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.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

I Love Kids

My posts are way too often tinged with negativity and semi-whininess. So I thought it's about time I post another celebration.

So today at work, I was really bored. I mean, really bored. And that's not something that happens so often when you're a middle school teacher. Some years - it never happens at all.

The reason was that the kids were doing testing (their final round of standardized math testing), so all I got to do today was sit around and watch them test. No teaching. Not a lot of interaction. So little going on, I ended up completing about a million kid word searches that I had on hand (for the kids, of course).

Of course, testing isn't always boring. But my kids have a good thing going these days, and that's their pride. They honestly believe that they can do these tests, they take them seriously, and so they are willing to focus for them. That's not something that happened my first years at the helm, but I've got it going, now.

And it's kind of a problem. Because, when they're totally focused like that - I don't know what to do with myself. I just watch the clock and look forward to "later" coming. Because I didn't choose to teach to sit around and watch kids work silently. Not me.

I chose to teach because I love interacting with kids. I mean - f-ing love it.

And I was thinking about that today (because I had a lot of time to think). Why is it that I love being around kids so much? Especially these middle school kids who so many other folks can't handle?

I thought it through: well, there's their energy. They bring so much energy, I can't help but get a little bit infected by it. They also like to play around - and in such a better way than most adults do - so I get a big kick out of that. In fact, I have my kids calling me out from time to time because I "play too much" (sometimes, I'm actually the one who breaks their long, focused silences because I need to joke around). They're so very unpredictable and ridiculous - and I've never been one to enjoy the comforts of routine or outright predictability.

All good reasons to like hanging around kids. But not enough, really, to love them, right?

And then I got it: I love kids because they are the one sub-set of human beings with whom I can just flat-out get over myself. I don't take anything personally with them. They can insult me or try to be "mean," and I just find it amusing. They can do the most irritating things in the world, and I crack up because it's so ridiculous. They say something ignorant about race, and I just shrug it off and use it as an opportunity to do some real teaching. I don't get all caught up in my own world with them. I can just accept them for who they are - and love them for it. I can forgive them for their actions - because they're just kids, and they're learning how to be people in the world.

And that's not how it is with adults (as hard as I try to react that way). I can't forgive adults so easily. Whereas I don't trust adults to just tell me the mildly painful truths instead of trying to sugarcoat things - kids will just say it. They don't make things more painful by throwing white lies around. They're devastatingly honest (at times), and I love them for that, as well.

And just as I am able to forget myself and just be with kids, I can also get over their self-centered natures. Because they are kids - and kids should be the center of their own worlds. A kid shouldn't care about what's going on in my real world. A kid doesn't need to ask sincere questions - because I should be doing all that with them.

Adults? Yeah, right. Human adults are the most disappointing creatures. So few are any different than those kids in their self-centeredness, in spite of their supposed "maturity." And since they are adults - they just disappoint.

Kids are supposed to be ignorant - they really don't know any better, and so they give me hope. Because they can learn, and change, and improve in how they are in the world. Adults? Too caught up in their own pasts and fears and insecurities to make the right decisions or really change.

And I wish I was perfect enough to feel otherwise. I wish I could just love all these grown-up kids without judgment like I do with the younger versions - but I can't. Sometimes, I can do a pretty good job of it. But too often I'm unable to pull myself out of the picture and just let things be. To not get caught up in my own world and wholeheartedly explore and enjoy theirs. I just end up disappointed too often.

But with the kids? Never. They never disappoint me - and all too often they make me proud. They constantly surprise me and make me laugh harder than I thought possible. They bring out my very best, consistently. When I'm not in the best mood, they snap me out of it quick. When I'm in the best mood, they come join me. Just watching kids do random little things - like talk to themselves, or laugh at something that isn't funny at all, or get all excited about a gift or new toy - just gives me the biggest grin. What can I say?

It's the kids.

I'm about to take some time off from teaching, but there's no way in Hell it's going to last too long. Make my trip - learn and see what I need to learn and see. Then get my ass back with the kids the next moment. That's the only guarantee I have for my future. And that's - honestly - all that really matters, in the long run.

So I dedicate my upcoming trip and all the things I do to the kids. Because.

I just love kids.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

On Leaving Portland: Thinking Like a Terrorist

So let's just drop the disclaimer before I get started: by no means do I condone any "terrorist" actions.* Never will I believe that violence against anybody (including other people's military) is going to accomplish "good." Especially violence against people that have nothing to do with a perceived problem (or threat).

So why would I write that on my post? Allow me to explain:

I'm leaving Portland soon. It's official. My position is open at school, and we've brought a number of folks in to interview. I've started talking to my cousin about heading to China in the Fall, and I'm getting ready to renew my passport and do all the visa stuff. And, as school starts winding down towards the end, I find the reality of this life-change starting to hit me.

I'm really going. Leaving a steady teaching job (that I like) right in the middle of the worst time in the world for a teacher needing work. What am I thinking!? And what am I going to do when I come back to the States?

