Facebook, Teaching, and Racial Identity

The world of Facebook can be tough for a teacher to navigate.  Student friend requests are inevitable, but luckily my current school system has a policy prohibiting social media relationships between current students and faculty.  I’m honest with my seniors who want to friend me; typically, I’ll except the friend request after graduation, but they are immediately placed on a “limited profile” setting, which means they don’t have access to much more than my profile picture.  If they can go a year or two without showing me lots of photos of them boozing it up, they gain access to my full profile.  (If I do see too may underage party pictures, I delete the friendship.)  There are some students who I tentatively give access to my entire profile because I trust them not to go forwarding my status updates to current students, so if you’re nineteen and you’re reading this, congratulations for making it to the big time.

During my first five years of teaching, I taught English full time and ran the extracurricular drama program at a semi-urban school just outside of Boston.  When I taught at this school, Facebook was barely in its infancy, and I didn’t even get an account until after I left.  Once I did though, the friend requests from former students came flooding in, and in my naivety I accepted them all.  In fact, it was one of the students from that school that taught me how to set up my “limited profile” option specifically for some of those students, as well as for the long list of people from high school and middle school that really don’t need to know where I’m eating dinner tonight or see pictures of my kids’ soccer games.

Like most of the little towns surrounding the urban center, this town had it’s neighborhoods of upper-middle class parents who wanted to own a house with a yard but still be close to the city, and then there were the other pockets of town where the poorer families lived, marked by run down apartments and the projects.  The former was populated almost entirely by white families, and the latter by families of color.  In my English classes, my upper level AP courses rarely had any students of color, although I’m sure nearly half the school identified as a racial minority.

One of those rare AP students who was not white was an awesome kid who happened to be biracial.  He and a friend of his really enjoyed my AP English class for some reason, and they even gave me a gift of Virginia Woolf’s published journals upon graduation because they knew how much I liked her.  This was incredibly meaningful, especially since as the drama director on campus, most of the teacher love I felt from students came from that ego-feeding extracurricular work I did outside of the classroom.  That initial impact I had on this young man in particular still moves me today, a decade later, considering that I had no idea about the impact of racial identity on education in those first few years of teaching.  I’m sure I was no whiz of a teacher in those days, and perhaps this kid has even reconsidered my academic prowess in his maturity since then, and if he reads this, I apologize for my lack of maturity myself in those early years of teaching.  Since we’re friends on Facebook–and he has not been relegated to limited profile–I’m able to see his various status updates from time to time.  He’s done very well for himself, a graduate of Harvard Business School and a world traveler to boot.

Recently, he posted this article on Facebook, and it struck a chord with me.  I’m extremely familiar with this type of thinking.  There are far too many stories about families like this who think they can be treated equally only to be smacked in the face with an individual’s bias.  This article was posted yesterday, and it echoes the sentiment of work from nearly a hundred years ago, like Countee Cullen’s poem “Incident,” which I remember reading myself in high school.  I know the former student who posted the Washington Post article is doing really well, and from what little I can glean from the few Facebook posts I see (I wonder if I’m on his “limited profile”?), he seems to have a sound sense of his own racial identity.  But it still got me to thinking about the ways in which I’ve missed out on helping students through that process because of my own limited understanding of self.

In my work on anti-bias teaching practices, I’ve become a full supporter of William Cross’s theory of racial identity development, in particular the idea of “pre-encounter” and “encounter” stages.  In the pre-encounter stage, one is unaware of his or her racial identity.  Everyone is the same.  In Cullen’s poem, the speaker stays in pre-encounter until the title incident at age eight.  The encounter phase quickly calls into question the individual’s racial identity, a loss of innocence essentially, about the way the world view’s him or her.  This is followed by a few more stages: “immersion-emersion,” where the individual attempts to embrace their new racial identity and reject the dominant one (in this country, that’s white), and the final stage, “internalization-commitment,” where the individual finds a healthy place to co-exist as a racial minority in a white dominant society in pursuit of some positive social change.

This is obviously a super complicated theory, and I’m surely not doing it justice.  But in today’s supposedly post-racial American society, there are many who believe the individuals who persist in dredging this stuff up are the problem.  Self-proclaimed conservatives in my family use Facebook to post lots of ideology on this topic, just like I do.  I read what they post, as I’m sure they do mine as well, and usually neither of us comments on the other, accepting the silent disagreement that has helped families function, as my students would say, “throughout time.”  Pieces like this recent interview with child star Raven-Symone in which she decries labels like “African American” and “gay.”  People celebrate this mentality because it supports the “we are all American” belief.

I’m starting to believe myself that what is happening in the post-Obama America is that Cross’s “encounter” phase is simply happening later in life than it used to.  Kids are growing up as kids, believing in equality, and kids of color see their race as merely a physical trait rather than a defining characteristic of identity.  To a certain extent, there’s a beauty in that.  And at the same time when that encounter finally comes, sometimes in adulthood, it can be all the more traumatizing.  That’s at the heart of the Lawrence Otis Graham’s article, and it echoes lots of other sentiments from people who felt they were immune to racism in this country because of their hard work and stature.  For example, this Major League Baseball player wrote his own version of his “encounter” phase in The Atlantic Monthly in April.  And what happens when this encounter takes place later in life is that it causes the individual to call into question every encounter previously, and as an adult that can drastically alter your world view.

My own experiences speak to this, as I grew up essentially feeling white.  My Dutch-Indonesian mother married my white father when I was extremely young, and his extended white Catholic family and my parents’ middle class white friends made up the bulk of my social world.  In school, I was tracked into the honors program with mostly white kids and a few Asian kids.  The latter felt different from me since they were from “real” Asian countries like Viet Nam and China and Japan and Korea.  Indonesia barely registered as Asian to me at all. And so I identified with the white kids.

Then I went to college on the East Coast where there numbers of “real” Asians I identified in my home state of California were far smaller.  During my first few weeks in Boston, I bumped into someone on the street, and he glared at me and mumbled, “Stupid Asians.”  Minutes after meeting my sophomore roommate Eddie, he told me, “I’m Korean, and don’t worry, I brought the rice cooker.”  He moved out a few weeks later because he wanted to live with another Korean.  These experiences were sources of hilarity for me and my white friends.  Can you believe that they thought I was Asian?!

Then in graduate school, I taught for a while in the cornfields of upstate New York.  I was called a gook more than once by disgruntled students.  The elementary kids I worked with asked me if I knew judo or karate.  And I started to get the picture.  I was in fact Asian.  A real Asian.

Because it didn’t matter at the time what I felt inside.  It had to do with how other people view me.  We know today that race itself is a social construct with little to no basis in actual science.  I can walk around telling people I feel white, but I will always encounter people who will tell me otherwise.  And so I moved through that phase into a stage where I accepted that aspect of myself, and brought it to a healthy place.

In an ideal world, Rayven-Simone’s generic identity would be something to which everyone can aspire.  But as parents and teachers in this contemporary society, we have to prepare our young people for the realities of the world out there.  I need to teach my own two children that they are amazing individuals who can work hard to be amazing and part of that hard work will be to counteract the bias and discrimination they will inevitably face.  I can do this for my students of color too, and for my white students, which is the vast majority of my students, I can teach them to be a part of the solution, to acknowledge that our experiences are individually different and that one person’s reality can be different from their own.

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One thought on “Facebook, Teaching, and Racial Identity

  1. Pingback: Dancing Bears | Confessions of a Pseudo-Gaysian Suburban Dad

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