Politics

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.

 

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.

 

 

 

Christianity · Politics

On Santa Claus, Jesus, and Trump

Shortly before Christmas, when I was four, I challenged my mother on Santa Claus. I asked (as I imagine many children do), “If he’s fat, how can he fit down the chimney?” My mother answered, “I guess he’s magic.” The answer was acceptable enough. He rode a flying sleigh around the world in one night and evidently had a cadre of elves who could secure thousands of Barbie vans and Baby-Come-Back dolls without ever making themselves visible at the mall. I guessed he probably was magic. And if my mother said it, it was true. This was the woman who once spent ten minutes at a grocery store bakery counter insisting that she be allowed to pay for a doughnut the cashier had forgotten to charge her for the previous day.

Two years later, when a friend told me at a sleepover, “Santa Claus is really your parents,” I was disproportionately (although not uncharacteristically) worked up. Several years later, I took up the issue again with my mother:

“But I ASKED you about it. I gave you a chance to tell me, and you just said, ‘I guess he’s magic.'”

“Well, you knew we didn’t believe in magic.”

“WHAT?? Mom. We believed Noah put ALL THE ANIMALS on the ark, that three men were thrown into a furnace and didn’t burn, and that a pack of lions’ mouths were sealed so they wouldn’t eat a guy who spent the night in their den.”

“That wasn’t magic. That was God.”

Okay, yes. I had been taught the distinction. I knew God wasn’t magic. Still, for a four-year-old raised to believe in the supernatural, accepting Santa’s ability to navigate chimneys as magic is not a giant leap.

Believing in the supernatural became increasingly hard for me as I got older, as deeply ingrained as it was. In high school, I was terrified of looking stupid, and I felt, increasingly, that talking about the Bible as literal truth made me look that way. In college, as a literature student, I began to see the broader picture -the horrific damage that had been done to people and cultures in the name of missions work, the warring among religious groups over the power to control the narrative, and the many world views that felt as real and true to the people who held them as Christianity felt to me. It became harder, and less desirable, for me to believe that ours was the only truth. I would have preferred to be selective and piece together my own theology, but I was deeply afraid to do that, or even to raise hard questions. Christianity was the core of my identity, and I feared that if I pulled one thread, it would all unravel for me.

In my early adulthood, I made a firm decision to take the Bible, in its entirety, at face value. I said to my mom, “Maybe we’re wrong. But so what? If it turns out in the end that none of it was true, I won’t be sorry to have lived my life striving to be like Christ.” And there I remained, for many years. I clung to Jesus, his words, and his life as the core of my faith. I taught Sunday School. I served in church leadership. And as for all the issues that continued to make me uncomfortable, I hoped and trusted that if God was who I thought He was, He had it figured out and I would have to live with not knowing the answers.

And then it was 2016. And the Republicans put forward a candidate who was “different.” For awhile it was funny, like the idea of Arnold Schwartzenegger being governor of California. Then it became serious. He made anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and blatantly sexist statements. He called people losers and mocked them like a seven-year-old, he lied openly, and he talked about wanting to punch protesters in the face and “joked” that he would pay legal fees for supporters who did. It made sense that a few isolated, angry white men yearning for pre-civil-rights days would relish the idea of Trump as president. But I genuinely expected that Christians would be at the front of the line speaking out against his behavior. It seemed obvious. He was everything we are called not to be. How do we claim to promote Christian values and even consider placing someone openly hateful in our highest position of power?

Then the audio recording came out -the one where he bragged that he forces himself on women because he can. Because he’s a star. And that should have sealed it. But it didn’t. Supporters came out in his defense. Christians compared him to King David, using his sexually violent language to validate him as God’s choice. He claimed he could walk out on 5th Avenue and shoot someone and people would still support him. And by this point, he seemed to be right.

I stood by as people already skeptical of Christianity had their beliefs confirmed. Evangelical Christianity was aligning itself with hate and claiming “conservative values” as its justification. Muslims, atheists, Buddhists, agnostics -everyone but Christians -spoke out for the vulnerable, for the poor, for the oppressed. Christians defended, rationalized, ignored.

Even though I suspected he might win, when the numbers came out -81% of Evangelicals voting for Trump  -I was stunned and devastated. And in the next few months, I circled all the way back to the beginning: to the ark, the lions’ den, a childhood firmly anchored in a loving, merciful, gracious God who so loved the world that He sacrificed His only son. And I wondered what happened. I had chosen to embrace the whole, despite doubts and apparent contradictions, because it all felt worth it if it led me to a life of love, compassion, and kindness. If that was the core, I could live with some discomfort and tension. But the election and all that led up to it suggested that it was not the core. Reeling from what felt like the sudden ripping out of my life’s foundation, I pulled the thread. As I feared, it has left me unraveled and a little lost.

I have been told that I just don’t understand the big picture, that I’m too narrow-minded, that I’m just being influenced by people. I’ve been reminded that I’m studying education, not theology, which I suppose implies that I have no business suggesting that anything is wrong. And maybe it’s true. Maybe I thought I understood the major tenets of Christianity and I never actually did. Maybe a faithful Christian just accepts the assurances of Christian leaders that this is all worth it for a conservative Supreme Court, or that we shouldn’t judge each other for our political choices. But none of that helps me to know what to do now.

I miss my church and the people I came to know and love. I miss feeling grounded in a faith community. I miss being certain. But I don’t know how to be a part of it right now, or how not to. It helps to know I’m not alone -that there are others, some who actually do study theology, who are equally shaken and also struggling to find a place. And I trust that we eventually will. We will either unite around our core and find reconciliation, or we will crumble, and I can’t believe we will let ourselves crumble.

But even if we do, it doesn’t have to be over. Learning the truth about Santa was a necessary step in my coming to understand Christmas as a celebration of God’s gift to the world. Maybe we’re experiencing something similar right now, on a much larger scale. Maybe we will let it all unravel and slowly put it back together again. And maybe we’ll start with God’s love, mercy, and grace and work from there.