Education · Politics

No, Your Kids’ School Can’t Be “Neutral”

You can demand that your local public school keep politics out of the classroom. You can demand that they be race-neutral, that they discipline every child the same way, that they show equal respect for everyone’s views. But they can’t agree to that. They’ve seen too much. They know what “neutral” really looks like.

They know that when they are race-neutral, white students consistently out-perform their black and Latino/a peers on academic measures.

They know that when they are language-neutral, only English counts.

They know that when they are income-neutral, their students get the education their parents can buy.

They know that when they are religion-neutral, Christianity sits front-and-center while other faiths are pushed to the side.

They know that when they are gender-neutral, there are only two options, and any student who does not fit is excluded at best and tormented at worst.

They know. They’ve seen it.

Your kids’ school staff has seen a parent write a $200,000 check to his child’s school to buy an all-weather track, while the school 10 minutes down the road cancels track practice because the track can’t be safely maintained.

They’ve seen black kids give up on school because their behaviors, dress, and interaction patterns didn’t fit “classroom expectations” and they were labeled as bad kids.

They’ve seen wealthy white parents storm the district office, attorney in tow, and walk out with their child’s suspension cleared.

They have listened to white parents demand “accelerated” classes and programs for their “advanced” children, and they have responded, even though they know those programs will exclude children who are just as capable but have been socialized differently.

They’ve watched students still developing English, or who speak a variety of English outside the “standard,” sit quietly in class, deferring to their classmates, believing their ideas have less value because their language doesn’t match.

They’ve seen white kids spend their Saturdays in $1200 SAT prep workshops and in meetings with their $5000-a-year college coaches, having their applications carefully tailored to ensure they get into the schools of their choice.

They’ve watched teacher presentations and classroom discussions filled with examples of trips to the Grand Canyon, chocolate chip cookie baking, Monopoly games, and Thanksgiving family dinners -examples that mean nothing to children who have not lived the typical white, middle-class experience and who are left out of those discussions altogether.

They’ve seen gender-nonconforming kids meticulously plan their school days so they could use the bathroom without being mocked.

They’ve seen “neutral” selection of literature and social science materials result in a list of books by white men, with tellings of history that ignore the experiences and contributions of most of the world.

They’ve seen celebrations of gay pride countered with “Day of Truth” demonstrations, with students asserting their “religious freedom” in shirts bearing the message, “Homosexuality is a sin.”

They’ve heard girls called sluts, gay students called fags, students with disabilities called retards. They’ve heard white students ignorantly deride Islam, declare that everyone should speak English in public places, and proclaim immigration bad for the country. They’ve cringed because these comments are made with girls, gay students, students with disabilities, Muslim students, multilingual students, and immigrant students sitting right there in the room.

That’s neutrality.

Public educators know that there are structures and systems and ideologies built deeply into our society that privilege certain people and groups over others. They know that who achieves in school has FAR more to do with race, class, language background, and family income than with talent and work ethic. They know that the black kids who are in the office all the time, the kids still learning English, the kids living in cars, and the kids desperately trying to figure out which socially constructed category they fit into, are just as smart, just as talented, just as passionate and driven as the white kids who occupy the front row of their AP classes with their hands confidently in the air. They know that there is no place in the typical structures and practices of school for those students’ talents and passions to be valued.

Public educators know kids don’t start on a level playing field, and they know the playing field never levels unless they take deliberate steps to level it in school. They know that “neutral” maintains the system as it is, with all its inequality. They know that if they don’t actively work to resist and counter those inequalities, they are complicit in maintaining them. And they can’t be.

Because for public educators, all those kids who are positioned to fail have names too, just like the ones positioned to succeed. They have personalities. They’re funny and sensitive. They have stories and gifts and siblings they love. They matter, and they’re worth fighting for.

So you can demand that public schools be neutral, but they can’t agree to that. Neutral isn’t neutral. And they know it.






