Monthly Archives: July 2013

In Visible

“I guess my position on race is….I see no color. I am an American.” – tweet posted July 19, 2013

Stephen Colbert periodically mentions that he doesn’t see colour, noting that he believes himself to be white because people tell him he is but that he otherwise wouldn’t know. In so doing, of course, he illuminates the difficulty in professing not to see colour – it is literally right there in front of you. Yet, a number of people do indeed profess not to see colour. Some are genuinely anti-racist and are trying to invoke an ideal which our society falls well short of achieving, while others are decidedly racist but want to avoid thinking of themselves and being thought of as such. Both groups, albeit with radically different motivations, will sometimes call out people pointing out instances of racism for “being divisive.” But realistically, instances of racism do exist, and how else can we have a conversation?

Our school includes an affinity group, SOC, for Students Of Colour. There were initial discussions about whether or not it would be divisive, but in the end, we chose to honor the demonstrated need for students of colour to have a protected space to discuss what it’s like to live in a predominantly white area of a country infused by white privilege. In the end, SOC’s existence has greatly enriched our school, going beyond its important initial goals to being an active voice in the community. An affinity group for international students also exists, and has similarly developed its own voice through the years.

While we do have a Multicultural Club open to all, white domestic students who want to become more active in anti-racist work will sometimes ask what they can do. I generally tell them that they can do anti-racist work every day of their lives whether or not they belong to an organization, but that they can also start an anti-racism club if they would like. Being a club, such a group would be open to all, but of course could still coordinate anti-racist work with other existing organizations.

Year after year, students in my Humanities 7 classes provide one possible avenue to dealing with the knotty problem of “seeing colour” and so on. At least one girl in any given class will typically discover research showing we take in and form our initial impressions in about a second. Those impressions are instinctive, based solely on appearance (skin colour, gender cues, clothing…) and may or may not have any bearing on who that person actually is. The key, they all decide, is to guard against first impressions and, whenever possible, take the time necessary to genuinely get to know people.

As a Black person fighting racism, José Vilson also suggests that White people who want to actively engage in anti-racist work listen to the experiences, thoughts, and feelings of people of colour, and learn from them – to be appropriate without appropriating. So when he recently found himself at the Aspen Ideas Festival where men far outnumbered women, he took his own advice in making a deliberate effort to hear women talk about women. Waiting in line to meet the Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy, he found himself being asked in a sweetly snide tone by a woman, “So, are you here to talk about women’s issues?” After a short pause, he responded, “What do you mean? I’m here to hear women talk about women. That’s an important thing.” The woman smiled and turned around, effectively cutting off the conversation. He completely understood – how could he not? – that the woman may simply have been tired of men telling women what to do. And yet, deep down in his heart – how could he not? – he wanted people to come to such interactions assuming good intentions.

In his blog post on the above experience, “Hear Women Speak On Women [A Small Rejoinder to My Privilege],” José noted, “Thus, in my male privilege… I want to come into these situations as someone’s equal, not above or below based on my gender.” He also wondered, in the comments section, whether he would have received the same reaction if he weren’t heterosexual. But of course, that opens up a whole new line of thinking. How would this woman have known he was heterosexual? She might have read him as heterosexual in that first second’s worth of impressions, but she wouldn’t really know for sure. For that matter, while gender is indeed visible for the vast majority of us, technically speaking you don’t really know someone’s gender until and unless they let you know how they self-identify. Over this summer, I’ve learned some colleges are now asking students, when introducing themselves at orientations, to state which pronouns they prefer. And, given gender fluidity, some offices have even learned to ask “And what pronouns are you using today?”

As it happens, I don’t doubt for a second the sincerity and good will of the specific person who agreed with and reposted the above tweet. But ultimately, if we truly want to create a society where all people receive the dignity and respect they inherently deserve, we need to both acknowledge the visible and learn to look past it to what is initially invisible. We need to really and truly get to know each other.

Ask my students. They know.

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Stop, Listen, and Learn… and Act

[note: this entry, written July 14-15, is the second of two postings on the George Zimmerman trial.]

Saturday night, my mom, stepfather, and I were watching the evening news off their DVR. Near the end of the broadcast, they mentioned there was no verdict yet in the trial of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin. We switched off the recording and returned to live TV, smack in the middle of the breaking news announcing the verdict of not guilty. If it is possible to be stunned and sickened without being shocked, that was how I felt – indeed, I believe that was how we all felt. When they started to replay the polling of the jury, I stood up suddenly. “I can’t watch this,” I said. “I’m going to bed.”

Going to bed did not necessarily mean going to sleep, of course. When not staring at the ceiling, like many others, I turned to social media to learn what other people were thinking, feeling, and saying. Notes of shock, disbelief, sorrow, anger – and, most disturbingly, celebration (some of which were quoted through the “Yes, You’re Racist” account) – flowed past on my timeline. I kept wanting to react, to say something, to do something – but after an initial statement, I worked hard to hold myself back, reading, absorbing, taking the pulse of the nation.

