Saturday, March 7, 2009

You're Not the Only One

I don't know what's up with my new kick on getting "unusual phenomenon" images to tie to my posts, but that's how it is. Anyway.

"You're not the only one."

Those can be words of support and comfort during dark times. They can be the beginning of a threat or hint at hidden knowledge. They can also be chastisement, on par with "get over yourself."

I'm going to start with the latter.

So I teach at a middle school, right? And part of that is the discipline process. There are various ways that goes down in my school, but, invariably, I have kids who are convinced that they are the only ones who get in trouble for certain things, and they make sure I (and the other staff members) know that.

There are a few reasons they believe that. The first is that they come out of a public school system where that might have been true, to a certain degree. I work with the kids that got kicked out of public schools (or were on their way) and, unfortunately, quite often those are the kids that get nailed with the "bad kid" label. And, in public school, once you have that label, good luck in convincing people that what you just did was "just a joke" or anything like that. Of course, it's not like the kids didn't honestly bring down a lot of those consequences upon themselves, but - as I often try to explain to them - a reputation tends to create expectations, positive or negative, and we often pay repeatedly (and sometimes unfairly) for our negative reputations.

Another things is the parents. Oh my. How often have I talked to a parent who battles me about "what happened to the other kid(s)" or how "he/she is just a kid, it's ridiculous for them to get in trouble for (whatever they did)." That's when I dust off my explanation (the same one I give the kids): I teach a full CLASS of students. Not just one at a time. Therefore, there come times when I must choose - one kid who's struggling, behaviorally, or the rest of the class? It's an easy choice. The funny thing is, the students understand that, generally. So many times they accept the consequences and are fine with it (because they know me well enough to understand why it happened) only to have the parent battle it.

Again - the parents aren't always unjustified in their defense of their children. Because they are used to school systems, teachers, and administrations that are culturally clueless (I'm not just talking about race here, but class, as well). They're used to their kids being judged from on high by folks that don't know how to interact with kids that aren't middle-class (or white, or both) and so unfair consequences do come down.

And, finally, the biggest reason the kids are convinced of their "only one who gets in trouble" status is that they are middle school kids - they're totally self-absorbed. Therefore, they aren't going to notice what happens with anybody else, unless they think it's evidence of their own self-centered individuality (in terms of treatment). The kids aren't going to make a mental note of when other kids get in trouble for the same things they do (often, they don't know about it, either) because it's not about them. So they are convinced that they are the only ones experiencing negative consequences.

But, for good and ill - they aren't the only ones. The kids aren't the only students in my classes. They're not the only ones to get in trouble. They're not the only ones to succeed, either. And it's helping kids find that understanding - the broadening from "me, me, and me" to an awareness and understanding and empathy for other people that is probably the major responsibility of teaching middle school kids.

Problem being - even though, developmentally-speaking, kids should learn and "grow out of it," it doesn't seem to be just a middle-school phenomenon. Because adults don't get this one very often, either, especially when dealing with race.

Here's an example:

I was talking with my co-worker and good friend (we'll call her "W.") the other day. And, during this conversation, we came back to the fact that I'm the first real friend she's had outside of her own race (she happens to be black).* She was talking about how - before knowing me - she never would have believed that a mixed Asian/white person could understand race and racism. When she mentioned that to Professor Griff (yeah - my friends chat about race with folks like Professor Griff, and I'll name-drop it), he told her that OF COURSE that's how it is. He pointed it out as an indication that racism is alive and strong, that folks who should have such disparate experiences of race can understand it at the same, base level.

She told me how some of her other friends (who also don't know me) don't get it, though - thinking that we must be hooking up or something (it's not like that), not believing that she can have these real conversations with a "white boy" (only time I've ever been referenced as that, for sure) like me. When she has tried to explain that they'd get along with me, as well, they don't buy it.

And this is not the exception. I think this situation is the general rule of race here in the States. We all do such a good job of being absorbed by ourselves and our own experiences of race that we don't see what's happening to other races. We don't see that we walk the same path, on a general level. White folks can't see their own privilege, only seeing themselves, and so they don't see that racism is so damn prevalent. Black folks get caught up in their own fight and struggle, only to ignore the parallel struggles around them, often discounting other experiences of race. Asians examine Asian life, Arab think Arab, etc.

All the while, we're all digging deeper down into the morass of race and racism (not to mention other forms of oppression by gender, sexuality, religion), thinking we're the only ones who are struggling. The only ones fighting. The only ones dealing with it or knowledgeable enough to DO something.

But we're not. Not one of us is alone in this. We are not the only ones. There are millions of folks (literally) fighting against the same things. And they may not look like us, but they can understand where we are coming from, if we let them. If we can grow up enough out of the middle-school mentality to open our eyes and let them teach us.

But, all have to do is go to Racialicious for a second and read the comments, and it's often this battle of "who is it more acceptable to be racist towards these days?" Or "no - this thing isn't racist towards -blank- it's racist towards -other group." A bunch of smart, knowledgeable, open folks - battling over racial semantics and trying to prove that their lot is the hardest, instead of taking advantage of having all these smart, passionate people in one (digital) place and bringing it together.