Christmas Through New Eyes

I live by some very strict rules during the Christmas season, which I define officially as the day after Thanksgiving to December 31st (that’s one of the rules). I get rid of the fall soaps and candles and replace them with Christmas scents. I eliminate pumpkin from my kitchen and bring in peppermint. I listen only to Christmas music, and slightly more extremely, only to Christian Christmas music. I mean, I don’t leave the mall if they’re playing “Rudolph” or “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” but those songs aren’t on my Christmas playlist or my Pandora Christmas station. I own an array of Christmas decorations, but none of them include Santa Claus or reindeer.

I don’t impose my rules on anyone else. I’ll drink my Starbucks peppermint mocha out of any color cup, I’m happy to be wished “happy holidays” or even just “have a nice day” at Macy’s, and I will honor whatever type of celebration or non-celebration December involves for you. My rules are mine, and I know they’re odd. I don’t have anything against Santa or secular Christmas music. Christians far more devout than I incorporate both into their Christmas festivities. And yes, I know my own practices include many symbols that have no tie to Jesus’ birth, and some that even run directly counter to Christian beliefs. My rules aren’t coherent or, really, even reasonable.

So why follow them? I’m protecting Christmas in my own mind and heart. My most cherished childhood memories are Christmas-related. The brewing anticipation as my father stood on the ladder in the garage pulling down Christmas boxes, the tree lit in the quiet dark of our living room, “Mary’s Boy Child” in the background on the record player as we ate dinner, my grandmother bustling around in our kitchen making her almond brittle and lacy oatmeal cookies, the words of Luke 2 increasingly cemented in my brain with each year’s children’s choir Christmas pageant, my mother’s high-pitched voice squeaking “eight tiiiiiiiny reindeer” in her dramatic reading of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” the lighting of the purple center candle on the advent wreath at the Christmas Eve service, my mother tucking me into bed asking, “Did you have a good Christmas?” Yes. Always yes. There were bad moments and bad days, but yes. Christmas was always good.

It was through Christmas that I came to understand Jesus and my Christian faith. Before I understood anything else, I understood the deep love and immense power emanating from the manger that night. It was through Christmas that I came to revere God as all-knowing, all-powerful, and at the same time as the embodiment of perfect grace, mercy, and love. I believed that baby was God made flesh, His gift of salvation, my redemption. These days, I have to consciously choose to believe that almost daily, struggling against doubt and all the other competing forces that make faith so much harder than it used to be. Christmas reminds me of the core of my faith and allows me, just for a month or so, to let everything else fall away as the manger takes its place front and center.

So Christmas feels like it needs protection, more than ever before. Not from a society of heathens, but from my own conflicted feelings and beliefs. I recognize the ugliness of contemporary white American Christianity in the “war on Christmas” rhetoric, and it makes me want to back away altogether. I want no part of that. I want no part of the excess spending (although I’ve played my own part in that) or in the “holiday stress” that the white middle-class now bears with a kind of showy pride. I want no part of the refusal to acknowledge that celebrating Christmas is not an essential part of being “American” or that Christmas can be and has been adapted as a holiday that celebrates giving generally rather than Christ’s birth specifically, just as Thanksgiving can celebrate gratitude without specifically linking to our nation’s history of genocide and colonialism. I don’t want to be party to the ways Christmas has been used to force white American Christian culture on a nation of diverse cultures and religious beliefs and practices.

But at the same time, Christmas is an important part of my own cultural and religious heritage, my faith’s anchor, and I treasure it for what it has meant to me. I want it preserved and visible. I want to concentrate and soak up Christmas as fully as possible during this season. But the more aware I become of white American evangelical Christianity as one brand of Christianity among many rather than as Christianity in its only true and pure form, the more I become aware of that brand of Christianity as much as a culture as it is a faith. It’s surprisingly difficult to disentangle the two, and in my version of Christmas, they are impossibly entangled. I am realizing, slowly, that in order to strike balance between celebrating with pride a holiday that I love and honoring the diversity around me, I need to separate the celebration of the birth of Christ from the cultural traditions and symbols that white American Christians have claimed as our own but were never exclusively ours to begin with. We can celebrate our unique holidays but share winter. Christians don’t have to own snowmen and candy canes and lights and ornaments. We don’t have to own gift-giving. If we don’t claim it all as ours, might we be less threatened and offended by lights that aren’t the right color and wrapping paper with the wrong images on it? If Christians whittle Christmas down to its core, it becomes impossible to “take Christ out of Christmas” because that’s all it really is. Everything else is shared, adaptable to different cultural and religious traditions. Nothing is being taken from us because it was never ours. All that’s ours is the manger, and that was always meant to be shared too. But I suspect people will find even that more appealing if we disentangle it from all the excess stuff.

