School Nightmares

For some reason, my husband and I lucked out with our kids in the sleep department.  They’ve always been great sleepers; typically they’ll sleep a good twelve hours no matter what time we put them to bed, and they rarely wake up with bad dreams (although our son had several sleepless nights after seeing Cats; Mr. Mistoffelees was just too much for him to handle…or maybe it was the hackneyed music).  In the past few months though, our daughter has woken up in the middle of the night with school-related nightmares.

A month or two ago, I had a trying day at school.  My kids will likely go to the school where I’m currently teaching, and feeling downtrodden on that particular day, I sarcastically broached a touchy subject over dinner.

“How would you guys feel if we moved?  You could go to a new school!”  The kids gave me a double take, and my husband rolled his eyes.  “Whatever…it was just a thought.”

Later that night, our daughter woke up inconsolably crying, and when my husband went to check on her, she told him through her sobs that she had a nightmare about going to a new school and missing all of her friends.  I’m sure he was really happy with me at that moment, but I can’t know for sure because I had already gone back to sleep.

Last night, she woke up from another nightmare, this one not quite as powerful but enough to produce some saddened moans that stirred me when I went in to turn off her night light.  I rubbed her back, and she slowly opened her eyes.

“Daddy, I had a nightmare.”

“What happened honey?”

“I dreamed that I was at school and every class I went to I was the only black kid.”

This is of course nearly a reality for her living in our mostly white suburban town.  Our daughter just turned eight, and she’s been showing more and more interest in her racial identity, which couldn’t make me prouder while at the same time making me very nervous.  I want to make sure we’re providing a sound foundation for her, and I’m constantly worrying that what we’re doing isn’t enough.

“That’s unfortunately going to be pretty close to what your experience will have to be going to school in this town because there aren’t very many black people who live here.”  Had this been a daytime conversation, I certainly would have given her a little age-appropriate lesson on redlining, but it was late and I was just about to head to bed myself.  “You know that because we live where we do, Daddy and Poppy try hard to make sure you have black people in your life.”  I named a few key individuals, including two friends who had attended her birthday party who are kids of color and also have gay parents.

“But they don’t have skin as dark as me.”  Another teachable moment on the realities of colorism, but again, it was late.

“No, but black people come in all different shades, and they’re still going to be identified as black; they’ll be great friends that you can turn to as you all grow up because you’ll each know what it’s like to be in a different kind of family like ours.”  I could tell she was starting to come around; I decided to remind her of last year’s classroom teacher.  “And you know what?  I’m sure Ms. H. would be happy to talk to you any time.  You know she’s the only black teacher in your school, so she knows kind of what you’re going through.  I’m sure if you just stopped by before school, she’d find time to talk to you.”  She smiled a bit remembering that connection.  “And as you get older, there will be a few more black kids that join you.  When you get to middle school, there will be a few from each of the elementary schools in town that will all go to school together, and then more when you get to high school.  And then for college, you might decide you want to go to an all-black college.”

“They have those?” she asked, her eyes widening.

“Yup, and that’s why learning everything you can in school is important because it will give you options down the road.”

“I want to go to one of those schools.”  I was suddenly reminded of a video I show in professional development courses I teach where a black Boston student attending school in the white suburbs describes her impending shift to a historic black college.  She says that she had felt like an exchange student her whole life, and she was excited about finally getting the chance to relax that aspect of herself in college.

“Well that’s totally up to you.  If at some point before college, you decide that being around other people that look like you is important, then we’ll talk about you going to a different school, but right now, I think you’d rather stay with your friends right?”

“Yes.”

“Okay, but if that ever changes, you let us know.”

I kissed her good night, and as she drifted back to sleep, I did what every great parent does: I questioned every decision we’ve ever made on behalf of our kids and hoped for the thousandth time that it would all turn out alright.

Hard Work

I had the pleasure of facilitating a student leadership conference yesterday helping participants grapple with the difficult conversations of race relations in their home schools.  My school sent a contingency of three black students, two white students, and one Asian student, and there were ten other schools participating, with more than 75 students in attendance in total.  It was a great opportunity to have some difficult and honest conversations about the role race plays in our specific school settings.

One of the most challenging things was hearing students from all schools express frustration about the lack of support they get for the sustainability of their initiatives.  They come back from conferences like this filled with ideas and enthusiasm, and most of them will get something started in their home schools, whether it’s something simple like celebrating Black History Month in February or planning an assembly highlighting diversity.  The issue though is institutionalizing these endeavors so that they do more than checking a box.  Did we cover diversity this year?  Check.  Should we cover it next year.  We’ll see.

