Sunday, September 29, 2013

Standing Up for Tocarra, a defense of transgender students in society

In her article, "Standing Up for Tocarra," Tina Owen paints a poignant picture of a transgender student, Tocarra, who was a prominent member of the Alliance School of Milwaukee, a small school created by a group of teachers, including the author, where it was "OK to be black, white, gay, straight, gothic, Buddhist, Christian, or just plain unique."

Owen, a high school teacher, founded Alliance with her colleagues after years of working in the public school system and witnessing bulling, particularly toward LBGTQ (lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender, and questioning) students.   The subject of her article, Tocarra, followed Owen from the public school district to the Alliance School in the first year of its inception in 2005.  Owen describes Tocarra as a beautiful, bold, flamboyant, but classy girl whose vivacious spirit touched everyone around her.  Back in the public school when Tocarra was going through her transformation, she was harassed and ridiculed by some classmates.  But at Alliance, whose population was diverse but whose mission was that of acceptance, Tocarra was revered.  Owen describes Tocarra's desire to be adored, and just how adored she was by the community at Alliance.  Owen also describes the horrific moment of learning about Tocarra's untimely death from a heart attack at 18-years-old.

This story in and of itself would be somewhat inspirational; a message that students, when provided the right nurturing and healthy environment, can feel free to learn without the societal pressures of "fitting the mold;" being white, middle class, male, and straight.   In spite of Tocarra's loving and supportive family, Tocarra was still harassed in the public school, after all.  But this is the story of what happened after Tocarra's death and what really made me question humanity as a whole.

Tocarra died in 2005, and because most of her family lived in Chicago, the funeral took place there.  After a crisis intervention team descended on the Alliance school for grief counseling, it was determined that a bus would be chartered for students and faculty alike to attend Tocarra's funeral about two hours away.  At the funeral, Tocarra's teachers and dearest friends, including another transgender female, Jade, were horrified to find Tocarra lying in the casket in a man's suit and tie, looking like someone they had never met.  Even worse and to the horror of everyone at the mass, the preacher "was a traditional, homophobic, Baptist minister who preached a sermon that condemned Tocarra to an eternity in hell rather than raising her up for her family and friends."  He did not know Tocarra personally, and he referred to her in her "boy name" the whole time.

The take-away message from this article, the message that I will relay to my own students should the occasion arise, is that the author, Tina Owen, raised her hand in the middle of this mass and asked to speak on behalf of Tocarra.  At the family's nodding approval, Owen got up and relayed the story of the spirited, kind, and classy young women she knew who was a star in her school.  This one act of bravery prompted other friends and family to stand up for Tocarra, to the point where the minister advised everyone to continue to share their memories at the convocation afterwards.  I was personally struck by the spirit of Tocarra, the bravery of her teacher, Tina Owen to stand up for what was right, and her strength to tell Tocarra's story in this article.

We have one trans-gendered male who graduated from Norton High School last year, and who, like Tocarra, had the love and support of his family, closest friends, and faculty.   He, like Tocarra, was brave and open about his identity.   He stood up at a professional development day in front of the entire town of teachers and administrators, flanked by his LBGTQ friends, and explained just how hard his transition from a girl to a boy was.  Ironically, on that professional day last year, I was publicly praised by the students and also by the coordinator, Dr. Richard Grenell of Harvard University, for creating safe and open classroom environment.  That shout-out was a shock to me, because I had only ever had two of the six students on the stage in class.  It would have been easy to forget about that accolade, but in reading about Tocarra, it strikes me again as to just how important it is for people to feel and BE accepted for who they are.  This message of kindness and openness cannot ever be forgotten, and I am certain that Tocarra, had she been listening, and certainly her family, appreciated the actions of one woman, Tina Owen, to stand up on her behalf.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

School bus in the city: A reaction to "Colorblindness is the New Racism" by Margalynne J. Armstrong and Stephanie M. Wildman

After reading Margalynne J. Armstrong and Stephanie M. Wildman's article "'Colorblindness is the New Racism': Raising Awareness About Privilege Using Color Insight," I found myself reassessing a trip to the city of Boston that I took with my Norton High School seniors this past Thursday night. 

