electricpaladin: (Default)

In my line of work, it's considered a virtue to be sensitive to the culture(s) of the kids we work with. We are supposed to educateourselvesinwhat's appropriate and inappropriate in the cultural contexts of our kids and then do our best to meet their expectations. In a lot ofways, thisisan entirely good idea. It helps us get past the "culture of poverty" myths, connect to our students, and dodge a lot of the social,racial,andeconomic issues that could potentially divide and destroy classroom culture.

Even though I know this is basically a good idea, I sometimes wonder if it's bullshit.

Before I go any further, I feel like I should add a disclaimer. By that, I mean that the opinions expressed in this post are not necessarilyendorsed by the writer. In other words: I don't really know what I think about this issue, much less how I feel about this issue. I'm unloadingmyemotionsand expressing my feelings, and if you take this post as anything but me thinking out loud for your entertainment andedification,you're a jerk.

So, with black kids - and, in many cases, kids who belong to other cultures but have undergone a lot of their socialization around black kids -you aren't supposed to single them out by name. It's apparently disrespectful. I don't really understand how, but I don't have to. It's aculturalthing. It's true for the kids. Whatever.

The thing is, you can imagine that as a classroom teacher this isn't easy to deal with. How the hell else am I supposed to deal with kids ifIcan't single them out? It's important for me to note here that I'm not talking about insulting or humiliating kids - yes, yes, at least not bymyentirely subjective standards - I'm talking about saying something as simple as taking a break from whatever bit of instruction I'm doing tosay"hey, Manuel, please stop talking and listen to me" or "Christine, spit out your gum please."

I want to note that it's not like I'm taking any heat from anyone in authority to do this differently. My administrators seem pretty content to let merun my classroom my way, and they're pretty happy with how I relate to the kids. I've noticed a lot of conflict in my classroom, and I'm trying tofigure out how to improve my classroom culture. My classroom culture, not my kids' culture. That's their business. My mentor's advice was toconsider this "calling out" phenomenon and see what I can do to change how I relate to my kids.

The first thing is that I'm very confused about how the heck to communicate with my kids if I'm not going to single them out anymore. What am Isupposed to do, say "remember that gum isn't allowed" while looking meaningfully at one of my students while she chews? Is anyone but meaware that this will totally fail to produce any kind of response?

I know what the solution is, of course. My school has a number of excellent teachers who are born and bred in Oakland's black community. Ican - and will - go and watch them and see how they deal with it. Perhaps I'll discover that it's simpler than I think.

What's really frustrating is that the entire project seems a little ridiculous. My classroom isn't just full of black kids. There are black kids from Oakland, black kids from elsewhere, latino kids, kids born in America, and latino kids born abroad, Mongolian kids and Chinese kids and Vietnamese kids, and even one lonely white kid (actually, I think the white kid moved, but I still see last year's white kid in the halls sometimes). I know that more of my kids are black than anything else, but by bowing to their cultural preferences and ignoring everyone else's, aren't I perpetuating the same inequalities I hate, just for different reasons?

And for that matter, why the heck don't we expect black kids to develop cultural competencies like (nearly) everyone else in America (except the white people) has to? I know that the black and Jewish experiences in America are very different - for one thing, we got to be white eventually, and I'm not sure America can handle making black people white - but nobody ever gave a shit about my culture when I was growing up. I've had to learn to appreciate the Jesus myth in literature. I've had negative interactions with teachers based on my argumentative and belligerent ways. I've had to explain my weird Jewish holidays over and over again. Is this a white liberal guilt ("we must limit the ways our awful white culture impacts these poor innocent black kids!") thing? A low expectations ("we can't expect these fucked up, poor, urban black kids to adapt to other cultures") thing? Or is it some other thing?

*sigh*

The thing is, I understand that none of that really matters. It doesn't matter where this thing comes from or how I related to it in my childhood. What matters is that I want to teach these kids science, and the more harmoniously I can do it, the more science they will learn. If I have to figure out how to discipline kids without talking to them individually - or whatever it turns out I have to do - then I'll do it. But I still have a lot of questions, and I think I'm going to have to get used to not having answers.

electricpaladin: (Default)
I first encountered the concept of (white/male/etc.) privilege in college when I read White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh. I'm not ashamed to say that I didn't get it. At the time, the idea of an invisible system designed to benefit me and detriment others seemed absurd.

