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Amerikan History Is White Imperialism: Pass It On

Over the past couple of weeks, I read a couple of critical autobiographies–those of Malcolm X and Assata Shakur. Reading them together, I was struck by a lot of things, but perhaps especially how enduring false narratives of this country are and how those narratives are perpetuated by white people. We hear this time and again from folks of color, how white people are often surprised by actions of the state or the actions of their fellow white folks, rather than recognizing these as enduring historical patterns that folks of color are plenty used to. Why are we so surprised? Why does our ignorance persist so doggedly?

Well, racism, obviously. But part of that racism is the way we reproduce stories amongst ourselves, as white folks. This probably starts before we arrive in school, but it is heavily reinforced by curricula, both formal and informal. School isn’t just about the whitewashed lessons we learn about literature and history, but it’s also a civic education in how to be a Good White American. School teaches us that America is a democracy, that voting is a civic duty, that the cops are the good guys, that prisons are necessary, that participation is important. We learn all these insidious little lessons and then we learn not to listen when black folks and other folks of color are shouting the opposite from the rooftops. School teaches us to turn a blind eye at best, to argue loudly against the truth at worst.

So what can we do about it? Yep, it’s that simple piece of advice yet again. Talk to other white folks. But a layer I’d add is not to assume that the white folks you know, your fellow liberals etc., are as aware as you think they are about race and particularly about the lie Amerika represents. I’ve often found in conversation that folks are surprised by the degree of deception they’ve been living under, once the historical facts are presented. A lot of white folks think of themselves as anti-racist, but read very few books by people of color. So drop some of those facts into the conversation. Recommend relevant books by authors of color to your friends. Challenge civic participation. Keep on grinding on those little bits of resistance and education within your white circles, so that we can make some space as folks of color are doing the revolutionary work.

What If White Dominant Culture Was Covered in School?

Image result for white teacherDid your elementary school ever celebrate those “culture days” where kids were encouraged to dress up in some native costume, do traditional dances, sing traditional songs, and eat foods associated with a given culture? Maybe this is a 90s artifact, but I read something recently that mentioned them and cringed remembering my own school days. I used to love learning words of a foreign language and trying new foods, but I was never encouraged to consider the implications of those days that painted other cultures as strange and foreign. It certainly never occurred to me, as a white kid, whether the children who were from those cultures wanted to experience a day where they were so visibly othered, asked questions they might not have known the answers to or might not have wanted to answer for inquisitive white kids and teachers.

What if, instead of these awkward “culture days,” schools actually covered white dominant culture as a topic? Never in my school days was white culture acknowledged with any specificity, it was just background noise. But I now know that there’s plenty that could be covered, if schools wanted to be thorough. I’m not sure that it would necessarily be possible to avoid children of color and immigrant children again feeling othered in this unit, but with training it might be possible for teachers to normalize discussion of whiteness as something to consider, and to frame culture as something we all have. If such a unit were offered alongside history and literature lessons that fully incorporated cultures outside North America and Europe, I’d imagine that white kids would grow up to both be much more conscious of their privilege and much less freaked out when discussing race. And maybe kids of color would get to avoid at least a few of the awkward moments.

I Never Had a Professor of Color in College

Image result for adrien wing

Professor Adrien Wing, one of those three professors of color in law school

In education, the voice of the educator is important. The lessons we learn are shaped by those who pass them on to us, just as they are shaped by the writers chosen for curricula. It’s telling, then, that as an undergraduate, I never had a single professor of color–but also telling that I didn’t realize that until recently.

I was thinking about my undergraduate education, and how I didn’t really start reading many works by people of color until law school, and didn’t start to tip the balance of my reading more towards a 50/50 split between white authors and authors of color until much later. This was my own fault, but I also noticed when thinking about the books I read at that time that I couldn’t think of a single undergraduate professor of color. When I went systemically through all the classes I took, I realized that there wasn’t one.

My university (UMBC) was a medium-sized public school in Maryland that emphasized diversity in the sciences, in particular. Our university president was a brilliant black man who was a frequent guest on NPR. But in the humanities and dance, all my professors were white. I never took an “ethnic studies” course, but I also never had a professor of color for any “mainstream” subject. In law school, I had three professors of color out of maybe twenty.