I’m still going to put Fresh Balsam antibacterial soap in my bathroom and make some gingerbread cookies tonight because those things make me feel immersed in the Christmas season. But this year I’m also going to work to separate culture from faith, to see the trappings as the trappings, and to celebrate the birth of Christ as God’s great gift of love, peace, hope, and forgiveness. That’s all I really need. The manger. Front and center. Take the peppermint and snowflake decorations and use them as you will.

Happy holidays. May there be peace on earth.


From the Shoreline

I have always felt that the action most worth watching is not at the center of things but where edges meet. I like shorelines, weather fronts, international borders. There are interesting frictions and incongruities in these places, and often, if you stand at the point of tangency, you can see both sides better than if you were in the middle of either one.                -Anne Fadiman

This passage, from the preface of Fadiman’s beautiful book, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, rang in my head yesterday as I navigated, poorly, between two worlds: the world of my Evangelical upbringing and the one in which I now reside, albeit still as something of an outsider.

I stood at the shoreline, seeing both sides, fully connected to neither and pulled toward both. In a moment of thoughtlessness, I wounded people on one side, and in my desperate attempt to repair the damage, I wounded people on the other.

I have dwelt in the middle of Evangelical Christianity. I lived the first forty years of my life steeped in its doctrine. I know first-hand the certainty of a single truth, the conviction that those without it are lost, and the call to resist a culture straying from God. I know the sense of injustice at being called hateful when you know, deeply, that you are seeking to protect what God has created and ordained. I know the voices reminding you that the insults, the hits you are taking were prophesied; they confirm that your path is God’s path. I know the urge to cry out that you don’t hate people; you hate sin. You love humanity because God loves humanity and you yearn for their salvation. You know that, in the end, it’s all that matters, and you will fight for it whatever the cost.

But now I am standing outside, at the edge. And I see it differently, if not better. I see it from the standpoint of those who feel hated. I see inconsistencies and disconnects that I never saw before. I see, from the shoreline, that the greatest dangers the world faces are not the ones at which the Evangelical community is swinging its sword. I see the strongest voices in the Church driving people further away, reaffirming their belief that if there is a loving God, this is not where He is to be found. I see the horrific damage being done in the name of Christian values, the very real pain people feel. I see, from the border, that even if Evangelicals are right, they are wrong. People are wounded, threatened. They are not turning to Christ. They are turning from you. However certain you are that you are acting in obedience to God, the consequences of your actions are devastating. From the shoreline, it’s ugly.

And I see this other world too, where I don’t quite belong either. It looks less like Sodom and Gomorrah that I expected and more like the community I’ve often heard described from the pulpit. People fight less for valued norms than for each other. They stand up for the marginalized and they challenge structures of power that keep some voices silent. I came to this community believing I had a higher moral calling, but from the shoreline, morality is less clear-cut. I don’t feel “right” asserting my Evangelical beliefs in this world. I don’t even feel Godly. I feel ashamed. Because where the edges meet, the values we have come to associate with Christian faith look nothing like the character of Christ.

Yesterday, I reacted with anger and cynicism to what I see as destructive behavior on the part of Evangelicals. My post was sarcastic and mean, and in that sense just as destructive as the behavior I condemned. But when I removed it and apologized, I betrayed the values, and the people, I’d sought to defend. A friend sent me a message last night that said, “I agreed with your post, and with your decision to remove it.” I felt the same way, and the opposite. I simultaneously stand by and regret both choices.

The shoreline is a fascinating place to be and a painful place to be. I am learning and growing by leaps and bounds and crashing to the ground with nearly every leap.

But for all that I don’t know, I do know this: Evangelicals, the message you believe you are sending is not the message being received. You are obscuring rather than illuminating Jesus. Your reasons don’t matter. Your justifications don’t matter. Your convictions don’t matter. You are not advancing the Gospel. If that is somehow okay with you, then you have lost sight of the mission.

