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.


Jennifer said...

Finally catching up on your blog. So first, wanted to congratulate you for the success of the Asian American youth congress -- it sounds like a really amazing experience for everyone! And congratulations on taking the big leap of going to China (not to be confused with "The Great Leap forward"). I have a contact at Tsinghua university -- a really fantastic teacher there who, if I had to describe with one word, I'd use "effervescent." Feel free to email me at my blog if you want an email introduction.

And I hope that you will keep up Choptensils while you are in China. I know we'd all love to hear about your observations in the Middle Kingdom (not to be confused with Middle Earth--but seriously, as a kid, every time I heard China referred to as a Middle Kingdom I kept getting images of hobbits and elves in my head).

Finally, on the issue of making a difference, I go through similar types of second-guessing of myself. In the tenure-track universe of faculty positions at the college level, there's not as much ability to move according to where you want to live--you go where the job takes you (or more accurately, you go because the hiring practices are so arduous and jobs few and far between that you feel grateful that you were the candidate chosen over 150 applicants and over a 6 month process). But still, I think to myself that in terms of making a difference in people's lives, is this what I was supposed to do? Wouldn't I make a greater impact by teaching at a community college or high school or in a more diverse area?

Ultimately I don't have answers to this, but at least for me, I have to be aware of my strengths and weaknesses (as far as I recognize them). And I'd say right now, my strength is in teaching at the college level. I've tried teaching at the high school level, and there were really high highs and low lows, but ultimately I don't think I hit my teaching stride until I got into the university classroom--and then I felt at home.

And I think that feeling at home makes me be a better teacher. It also helps that I love what I teach and feel a committment to talking about issues of race/racism/anti-racism with my students, so I've got the fervor of my beliefs also propelling my teaching.

And it seems like you, also, have the fervor of your beliefs that comes out in your teaching, and students NEED that--they respond to passion, esp. on a topic that they genuinely are interested in/impacts their life. So my best guess is that no matter where you land after you get back from China, you will be making a huge difference in people's lives.

[sorry for so much "me" stuff on your comment/blog--I often try to use my own life as an analogy as a way of showing that I can relate to them, but I understand if it is a bit annoying]

Anonymous said...

hi CVT,

i've been reading your blog for a few months now (found it through one of your comments on racialicious). i think your writing is very intelligent and insightful.

as a black woman in an interracial relationship (he's a non-black puerto rican) with a mixed daughter, i think about racial issues alot. we currently live in the inner city with a mostly black and latino population. we may be moving out of the city when he graduates next year. most likely to a mostly white area. although i live in a poor, high crime city, i actually feel nervous about leaving. i've never had any problems here and we wouldn't mind staying if the the schools weren't so bad. i think im nervous because i don't want our daughter to be an only or one of a few poc in a school. some of your writings address my fears about that.

i thoroughly enjoy reading your blog because you have such poignant commentaries, especially on race. i co-sign with the commenter above on hoping that you'll continue the blog. but if you don't, then know that you will be missed.