I wonder how common this experience is for white folks, and how many of us don’t even notice. I’m certain my classmates of color were noticing. So if you get a chance, white folks who attended an undergraduate institution, think back and see if you can recall how many professors of color you had. Let me know in the comments.

Do Charter Schools Impact Systemic Education Problems?

Recent, Colorlines ran a piece on Chicago’s Urban Prep Academy, a charter school that boasts three years of 100% college acceptance rates among its senior classes.  Urban Prep’s student population is exclusively black and male, and unsurprisingly it’s making big news for its successes with a generally at-risk demographic.  At the same time, a lot of students who enter as freshmen don’t make it to the senior class, and there have been accusations of “creaming,” or encouraging students with behavioral problems and learning disabilities to leave.

Whether or not those accusations are true, I do think this is an important problem to consider for proponents of charter schools.  There’s no doubt that charter schools can be great for some students.  My experience at a charter high school for academically gifted students in a large Southern city absolutely turned my life path around.  The school was brand new when I started as a freshman, and by that time I was burnt out on public schools that didn’t engage my intellectual curiosity.  After two years where half my teachers had PhDs, students were encouraged to pursue foreign languages and geeky extracurricular pursuits, and humanities classes encouraged critical thinking, I had gone from a C/D to an A student with several leadership roles.  I have that school to thank.

At the same time, I don’t support my alma mater financially because of what it quickly became.  After a couple of successful years with students like me who took a gamble on a new school and started it off with a geeky freshman and sophomore class, parents started taking note.  High test scores encouraged more and more upper class white parents in the suburbs to apply.  Many of those parents could afford private school, but didn’t want to pay if they didn’t have to.  The great teachers remain, but I’m turned off by the focus on a million-dollar building campaign at a school that used to be housed in a quirky cotton mill that we restored with our own hands, surrounded by a long-standing public housing project that was soon bulldozed for townhouses our teachers couldn’t afford.  It’s one of the best high schools in the country, and it’s done nothing to alleviate the systemic educational problems in the city and county.

Like my school, Urban Prep and others that focus on impressive test results or college attendance rates may be doing something great for individual students but not much to change the overall climate.  Unlike my school, Urban Prep is focused on an at-risk population, and even if many of the students are “creamed,” I don’t doubt that those who graduate are thankful for the opportunity they have.  But despite that, we need educational solutions that look at the huge systemic problems we’re facing.  We need schools that don’t, like my high school, require middle school courses for admittance that most students of color in poor neighborhoods have no access to.  We need high schools that lead projects to improve elementary education in the community, and to look at other problems–from police violence to environmental issues to immigration to the challenges single parents in the neighborhood face.

If you know of programs that are addressing these issues, I’d love to hear about them.  And if you did go to charter schools, I’m curious about your experience.

History Education and How Children Perceive Conflict

Sitting in my living room, checking the BBC every few hours for updates on Libya, watching my Twitter stream comment on Somalia, Egypt, Turkish attacks on Kurds, Israeli attacks on Palestinians, I’ve been thinking about what it’d be like to be a child or a teenager while all this goes on.  Is the way children perceive history different to what it was when I was growing up?  Is history education any different?

My immediate assumption is that the world is somehow different than it was in my childhood and teenage years.  It’s a world of conflict, wartime, lines being redrawn.  Children growing up now must have a different perception of America than I did–after all, we’re obviously not “at peace.”

But are things really so different?

Social studies and history classes, I think, tend to wash out conflict, especially if it’s taking place far away.  There’s the easy excuse that something happening now isn’t history, but I think it’s more than that.  I remember having the impression that history somehow stopped at 1990, that there had been conflict in the past, back when there was a Soviet Union, but peace and prosperity were what I had to look forward to.  I’d look at my dad’s 1980s world atlas and laugh at the funny country lines, not realizing that lines were being redrawn and argued even as I sat there, tracing over the Soviet republics with my finger.  In 8th grade social studies, we watched NATO bombings in Kosovo live on TV, but there was no real connection to that happening.  It was something “over there,” over which President Clinton surely had control.  From time to time, I had a classmate from Zaire, then the Congo, but “refugee” didn’t mean anything to me.