The answer right now is: I have no idea. I will certainly end up working with kids. But where or in what capacity, I know nothing.

Because this is my big opportunity to leave Portland for good. Lord knows I've fought the lack of sunlight and melanin in the people around me for long enough. I've been bitter, and frustrated, and have felt more isolated than ever should be necessary. I could move to a place where folks actually look like me, and where the "liberal" champions of "diversity" aren't all white, and they actually know people of color on a personal level. I've dreamed about it.

And yet.

And yet - I'm not 100% set on that. Because this is the thing: Portland is ripe for some heavy impact on a social front. Its appalling lack of people of color (and/or understanding of race) demands a presence and some acknowledgment. Because there are so few of us around to speak our minds and do some educating, each one of us is all the more important for that kind of work here. So when we bow out and leave - it's even more important that somebody else steps in to fill the void.

At school - our kids need conscious teachers of color so badly. There are so many bad teachers out there (not for lack of trying - but for lack of understanding) that it fatigues my mind. And I'm not saying I'm the greatest teacher in the world, but at least I'm aware of social dynamics and how race and culture play out in the classroom.

So when I think about that question of "what next," I find myself in a sort of "terrorist" frame of mind. Specifically - where can I do the most damage (and by "doing damage," I mean "have the most impact/effect")? It seems to me that I can have more of an impact here in Portland, simply because there are so few other people of color - especially those doing the kind of work I do. If I was in the Bay, I'd just be one more drop in the lake (it's definitely still not an ocean, even in relation to Portland).

For example - here I could chair the Asian Youth Conference and really guide the vision and direction. In the Bay? Maybe I could get involved in facilitating somebody else's workshop. At the organization I presently teach for, I have made my voice heard, and can very easily see myself being able to have a little clout in the not-so-distant future (perhaps guiding my superiors towards a more-diverse staff and culture). In the Bay? I'd be starting back from scratch, and with bigger organizations that would be less likely to listen.

When I speak as a male of color to my kids, I speak as one of a very few outside of their own families. In that capacity, I fill a gap that is needed more in Portland than in the Bay.

So - in my mission to disassemble (and then re-build) the current broken education system (especially in relation to racial inequality), where can I hit hardest? Where can I maximize the impact of my efforts?

Two questions that are likely high on a terrorist cell's list.

Because those who have to call upon terrorist actions are desperate. They are in a position of having dramatically less resources and power than those they are battling. They are pushed to extreme action because the fight is so uneven - they cannot win a "straightforward" battle, and so they turn to other means to try to overcome. Ultimately, most terrorists know they will never actually win the ideological war they are engaged in.

No surprise those labeled "terrorists" are usually people of color. They are fighting systems and ways of thought - and they are on the desperate side because the systems and ways of thought with the most dominance and power are the ones led by the white people of the world.

And so I find myself mirroring this thought-process. Where can I strike the strongest blow for systemic change? In an unwinnable, frustrating situation, where am I most able to find the symbolic victories that can keep me going? In most ways, the answer seems to be: in the whitest large city in the United States.

But there's another big question that desperation calls for, and that is: what am I willing to sacrifice? What am I willing to give up to try to make this bigger impact?

And that answer is less clear. Because I don't believe in martyrdom. When terrorists blow themselves up, they enact no lasting change (except hurting the wrong people), and then they can give no more to their cause. Similarly, sacrificing my own mental health and well-being is not worth it to me. That kind of sacrifice results in lowering the quality of work, and more or less prematurely taking yourself out of the game.

And so I don't feel like carrying the Portland burden. I'm done with being the "only one." I'm tired of trying to explain to white people what it's like to never be in the majority.

But there are ways around that. I have been - slowly but surely - building a community of color around me. I have plugged myself into situations that allow me to be surrounded by folks of color (the conference a prime example). I have been pulling folks of color into the organizations I work for, and have stumped hard for more recruitment and work on that end by my superiors. So there are ways to improve on that particular situation.

But, in the end, I don't really know how much difference I'm making, anyway. All of the reasons to stay in Portland are based on the assumption that I've actually been bringing about positive change, and - to be honest - I haven't really seen a lot of proof of that. The conference has been going strong the last 16 years before me. The high school counterpart to my own school still has an appalling lack of diversity of staff. I still have never had a person of color as my hierarchal superior in any work capacity here (and I'm talking many different organizations, and a lot of different levels of "hierarchal superiors" possible). The kids' lives are the kids' lives, and I certainly haven't eased any of their burdens.

And that's when I find myself empathizing most with the desperation of a "terrorist" - that thought that nothing I can do can be enough to fight back against the absolutely humongous powers working against my ideals. Of course, my reaction to that desperation is the difference here - because my "lashing out" is verbal or written (in this blog, in my lyrics) as opposed to physically violent in nature. And yet . . .

