Saturday, September 30, 2017

Teach Everybody's Literature to Everybody

I was speaking with a fellow high school English teacher a while ago about our curriculums, and especially the way our students and families react to them. One of the issues we both agreed on was the need to diversify the texts that students read, so that they get many different cultural perspectives on the world. For a long time, it was difficult to find literature textbooks that reflected any kind of diversity in their choices of authors, even in so-called world lit or American lit texts. I remember being at a teachers' convention once, many years ago, and talking to a representative for a particular Christian textbook company about the lack of diversity in their literature books. I was looking through the table of contents to see if they had made any changes (they hadn't), and it just popped out that my school wasn't using their texts any more. When the rep asked me why, I told him it was because their American literature book, which came in two volumes, had less than five works by African-American authors, and none by Hispanic or Asian American authors. In addition, the "world" literature book had zero works from anywhere outside of Europe, besides Russia. Lots of French, English, German, Russian, and even (White) American authors, but, as I pointed out, none from Africa, South or Central America, or Asia, and no works from any people of color at all. His response was that most of our students don't speak those languages. In my head, I said, "It's called translation, fool." Out loud, I pointed out that more of our students spoke Spanish than Russian or German, and they didn't seem to have a problem using translations when the original language was European. Then I walked over to the Starbucks kiosk and peacefully drank a green tea to recenter myself.

I think I'm much more sensitive to the issue now because I'm at a different school with a different clientele. I went from a school where the students were all Black, which is also not diversity, to a school where the wide majority of students are white, then Hispanic, and the noticeable minority is either Black or Asian. I love my new school, and they're all good students and families, but the culture is different. I never used to have to deal with the question "Why do we read so many Black authors?" So far, I haven't gotten that from parents or administration, only a couple of students. And students I can forgive for ignorant questions, because, obviously, it is my job to educate them. Still, I've been teaching American literature for going on twenty years now, and I've never felt the importance of ensuring diversity in what my students read more than now, in this culture and in this political climate.

The truth is, most of us insulate our selves from others - other races, other nationalities, other religions, other lifestyles - because it's harder to challenge, correct, and change our worldviews than it is to close the gates, circle the wagons and protect them. And that's all we're doing, protecting them, not even defending them. Defending our beliefs and our traditions would at least require considering the other side of things, other opinions, other perspectives. This is what bothers me most about this Trumpist movement, that there's so much anger and retaliation at just the expression of a conflicting idea.

"Get him out of here," he said, and a old man who looked as if his brawling days were at least forty years behind him punched a handcuffed man full force in the face. Remember that?

The same thing happens in our classrooms, especially English, when we exclude certain voices from our students' experiences, and homogenize everything in their education to reflect everything in their homes. I feel the need for voices of color in a class where the majority is white much more keenly than I did in a class where the majority was Black. In the Black classes, it was a matter of making sure that my students saw themselves reflected in the world they read, even when the textbooks didn't necessarily make that easy for me to do. In the white classes, it's about making sure that they know that there are other people, other voices, other perspectives, and that every dissenting voice isn't stupid, or disrespectful, or unpatriotic, or biased, at least not any more than they are themselves.

They need to know that Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka are not African-American, and never wanted to be.

And the best thing about being an English teacher interested in cultural diversity, especially when you have an administration that backs you, is that the students can't just tell you to get out of here or that you're somehow disrespecting some sacred icon. They have to read it; they have to hear that voice. It's ironic how we're all supposed to be American, just American, the same type of American, when people complain about their situation in this country, but then we become keenly aware of race and nationality when we see more than two non-white authors on the syllabus. To some people, that somehow makes the teacher some kind of crusader. Can you imagine? Why are we reading Beloved in AP English? Partly because you need diversity. More than that, we're reading it because it's in the top three novels that appear most often on the AP Literature exam, because it's taught in universities across the country as an example of great American literature, and because people who should know say it's a brilliant work of art.

