co-workers, I got a piece of artwork (framed) from one of my kids (one who I - obviously - had a close relationship with). It just so happens that he's the same kid that got in a fight outside during our 8th grade promotion ceremony. So - the last time I saw him? As I watched him walk away from our school, pissed off about the fight. No goodbye. Not even close.

The last thing I said to another kid (a girl who never fails to crack me up) was telling her she couldn't come back the next day (because I had just broken up a fight with her and another student). That's how our kids go out. No goodbyes.

They knew I was leaving the last two weeks of school, of course - so I did get to close with a number of kids, but it's the loose ends that stand out right now.

Other staff members? I'm not leaving until September (from Portland), so I've left them with the "I'll see you before I leave for real" knowing it's not true. Maybe I learned that from the kids. Maybe they have taught me that goodbyes are over-rated. People leave. People walk out of our lives. We move on.

Because - for the kids I work with - that's just how it is. And making a big deal out of every loose end is a good way to go crazy. And - let's be honest - we do move on. Every time. Nobody has such an impact on our lives that we literally can't survive without them.

And so I take another lesson from the kids. I'll clean out my room, lock the door, and just turn my back and walk away. No awkward September visit. No lingering. Clean cut. Turn. Walk.

Because where I work - there are no goodbyes. We move on.

And so - for now, at least - I'm not a teacher, anymore.

And that's that.