I remain undecided. Which is fine, since my trip to China is likely to drastically alter my mind-set and options, anyway. But I still find myself weighing and thinking about my real priorities and what I am really capable of accomplishing. Only time will tell.

Until then, I will continue to examine my options through the perspective of a non-violent, youth-working "freedom fighter;" with a healthy dose of self-doubt on the side. And maybe - just maybe - that will be enough to actually accomplish something.

*And yes, I am fully aware that I likely just submitted my application for my very own "Homeland Security" wiretap simply by writing this post.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Gentrification, Personified

Look at the image above and play "Count the People of Color." I found two.

I found this little blurb about Alberta Street, here in Portland. This street is pretty much the living embodiment of gentrification in Portland, and a perfect example of the tension between the young incoming, middle-class white hipsters and those who lived here before (folks of color, with less money). If you don't see the irony and/or why this description fills me with disgust, you haven't been reading this blog very long:

What was once a deteriorating and crime-ridden part of the city is now an epicenter of diversity, art and culture* in the Rose City. Trendy little art galleries, novelty stores and unique restaurants have replaced the boarded-up windows. Portlanders of all kinds come to this event. Held in September, it's a lively celebration complete with live music and dancing, food, kids' stuff and a free trolley that rolls right through the middle of everything. Come and see why Northeast Portland is quickly becoming the capital for culture in this town.

* Okay, so I have to comment - apparently, "diversity" means a bunch of white people with intentionally-ugly fashion sense and the six people of color who haven't gotten fully pushed out yet. "Culture" is, of course, the white kind.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

On Handshakes

So I've got this hand coming at me. It's got white skin, attached to a man in a nice suit. This seems like a "professional" situation. I guess I should go for the "Firm-Grasp-and-Shake" with a smile and some eye contact. He responds in kind. Looks like I made the right choice - proceed to conversation.

I've been lax on the writing lately. The conference is past. My brother is married. Interview processes have progressed past my involvement. Time for some "me" time. I've been meaning to catch up on the posts - have a lot of topics in mind. But, instead, here I am - thinking about handshakes.

Why am I thinking about that? Because I just had an interesting day. It started at school, where I had a guest in one of my classes (a hip-hop/spoken word friendly acquaintance of mine). Then my friend who helps out in my Music Production class. Had my performance evaluation (the last one) with my boss, in which we talked about cultural competency issues at work. Then met some folks applying for the position I'm leaving behind. Ended with our big school Art Show (in conjunction with our high school) where I found myself mingling with my students, ex-students, parents, and colleagues from various other programs within my organization. And, in all of that, there were a lot of handshakes.

But - more importantly - there were a lot of different kinds of handshakes.

Now, for some people, there may be only a few kinds of handshakes - but not for me (and probably not for most people). Nope. For me, there are so many different handshakes in my repertoire, and they are all part of my code-switching toolkit.*

So let's run through them, in order:

So for my "friendly-acquaintance" (a black man), I went for the "Homie Hug." That's when you clasp hands for the pull-in into a sort of one-armed embrace (with your clasped hands between each other's chests). For me, it's a standard for when I run into men of color with whom I'm on good terms, but don't see consistently.

Next, for my co-teaching friend (also a black man, also a hip-hop man), we've got the "Loose-Slide-and-Snap." This is when we're reaching like a handshake, but basically just slap a light sideways "five," then slide hands free, ending with a snap. With most folks, I usually end this with a sort of "hand-grasp," but he always does the snap. Maybe it's an LA thing.

My boss is a white woman. No handshakes there. We're on too good terms for that (and see each other too much). But we don't hug, either. Just friendly smiles as I sit down in her office.

For the incoming applicants, it's formal "Firm-Grasp-and-Shake" all the way. Both men (one black, one white). That's the "professional" thing to do. Period.

With my students, if we bother hand-shaking, it's usually the "Loose-Slide-to-Grasp." Starts like the "Loose-Slide-and-Snap," but ends with a firm arm-wrestling-type grasp instead of the snap. That's for the guys, at least. With the girls, it's more awkward. Because you don't shake hands with the girls. But when they go for the hug, I'm always semi-uncomfortable, because I don't want to cross boundaries. But I don't want to push away, either. So I usually turn it into the "Quick-One-Armed-Side-Hug." Using that one arm to go around the shoulders, buddy-style, with little prolonged contact.**

With the parents, it's usually the "Firm-Grasp-and-Shake," especially with the men. With women, I'll do the "Loose-Grasp" without the shake and toning down the eye contact.