So, to all the English teachers trying to diversify the texts that their students read, keep it up.

To all of the administrations backing those teachers, hold that ground and defend them.

To all of the administrations and teachers who are blocking diversity in the literature curriculum, seriously consider whether you are really educating these students, or just reflecting themselves back to them.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Every Party Has Its Pooper

Something happened today at Publix that really bothered me, enough that I want to share it, but before I do, I want to make one thing clear. My unmitigated love for Publix has been well-documented, so I'm not calling out the company itself for one bad experience with an employee or suggesting a boycott of the company in any way. In fact, please don't damage the Publix brand because of this story, because if my access to Publix deli subs and sandwich wraps ever gets cut off, I just might starve to death.

I was in my neighborhood store picking up lunch from the deli, and the woman in line in front of me was buying a sheet cake, plus a couple of other items I didn't pay attention to. I really wasn't trying to be nosy, and the only reason I even noticed the sheet cake is because Publix sheet cake is like ambrosia from the gods, and as soon as I saw it, I wanted to eat at least half of it. But once the customer was gone, the cashier who was ringing me up, an older lady, sarcastically remarked, "I didn't know you could use food stamps to buy sheet cakes," adding a snide little grunt at the end.

It took me a second to soak in her meaning, and I looked through the vestibule of the grocery store at the woman, just as she was exiting the store with her cake perched carefully across the top of the cart. I looked back at the cashier and said, "You know, a lot of folks are using those FEMA food stamps to replace all the food they lost in the hurricane, right." The cashier looked at me and said, with a sly, kind of conspiratorial look in her eye, that those aren't EBT cards.

Maybe. Maybe not. Still not sure how that's any of her business. Personally, I plan on using my FEMA food stamps as soon as I get them, and proudly at that. Not only am I always looking for the hookup, but I'm not the kind of person who sees my taxes as some sort of charitable contribution to the common good. Any chance I get to legally get my money back out of the system, I'm taking it.
I didn't want to fight with the lady, and I really did have places to be, so I just said in parting, "Well, it may not seem right, but I guess poor kids want to celebrate their birthdays too." Then, having learned that only fools argue with fools, I kept on strutting out the door. Then I walked right back inside and up to the deli counter because I realized I forgot to get a fork to eat my chicken salad. But THEN I walked triumphantly out the door again.

Several things bothered me about the exchange, aside from the fact that again, this is really none of her business, and certainly none of mine for her to be sharing my neighbor's business with me.

First, if the law allows that food stamps or other assistance can be used to buy cakes from the grocery bakery, then it must be because the government and community recognize that poor kids do, indeed, celebrate their birthdays. Food stamp allowances, just like any other currency, is limited and budgeted, and if a mother wants to cut back on the crackers or canned goods or whatever and splurge on a birthday cake this month, then I say God bless her. What does this lady expect that children in these families are supposed to do for their birthdays? Balance a flashlight on top of a box of generic oat bran cereal and make a wish that their parents were more responsible or ambitious? Does her mercy and brotherly love only extend to powdered milk and canned beans? Even Marie Antoinette let them eat cake.

Furthermore, her attitude towards this woman is severely undercut by the fact that she had literally just begged me for a dollar to "help underprivileged families through the holiday season." One thing I like about Publix is that they raise money for so many charitable organizations and give their customers a chance to donate to worthy causes. On the other hand, one thing I don't like is that they are hitting me up for an extra dollar or five every time I come in to buy a pack of gum or an onion for tonight's dinner recipe. This woman has no problem guilting me into charging an extra dollar on my bill for poor families in the neighborhood, but when a real live poor person, I'm assuming, comes in the store, there's no love for her. Maybe its easier to care about the poor when you don't have to actually interact with them. Or maybe we only want to help less fortunate people when we get to decide what they do with that help.