In my nearly fifteen years as an educator, I’ve seen lots of interesting proposals come from colleagues and students about how to improve the dialogue around race in schools, and I’ve watched as the really great ideas produce meaningful experiences for the stakeholders involved…and then I watch how the following year we start from scratch, sometimes acting like we solved the problem and sometimes acting like we have no idea what we could do to address it.  Several years ago, a group of teachers organized an assembly at my school celebrating diversity; a teacher spoke about his experiences coming out, a black female student detailed her feelings about never being asked out by a white student, and a freshman girl bound to a wheelchair explained what her daily life is like.  After that assembly, I remember my classes had the richest discussions about diversity we’ve ever had.  And then we haven’t had an assembly like it since.

This isn’t really the fault of any individual or policy; it’s the nature of education I think.  We live in these cycles where one quarter of our clientele changes every year so that at the end of a four-year period we are dealing with a population that has no institutional memory longer than three years.  As teachers, we get caught up in this too.  The amazing veterans who have retired fade from our mind as we struggle to bring the newbies up to speed, and the amazing crew of students we had last year dissipate from our consciousness as they are replaced by a hundred new faces.

This idea of solidifying great ideas happens even on a small scale in the classroom.  I will teach a lesson that is amazing one year, and then the following year, I’ll forget how awesome it was and try to reinvent the wheel, only to remember that I had some ready-made hour of teaching buried in my computer’s file folders.  (I’m insanely organized, so I have to admit that this doesn’t happen that often, but it does happen on occasion.)

In any event, I did give our students at the conference yesterday a list of the things that I feel have been successful in the past even though they never got to experience them themselves.  Initiatives like this are all the more powerful when they are student driven, and guiding a group of students to make the right choices each year is exhausting for whatever adult ends up taking on the role of mentor.

But the reason I continue to do this work in anti-racist educational practices is because it does matter; it matters a lot.  I think I need to ask Siri to remind me that it matters every Monday morning so that I don’t forget.  It is the privilege of teaching where I do, where most of my students are white and middle class, that I can get away with focusing in on the symbolism of Holden’s red hunting hat instead of the ways in which the expectations of his affluence contribute to his depression.  I can work hard at drawing connections between the great literature I teach and the social problems of the world today, and sometimes I’m just really tired, especially when I’m merely planting seeds that won’t flourish in these students until well after they leave my classroom.  I need the reminders to give me energy to keep pushing even when I’m exhausted and the students seem apathetic.

Yesterday was that reminder, so Siri can take the day off tomorrow.

Self-Portrait

There’s no possible way I can get to a thoughtful and complete post today, but rather than give up on NaBloPoMo on day 18, I’ll blog quickly about my son’s self-portrait that we saw at his parent-teacher conference today.

Here is the work of art in question:

IMG_1627.JPG

What my husband and I love about this portrait is the attention to two features of which our son is very proud.  First, his skin.  A few years ago, he expressed some discomfort about looking “different,” and my husband came up with the best description of the specific brown of our son’s face and body: cinnamon.  My husband got out some cinnamon and shook it out so our son could compare his skin, and it was a perfect match.  Ever since, he’s taken tremendous pride in the color of his skin, and we’re so glad he found the perfect match in the Crayola box for this project.

Second, his hair.  Notice the tight curls that he drew around his head.  Granted, our son has a love-hate relationship with his hair.  He loves to grow it longer, but hates that we have to pick it out.  So every few months, he decides it’s time to have “no hair” again.  We take him down to the barber and they shave his head right down to stubble.  He grins from ear to ear and laughs hysterically that he is “bald.”  In the picture he drew of himself, he took great care to show his tight curly kinky hair; hair that we love and that is a distinctive part of who he is.

We hope this is indicative of a positive self-image for this brilliant, amazing, and loving young man!

Gay Rights, or Civil Rights Expedited

While I was out visiting my aging grandparents this past weekend, both of them mentioned something that we’ve talked about a lot in the years since my husband and I adopted our two children.  We each believe that what really changes the racial dialogue is loving someone of another race.  My grandparents, who are both in their 80s, beam with a certain amount of pride that they now have two great-grandchildren of color–even my grandfather who is very sick and at times barely mentally present mentioned it to me.