I have since come to understand the concept. You may laugh, but I got it during an online argument about the art content of the roleplaying game Cthulhutech, which was oddly monoracial, and represented women as solely scantily clad and sexy, while men had a wider variety of poses and costumes. Big surprise, I know, but I was then - and am now - on a kick of speaking my mind. No one will ever change the world by sitting on his ass and being quietly outraged. In any case, I was struck by how hard it was to get people to see my point - which was, incidentally, not that it was bad or wrong to have sexually titilating art in RPGs, but rather that it sent a message about who the book was for that we might not want to send. The other posters, who I'm sure were reasonably empathic individuals, were completely incapable of taking the point of view of someone who wanted to look at someting other than tits. They argued that an equal amount of non-tit titillation would be an unacceptable eyesore... unable to understand that someone not interested in tits would be equally put off by the status quo.

That was how I got privilege, leaning over my laptop and getting increasingly frustrated with the Cthulhutech forums.

However, I have since rejected the concept.

Wow, I bet I got a lot of you all worked up there! Let me clarify.

The concept of privilege is this: we swim in a sea of advantages and disadvantages based on race, gender, age, nation of origin, religion, and pretty much any other even slightly significant (and a few completely insignificant) characteristic. These advantages and disadvantages are invisible, since we have been exposed to them practically since birth. So, it takes a lot of work to identify these unfair benefits and detriments, and it can be a profoundly upsetting experience. I have no problem with this idea. I've come to see that I gain from being (apparently) white, straight, and male. and others lose from being obviously something else. There are ways in which being Jewish, for example, has influenced by my life, ways I feel about the world that have to do with an unspoken but prevalent disconnect between me and many of the people around me.

However, privilege is also a word, and the word means this (according to Answer.com): "a special advantage, immunity, permission, right, or benefit granted to or enjoyed by an individual, class, or caste."

McIntosh lists a few examples of privilege:

"If I need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I should want to live."

"I can go shopping alone most of the time pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed."

"I can protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them."

"I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help my race will not work against me."

These are examples of privilege? These are examples of "special" advantages? What the fuck is up with that?

Yes, I went there: what the fuck is up with that?

Now, Professor McIntosh lists numerous other examples of privilege that make more sense to me, things like "if I as to talk to the persons in charge, I will be faced with someone of my own race" and "I can choose blemish covers or bandages in 'flesh' color and have them more or less match my skin tone." However, many of the others are not privileges. They are not special rights or immunities that some people have and others lack, they are basic rights, things I like to think our culture extends to everyone.

In short, some privileges - many of the most pernicious and invisible privileges - are not privileges owned by the white, the male, and the straight. They are basic courtesies that we deny to the black (and etc.), the female, and the gay. They are detriments.

I am a writer and a crazy person, so I believe that language creates reality. Not in a flippy, weirdo Mage: the Ascension way, but in a basic, logical, and quite down to earth way. Parents and teachers in the audience: do you deny that a child who comes home and says "Mom! I got a B!" and a kid who says "Well, I didn't fail" are living in different worlds, even if they got the same grade? Of course not. Would you argue that teaching the children to think and speak of their grades differently - "Yeah? Why didn't you get an A?" or "You got a B? Congratulations! I know how difficult this topic is for you and that's a good start." - won't change their realities? Of course not.

So why do we - and for that matter, Peggy McIntosh - define these basic courtesies as "privileges?" What are we creating with our language when we call a series of experiences that can, in part, be summed up as "being treated with compassion by our fellow humans" as a "special advantage?"

My answer is guilt. I think we want to feel guilty. We want to put the blame for all these problems on our shoulders rather than acknowledge that the problems are bigger than we are. The problem seems more manageable if we can imagine that it's our personal, invisible fault. I also think privilege is often used to silence people - if you know the "privleged-ass motherfucker" story, you might agree. Privilege is a convenient blanket under which to shove opinions you don't approve of - "that's wrong and this is why/you don't see my point? Of course not. It's invisible. Privilege." - and a label for the people who hold them.

Unfortunately, in many cases, it's weird doublethink bullshit. There are certainly some cases where I might be given things I don't deserve - a job, a lease, a lucky break, the benefit of the doubt - but those are far rarer in the articulation of privelege than things someone else deserves not being given to her. Privilege is a term that does not accurately reflect reality, and therefore, I reject it as incoherent.

The fact is, we live in an unfair world that hurts some people more than others, and we can't fix that while making up imaginary terms that don't reflect the way the world is and create situations as backwards, creating guilt where none need exist. We need to look at things clearly in order to fix them, and privilege doesn't do that.

That's my argument. Fire away.

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electricpaladin

June 2012

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