Of course, it’s easier to teach history from a point of stability.  Historiography isn’t taught till high school, when students start questioning where the history comes from, who wrote it all down.  In elementary school classes on the civil war, students learn about slavery, but there’s often no real connection to the fact that some black children’s ancestors were slaves and some white children’s ancestors where slaveowners.  “The Indians” are never portrayed with reference to existing, living tribes.  It’s convenient to portray conquest as a sad story that’s over now, erasing the current needs of indigenous people.  (For more on this, I strongly recommend the book Conquest by Andrea Smith).

For me, history became relevant and interesting in my senior year of high school, when I had an AP European History teacher who was passionate about social history.  She tied together social movements, governments, art, culture, and geography in a way that made history colorful and relevant.  At the same time, what I was learning in history class linked to the literature I was reading in AP English Literature (mostly British authors) and AP German.  It was the opportunity to think about how philosophical ideas, morals, and theories tied in with historical events that really sparked my love of history, and I can’t imagine that I’m alone.

I’m not an educator or someone who decides curricula, but I do have some hope that in the future, history and social studies classes will start in earlier on the relevance of history, and on the way historical threads tie to current movements.  In American classrooms, the US needs to be treated as a player like any other player, not as an infallible, unmoving reference point.  I hope that what’s going on right now in the Middle East and Africa isn’t just displayed to kids on TV screens as a bit of news that’s going on, but discussed in context.  If any of my readers are teachers, or have kids in school right now, I’d love to hear from you in comments or on Twitter (@queerscholar) about what they’re learning.

Why Teaching Queer History Is Important

The opposition has already started challenging California’s new legislation on teaching LGBT history in schools, the Huffington Post reports.  Others have already pointed out the benefits that accrue when straight students learn about the historical contributions of LGBT people–people are less likely to discriminate against a minority they better understand, for example.  I’d like to highlight some of the benefits of this kind of legislation for queer students.

When I went to the Cameron Village Public Library in Raleigh, NC to research my eleventh-grade US history term paper on the lesbian liberation movement, I was both excited and terrified.  I knew nothing about the history of lesbians in the US, or anywhere else.  I had a vague sense of a burgeoning gay movement in the 90s, but my knowledge of gay and lesbian people didn’t extend much earlier than that.  I was shaking when I checked out that stack of books, sure that someone would see and know me, or that the librarian would make a comment.

When I stood up in front of my class to present my paper topic, after tons of research that was more interesting and relevant to me than anything else I’d studied in a history class, the room fell silent.  In sharp contrast to other students’ presentations, no one had any questions for me during the Q&A.  When I sat down, a friend passed me a note–“are you a lesbian?  check yes or no.”

It’s important that teachers cover LGBT history not only because straight, cis-gender kids need to be aware of the community’s historical contributions, but because queer kids often have no other resource for information.  It may be too scary to go to the library alone, or the library may carry no books on the subject.  Looking into the topic independently may be seen as a declaration of sexual orientation or gender identity before a teenager is ready.  Unlike straight, white, cis-gender students (especially male students), queer kids have not been studying the contributions of those like them throughout school.  Many are not aware that there is a history to study.

Finally, queer kids often grow up in families made up entirely of straight, cis-gender members.  Similar to the problem of children of color growing up with white adoptive families, queer kids often receive no education from their families about the history of their community because parents don’t understand their children’s identities.  School may be the only place where a queer student hears a positive message about LGBT people and their contributions to society.  The impact this first lesson can have is enormous, and it’s unfortunate that for so many queer young people, it goes untaught.

Class vs. Income and Claiming Identity

I was reading an old blog post the other day about the whole “it’s rude to ask what someone does for a living in Europe” thing, and I got to thinking about the difference between class/family background and income/occupation/career.  It is true that what you do is a pretty common way to identify oneself right off the bat here in the US, but what’s the alternative?  The most obvious one I could come up with is where you come from–hometown, family name, background.  The difference between those two identities, of course, is that one is dealing with class and upbringing (which you can’t control) and the other is dealing with income and occupation (which you, supposedly, can).

Part of our American individual responsibility rhetoric is the idea that it’s only up to us whether we succeed or fail in our careers.  Supposedly, occupation should be a more egalitarian way to define oneself, rather than speaking directly about class or family ties.  But is that really the case?  Personally, I feel a pressure around the occupation question, because I grew up in a middle to lower middle class family in the South, did very well in school, and was expected to far exceed my parents’ incomes.  I am more educated than any of my family members, and live in a large urban area in a more affluent part of the country now.  However, I make far less money than expected, and I find myself defining myself more by what I want to do than by what I am when someone asks about career.  I often define myself as a blogger, writer, and activist, obscuring my full-time paying job.  Sometimes I say that I work in the “non-profit” sector, but rarely mention my job title, because it’s more a means than an end.