With colleagues, it's a smorgasbord. A lot of hugs with the women - the brotherly "Wide-Smile-and-Embrace" where I start with arms out wide with a smile in greeting, with a warm - but quick - around-the-shoulders embrace. A lot of "Loose-Slide-to-Grasps" for the gentlemen. But this is the category that's trickiest. Because sometimes I go for the "Loose-Slide-and-Grasp," but the other guy is going for the "Homie-Hug" or the "Firm-Grasp-and-Shake," and it just feels all wrong. Or the women aren't looking for a hug, so we do an awkward "Pull-Back-from-Hug-to-Wave" which always looks ridiculous. Sometimes the "Loose-Slide-and-Grasp" ends with a "Homie Hug" or maybe a fist-pound. Maybe we waive all the handshakes and just go for a fist-pound. Or maybe it gets even more elaborate with a bunch of different handshakes rolled into one with a top-to-bottom fist-pound and then a knuckle-to-knuckle fist-pound as a clincher. Or something else, entirely.

Generally, it's more the category of hand-shaker that determines which style I use, but race does factor in it. I'm definitely more likely to use the "Loose-Slide-to-Grasp" with other men of color. I don't know if I ever do the "Homie-Hug" with white guys. If I'm on a friendly level with men of color, I very seldom use the "Firm-Grasp-and-Shake," whereas I use it often with friendly-acquaintance white guys. Fist-pounds of all types are almost solely for men of color, except for a few hip-hop-related white acquaintances.

Regarding the women, it doesn't seem to vary as much. If I know them well, hugs all around. If we're more on acquaintance level, I'm a little more likely to "Wide-Smile-and-Embrace" with white women than women of color, but not by a lot (I'm careful with my hugs). Mostly, it's situational. But I just don't shake hands (almost never) with women I know already.

So - just like that - a whole post devoted to the different types of handshakes/greetings I used in one day of my life. And, obviously, the thought-processes behind it all are rarely so conscious - it usually all happens split-second - but it's interesting to break down. Seems kind of crazy, on the surface, but it really does make a difference on a relationship level. If I just stuck to the "Firm-Grasp-and-Shake" all the time, it would honestly change my relationships to certain people, especially the perceptions upon first meetings.

And that's kind of scary, when you really think about it. Because, if so much can go into a handshake, with no words spoken, how much goes into how we speak to each other, and what we say? How much can go wrong or be misinterpreted?

It puts into perspective how much of a miracle it is that things go as well as they generally do in this world. When so much can go into a handshake - a gesture of greeting and peace - what can go into a conversation?

Sometimes - too much. And that's where successful code-switching and cultural competency come to the fore. When you can have a whole repertoire of ways of interacting (conscious or otherwise) to put people at ease, and to keep yourself at ease around different people, it can make all the difference in the world.

In fact - it does.

* I've talked about "code-switching" in the past. But - in short - it's the ability to adapt to different cultural ways of being on the fly to be comfortable - and make others comfortable - socially.

** For a lot of reasons, I'm paranoid about wrong impressions and contact with students. A major reason is that many of them have had traumatic experiences in the past that make it difficult for them to know appropriate boundaries with adults (especially males), and I do all I can to help them learn and understand those boundaries (and to feel safe).

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

On Hiring Practices

I'm not sure of the original intention of this photo, but it kind of hits the nail on the head.

I was going to write a post on the "Swine Flu" (about how much B.S. it is, and how it's a great excuse for racist media to blame "disease" on folks south of the border), but I'm in the midst of some other things and wanted to write on it before it left my mind.

**If you don't read this whole post in detail, please read the last couple sections prior to the endnotes**

I've been part of a few hiring committees of late. One is for the next Program Director of the non-profit educational organization I work for (I asked in on this one). Another is for a summer camp I work for (part of my job description for this one). The last is for my school (some involvement in hiring my own replacement).

And the first two have really hit me.

So let's do this in order.* The initial screening committee for the Program Director was myself and five white women. And I wasn't even asked to be involved in this process - I had to ask the higher-ups personally to be a part of it.

So I have to admit that every meeting weighed on my soul. It was so heavily culturally-biased, I felt like there was little I could do as the "token" minority with so little statistical pull.

And then there were the applicants. Almost zero candidates of color. Probably zero candidates outside of the middle or upper class. Part of it is that this is a non-profit job that doesn't have the money to pay people. So folks that represent our kids can't afford to waste a college education (and loans) on working this job. Not to mention that most of the staff looks like the hiring committee (except me, of course), so why would a person of color want to carry that burden, anyway?

So we're interviewing these folks, and I'm slipping into despair. How can we ever change these things when the odds are so stacked against that change? An interview with all these middle-class white ladies is only going to increase the chances of the success of another middle-class white female candidate. Because an interview is about confidence and comfort and communication. And if all the people around you have lived a totally different life experience than you - how can you feel confident that they'll give you a chance, or be comfortable in their midst, or communicate effectively?

The other committee members commenting on how awkward certain folks seemed, while I'm back in my seat, feeling outnumbered and equally-awkward.

So middle-class white ladies get hired and get more experience. They then apply more for the work. They are reflected in the staffing, so they are more drawn to working there . . . They get hired and get more experience. It's a deadly feedback-loop.