I watched initial numb shock give way to a wider variety of reactions – grief, sadness, impatience, anger, calls for action, calls for peace. I watched as the grief and the sadness settled in – not just for Trayvon Martin and his family, not just for Black families around the country who have to deal on a daily basis with the awareness that simply having darker skin makes you suspicious in the eyes of far too many people as well as the resulting fear, but also for our country which is falling so far short of our stated ideals. I watched as the anger and impatience coalesced into two main themes, “Don’t you dare tell me what my experience is!” and “Don’t you dare tell me what I should or should not be saying!” Some people were ready to jump right in and act immediately, others said, “Hold off. Give me time. Not tonight.”

Earlier this summer, Reni Eddo-Lodge and Sister Outsider, both Black feminists, were on Twitter asking their White followers why they would want to participate in those communities. Both made the polite but firm request that only those genuinely interested in listening and learning, in being appropriate and not appropriating, and in following up with genuine action including honest introspection, follow them. Their thoughts echoed in my mind Saturday night, and through the next day as well.

While I was finishing up this blog, Ms. Eddo-Lodge was on Twitter, writing “Quite regularly I’m asked by white people ‘now that I’ve noticed this, what can I do to help?'” and in response to that question, “How you help is not my responsibility. Use your own sphere of influence, use your white priv to press for change where you can.” Earlier, Sabrina Stevens (“TeacherSabrina” on Twitter) posted an excellent entry entitled “Would there ever be a Trayvon’s law?” in which she wrote, “We should never accept it as normal or natural that some children should just have to live with a deflated sense of worth and a heightened sense of fear, just because of where or what color they were born.” That points to the kind of change for which we need to be pressing, from whatever perspective we may be coming.

I remember in Humanities 7 one day, one of the students burst into tears during a discussion of racism. She was thinking not of herself, but of her younger brother, how kind and sweet and gentle he is, and how that is not at all how people who don’t know him see him. If we ever feel our energy flagging in our work to bring dignity and respect to all people, we can simply think of her and the millions of people just like her.

And then carry on.

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“… with liberty and justice for all.”

[note: This entry was written in the early afternoon of July 12, before the jury returned a verdict in the George Zimmerman case. It is the first of two in a series.]

“I don’t know [how they could convict Tom Robinson], but they did it. They’ve done it before and they did it tonight and they’ll do it again and when they do it – seems that only children weep.” – Atticus Finch, in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

I miss my students. I miss their creativity, energy, insight, and stubborn insistence that they are doing their best to be exactly who they were meant to be and that they can help make the world a better place. I miss their spontaneous discussions about the issues of the day during Morning Announcements, when discussing books, when sitting in study hall, or when just hanging out together. And these days, I can’t help but wonder what they would be saying about the George Zimmerman trial.

I remember when the case first burst into our national consciousness, several of the then-seventh graders brought a proposal to Student Council that we declare a schoolwide “Trayvon Martin Day” and that those who wished to show solidarity with him would be able to wear hoodies. Those same students are now rising ninth graders, and I imagine they have been following the trial with the same increasing sense of frustration and anger I see among many of the people on my Twitter and Facebook timelines. And were school in session, that sense of fairness so characteristic of middle schoolers would no doubt drive our discussion to a great extent.

They would wonder to what extent racism was an issue, both in Mr. Zimmerman’s behavior and in the behavior of the Sanford police that night. They would wonder whether Mr. Zimmerman could get a fair trial, and they would wonder to what extent and with what frequency a jury’s verdict reflects the truth. They might also ask if we could read To Kill a Mockingbird, following which I might ask them if there is a mockingbird in this situation, and if so, whom they think it is and why. And perhaps one of them, particularly up on current events, would bring up the case of Marissa Alexander.

This is the case to which Elon James White was referring when he tweeted, with more than a tinge of sarcasm, “Note: #SelfDefense is only a defense if there’s a dead #ScaryNegro. If you’re a Black woman & no one died? 20 yrs in prison.” Marissa Alexander, when threatened by her husband, fired a warning shot into the wall. She was found guilty of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and, in accordance with Florida law, is serving a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years. She attempted a “Stand Your Ground” defense but saw it thrown out given that she exited the house, retrieved her gun, and re-entered – even though what were arguably the worst threats didn’t take place until after she came back inside.

One can be forgiven for believing that justice treats you differently depending on your race and your gender. Indeed, statistics prove it. We know that Black men are disproportionately incarcerated (only Black trans women are imprisoned at a higher rate at some point in their lives – an astounding 47%, nearly triple the already-depressing rate for Black men).