I do wonder if the tendency to identify ourselves by our careers contributes far more to stress than some people realize.  How many of us use an aspirational definition of what we are, or speak about our education rather than our job, or our sector rather than our occupation?  How many feel ashamed by a job description?  I do think that there is a tendency to see what we do as a direct reflection on our job skills and what we have to offer as professional people, rather than an accident of circumstance, what was available in this economy when we applied, or what we grew into as we went from job to job.  I don’t necessarily think that defining ourselves by class is any better, but I do wonder what the attendant pressure of that definition would be.

White House Conference on Bullying: Creating Community

The President is giving an address now to kick off the White House bullying conference, and I was pleased to hear him say that fighting bullying isn’t just about discouraging violence, but also about building a sense of community in schools.  I would add to this that it is important for schools to provide safe spaces and community-building opportunities for students around identities such as queerness, race, religion, etc. and to educate the student body at large about these communities in keeping with the general lesson of respect.  I would wager that most students who belong to a minority or an often-bullied group do not have such a safe space or community available to them in school.

International Women’s Day: Equal Access to Meaningful Education

Yes, yet another post from me on International Women’s Day!

Gender Across Borders, the phenomenal blog where I write a monthly column on gender, sexuality, and law, is asking readers to blog today about the UN’s official IWD theme and answer the question: “What does it mean to have equal access to education, training and science and technology for women, and how do we get there?”

I’d like to take on the question of equal education, because it’s something that’s directly relevant to my life, and I’d like to look at a somewhat less-blogged-about facet of the problem.  There are tons of great blog posts about how to solve the problems of women having no access to schooling, or less access to schooling than men, or less access to particular disciplines.  These are the basic problems and we can’t go anywhere until we solve them.  But I’d like to look at the next step, based on some of my own experiences.

If we look at education in terms of the simple question, do men and women both have a chance to go to school and perform well, I honestly don’t have much to talk about.  I was lucky enough to live in an area where going to school was a given, and I never really noticed gender-based discrimination in school.  I graduated from college and law school with honors and awards.  But equal access is not that simple.  Equal access also means:

