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.

 

 

 

Education

“Bittersweet and Strange, Finding You Can Change, Learning You Were Wrong”

I grew up a conservative Christian in a white, middle-class community. As a general rule, this context worked well for me. My parents trained me from birth to do all the things that would position me as a “good student” in school. I learned to read fluently and with expression, I took great pride in producing error-free writing, and I NEVER had my name on the board. I was a well-bred churchgoer as well. I won prizes for memorizing the most Bible verses in Sunday School, I sang hymns in the shower, and I cast scolding looks at my teenage peers for giggling during talks at youth group. My family was often compared to the Cleavers, and while our family life was not nearly so neat, we certainly had all the Cleaver trappings -two parents, a stay-at-home mother, nightly dinners together, a wood-paneled station wagon with a dog in the back.

I also had deep-seated insecurities. I read slowly and couldn’t keep up with my peers in advanced classes, and I went to lengths to hide it. I was clumsy and socially awkward, and I could never figure out how other kids knew what to wear or what music to listen to. I chose to avoid homework rather than face the possibility of not understanding it, so I spend middle and high school lying, copying, and living in fear of being caught. I felt at home at church but also always felt on the outside of my peer group. I knew all the rules but was never fully included.

When I look back now and reflect on how I became an arrogant, critical, judgmental adult, I come back not to my successes but to my insecurities. I grew up knowing I was a fraud and desperately trying to hide it, so I built my identity around my achievements. I may not have been a contributing member of a Christian community, but I knew the doctrine and followed the rules. I became an English teacher. I found that I was fairly successful at teaching students to read, think, and write the way I had learned to read, think, and write. For all that I had never figured out, I had developed a strong grasp of English -the structure, the convention, and the power of language. As incompetent as I grew up feeling, I had completed college and secured a place in middle-class life as an independent adult. I believed my students could too, assumed they should want to, and looked to my own knowledge and experience as resources to share with them.

I believed that language and literacy were the keys to educational success -because they had been mine. And I knew that I held those keys. That belief, and my own experience, left no room for valuing of multilingualism or varieties of English other than the “standard.” I knew that my mother’s reading to me as a child had given me an edge, so I believed every parent should do the same. The students whose experiences had been different were, in my conception of language and literacy achievement, behind. And rather than question why my own set of values was so rigid, or exploring how this diversity of experiences might deepen and enrich the discourse of my classroom, I set about the work of catching those students up.

My conservative Christian values played into the educator I became as well. I accepted that single parents, or even same-sex parents, could raise successful children, but I never accepted that any family configuration was equal to the “traditional” nuclear family. I viewed students from other family backgrounds as disadvantaged, which undoubtedly shaped my expectations of them. I attributed my own success as an adult -as I defined it- to the code my family and community had lived by. And again, rather than question the power dynamics that make Christianity so advantageous in our society, I took for granted the rightness of the code.

People close to me believe that leaving my job and coming back to school changed me. And of course it has, but my classes, professors, and classmates also gave me words to voice and explain the discomfort I was already feeling in my job. As steeped as I was in my own beliefs and practices as a teacher and administrator, I knew, as many educators know, that what I was doing wasn’t working. For all our talk of equity and access, the same groups of students continued to come out ahead, and the schools in the same communities continued to be featured in the newspaper. I thought much more about language than I thought about race and class, but of course they are closely linked, and my own beliefs and values and whatever limited “success” I attained had as much to do with the fact that I was white and middle class as the fact that I grew up a conservative Christian and spoke a valued variety of English. Those things aren’t unrelated.

I have always cared deeply about equity, as most public educators do. I just didn’t see, until I stepped outside and began interacting with people who had either studied the world through different lenses or just lived different experiences, how the standards we choose to set as a society both reflect the values of the people in power and necessarily open up access to some and limit it for others.

I’m in the very early stages of understanding all of this. For now, it has made me obnoxious on Facebook but not particularly powerful in my ability to effect change at any level. I have much more to learn, and I am fortunate to be following the footsteps (and breathing the dust) of many, many people who have understood all of this for many, many years. And because I am both proud and deeply insecure, facing all that I didn’t know was initially painful. Believing that I had spend a 20-year career working toward equity only to learn that I had made countless decisions as a teacher and an administrator that in fact furthered inequity was hard. But it was only briefly hard. Then it was freeing, because then I could talk about it, because then it wasn’t just about me anymore, and because then I was empowered to question and challenge -and to begin working to avoid falling into the beliefs, assumptions and patterns that reinforce the status quo.

“Learning you were wrong,” as Disney reminds us, isn’t all bad. It opens up some pretty exciting doors.