And speaking of the of less fortunate, maybe we should refrain from judging someone else's situation. I'm not trying to cast aspersions on this cashier's job or finances, or even her character, really, but I wonder if it has occurred to her that, as an older woman working the register at the local grocery store, that she may not be very far away from her EBT customer's position anyway. A lot of us have really lean months where we struggle to stretch our money around our bills, and a few of those months in a row could have the best of us seriously thinking about looking for some help, even if it's minimal or temporary. Furthermore, we often act like people who use food stamps are just leeches, when the fact is that many users have already put at least as much money into the system as they are taking out, and will repay whatever benefits they got once they get better employed or out of debt.

Lastly, what does this cashier lady tell her own kids or grandkids when it’s their birthdays? “Return all those gifts. You don’t deserve free stuff just because it’s the anniversary of your existence?” Birthdays are literally all about getting free stuff just for being alive, getting gifts just because you managed to survive another year on the planet. Even Publix recognizes this, because they are so awesome, and gives parents free stuff for babies and discounts on party supplies for their first three birthdays (parents, get that hookup). They even give away a free baby cake with the purchase of a sheet cake on the child's first birthday, so you can take those crazy pictures of your child desecrating a delicious dessert.

I guess the thing I hated most about that interaction was the fact that some people just can't stand to see some folks celebrating anything, as if someone else's fortune or blessing is a personal affront to them. "If you feel that strongly about it, you could always have paid for that cake yourself, to make sure that none of our tax dollars were spent on a child's happiness," I said piously to myself as I pulled my seatbelt across my chest in the parking lot, too lazy to go back inside and confront the woman again.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Attack of the Microaggressions

I had a conversation with a white friend recently about some racial topics, and it got a little heated, as these conversations often do. One issue that got sort of glossed over was the idea of microaggressions. Specifically, my friend expressed that he doesn't believe in such a thing, and refuses to feel like he's walking on eggshells all the time. It's ironic. I don't think that most decent people would willfully say that they don't acknowledge that we each have a responsibility to watch what we say and to avoid insulting people or hurting feelings, but for some reason we always choose to see only our intentions, and never our transgressions or even our prejudices. I also think that there's something about the term that gets people upset right from the start. Microaggressions. It sounds like some kind of sci-fi world conquest campaign, like nano-bots designed to infect and control world leaders (rights reserved on that story idea, by the way). It sounds like a deadly and highly contagious virus that turns people into zombies - the fast angry ones, not the slow hungry ones. Frankly, it sounds like one of those new terms that people invent for issues that really do need to be dealt with, but that too many people don't even want to acknowledge.

There are several definitions of microaggressions out there, and a lot of writing on the subject, ranging from the idea that this is all a part of the new "victimhood" status to the idea that this is a longstanding problem that is only now being attacked because so-called "minorities" in America are growing in numbers to the point that they are unwilling to ignore these slights any longer. Whatever definition you use, at the core of the matter is the issue of assumptions. Asking an Asian or Hispanic person where he's from assumes that he's not from right here in America. Maybe a nicer way to get to know someone would be to ask about their ethnicity or heritage, which you could ask anyone of any racial appearance. Remember, white people don't come from the Isle of White. Telling a Black person that she doesn't "act Black," assumes that there is some Black code of behavior, which you have either perceived or invented. Even worse, usually it means that she doesn't possess any of the negative traits that you're stereotyped with Blackness.