As I write this entry, the jury in the Zimmerman trial is preparing to begin deliberations. I hold out the hope that, however good a job the judge, prosecution, and defense team have done in fairly presenting pertinent facts of the case, the jury will do their level best to be fair and impartial and decide the case based on its merits. I further hold out the hope that the experiences my students have had and will continue to have at our school will prepare them to be well-informed, critically thinking, fundamentally fair-minded people working for justice throughout their lives. The world is certainly a better place than during the time in which To Kill a Mockingbird was set, and than during the time in which it was written. My students are currently on the right path. But they cannot do it alone.

They cannot do it alone.

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Farewell to Pat

Pat Bassett, who is retiring from the presidency of the National Association of Independent Schools this month, chose to focus his June “Bassett Blog” on summer reading book ideas that he believes, in his words, “are germane to, and useful for, the independent school community constituents committed to learning new strategies for the age-old task of getting better at what we do.” The topics included:
• a different take on bullying summarized by Mark Twain’s quote that “Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.”
• an examination of how technology has essentially evolved to become a third parent.
• the interplay of discipline, paranoia, and creativity in successful companies.
• an examination of how by “de-emphasizing grades (and emphasizing learning), the appropriate use of grades can paradoxically improve achievement, the difference between developing talent and selecting it.”
• how a diversity of progressive teaching movements are coalescing around the concept of “positive psychology” and how it may be promoted in schools.
• a book on what parents – and by extension teachers and schools – can do to maximize the chances that boys will find success in school and in life.

If the scope and depth of these topics may surprise you, that may be because you have unfortunately not had the chance to know Pat Bassett. When he first took office in 2001, NAIS was – at least as I saw it – the kind of stodgy, remote, elitist, perhaps slightly out of touch organization that characterizes the worst stereotypes of independent schools. Over Pat’s term of leadership, the organization gradually took on new vibrancy, seeking to push people’s thinking forward on the realities of educational practice, mission, and governance. NAIS progressively became an organization that occasionally dropped interesting ideas, encouraged me by confirming some of my more innovative thinking, stretched me further, and finally caused my jaw to drop with the level of courage they demonstrated in publishing a piece by my friend Fred Bartels entitled “Our 1% Problem” that challenges independent schools to examine at a deep level our commitment to working for equality and social justice, and our success in doing so, given the growing inequality of wealth in this country.

Through all of this, Pat remained down to earth and accessible. Every time I wrote him, I received a kind and gracious response. He was also unafraid to take on difficult challenges, perhaps few as tricky as navigating a controversy sparked when a religious-based school advertised a job opening indicating the requirement that applicants share certain religious beliefs held by the school, including that marriage should be between a man and a woman, in apparent contradiction to some of the core principles of NAIS. His piece “On the Horns of a Dilemma” is a model of the kind of transparency and clear thinking that can help skilled leaders navigate their way through such a crisis. Three of the core questions brought to the NAIS Board illustrate the clear, humane thinking that Pat brought to what was essentially a no-win situation in an attempt to make the best possible decision:
• What takes precedence — clear and uniform commitment to a social justice principle, or inclusion of a wide variety of schools, particularly those with whom some of us do not agree?
• Which option, taking a stand or maintaining a big tent (if we pursue it or if we fail to do it), will diminish us more as a whole?
• Which one is better for the common good?
The Board chose both to strengthen the Principles of Good Practice regarding Equity and Justice and to grant exceptions for schools with religious affiliations as might be determined by their local accrediting bodies.

I remember driving to a benefit concert in the late 1990s with a student who told me she loved Stoneleigh-Burnham from her first visit, but nearly chose not to attend because in response to one of her questions, an Admissions officer told her we didn’t do much service work because we “didn’t have time.” Contrast that to Stoneleigh-Burnham in 2013 where Mary Pura’s CAS (Creativity-Action-Service) project staging a Women’s Film Series was instrumental in bringing feminism to a new level in our school, where the Community Service Club put countless hours into making our school and the world a better place, where middle schoolers go out into the community every other week as a standard part of our program. We work hard to thoughtfully and thoroughly meet our joint mission of supporting girls as they develop their voice and sense of their authentic selves and of building a world where those voices will be heard. Our own growth, it would seem, has paralleled that of NAIS.

Peter Gow‘s thoughtful blog post “An Open Letter to John Chubb” charts a course for the future for NAIS schools. As he says, ” I am proud of the best work we do in our schools: proud of our caring teachers, proud of our most forward-thinking leaders, and proud of our students and the positive difference so many of them have made and are making in the world. Independent schools have worthy students to educate, John, and a body of great schools to do the work. But we also have a world to help save, and fine minds and rich resources with which to save it.”

So as we wish Pat Bassett the best as he embarks on the next stage of his life as a consultant, we recommit to working for social justice, both to honor his legacy and to meet our own mission.

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