In their article, Armstrong and Wildman argue that white people's "color blindness" with respect to racial differences is as detrimental to people of color as overt racism has been throughout the history of American society. Armstrong and Wildman point to specific examples of the "knapsack of benefits" that white people carry with them every day; the privileged position of remaining above the power line that enables white Americans to never truly reflect on all of the benefits that being white provide in society at large.  According to Armstrong and Wildman, "In this so-called colorblind and post-racial world, educators in the classroom setting often to fail to name and examine whiteness. ... Identifying and understanding whiteness should be an essential component of education in the United States."  "Color insight," according to the authors, is the antidote to color blindness.  The authors say that this four-tiered process includes the following steps:  "(1) considering context for any discussion about race; (2) examining systems of privilege; (3)unmasking perspectivelessness and white normativeness; and (4) combating stereotyping and looking for the 'me' in each individual."

In this age of President Barack Obama, of popular mainstream television shows like Ellen and Modern Family, power couples like Jay Z and Beyonce, of affirmative action and equal rights, how in the world can institutional deep-seated prejudices still exist?  According to the Armstrong and Wildman, society's "colorblindness" enables the cultural privilege of whites to pervade society; America is a white man's world and everyone else who isn't white is by virtue of their skin color, less important.  I wholeheartedly agree that white people are rarely forced to examine the privilege that being white affords us.  I know that racism exists, and the unspoken "norms" of white people exclude those who are not in so many daily situations.

The Senior Cruise

I'm now going to relay the story of my senior cruise this past week.   I'm the senior class advisor, and in keeping with Norton High School tradition, the senior class takes an evening dinner and dancing cruise of Boston Harbor as part of our year-long class spirit builders.  I had my chaperones, my emergency lists, and my busses ready to go this past Thursday night; a perfect evening for a cruise.  We loaded up three busses of 108 predominately white kids, and our white bus drivers left the high school at 5pm for the city of Boston, white chaperones on each bus.  The other 80 members of the class who opted not to attend may have either been busy, lacked interest, or simply could not afford the $25 price tag.

By all accounts it was a picture perfect evening; gorgeous weather, spectacular views, amazingly well-behaved students, low-flying planes gracefully landing at Logan Airport... so why is this a story?  It really isn't, but for the fact that I felt perplexed by the bus ride.

My friend Robin, the art teacher, and I chaperoned Bus #16.   We were the first bus to be loaded up, and about 30 of the 40 people on board were girls.  The football team was running late because they had practiced, so just before leaving, some hot and sweaty players got on and filled up the front rows.  I sat up front with Robin and the team.

I've known most of the kids in this class for four years, and I've taught the majority of them for two to three years.  They're more like friends than students, particularly now that I will never teach them again.   I speak candidly with all of my students, and I tweet with many of them too, so they are pretty at ease around me.

One boy, Dan, told Robin and me that he wanted to become a state trooper.  Robin responded, "How does it make you feel to know that less qualified people will probably get selected over you due to their gender or race?"  She told us that she herself had taken the state police test many years ago and was invited to join the class even though she had scored less than other white male applicants.  This led to a conversation about Affirmative Action, and I found myself in an awkward position of both wanting to defend it but also feeling that it is unfair to white men who scored better than my friend, Robin.  How would Armstrong and Wildman have responded to this situation?  Would they have delved into the roots of Affirmative Action and the racial inequity that didn't just go away now that we have a black President?   What would they have advised me to do?

A football player, Mike, yelled out at one point, "Dude, look at those brothers at the intersection.  They probably stole that car."   I instantly flung around and pointed out that his remarks were offensive to me.  He retracted his racial comment and turned it into a class comment, but the entire conversation made me feel uneasy.  I don't know how to impart upon my students the right message if I can't find the right words to use do describe all of the inequity in this world.  It makes me feel sad, frustrated, and even angry with myself.