Do with that what you will. But I’m standing where the edges meet, and I love you enough to tell you what I see. Over and over. Until you hear. Because it matters. The Gospel matters. People matter.




Learning From a Me Who Never Was

If I had grown up in Jesus’ day, my family and I would not have followed him. I have a high degree of certainty about that. He was a radical who broke the rules. We were not down with that kind of nonsense in my family. We became Christians long after Christianity was institutionalized. Once it was more common to do it than not to do it.

We fell in line in my family. Rules were good and the law was right. The summer before fifth grade, I begged my mother to call the school and request the good teacher because EVERYONE ELSE WAS. Nope. We trusted the system. I’m still trying to catch up on fractions. When I explained that no high school senior attended school on the last day and that it would be embarrassing and absurd for me to go, my mother barely glanced my direction. So I and one loyal friend made our way from class to class that day and chatted with teachers who would have preferred we go to the mall like every NORMAL senior so they could grade papers. I was raised to comply, to trust authority.

So I often wonder how it would feel to have been alive in the 1950’s and not to have actively supported civil rights activists. Because I wouldn’t have. For all the same reasons. I can hear the dinner table conversations about disrespect, a society in moral decline. I hear myself speaking up in my high school government class about the U.S. as a nation of laws and the activists’ willful disregard for order and authority. I see myself nodding in church as my pastor prays for peace, for the violence to stop. I know that we, like many Christians, would have hated the protests. We would have called the students sitting at the lunch counters criminals and responded to the beatings by contending that they should have obeyed the law. We would not have personally discriminated, at least not consciously. My mother is without question the most selfless, caring person I know. But we would have seen our personal choice to be kind as sufficient. We would not have advocated for systemic change.

And I wonder how it would have felt later, after the Civil Rights Act and later the Voting Rights Act passed and those laws became institutionalized, to look back and know I resisted that change. I don’t know anyone now who doesn’t agree that the Civil Rights Act is common sense and that the state of affairs prior to its passage was immoral and unjust. Wouldn’t I be ashamed knowing I had berated African Americans fighting for their rights for being “disrespectful?” Once those activists became American heroes, would I feel like a hypocrite praising their bravery when I had condemned their actions and decried the chaos and disruption they caused? Wouldn’t I wish that I had seen it all differently and had stood behind them rather than sneering at them from my place of comfort?

I just read an opinion by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals for a paper I was writing. The case was Castañeda vs. Pickard, which began with a lawsuit against a Texas school district on behalf of Latino students who were not being effectively served. One of the Court’s arguments was that a district with a history of discrimination should be scrutinized more carefully than one without such a history. A history of discrimination is hard to overcome. Claims of injustice, the Court felt, should be taken more seriously when such claims had been shown in the past to have been justified.

That’s where we are now, isn’t it? People are crying out about injustice. Much research has documented institutionalized racism in our criminal justice system. Education data reveals persistent race-based disparities in achievement and in discipline. We have a disturbing pay gap and people of color living in poverty in vastly disproportionate numbers. But perhaps most importantly, people of color feel treated unjustly and are telling us that. And we have, as a nation, an undeniable history of racism.  So shouldn’t we be scrutinizing ourselves especially carefully? Shouldn’t claims of injustice be taken particularly seriously since we know we have a tendency toward racial injustice? Since we ended slavery in the mid-1800’s and 100 years later still hadn’t universally granted African Americans basic civil rights and needed federal legislation to do so?

If we were looking back to the early 1960’s and saw African American football players kneeling during the National Anthem to protest legalized discrimination, would we still berate them for disrespecting our country? Wouldn’t we recognize now that their resistance was justified? Wouldn’t we have to acknowledge the truth of their silent statement that not everyone in this country was living under the protection of freedom that flag was supposed to represent? Wouldn’t we feel arrogant and irrational and stupid telling them to stand up and respect the flag, knowing what we know now? We would never tell those activists, with the benefit of hindsight, what type of peaceful protest we would and wouldn’t tolerate. We would feel ashamed for not joining them.