And I'm not saying people weren't qualified - they were (more or less). But it's so damn frustrating to try to figure out how somebody that doesn't fit that mold can break in without being so far above and beyond the rest. The amount of pressure and weight and frustration they would have to be willing to carry to even go through the process is unbelievable.

Because, being a person of color in an organization like this is an f-ing burden. We're the ones who always have to speak up and bring attention to the inherent biases in the systems. We're the ones who constantly have to try to educate people about experiences that they don't even care to think about. I had to ask onto a committee of all white women to try to make a small dent, and they hadn't even considered it until I asked (at least they agreed, though). Just being on the committee saps my strength and makes me want to quit on the whole ridiculous process.

But I'm not willing to give in. If I'm going to talk about it, I have too much pride not to then follow up. But it's so painful.

A little over a week ago, I met with the current executive director, associate director, and my program director (all white folks, of course) to talk about the cultural make-up of the staff.** And I wanted to cry.

I laid it all out: how hard it is to see so little representation; how uncomfortable it makes me, and then extrapolating that to how much harder that must be for the kids; acknowledging the difficulties to recruitment, etc. while demanding more.

But the problem is that it just ends up sounding like I'm asking for hires just because of race. Like I'm making the argument anti-affirmative action people always pretend we're making: that I want folks to hire less-qualified folks of color just because of their race.

And it's so hard to explain that - no - that's not what I'm asking. That it's about making it all fair. About doing the right things to attract the qualified folks of color to even apply in the first place, and then making the rest of the process actually level - like getting some color (the little we have in the first place) involved in the hiring process.

But nobody ever understands. It's a fruitless, unsatisfying endeavour. And it just makes me wonder if I really need to put myself through more of this crap.

But, of course, I do. And that brings me to my OTHER hiring committee. This one is me and two white women. And due to my busy schedule, I cannot be directly involved in the interview process. And that really worries me. Because now you've got the folks of color coming into an interview with no indication of representation in the organization. Folks that are confronting the same kind of mind-numbing sense of "other"-ness of the rest of their life as they interview for a job - without at least one browner person to help mitigate that.

And there's no real way around it. I'm trying to get myself some phone-time with these folks, but their impressions on the other two-thirds of the hiring committee will be happening separate from that. So they could very well flounder or not be able to connect in their person-to-person interviews, giving a negative taste (understandably) to my hiring counterparts. So even if I do connect with them on the phone and then make my appeal, it comes off as the token person of color trying to get another "unqualified" person of color hired as de facto "affirmative action."

Because the interview process is so inherently biased towards white folks, but the "white-as-norm" mentality makes the same white people doing the hiring unaware of it on any sort of intuitive level. And so they think the interview demonstrates "qualifications" to an objective degree. When, really, it's a test to see how well you can follow middle-class, white cultural norms.

Which, in some cases, is a necessary qualification for a job. But, in others - like working with and actually relating to kids of color and/or those in poverty - it's mostly irrelevant. And yet - it's probably the primary factor in most hires (past a certain level). Am I starting to get my point across?

It's one more hidden handicap for folks of color in this systemic game called white privilege. The hiring committee can say, "we interviewed a number of minority candidates, but they just didn't interview well," and then their hands (and consciences) are clean. When, really, it's not so different from interviewing some folks you don't know for a job, then saying they just didn't connect on the same level as that guy you went to high school with.

Nobody would hesitate to say that the latter situation is unfair and perhaps even unethical. And yet, nobody seems to say that the same thing happening with people of color interviewing with mostly-white staff or committees is anything but "equal."

Let me give you a stark example to finish off my point:

What if the middle-class white woman candidate had to interview with a room of five black males who grew up in the inner city? And she was competing with another black male who grew up in the inner city? The white woman doesn't get hired, and that's when the cries of "reverse-racism" would come flying - even if the woman had a horrible interview due to being uncomfortable, etc. while the black male connected and really seemed confident in his interview.

Now tell me that the odds aren't heavily stacked against the candidates of color in this business.

That's what I thought. And that's why my ability to hope is really taking a hit these days. Nothing's ever enough . . .

* I'm going to be purposely vague in a lot of this out of respect to the applicants and the organizations I work for.

** My focus was on racial background, but I talked about economics, as well.

*** And before anybody starts telling me I hate white women - in my line of work, it's heavily-weighted towards white females. It just is. And that was who was on my hiring committees. If it happened to be all white men, or only Latino females, or all anything else, all the same reasoning would apply.

Saturday, May 2, 2009


I haven't posted in two weeks. Because I've been busier than I've ever been at any other point in my life (I think I really mean that, too). But the biggest part of that came to a head yesterday: the Asian Youth Conference.** After all the stress and late nights, working on the weekends, waking up in the middle of the night remembering something to do or somebody to contact - it's over.

