Last summer, I interviewed for a job teaching at a middle school where about half the kids are Black, maybe a third are Hispanic, and maybe a third are Asian/Pacific Islander. I didn't get the job, and I still cringe about some of the dumb stuff I said during the interview.
They wanted to know if I had experience working with diverse populations, and I talked about how I used to teach at a school that had a small population of Native American kids, and some of those kids liked me because I was one of the only teachers that wasn't Mormon. I used to think that was true. I'm really not sure. Maybe I was just a pushover and let them swear in my room during lunch hour because I wanted someone in that school to like me. The married Mormons sure didn't; I think I mentioned in the interview that I was one of the only non-Mormon teachers. But I cringe because I committed one of those classic white-people errors in talking about race: I changed the conversation to being about myself, because I was defensive about how little experience I have working with non-white people, and because that's what we do when we talk about race. It's not cool.
I also said, in the interview, that economic disparity is a lot more impactful than racial difference, when it comes to student achievement.
I was just plain wrong, or at least I've changed my mind, on that one.
I also said I was hoping to get a job working with diverse populations because I like learning about other cultures. That part I can't deny. I should have said -- maybe I did say -- I want to be better at talking about race. I want to be less scared of saying the wrong thing. But wanting to teach people so you can learn about their culture is wrongheaded. It's nobody's job but my own to learn about whiteness, unequal treatment based on race, and different experiences. I recently read Ijeoma Oluo's book, "So You Want to Talk About Race." She's a black woman who grew up in Seattle, and the book was outstanding.
Reason 1: She said, yeah, you're going to screw up, when you talk about race, but keep trying anyway.
There were a lot of other great things, but that was the most affirming for me. Ok! I'll keep trying.
It felt good to read it, like I was doing something useful. Another excellent piece of advice: Don't expect people of color to educate you about their culture or about how to talk about race; use Google, use books, films (good ones), talk to people, and educate yourself. (This I already sort of knew before I read the book. I needed to be reminded, though.) Also, I just watched "Dear White People," on Netflix, de la binge. Excellent show!
I've known a long time -- since college, probably -- that we are all racists. I'm lucky, had good professors, read some good stuff, learned a few things, or so I choose to believe.
Oluo's book reminded me that "racist" isn't really a slur that should make you angry enough to hit people, or whatever. Yep, I am one, but I'm trying not to be. You can go ahead and call me fat and ugly and talk too much, too, because I am also sort of fat and ugly and talk too much. It's only a terrible insult if I haven't already accepted it and either decided to work on it or not. You can't be part of this American world and not have imbibed some racism. Get over yourself and deal with it, don't just see the word "racist" like a curse you're afraid of being cursed with. We are all susceptible to advertising, too, so quit saying "ads don't affect me." Wrong. You may be brilliant, but you're not smarter than the all the research-based psychological manipulation behind the ads on TV, Facebook, Google, etc.; nor are you immune to the impact on your psyche of all the goddam thin white women winking at you whenever you flip open a magazine or the ten-foot-tall thin white-toothy smilers on the billboards when you're driving down a highway. Imagery affects how we feel and think, and it's good to be aware of it (just like your own racism) but being aware of it -- of your own racism, of all those images, of the supremacy of corporations in consumer culture -- doesn't mean they're not still there. Getting a tiny bit of exercise is better than none at all.
I'm a snob, too. Sorry. I am one, regarding my three-pound brain, well fed from birth on Little Golden Grahams/Books and Big Huge Golden Books, and I'm sort of blind to the experience of people who don't like to read; this is one of many many reasons why I'm actually, in full disclosure, an incredibly bad teacher of young people. 'S'ok.
Also I am a woman. My personal snobber prompts me to note that I think women understand racism better than men do, because of sexism. Intersectional oppression is intuitive for women to understand.
Intersectional means experiencing more than one kind of oppression at a time: like sexism and racism at the same time, or sexism and ageism, or whatever.
Another reason why "So You Want to Talk About Race" is good: It has parts I kind of disagree with, so I want to have a book club about it. I want to talk about the chapter that dealt with the "schools to prisons pipeline." I felt that in that chapter, she put a little too much pressure on the teachers to engage the students who are disruptive. It's very difficult to engage kids who are disruptive.
I also wanted Oluo to write about cultural differences at home more. I grew up in a family where the adults sat around in the evenings and quietly read books. What to do about beloved oldsters who occasionally offer snide comments about gay people and people who prioritize racial equity taking up too much room in the newspaper? People are complicated. Should we try to re-educate the aged? I'm on the fence on this one. Need a book club. Need to talk about this stuff with people instead of just reading all the time. Anyway, yeah, cultural differences do affect how kids behave at school ... and I want more people in on this conversation. (In a quiet room. Heh. But no fucking bluegrass music.)
The Seattle Times recently reported that 89 percent of the teachers in Seattle's public schools are white. It makes sense that students of color, from preschool up to the pinnacles of the Ivory Towers of academia (ahem), may feel more connected to teachers with whom they have life experiences in common, i.e. the experience of being a race other than white. It'd also be great for white kids to be comfortable with having authority figures be other-than-white.
Kids respond better to male teachers, too; I did; most kids do; that's the sexism in our culture playing out. But most teachers are white females.