  • Access to a broad range of concentrations and skills. When you think about education, you have to think about who writes the curricula and who decides what classes are taught.  I had no access to women’s studies, queer studies, sociology, anthropology, development studies, cultural studies, Black studies, native studies, or Latino/a studies courses before college.  Many women don’t have access to much more basic classes in math, science, or computer skills.  Certain skills also may be easier to learn for men after formal studies–networking, business skills, and public speaking might be more commonly transferred in “boys’ clubs,” whereas women area at a disadvantage when these skills aren’t taught in school.
  • Access to different ways of thinking within an area of study. Within the courses I did take in high school and college, I rarely had a chance to explore differing perspectives.  Feminist perspectives were never brought up in school, nor were POC perspectives.  I read few authors from the Global South.  Disability was rarely mentioned.  Queer perspectives, including non-binary ideas of gender, were never discussed.  History, literature, civics, etc. were taught from the perspective of dead white guys.  Alternative methods of teaching, study, and expression were also discouraged.  Poetry is a valid form of communication.  So is song.  So is activism.  So is art.  So is digital media.
  • Being treated as a subject, not an object. The education I received tended to subtly place students as objects, not subjects of their learning.  Sometimes, this was general–learning was received, not participatory in many cases.  But other times it was felt more strongly by certain groups in the classroom.  White, straight, male views were presented as “mainstream.”  Unique ideas were not discussed and debated in the classroom.  If not objectified, minorities were marginalized and made invisible–queer people, for example, did not appear in the books I read.  Relationships were assumed to be heterosexual.  Everyone was assumed to have a gender.  And yes, the male pronoun was often used to refer to doctors, lawyers, and politicians.
  • Presenting a diverse picture of womanhood. I was thinking about my American literature course in 11th grade, and though we had a really phenomenal teacher, I can only recall three female authors that we read in that class.  Two of those were white, one was Black.  We didn’t read any Native American, Asian American, queer, or Latino/a authors in that class.  Just as “man” is understood to mean “white man” in mainstream academics, so too is “woman” understood to mean “middle class white woman.”  Nor were alternative pictures of womanhood really presented.  The concept of “femininity” was never challenged.
  • Basic resources and support outside the classroom. This is something I was lucky enough to have in my own experience, but I want to mention it because I think that many women do have access to education, but are hampered in their academic performance by poverty, by lack of mentorship or support after school, by difficulties in getting healthy meals or enough sleep, by the need to work while going to school.  Female poverty, young motherhood, and many governments’ absolute failure to support their citizens must be addressed if education is to be effective.
  • Focus on barriers that affect women disproportionately. Equal access is impossible when boys are socialized to harass, coerce, and rape women.  Equal access is impossible when youth who transgress gender norms are threatened, terrorized, and beaten in their schools and communities.  Equal access is impossible when pregnant teenagers are ignored and written off, and when young women are denied access to comprehensive sex education, contraception, reproductive health services, and abortion.  Sex education is an issue regardless of gender, but the lack disproportionately harms those who are able to bear children because of the stigma against pregnant teens and the practical challenge that these teenagers face.  It also disproportionately harms women and queer people in general because no sex education means no education in consent, no education against harassment, and no education in respecting gender and sexual minorities.  Members of these groups live in fear and find it difficult to learn as a direct result of this lack.
  • Creating safe spaces and providing mentors. I have heard of some really amazing projects in a number of cities that provide safe spaces for young women and for particular groups such as girls of color, immigrant girls, and queer kids and adolescents.  We need more of these, and we need them in every locality, in every country.  Most young women I know have never experienced a safe space.  I have been in one once, and I ended up crying from both joy and relief.  Such spaces and groups act as a refuge for kids and teens who feel ostracized.  While boys are encouraged to group around their talents as athletes, girls’ groups tend to focus on frivolity.  This grossly underestimates the ability of girls as thinkers, entrepreneurs, and creative forces.  Similarly, adults need to step in as mentors to young women, providing positive role models where there have typically been none.
  • Not using gender as a factor in how students are taught and socialized. My final point speaks to my own experience as a person outside of the gender binary, and to a long and ongoing struggle to find myself in a binary world.  The question posed to us was about women, but I think that equal access goes beyond that.  It gets at the heart of a huge problem–the way we are socialized into two genders, as men and women, according to cultural norms, early in our education, and then taught as men and women for the rest of our lives.  Not only are women harmed by being taught in a different way from men, but we are all harmed by the way we are labeled as men or women and then shoved into an educational box.  We can talk about how education privileges male forms of communication, but it also teaches us those forms from an early age, and teaches them as male-appropriate.  This is a disservice to the immense creativity, ingenuity, and diversity of the human race.

Why Queer History Is Important

As an undergraduate, my major was history.  One of the most important things I learned from my study of history is that history is not only relevant to the present, but extremely also value-laden and described in a different way by almost every narrator.   Part of the ongoing struggle for social justice in the present is the fight to define the past.

Part of this fight is simply including topics like sexuality, gender, queerness, race, disability, imperialism, etc. etc. in our teaching of history.  When history curricula fail to include these elements, students are never given an opportunity to question the values passed down by their parents, and you get the clincher, what I call the way it’s always been argument.

I got a taste of that argument on the train yesterday, when a man next to me was talking on his cell phone about his gay son.  He expressed feelings of disgust to the woman on the other end of the line, but what he kept coming back to was the “men having sex with men isn’t natural” argument.  The specifics were a mix of bad history, bad theology, and bad biology–men in relationships is a recent perversion, the Bible clearly states that homosexuality is wrong, and we are the only species where males have sex with other males.

This is a case where mere exposure to alternative facts could make a difference in a child’s life.

I’m not saying that people aren’t stubborn, or that they won’t argue back.  I know that for every sex-positive or queer-positive curriculum, there’s a conservative argument that espouses the opposite with facts to back it up.  But some things are kind of hard to disprove.  Biology isn’t my field, but I bet I could find you a couple of male animals of some species that like to get it on. Just like I can provide countless examples of queerness throughout history.

The man on the train may never change, and his son may never know what it’s like to have a father who loves him for who he is.  But we can educate ourselves about our history and share it with others, and we can support the introduction of wider history curricula in our schools, and those of us who are interested in history can ask some direct questions in our research about who’s writing the articles, and who’s being left out.