My part in the conference was as Program Coordinator***. What that entailed is that I was basically in charge of most of the things in full view during the actual conference (as opposed to the "behind-the-scenes" fundraising, food, t-shirts, things like that). So I developed most of the workshops and recruited and trained the facilitators to run them. I scripted and was responsible for the smooth running of the Opening and Closing programs. I brought in the midday entertainment (a mostly-Asian b-boy "breakdancing" crew). And I did all the scheduling for the day of (including assigning 500 students and their chaperones to workshop rotations, trying to give students their preferences while simultaneously mixing them with other schools but making sure they had their chaperones with them).

Now - I'm not listing all those things to brag about how impressive I am (although I am). But rather, I want to make my responsibilities clear, so you can imagine the level of stress that was on me going in and throughout the day. Because it basically went like this: if anything went wrong on the day and caused the conference to be a negative experience for anybody - it was my fault. A kid didn't like their workshop? My fault because I designed it, or didn't train the facilitators well enough. A kid didn't get the workshops they wanted? My fault because I assigned the rotations. The Opening Program was weak? My fault because I scripted it poorly, or didn't coach up the student emcees well enough, or didn't have the right music or video or PowerPoint queued up. Workshops run out of worksheets? The b-boy performance suck or go wrong? We get off the precise schedule and have workshops start backing up or kids not completing their activities? Co-facilitators not work well together?

You get the picture. As far as I was concerned, I was responsible for 500 Asian-American high school students maximizing their opportunity to be together in Portland (where that just can't ever happen), making sure they got to share a little bit, connect and feel a bit less alone, and to have a positive experience doing it. If that didn't happen? All my fault.

And so I happily report back: it was a success. A complete success. Sure - not everything went perfectly (usually due to technical difficulties, but kids always have something they're not full happy about), but the kids and adults had an overall positive experience, and those that can want to come back.

After all this theorizing in my head about what things could/would look like, it felt amazing to get some chances to stop for a second (most of the day I was running around like a headless chicken, in half-panic mode) and actually, physically see some cool things, like: a whole bunch of Asian kids in a room sharing their experiences, talking about stereotypes, clapping and cheering for each other, and laughing all at the same time; kids running full-steam around a block of classrooms as their new Asian teammates from other schools cheered them on; students sharing their surprise that none of the Asian kids in the room played a classical instrument, liked math or science, or even played tennis; 500 Asian youth crowded up near a stage bobbing their heads to hip-hop beats and screaming and cheering like crazy for other Asian youth doing back-spins and freezes and becoming heroes in the process. We gave out scholarships. Students got to talk to college reps about going to school. They learned about other scholarship and financial aid opportunities. They spoke up.

And I'm so proud to have been a part of all that. To have contributed to it. I get almost weepy thinking about it. In the Portland Metro Area, where it sometimes feels like the only Asian people are the ones working at the handful of Asian restaurants, 500 high school students of Asian backgrounds all spent a day together. Just looking at the packed bleachers full of Asian kids cheering for each other and their accomplishments . . . It was all just something special.****

So all the stress, all the work, the frustrations - most definitely worth it. Months and months of planning and meetings and work for one whirlwind day - worth it.

And, on top of all that, I got to have my own experience of having this little community of Asian adults all working together to plan this thing and make it happen. We all went out to dinner afterwards (got to eat Chinese food as it's supposed to be - in a large group, all sharing various dishes, talking loudly), and I couldn't help but grin as two members of the committee slipped into Thai for a minute, only to have our Chair threaten, "If you keep that up, I'm going to speak in Vietnamese about you for the rest of the dinner" (and he did, for a minute). I talked to a few of them who had spent time in China about my impending trip. When they asked about my language skills, they asked which dialect my mom spoke (knowing that there actually is no such language as just "Chinese").

So let's just say I definitely got my own non-monetary rewards for this work (I'll be the first to admit that nothing is truly altruistic - nothing).

The only negative? Once again, I'm hesitant about leaving for China (a decision I officially made clear to my school, so I will not be teaching there next year). I have so many ideas about next year's conference. I want to be involved. I suddenly have Asian community in Portland. I'm building things. And I'm going to leave. But - again - it's a hard choice. More bad timing for good things, as I don't want to leave this particular aspect of my life here.

The heaviest blow? Last night, the Chair announced his intention to step down (still being part of the Planning Team, but with less responsibilities) and asked me to take his place . . . It's an opportunity that's hard to pass up. One I'm ready for (and it seems like events have been heading towards this).

A lot to think about. But I'm going to let that sit for a while - no immediate hurry. Because - for right now - I just want a couple more days to revel in the positives and the here-and-now. And that is this: I was part of a special opportunity for Asian-American kids in my community, and it was a success.

And that's all I have left to say.

* Note - the image above is not actually from my conference.

** That's not the actual name of the conference, but I don't want folks looking it up and coming here, thinking that this blog is officially affiliated with the conference in any way. It isn't. This is my personal blog. The conference is part of my professional work, and doesn't necessarily reflect any of the opinions expressed on this site.