I don’t want to live with that guilt and shame 5, 10, or 20 years from now. Even if I were not convinced by the research and swayed by the testimonies of people of color about their experience in our society -and I am -I would still be afraid to deny them their voice. I would still harbor doubt and wonder how this might all look to the next generation. Certainly if there are real injustices built into our system, we have no business telling Black people to stand up and respect the flag. That would be reprehensible. If racial discrimination is still embedded in our institutions, I don’t want to be among those who helped to maintain it by shouting down the voices calling attention to it and vilifying those who challenged the status quo.

In some of my less proud moments, I’ve thought how grateful I am that I wasn’t alive during Jesus’ time or during the Civil Rights Movement. I’m glad other people were there to do the suffering and the resisting, so I could embrace the ideologies they fought for, once they were broadly accepted and normalized. I know who I am and what my natural tendencies are. I’m not inclined to go against the grain, and I am working to guard against that tendency to accept what is generally accepted. I’d rather look back and know that I did what I could to bring about change where it was needed, even if it wasn’t popular at the time. We know from hundreds and thousands of years of history that systems and laws can be wrong. If ours are, I want to help make them right.



Conviction, Conflict, and Broken Bridges

A few major media outlets published pieces around the holidays last year about family relationships hurt by the election campaign. I’d been frustrated by conversations with family members, and it bothered me that I had to avoid talking to some of the people closest to me about a topic that felt more important than any other at that time. Some of my family relationships felt constrained, and a little superficial, but they were not damaged. I didn’t believe politics had that kind of power. On Thanksgiving Day, I posted this:

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Bob, my brother-in-law, while passionately anti-olive, did not vote for Trump and does not support the border wall. Bob was bringing levity into a sensitive climate like only he can. More than anything else, he was messing with me, and everyone, including me, found it funny.

In the past year, I’ve lost a few acquaintances over politics. A former colleague unfriended me with a touch of dramatic flair when I wrote a post in support of Black Lives Matter. At the height of the Clinton email controversy, a cousin blocked me -an act I thought we reserved for maniacs trying to break into our homes to set our pet hamsters on fire. I’m certain I’ve been unfollowed by a number of people, and I’ve had others tell me they just scroll past most of my posts. And that’s okay. I don’t unfollow people I disagree with, but I understand why people do, and I respect that decision. I also understand the frustrated responses of people who sign on to social media sites to see photos of their friends’ cruises and cute animal videos and find their feeds flooded with political rhetoric.

More recently, though, the very real threat that political division poses to relationships has hit me hard. Last Thursday afternoon, I received this text from someone close to me:

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The post in question was the essay by Ta Nehisi Coates that appeared in The Atlantic that same day. I hadn’t commented on it except to say, “Well worth reading.” I did find it well worth reading. His argument is compelling, if painful to read. Not as painful, though, as the text, which knocked the wind out of me.

Of course I do not dislike our country. I am patriotic to a fault. That’s why I am losing sleep over the current state of our nation. I also did not see the essay as “hateful.” I saw it as exposing and countering hate.

But none of that matters. Not the merits or the flaws of the essay or my rationale for sharing it. Our conversation (if one could call it that) ended this way:

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All that matters to me now is that this post (and, I assume, other posts conveying similar sentiments) seem to have ended a relationship that, while difficult, has always been deeply important to me.

Before about two years ago, I used Facebook exclusively as a forum for self-deprecating humor and to share cute pictures of my niece and nephew. I cringed at posts condemning public schools as dens of iniquity, but I never engaged with those doing the posting. It didn’t seem worth the anguish. But then I changed contexts, and I recognized the urgency that people around me felt to challenge unfair policies, to point out implicit racism and other biases in dominant responses to current events, and to push for social justice. They used social media for political purposes because their lives were political. They had to be. These people were fighting for their communities, for their students, for our education system, for our society. They lived these causes because they had experienced in real and concrete and sometimes tragic ways the effects of injustice.