I've said it in other ways before, but what if people did just get over themselves and realize that they weren't the only ones? That they can actually learn about race and racism from OTHER races and be stronger for it. That there's so much common ground, it would be easy to champion all the causes at one go. What if?

Let's look at the data: about 300 million people in the U.S. About 221 million white. 37 million black. Much less every other race.

So - if black folks fight alone, they make up a bit over 10% of the population. A decent number, but politically, relatively insignificant. Now, imagine if all the races got over themselves and stepped up? That would be over 25% of the population - much more significant. Now, add in all the white allies and other white minority groups (LGBT, religious minorities) and you'd easily have a third to a half of all the people in the States. And that is politically significant.

But as long as we all stay middle-school about it all? 10% is the best we can hope for.

So keep telling yourselves that you're not the only one. Remember that. And then make it count for something.

*Not calling "W" out here, just celebrating and marking it as a conversation of note.

**Not to mention all the space aliens secretly "passing" as human beings . . .


Joseph said...

Just saying hi and accepting your invite to check out your blog. Please feel free to do the same. Thanks again for reaching out--it was a turning point in a difficult conversation.


Lisa J said...

Hmm, interesting take. I agree for the most part with what you say. It is hard to see other people's perspectives and though I at least try to know a little about the oppression other minorities and groups have faced throughout history up to today, I know I don't always learn, think or do enough about it. I don't know if I agree entirely with your assessment of Racialicious. At times I see, and to my chagrin perhaps occasionally participate myself in, oppression Olympics at Racialicious I think that many folks there are thoughtful and try to be respectful to the struggles of others beyond their own group. Of course you see the opposite and some people who try to pooh-pooh others struggle, I think that the Editrix does a fairly good job with keeping an open and respectful debate. Though maybe I am biased b/c it is one of my favorite blogs.

Back to your main topic, I think there may be something in our culture today that makes everyone feel a little bit like they are being singled out and to have a difficult time accepting their own role in their situation. I've had a wise counselor point it out to me as, "why is it always me" "why am I always the victim and in a kindly way discuss it as having a bit of a pity party.

My 60-something mother also pointed out that she has noticed that many people from about their early to mid-50's and below have a hard time admitting when they are at fault or tend to push the blame on to others or to not take responsibility for their actions. I don't think she meant that everyone did it and it is something you see from your "average" person up to the politicians, pundits etc. Maybe it is just the generational judgment (she is just before the baby boom, not sure what generation they call that for sure, but I've heard the silent generation thrown around), but I think there is something to it beyond that and it sounds like it applies to your students and their parents. I know it often applies to me, though I am trying to be better about being aware of it.

I think it is hard often for disparate minority groups to take a look away from their own problems towards others, and I think to some degree that white supremacy has infected us all so much that we have been trained to distrust each other, have bigoted opinions about each other and not work together for our common good. Much like the ways in which Southern land and slave owning gentry in the antebellum convinced poor whites that they should ID with them, that they could own slaves too if they worked hard enough and that no matter what, they were better than blacks. This kept them from siding with slaves and realizing the ways that slavery did more to hurt them than to help them. Unfortunately that continues up until today and many opportunities for poor whites, blacks, indigenous people, Asians, Latino's (though that group includes all of the above groups to some degree)to work together are lost. And it is sad.

Jennifer said...

Thanks for this post--it really resonated with me in many ways, esp. because I find myself in situations where I am talking about race/racism and white supremacy/white privilege and people are always SURPRISED that it's all coming from an Asian American woman (which in the South means that I generally scan as white).

I agree, to a certain extent, with what Lisa J. states about people of color absorbing white supremacy and the sense that there is a limited amount of resources--that somehow racial awareness is a zero-sum game.

But I think I'm a hopeful gal--and I think that there are folks who are trying to have conversations across racial divides--to find moments of collaboration and clarity and a sense of being allies not just in terms of anti-racism but, as you suggested in your post, in terms of other forms of oppression and a recognition that privilege oftentimes comes at a cost to others.

CVT said...

Another late follow-up to comments here.

@ Joseph - you're more than welcome here and I'm glad you checked it out. Although since I didn't respond til now, you probably already gave up on it - sorry about the late reply.

@ Lisa J - wasn't trying to bash Racialicious - I read it daily. Just pointing out that - even there - this can happen a lot. As for the problem with taking responsibility - I think a lot of it is the selfish individualism that we Americans push so hard. We're all these special little snowflakes - which means it's harder for us to acknowledge all the ways we're THE SAME as other folks, no matter how different they may seem at first glance. Other people have flaws - but we special little individuals don't have the same problem . . .

@ Jennifer - being an Asian WOMAN must make it doubly-difficult. Not only will people dismiss your experiences of race, but they are probably more likely to dismiss your experiences due to gender, as well. That's one form of privilege I carry with me all the time, and I really do respect those that are able to push through without it.