*** We haven't updated the website, so if you find it and think that the name listed as PC on the site is my real identity, you'd be wrong.

**** I should note here that - when a random slide of Obama went up - the crowd went CRAZY. Say what you will about his policies and the change he has/hasn't enacted - that man's election changed the world for youth of color in this country.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

On "The Class (Entre les Murs)"

So - you've got this white teacher, right? And he's teaching at an urban school with a diverse population of students. A lot of these students come from poverty and rough backgrounds, a number of them immigrants. He's teaching Language Arts, so they end up doing a self-portrait about themselves. Things are learned.

We've most definitely heard this story before, right? We've seen this movie - "Freedom Writers," "Dangerous Minds" (they're always Language Arts teachers, no?). White savior comes in and - in their first year of teaching - they "save" all these kids of color who aren't capable of saving themselves. We've seen it.

But what we have not seen is "The Class." It's set up so much like these other films, but it's so very different. The first "why"? Probably because it's not an American film. It's French. When Mr. Marin (the teacher in the film) teaches Language Arts, it's called "French." And when François Bégaudeau (the actor and writer and once-teacher) wrote this screenplay, he had no intention of following the b.s. American formula - and in so doing he created something so incredibly original simply because it was real.

This is not a movie for good-feelings. It won't uplift you in the end. There are no answered questions or pat morality tales. The movie ends as murky and frustrating and awkward as it begins - and that is its brilliance. Because - in that - it perfectly mirrors the actual teaching profession.

The movie starts on the first day of school with Mr. Marin (in his fourth year of teaching) and ends on the last day. There is not a single scene played out outside the walls of the school (hence the French name, "Entre les Murs," which means, "Between the Walls"). It's semi-documentary style let's us see exactly what the students and teachers see: a class full of kids from a variety of backgrounds, sometimes learning, often challenging. We get hints of what's going on in their lives, but we do not have the luxury of trite peeks into their home-lives, we are left only with hints - just as in real life.

And the teacher? We see him in staff meetings, as the teachers bicker with each other over how to "punish" the kids effectively. We watch one teacher melt down in frustration in the staff break room. We see Mr. Marin leave late at night, fatigued and worn-down. And then we see the next day of class. Even for Mr. Marin, there is no home-life, no romantic interest down the hall. Nothing to show us his outside world that the students wouldn't know about.

And that's the beauty. It perfectly captures the classroom experience. This strange world where people who don't know each other outside of a very artificial setting share their lives with looks, and shouts, and closing down. People who would never connect in the outside world, who don't understand each other's cultures or perspectives. Sometimes, beautiful things happen. Sometimes, tragedy. Both sides learn from each other (arguably, more so the teacher from the students in these types of situations than the other way around). Nobody leaves fully satisfied.

Mr. Marin screws up. A lot. But he also has strong moments. He cares, but he doesn't understand (even four years in - just like most teachers). He stereotypes his students. He picks on some of them (perhaps unknowingly - perhaps not). He tries his damnedest to do his job under ridiculous circumstances. And the kids? The same. They try. They question. They don't understand, either.

Finally, a film about teaching that doesn't try to glorify. That brings up all the questions and gives no answers. There is no "saving" kids. Teachers come from a different world and judge without understanding - and it frustrates everybody involved. There is so much opposition (from the top on down), that it's amazing that anything positive happens. It only makes sense that a movie like this could only have been written by - and acted by - a former teacher. And I don't know the background behind the actors that play the students - but they are absolutely brilliant. It seemed so real, even though I knew it wasn't a documentary, I often questioned that fact.

This movie is painful on a lot of levels. It brings up issues of class, and race, and sexism without carefully tying off any loose ends. It's raw. And that rawness is what makes it so worth seeing. You want to get a real glimpse into the world of public-school teaching in America? Watch this French film.

And that's the only problem with the movie. That people who do not know any better will watch this and take it as just that: a French film. Allowing the fact of its origin to keep them from understanding its absolute truth to an American education system. I can already imagine all those Freedom-Fry lovin' patriots dismissing the veracity of this film because - Americans wouldn't do that. Trying to think that the system and mentality is different (when it is - at least from what I saw in this film - exactly the same).

And then they'll go back to watching "Dangerous Minds" and think about teaching Language Arts.

When they should be taking this lesson - think twice about teaching. You're probably not going to be good at it. Because, in this system, so few people are.*

* I'll be following up on that statement in a post about "the Myth of Good Teaching" soon.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

On Revolutionaries and Politicians

I was just reading myself some Racialicious, and there was an article that referenced people's disappointment in Obama's lack of obvious measures to help African-Americans. Now, this is nothing new, but it again made me think on something I've been meaning to write about for a long time (but just never seemed to get to).

This is the difference between revolutionaries and politicians.