Another bus ride story: as one would expect in a city on a Thursday night at rush hour, we hit traffic.  When we got of in Chinatown, we were in a standstill for about 15 minutes.  There was a volleyball game between Asian men taking place, and the windows of the bus were down.  The kids were roaring laughing.   I heard comments like, "Dude, that guy is 99-years-old," and "OMG, this is SO funny!"  When one guy spiked the ball, the bus went wild.  The guys playing volleyball waved and one of them bowed.   I was left feeling a little uneasy about all of that, but I don't know why.  Would the kids' reactions have been different if it had been a group of white 20-year-olds playing volleyball on a college campus?

It's hard to imagine how people would react if they really were color insightful versus color blind.   How do I as a white teacher send the right message to my students all the time?   I am going to begin by encouraging my students, as Armstrong and Wildman suggest, to participate in a little reflection as to who they are and where they fall in respect to the power line.  I happened to notice in today's paper that poet Martha Collins will be appearing at Wheaton College on Thursday night from 5:00-6:30p.m.  She speaks directly to white privilege in American society, and she writes about a lynching her father once witnessed as a boy.  I am going to try to attend if I am able, and I am going to encourage my students to attend as well.  Sometimes it is hard in a monoculture to relate to the world at large, but I feel as though I can try as best as I am able to bring the world to them.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Other People's Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom

In Lisa Delpit's article, "The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People's Children," Delpit shows how the prevailing white "culture of power" negatively influences the poorest students of color in classrooms across America. She argues that while white people tiptoe around racial injustice by calling for equality and level playing fields in classroom, the reality remains that the most typical classrooms and teaching styles are geared for middle to upper class white students.  Even the most liberal, well-meaning white teachers may inadvertently cause more damage than good by refusing to exert power as teachers for fear of seeming racist, thereby denying black students of societal "rules" for success in the real world, a world which is also governed by predominately white people. 

In a society where most textbooks and prevailing research are written by white people; where most governmental structures and work environments are run by white people, is it possible for disadvantaged students of color to receive fair and culturally relevant educations?

According to Delprit, the answer to the above question is usually no.   What tends to happen is that there is a sense of growing frustration among students of color who do not feel heard in the classroom.  Since most American teaching styles and textbooks are geared toward the white middle class American experience, students of color often and correctly feel confused, misunderstood, or frustrated by their educational experiences, and in particular, in their interactions with white teachers.  Delpit cites a well-educated black principal who found that white professors in her university "only want to go on research they've read that white people have written."   If the prevalent research IS written by white educators, how, in fact can we gain a sense of what black students feel?  Furthermore, we as white people, as the dominant race, need to acknowledge that society is geared around us; that most "school" language and vocabulary, most workplaces, most governmental structures, are unevenly skewed in our favor; we ARE privileged, but does that make us better?

How do the languages of different cultures translate into the classroom experience?

Every culture has its own language and way of communicating, through our gestures, our social norms, by what we say and we don't say.  Sometimes, our nonverbal communication plays as important a role in communicating as our spoken words do.  For this reason, Delprit states, "when implicit codes are attempted across cultures, communication frequently breaks down."  Throughout her article, Delprit cites a myriad of examples of cultural confusions, and in every single case, the loser of the power struggle is the person of color.  From the frustrated black student who feels ignored to the Native Alaskan Indian student whose grammatically incorrect paper makes her appear less smart or even less literate, people of color are often misjudged as being incapable, when in fact, they are excluded from learning and not privy to white middle and upper class ways.  That communication divide; white "proper" or "formal" English, the "Distar" model of teacher-centered teaching, the sense so many students of color have of "being cheated" by their teachers... all of the above tie into the fact that in this society, white teachers are not reaching their students of color in meaningful ways.  Are our students of color or our non-native English students less important to the society at large?

Are white people willing to relinquish their power in American society?

According to Delprit, the answer to the above question is usually no.  While many white people claim to want to level the playing field, according to Delpit, "To provide schooling for everyone's children that reflects liberal middle-class values and aspirations is to ensure the maintenance of the status quo, to ensure that power, the culture of power, remains in the hands of those who already have it."   It is scary to let go of power, but is that power really a good thing?   Could we somehow value all of the different cultures in this melting pot without, in effect, creating a cultural genocide?  Is it even possible to overcome the underlying racist tenets of this society?

What, if anything, can be done to overcome the imbalance in many American schools?