So, back to the job interview. I'm one of those white people who thinks a person of color probably got the job I interviewed for at that school. Whoever did get that job (teaching middle-school Art at Aki Kurose Middle School), I completely understand why I wasn't chosen. I was desperately uneducated in some fundamental aspects of teaching racially diverse groups. I need way more education in how to talk about race, and way more practice talking about it, before trying to work a job like that. I probably never will, and that is OK, for the kids' sake.
I was defensive at that interview. My work history and life history has been mainly in careers and towns that are so white, it's like living on a cloud full of snowpeople. I got into sailing; traditional sailboats are white, white, white. Old men named Mike and Jake and Dave, who are white and have white beards, that's what you get when you work around old wooden sailboats. And I moved to Idaho, on purpose! It's excellent for the outdoor recreation, and actually I did learn a lot about Native American culture from having an Indian boyfriend, and in the heart of conservative Poky, I made a friend from Kenya. But I'm missing out on actually being around people who aren't white. I wish I had enough money, or a good enough job, to live in a big city, where people live who probably wish they could live in Port Townsend. Crazy, huh. Last winter, I volunteered for awhile at Casa Latina, teaching English to Spanish-speaking immigrants at a workers' center at 17th and Jackson in Seattle, which had signs on the door reminding us not to let ICE agents come inside. But it cost too much to commute to volunteer there. I loved it, though. I know I could just get up off my ass and move to a less-white place, but I live here now, and have friends are here, with Mike and Jake and Dave.
Ironically, on the schooner Adventuress -- a big wooden sailboat -- I had more interaction with racially diverse folks than I did as a teacher in a local district, because that schooner's owner, the nonprofit Sound Experience, makes a deliberate effort to get more youth of color onboard. I worked there for a hot minute, and spent a weekend aboard with a group of Port of Seattle interns, who were Black and Hmong and Japanese-American and more. I got to know a Filipina girl who wanted to work on cargo ships, but had intense pressure from her family to go into nursing, because that was expected of her. It was so interesting. I helped her learn to throw a heaving line.
I shoulda talked about these things at my job interview, instead of the Indian kids who hung out in my room at Highland High. One of those kids had "Rodriguez" tattooed across his shoulders -- he was 14 years old -- and I told him it was cool. I'm interested in the interconnection of Indian and Latinx cultures. Why are so many Indians named Rodriguez? Was that kid in a gang? Sheesh. I'm such a moron.
Here's another thing I want to talk about in my "So You Want to Talk About Race" book club: the word "anyways."
A week or two before I read the book, I experienced extreme annoyance that Google uses the word "anyways."
I had composed a Gmail email on my smartphone, then closed it. A dialog box warned me that if I closed it, the email would be lost. The two button-choices were "CANCEL" and "CLOSE ANYWAYS."
My response was, "What the fuck? The fucking millennials at Google are now writing fucking dialog boxes that use the word "anyways" ? What the fuck?"
I'm not really someone who gets all put out by misplaced apostrophes and so forth on menus or signs or whatever. But I was offended by Google's use of "anyways." Not sure why it bugged me so much. "Close anyway" would have been invisible, therefore acceptable. "Anyways" sounded ... wrong, juvenile, like a word high-school kids would use. I guess it just made me feel old, maybe. I use the word "anyway" constantly, as a transition, when I write. It's useful.
Anyways, I Googled "anyways" and found that yeah, it's basically interchangeable with "anyway."
But it's not. No two words are truly interchangeable. And Ijeoma Oluo used "anyways" in her book. So ... ok. I got to experience grammar in a public sphere that is different from what I'm used to. Which happens to people from non-all-pervasive cultures all the time.
So I employ my old scholarly attitude and tell myself to put my intellect on a pedestal and to be "descriptive" and not "prescriptive."
"It's okay to describe what people do; it's less okay to prescribe what they should do," explains my inner academic.
Well, as a grammarian, it applies. I prefer to describe what does happen with people's grammar, not prescribe what they should do instead. Like, I am seeing a lot of apostrophes used for making things plural. A lot of sandwich's and can's of Coke. It doesn't hinder communication, for the most part, so why should we care? I don't, much. This is another thing I picked up in my outstandingly unremunerative education. I have a lot of $42 words, but I don't have a career at all, nor get much joy out of having a bunch of probably-misused $42 words at my disposal. Wait. Yes I do. I fucking love $42 words.
Anyways. I hate it when people get all stiff-backed about spelling or grammar or how they are smarter than everyone out to sell them things or bring themselves up by putting them down, etc. And it's hard to do. I'm not a very good listener. And I want to get better at talking about race. I need a book club, or a language club, I guess, really bad, on this issue. I also recently read (most of) a book called "White Fragility." I also have been reading Ta-Nehisi Coates, "The Beautiful Struggle" (twice, because it's becoming one of those comfort things) as well as "Between the World and Me." He's exactly my age, so I get some of his pop-culture references, and I love to think of him being my age over in Baltimore in the 1980s while I was over here. Little crush on Tana.
So, hit me up if you're into this book club / talking about race club idea. You know where to find me. Or if you don't, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or comment here, or hang up a banner over Water Street that says "FUCK YEAH."