This is why the word exists, and this is why we should be open to discussing it, even if it means that someone is questioning or correcting us. A situation like that can help us to see our own assumptions and prejudices reflected back at us from others. Obviously, no one wants to be embarrassed in public or drawn into a fight or accused of being a racist for saying something that wasn't quite thought through completely. On the other hand, gentle correction calling attention to the offense can go a long way to opening someone's eyes and creating an ally instead of an enemy. I have one particular Black friend that swears that everywhere he goes, he gets mistaken for an employee, regardless of what he's wearing or doing. Maybe he's just got a really helpful look on his face all the time, or maybe white folks assume that he could only belong in these spaces by working there. Hard to say. He's even told me that a store manager once ordered him to go stock an aisle, because he was wearing the same color shirt as the uniform. Maybe he just looked like one of the new hires. Hard to say. I've actually been with him when it happened. Once we were in our favorite grocery store getting some supplies for poker night, debating what kind of drinks to bring, and a guy walked up into our conversation and just stood there. After an uncomfortable moment, we both looked at the guy, and he said to my friend, "When you're done helping this customer, I have a question for you." The thing is, my friend wasn't wearing anything even close to the uniform - not the same style or color or anything. I really like the way my friend handled it. He just smiled at the guy, kind of chuckled, and said, "What makes you think I work here?" Immediately the guy's eyes opened wide, as if he was seeing colors for the first time, or maybe polo shirts, and stuttered, "Oh, man, I'm sorry." Then, my friend smiled even bigger, said, "no problem," and held out his hand to shake. Once the guy shook his hand, looking embarrassed now, my friend asked him again, more quietly and, somehow, even more friendly, "But really, what made you think I work here?" The guy laughed, a little nervously, apologized, and walked away, but I bet he was still asking himself that same question the entire ride home. "Why did I think that guy worked there?"

What I liked about my friend's tactic, which he has probably developed over years of mistaken identity, was that it was confrontational, but not accusatory, probing, but not aggressive. He didn't call the guy a racist, and thereby shift the focus from what just happened to an attack on a stranger's character and honor. Just a simple question. "What makes you think I come from somewhere else?" "What do Black people act like?" You probably won't get an answer, but it forces the other person to contemplate their perceptions. And, who knows, maybe there is a legitimate reason, a good intention behind that awkward question or statement. Really, how do you ask about someone's ethnicity without being awkward or offensive? It would be easy to say that their ethnicity shouldn't matter, but my ethnicity matters to me. Is it stupid to think that other people's ethnicity matters to them? If I am getting to know someone, shouldn't that be at least a part of the process?

Here's an example from a white perspective. After a few days of no electricity and air conditioning after hurricane Irma, I finally broke down and decided to get a generator for the house. My daughter and I hit about five different Home Depot locations before we found one that was just unloading a shipment of over thirty of them. So I did what any Miami boy would do. I pulled one out, put it on a hand-truck, and then sat on it until my wife could bring the Home Depot card. While I was perched on top of my brand new generator, a woman employee working the section told me that FEMA has grants for people who purchase generators during the power outage. Since I'm always looking for the hookup, I chatted her up about it. As we were talking about it, a dark-skinned customer, probably Haitian, based on the accent, walked directly through our conversation and jumped in it. "You Republican?" he asked me. "That's not for Republicans." I wasn't even sure what he was getting at initially, but then he said, "Make America great again, right?" Luckily, the employee checked him before I really got a chance to respond. I say luckily, only because I didn't really have a ready response, and he moved on. It made my daughter angry, though, she felt lumped into this accusation of being Trump supporters. He made an assumption about my daughter's race, based on her appearance. He made an assumption about my politics, based on my appearance, and said something stupid and mean, especially when, as a city, we're all trying to recover from a disaster. My daughter said that she hoped he was still hanging around when my wife brought my card, just so he would feel stupid. The problem with that, I told her, is that it would just be another assumption. Plenty of racist people marry people of other races; in fact, sometimes that's why they do it.

Again, that's what microaggressions really are, questions and statements based on our assumptions and prejudices. Sometimes they are innocent, but ignorant, but sometimes they are hurtful, and nobody gets a pass, even with good intentions. It seems obvious that good intentions don't make up for inadvertently insulting someone. But it also seems obvious that one stupid or ignorant question doesn't make you a bad person. Maybe if we called it something else, some people would feel more comfortable talking about it. Maybe if we called them "tiny accidental insults," instead of a word that sounds like the bad guys from a Voltron episode, a lot more people would be willing to discuss them.