While one may argue that Lisa Delpit either exaggerates or distorts the perception that most people of color have in classrooms of white teachers, I found myself agreeing wholeheartedly with every point of her article.  I felt deeply dismayed by some of her stories and simultaneously refreshed by her honesty.  I did not perceive her stance to be racist and I thoroughly agree that white people must acknowledge their power, however uncomfortable that may seem.  I would hope that Delpit would agree with me that social class plays an equally important role in schools like my own where the population is predominately white.  Perhaps her most poignant point was in describing the challenges of her own student, a Native American aspiring teacher, whose writing was immediately dismissed by her white colleagues.  The other professors' assumptions were based solely on the student's writing technique, but not on the content of her paper.   On paper, the white colleagues could not see how this woman had been cheated by the system as a whole; how she was expressing things in her own cultural idioms but had never been taught proper "Western" writing techniques, had been dismissed time after time by teachers when she had sought their extra help in learning "proper" English.   Delpit took the time to understand this woman's challenges and to teach her proper grammar and writing techniques.  More importantly, she taught her to use her own experiences and struggles when educating others.

Delpit suggests that teachers must use their power to set high expectations in the classroom, but to also understand the families, the social circumstances, in the cultures from which our kids come.  I know that I was often addressed as being both deaf and dumb when I was studying Spanish abroad, and I know that it is a frustrating, maddening, disheartening experience.  I like that I teach a second language; that all of my students begin on a level playing field.  I find it often more exciting that many of my students of color through the years have had some Spanish in their background, and often, are in positions of power in leading activities my classroom.   I try to value what each and every one of my students brings to the table, and I try also to learn as much from them than they do from me.   I acknowledge that I am white aloud to my students all the time, and I point out that I am racially different from native speakers of Spanish.  I try to encourage everybody, particularly white students, to come out of their cultural comfort zones on a daily basis, but I know that I am privileged by my whiteness.  If anything, I find myself fighting against my own privilege with myself all the time. 

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Privilege, Power, and Difference

In the first three chapters of Privilege, Power, and Difference  by Allan G. Johnson, Johnson argues that gender, race, and sexual orientation are the primary factors in determining stereotypes and perceptions of people in American society.  He further argues that while social class impacts one's feeling of self worth in society, it does not supersede the innate characteristics with which we are all born, such as our sex, our skin color, and our sexual preferences. While on one hand I found myself agreeing with most of which Johnson wrote, on the other, I could not help but think of exceptions to his theory that race, gender, and sexual orientation outweigh both social class and individual circumstances in determining one's so-called "place" in American society.
Johnson immediately discredits the old stereotype that "human nature" is why all of us, regardless of our skin color, sexual orientation, and gender can't see eye to eye.   I absolutely agree that our perceptions of people are learned behavior, or as Johnson puts it, "We are prisoners to something, but it is closer to our own making than we realize."  In other words, our social perceptions are learned behavior. 