And suddenly being silent felt arrogant. It felt like a function of privilege to choose to keep my social media page benign, funny, trivial. Not everyone has that choice. At the same time, I realized I had a network that many of them didn’t have: a predominantly white, predominantly conservative, predominantly evangelical community. People who generally had not been exposed to the ideas my colleagues were sharing and the questions they were raising, just as I had not been. I knew I had people in my network who would want to hear these perspectives and who would be challenged and enriched by them, just as I had been. I also knew many people would hate them, and that worried me. I could have stayed silent, but to stay silent was to be dismissive of a struggle of which I’d been largely unaware but from which my friends and colleagues, and even my students, were battered and exhausted. I felt ill-equipped to join them, but I knew that in this very small way, I could help. And it felt like the right thing to do. It also felt like an important part of my own learning experience. I had to engage in order to understand.

Now, this week, I’ve taken my first real blow. It’s nothing like the blows others have taken. It’s laughable compared to the blows others have taken -those whose passions and gifts and positions have placed them on the front lines. But it hurts, and I find myself sort of stuck, as I imagine others have before me, to an exponentially greater degree.

I can’t change my political views. They have changed before, and they may change again, but right now they are consistent with my understanding of the world. They have, as I’ve mentioned in other posts, put me at odds with some important aspects of my upbringing, and I’m working to resolve those tensions, but overall I feel less tension among my politics, my faith, and my work than I did five years ago. Becoming conservative again for the sake of relationships is not an option, even though last Thursday I wished it were.

I could revert back to a social media page full of stories about out-of-control laundry and fun pictures, but that too feels unreasonable now. As angry as I have been at the evangelical community, it is my community. Its leaders are my leaders and its members are my friends and family. I am one of them, and I am in this with them, even if I stand in disagreement with the majority on major issues. And this country is my country. I still cry when I stand to salute the flag during the National Anthem, even as I stand firmly and proudly alongside those who exercise their right to remain seated. I am compelled to fight for the Church because I am deeply connected to it, and I am compelled to fight for our country because I desperately want it to be its very best -with liberty and justice for ALL. And I know that our country is not its best, nor is the Church. There is work to do. And I know my friends at the opposite end of the political spectrum agree; we just disagree on how to make it right. But we won’t make it right if we don’t talk about it.

I also know that I will likely be fine whether I enter the fray or not. I am sure of my salvation, and my rights are secure. But that is not the case for everyone, and I bear that responsibility too.

I am fumbling on social media. I share arguments that I find persuasive, and then I read counterarguments that are more persuasive.  I inadvertently plagiarize people, thinking I’m presenting an original idea. I say things in hurtful ways, sometimes unintentionally and sometimes in the heat of the moment. I’m trying, but I’m making a lot of mistakes.

I cherish my relationships, even the hard ones. I know that my most challenging relationships have made me better. I hate that political strife comes at the cost of relationships. I wish it didn’t have to. But I can’t pull back, because that would come at the cost of my integrity, and that’s a price I can’t pay.


Featured Photo Credit: Dave Schumaker, Flikr. Retrieved from

Education · Politics

I Know. I Thought Racism “Worked Both Ways” Too. It Doesn’t.

I graduated with my teaching credential in December, 1994 -two years after the L.A. riots and just weeks before the start of O.J. Simpson’s murder trial. Race was front and center in this country when I started my career. But having grown up in a predominantly white community, I had little first-hand experience with it until after college. I believed that racism was largely a thing of the past, with the exception of a deviant few.  I was sure that Rodney King must have been impossible to control, that the officers wouldn’t have beaten him unnecessarily, that the acquittal proved that out, and that any connection to race was manufactured, divisive, and unproductive. I trusted those in authority (without noticing how many of them were white), and I trusted the system.

In my student teaching and first year in the classroom, a few patterns jumped out at me. One was the stark racial divide between high-track and low-track classes. Another was the impressive ability of my students of color to explain race-related dynamics in contrast to my white students’ inability to do so. It was apparent to me early on that my students were experiencing school differently, but I never thoroughly made sense of that or tried to engage with issues of race as part of my work. I came to think about equity more broadly, and more vaguely.

At the school where I spent most of my career, we took what amounted to a colorblind approach. We knew there were racial disparities in achievement, enrollment in advanced coursework, and discipline, but we sought to address those disparities by treating all of our students equally. We focused on building an inclusive school community, and we opened access to advanced curricular pathways in hopes of increasing numbers of underrepresented students in these courses. We treated culture superficially, celebrating “diversity” generally but never really seeking to understand the diverse values and day-to-day practices that characterized our students’ lives. We took our academic and behavioral standards for granted; we strove to ensure that every student mastered them but never called the standards themselves into question as racially and culturally biased.