In brief, a revolutionary is somebody who - through passionate, radical action - sparks drastic change. Most often, we associate revolutionaries with war, of course (because they are generally catalysts for revolution, hence the word). But revolutionaries aren't always fighters. They can be present in times of martial peace. Because, to me - revolutionaries are folks who spark change through non-political means. Revolutionaries can be people like the American Civil Rights leaders of the 60s, who sparked change through non-compliance with racist laws. They can be folks who spark grassroots movements to change systems that governing bodies can't or won't change.

Politicians, on the other hand, work through government. These are literal politicians who run for elected office, but they can also be lobbyists and other folks who drive their desires through the hoops and bureaucracy that is the government machine. These people also bring about change, but more subtly. They work through compromise and diplomacy, and an attempt to establish a middle ground.

Both sides can bring about just change. Both sides can bring about destruction and injustice. They just have different mentalities and methods in doing so.

And the big problem people already disappointed by Obama have is that they mistook him for a revolutionary. His charisma and speaking ability conveyed passion to his listeners, and they mistook their own inspired passion as that of revolution. His historic rise to the White House was a symbol of change that people mistook for a step towards revolution. These folks got caught up in the wave and thought they had voted a revolutionary into the White House. And now - as they start to realize that sweeping reforms are not forthcoming, they are disappointed.

But the key here is that they voted Obama into office. Revolutionaries do not get voted in (until after their side of the revolution has prevailed, at least). Revolutionaries put themselves into power. Through acts of war or a passionate motivation of the people. Obama got the vote.

And, to do so, he had to be a politician. He didn't stomp and call out all the ills of this country. He didn't condemn its sick history. He didn't demand justice. He ran the middle ground. He noted this country's past, then said how great it had become. He called out his predecessor's mistakes, but never said he'd pull our armies out of foreign lands. He made use of his mixed heritage to say how white folks and black folks and everyone else walk the same road, more or less. He compromised. Because that's what you do, as a politician. That's how you get elected. That's how you bring about slow and steady change within our governmental system, and within the parameters of the law (just or otherwise).

And he's not going to stop being a politician now that he's in. He's part of the machine - there's no override switch once you're in. And so you will NOT see Obama suddenly call attention to race and disparities in this country - because a politician can't do that and survive.

Although, neither can a revolutionary.

The photo above is of Patrice Lumumba, the first elected Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo. He served that role for less than a year before he was murdered (with Belgian and US CIA complicity). His newly-independent country fell into chaos at around the same time (more or less as he got himself elected), and it has probably been one of the most war-torn, historically, nations in all the world since.

And the question is: how did that happen? Because it's widely accepted that Lumumba was an amazing man. Passionate, brilliant, and - most importantly for a revolutionary - charismatic. His fire and determination fueled his country's fight for independence from Belgian -and helped them prevail. He sparked drastic change. His vision for the future inspired other African nations to fight for their own independence and to try to work together to rebuild.

And yet - as his government tried to settle in, he already had his army mutinying, and multiple rivals tearing the people apart. The UN swept in, the CIA chose their best interests, and Lumumba was murdered. And the country hasn't seen real hope since.

And that's the problem with revolutionaries - they are not about compromise. And so, as they are inspiring people to their cause, they also end up burning bridges. They are also about passion and big ideas - and government has no time for big ideas when all the little things need taking care of. Revolutionaries are two-to-three steps ahead of reality, and they often pay for that. Because revolutionaries do not make good politicians. Once the drastic change has come, most revolutionaries are unable to settle into the nitty-gritty daily grind of simply running things.

And so? Both are necessary. We need the revolutionaries to challenge the status quo and kick people into tearing down accepted injustices. But we need the politicians to calm things down and keep people fed and employed. To keep the water running and the utilities covered. We need revolutionaries to think big and outside of the box. And we need the politicians to work within the box to steadily enlarge it.

It's hard to accept, sometimes. Because politicians often seem to end up so soulless in their roles of compromisers. Constantly pandering to their public and trying to keep the most powerful interests happy. We love the revolutionaries because they're so inspiring and make such a good story. So many of them end up dying at the height of their glory - making it easy to turn them into heroes. But, to put it in more day-to-day terms: it's the politicians that keep the family fed and the electricity running.

I often find myself wondering which side I tend towards. I definitely lean to the revolutionary in terms of my "big ideas" and demand for "justice." It's so easy for me to see all that's wrong with society and condemn it. And in doing so, I often jump right past realistic modes of change. However, I also find myself playing the slow-and-steady middle ground quite often. I try not to attack my opponents, try to slowly bring them over to my side. But I have no patience for the steady grind and day-to-day management of "the little things."

So which way do I turn? What will be my legacy when I look back on my small fight for change in the world? Am I going to be the bread-winner and take care of the kids' daily needs, or am I going to dream big and risk them going hungry (with the possibility of making it big and bringing back that huge paycheck)? The revolutionaries earn our acclaim (or hatred) while the politicians earn our contempt (or disappointment). Who do I want to be?

Obama? Or Lumumba? Or is there a somewhere-in-between?