(Here I relayed a childhood story about Smurfs on Ice...)
Johnson says that people "ignore the trouble by trying to get rid of the language that names it."  I was emboldened by his words to relay the above story using the "n" and the "sp" words, but I have NEVER EVER used them in real life, nor would I.  I hate them.   My father learned quickly as soon as my sisters and I were old enough to understand racism that he must NEVER utter those words.   I can't tell you how many family fights, often violent, we've had through the years about his "racist" tendencies.  I can't tell you how many times Smurfs on Ices has come up.   In short and to my dad's credit, that may be the only time I ever heard him utter those words.  But it made a huge impression on me, and I feel like I've carried that burden around my whole life.  I go out of my way to try to judge people based on their actions and to not base my assumptions of anyone on first impressions.  I do make assumptions, but I really do not make them based on race, gender, class, or sexuality; rather, actions.  Again, to credit my father who I am not trying to bash in any way because his is an incredible man, his actions were based on his life experiences and out of an instinct to "protect" his family.  He is a very kind and, believe it or not, not even racist man.  He has friends of all kinds, and he would give the shirt off his back to ANYONE.  Sounds strange, right?  This is why racism is so complicated. 
Having lived in a couple of situations in which I was a minority, I can in some ways understand the anger that stems among many people toward the privileged white majority.  In my sophomore year at UMass Amherst, I lived on the ALANA floor which was the African, Latino, Asian, Native American group against racism which organized many campus-wide awareness events and protests against racism.  I don't know how I ended up there; I didn't request it.  My roommate and I were the only two white people.  It was an eye-opening experience because I literally had never been in a minority situation in my life and quickly learned how it felt to be excluded.  The conversation often stopped when I walked by in the corridor.  My study break was boycotted.  I got crisp hellos but no follow-up as I walked down the hall. This went on for months, but of course, gradually, people warmed up to me.  I ended up dating a guy down the hall when brought me further into the group, and ironically, a whole world of cultures.  It was one of the most difficult, challenging, eye-opening, and rewarding experiences of my life.  And I was still in America, on a predominately white campus, just two hours from my home town.  
I went abroad to Seville, Spain, and there, I experienced a similar type of disdain.  This time, racism was real.  Americans abroad like me stuck out in a monoculture, and we were not all liked.  In fact, we were often perceived as imperialists.  I looked different as it was, and when I opened my mouth to speak, I felt like a fool.   Again, this got better as the year went on.  Within several months, I made friends, and eventually, I had a boyfriend.   I loved and simultaneously hated going to his very small pueblo where not a soul spoke English and I was the only white American.  I stood out like a sore thumb, but I was the center of awe and interest at the same time.  People spoke to me like I was deaf and dumb, and I often didn't feel intelligent.  I beat myself up but also got stronger, and I learned, learned, learned about the world outside of the States.
So when Johnson states that "Whites can choose whether to be conscious of the racial identity or to ignore it and regard themselves simply as human beings," I agree.  When he writes, "Whites don't have to deal with an endless and exhausting stream of attention to their race," I agree.  I concur also with his perspective on gender and sexual preference in that men don't have to deal with taunting about their sexual attractiveness (or lack of sex appeal, which I have heard from my male friends), and that heterosexuals will never be accused of "flaunting" their sexuality as some homosexuals are.  I understand Johnson's stance on racial, gender, and sexual discrimination, but I think that his argument that social class is secondary to these factors is untrue.
Social class, in my opinion, takes into account one's individual circumstance and is equally important in determining who in this society is oppressed by the predominant social culture in which they live.  If you are a "scared white boy in a black neighborhood" as referenced in the song "Father of Mine" by Everclear; if you were my father growing up in Providence, if you were living as a minority as a Catholic in a wealthy neighborhood in  Newton, Massachusetts, l believe that you also are in some way going to carry the burden of being discriminated against.  Yes, when taken outside of your subculture, you may still be "white" and therefore "privileged", but there are facets of this society that never leave their subcultures.  If you are a minority in your subculture, regardless of your skin color, sexual orientation, gender, or social class, then you are a minority.  The "outsider" generally gets the digs, as evident in any elementary school classroom.  I believe that in order to FULLY understand the society in which we live, we need to put as much thought into people's individual circumstances in order to form more thorough opinions about their individual character.  I also believe that understanding the roots of people's anger will help to make our American society more tolerant of each other.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

My first day as a blogger!

This has been an exciting year for me...I became a regular on Twitter this past summer, and now, I am typing (do we even say that anymore?) my first official blog!  

My name is Amy Mahoney, and I am a Spanish teacher at Norton High School in Norton, MA.  I am currently beginning my eighth year of teaching, but technically, I started this job 14 years ago.  I had a seven-year stint as a stay-at-home mom in the middle of what I call "Round One" and "Round Two" of teaching.  Now that I'm getting in the swing of being back in the classroom, I am returning to graduate school and am currently in my first Rhode Island College Education class.

I think that my passion is linguistics; I have a fun time making up words from the fake Yiddish I never learned.  Obviously, I love Spanish.  I certainly have an accent as it is my second language, and I am far from perfect when communicating, but I am always working to improve and speak it as much as possible.   I'm a talker, so I hear!   My husband is the exact opposite of me, thank God.

I look forward to learning, sharing more about myself, and blogging!