As an assistant principal, I once had an African American student in my office who had interfered with an arrest in our parking lot after school. As I wrote up her suspension papers, she stood across from my desk and screamed at me that the school was racist. I rolled my eyes and assured her that a white student who had engaged in the same behavior would be facing the same consequence. But of course that statement was ridiculous. No white student would have felt the outrage that she felt on seeing her black friend pushed to the ground by a white police officer on her school campus. Comparing her to a white student in the same situation was absurd because white students and students of color don’t find themselves in the same situations on school campuses or in their communities. Despite what we wanted to believe, there was no “treating students equally” because they were experiencing school, and the world, very differently.

Many readings, presentations, and conversations have helped me to shift my perspective, but the one that still stands out to me is Gloria Ladson-Billings’ From the Achievement Gap to the Education Debt: Understanding Achievement in U.S. Schools. Ladson-Billings argues that the disparity in academic achievement between white students and students of color is not just a gap but the result of a long-accumulated debt. For generations, our society has denied access to education to minority populations, first by barring them from attending school at all, later by relegating them to separate schools, and into the present by failing to ensure that schools that serve large minority populations have the same resources as schools that serve primarily white students. What we see now when we look at achievement data can only be understood by looking at our country’s history of racism and injustice.

The first time I read Ladson-Billings’ piece, I thought about my father’s lectures about credit card payments -specifically the evils of the “minimum payment.” I learned at 18 that consistently paying the minimum payment would keep me decidedly in debt, even if I curtailed my spending. It would satisfy the bank for the month, but it would do little to put my relationship with the bank back in balance. To do that, I would need to look past the minimum payment line to the “total balance” line. I would need to put forth extra effort to make a dent in that number.

I found this an incredibly helpful metaphor for thinking about race and equity. Deciding to see everyone as equal is like making a minimum payment. It’s better than what we used to do, but it won’t address the very large debt we’ve accumulated over hundreds of years. To make a dent in that debt will require more intensive intervention. We are out of balance right now. White people in this country hold more power than people of color. White people occupy the bulk of high-level leadership positions and hold most of the wealth. White, middle class culture and values are so dominant that they’re invisible until they’re challenged. We can’t claim to be addressing racism until we begin actively working to establish balance.

But this won’t be entirely painless for white people. Repaying a debt requires giving up assets. And balancing power requires the people with too much to relinquish some of it. When we hear people cry, “Black lives matter” and we respond, “All lives matter,” we’re maintaining imbalance. Black lives have historically mattered less. We might need to attend to them specifically in order to establish balance. Affirmative action corrects an imbalance. Education has historically been less accessible to people of color. We might need to prioritize their access to college to establish balance. It’s not “reverse racism.” It’s countering of racism. It’s repaying of a debt.

Individual people can harbor prejudice, but systemic racism requires power. Right now, in our society, white people hold power. We are not victims of racism; we are responsible for it. If we start to feel our power threatened, it doesn’t mean we’re oppressed; it might mean we’re moving in the right direction.




Language · Politics

Hicks and Yankees and the Fuzzy Standard of “English Proficiency”

Last week, CNN’s  Jim Acosta and White House advisor Stephen Miller engaged in a heated exchange over a newly proposed immigration policy that would institute a merit-based system for granting entry into the U.S., using English proficiency as one of several measures. Acosta suggested that the policy would advantage people from English-speaking countries like Britain and Australia. Miller called his comment “ignorant,” asserting that these countries are not the only places in the world where English is spoken. Conservative media sites claimed that Miller “wrecked” Acosta in the exchange. Liberal sites attacked Miller’s response as flawed and missing the point.

Whoever gets credit for “winning,” Acosta’s inquiry and Miller’s response raise important questions about the fairness of English proficiency as an expectation for people immigrating into the U.S.

I grew up in California but spent a couple of weeks most summers in North Carolina, visiting my mother’s family. My favorite memory from these visits is sitting on my great grandmother’s screened-in porch where the family gathered on Sunday evenings. I ate cake and listened to stories and tried, awkwardly and flounderingly, to fit in as one of them. During one such gathering, my mother’s aunt turned to me and said, “You talk like a Yankee.” I didn’t know what a Yankee was, and evidently neither did she, but I knew what she meant: you don’t talk like us. It was true. And how I talked was the clearest marker that I wasn’t a full-fledged member of that family community. They loved my sister and me because we were my mother’s children, but we were obviously outsiders. Anyone who has ever experienced being the one who talks differently understands the role that language plays in signaling to others that we either belong or don’t belong.

My aunt’s comment didn’t feel insulting to me because I actually took a great deal of pride in my use of language. I’m not sure how my mother became the master of school-based English that she is, but she passed it on to me, early and with great fervor. There was no “transitional spelling” in our house. If I spelled a word wrong, she corrected it and I fixed it. I learned about the past perfect tense from a Winnie the Pooh Golden Book when I pointed out “had had,” thinking the duplication was a misprint, and in turn received a grammar lesson on the function of the auxiliary “had” in positioning an event as prior to another past event. I knew the difference between “lie” and “lay,” and even in casual conversation with other children, I always put “I” in the subject position and “me” in the object position. I was never a stand-out in school, except in grammar lessons. During those 20 minutes of the school day, thanks to my mother, I was unmatched. In the spring of my senior year in high school, I asked one of my English teachers for feedback on my college application essay. As he worked up to telling me the essay was dull and essentially devoid of substance, he said, “I’m struck by how…correct…it is.”

“Correctness” became critically important to me, and I carried that through my teaching career without ever reflecting on my tendency to use my students’ English conventions as a measure of their academic ability. I couldn’t see (or didn’t look) past deviations from standard sentence structure, punctuation, or spelling to engage with students’ ideas. Conversely, a paper that grammatically and mechanically matched my expectations conjured in my mind an intelligent and thoughtful student. From my first glance at the paper, the ideas had credibility for me, and I responded differently, more respectfully, more helpfully. The students who came to my class with a strong command of school-based English received different -and higher quality- instruction in my classroom. Because those students were most often white and had parents who were highly educated professionals, my disparate treatment of students based on their language use was both racist and classist. I privileged my already-privileged students and dismissed those who most needed to have their ideas recognized and valued -and at the same time very likely missed many opportunities to help develop brilliant and original ideas. Even though at that time my students all used English easily and could communicate whatever they wanted or needed to communicate in the language, I treated them differently if their English didn’t match the standard I had adopted.

I learned as an adult -after my pronoun usage was firmly cemented in place -that my mother was self-conscious of her North Carolina dialect when she moved to California in the 1960s. She worried that she sounded, as she put it, “like a hick.” So she fixed it. Over time, she modified her language use so that, for as long as I can remember, traces of “Southern” dialect only emerge when she talks to her family or tells stories about them. My mother adopted the language practices of her new community, and perhaps that is to be expected, but I wonder how it might have been different if she hadn’t felt that her own language held lower status than the language of her new coworkers and neighbors and in-laws. She was certainly “proficient” in English. It was her first and only language. But compared to the person sitting next to her in church, or the bank teller at the next window, might she have been regarded as less proficient, because her language didn’t match the standard in that community? Might her ideas have been dismissed more easily in a business meeting if she had used the language of her home community -even if her ideas held equal merit?

This is why Jim Acosta’s question was not nearly as absurd as Miller made it sound. Of course English is spoken in many countries other than England and Australia. But there are many, many varieties of English being spoken both in this country and around the world. Do we view them all as equal? Or do some varieties hold higher status, so that people who speak those higher-status varieties will be deemed more highly “proficient” than those who speak other varieties? Won’t those people probably be white? Won’t they probably be more like “us”?

Setting aside the deeply flawed assumptions that underlie the belief that everyone in this country should speak English in the first place, we need to explore honestly what counts as proficiency in English, and how race and class play into those assessments. Language is a powerful symbol of belonging, and whether or not people’s language passes the test depends on who is doing the evaluating. It is not an objective measure, and if we’re not very careful, it will be a dangerous one.