This isn’t a new idea.  Sharon Rush’s book Loving Across the Color Lines is more than a decade old, and in it she details how the adoption of her black daughter changed her views on how race works in America.  As a white woman, she questioned the validity of certain racial minorities to claim race was at play in any given situation.  Once she loved, truly loved, a black child, she realized that her perspective had been flawed for many years.

Peggy McIntosh

I’ve found this to be true myself.  My late development of racial identity as an Asian man coincided directly with the birth of my daughter.  I’d read Peggy McIntosh’s article on white privilege in graduate school and used similar concepts to drive my teaching of certain issues of social justice in the classroom, but it never really became as imperative a concept as it is for me now until my husband and I brought home this tiny defenseless African American child.  When I became a parent, I discovered what most parents do: I wanted to make sure this little being was protected and sheltered until she could stand up on her own two feet and face the world head on.  And in thinking about how we could do that for this little girl, I came to fully embrace the ways in which her experiences will be different from my own as a biracial Asian man, and vastly different from my white husband’s.

Yoruba Richen

As evidence of this line of thought, I’ve always used equality for the gay community as an example.  Yoruba Richen has a great TED Talk where she outlines the rapidity of the gay rights movement in relation to the Civil Rights movement.  The former has began less than fifty years ago and true legal equality is just around the corner.  The latter needed approximately three hundred years to achieve legislated equality.  There’s certainly something to be said about the ways in which the diaspora of the gay community is spread across socio-economic groups equally, and that provides the group with a certain amount of power and clout to speed things along.  However, I think loving a gay family member is what has truly quickened the pace.

Contrary to what some people believe, people are born gay.  No one can dictate whether a baby will be gay or not, so when a parent spends 10-12 years loving a child so immensely, and then that child comes out of the closet post-puberty, odds are good that that parent is going to continue loving that child.  Of course there are lots of families where this isn’t the case, and I don’t mean to minimize the crazy numbers of LGBT youth who are thrown out on the streets.  However, the ones that are accepted by their families are the ones that are changing minds for the better.  They are the ones who are getting heterosexual allies to take a stand, write their congress people, call out their friends, attend rallies.

Of course no one can dictate whether a baby will be born black or Asian or Latino either.  It’s just highly unlikely that a parent wouldn’t know ahead of time that those options are possibilities before the baby is born.  Adoption agencies, even ones that work through the foster care system, typically allow parents to specify what racial background parents are willing to accept.  The odds of a parent having a baby of a racial background different from his/her own is far fewer than a heterosexual parent having a gay child.  And thus, the racial dialogue in this country is stymied and slowed by the inability of one group to truly empathize with another.

We’re seeing progress, and I’m happy about that.  At times it feels like with every step forward in relieving the racial tensions in America we take two steps back.  My husband and I though will continue to act as vocal allies for the black and brown kids out there like our own, supporting them as best we can even after they have the strength and independence to do it on their own.

Real Asians

This past weekend I was in California visiting my sick grandfather.  As I walked up the front desk at the skilled nursing facility he’s staying at, the Asian woman behind the counter said to me, “You’re Asian.”

“What was that?” I said.

She smiled.  “You’re Asian.  What kind?”

I didn’t take offense.  Living on the East Coast for the past twenty years where people constantly ask, “What are you?” with a sort of mild disgust, it was kind of nice to have someone ask to identify me in a positive way.

“Indonesian.  My mom was born in Jakarta.”

“I see it in your eyes.  I can tell.  How about me?  Guess what I am.”

“Um…I don’t know.  I live on the East Coast now and I’ve lost my powers of guessing Asian heritage.”

My six-foot-four white dad was nearby, and she pounced on him.  “You guess!”

He took on the challenge far more willingly: “Vietnamese?”

“No!  Guess again!”

“Chinese?”

“Yes!”

I’m not sure what charmed me most about this experience.  Maybe it was the way that I felt identified by my race in a positive way, rather than the quizzical suppositions that I’ve become accustomed to in my adult life.  Maybe it was the way my father so easily jumped into the conversation without a hint of discomfort.  Maybe it was the brief respite from the long hours spent with my deteriorating grandfather.  Or maybe it was simply my childhood nostalgia for California, somewhere I identify as the land of abundant Asian immigrants.

Whatever the reason, I appreciate that Chinese nurse and her willingness to ask about racial identity rather than hiding behind the facade that we are all the same.

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.

Where I’m From

Day five of NaBloPoMo and I’m barely hanging on by a string.  I just booked a flight cross country this weekend to visit my ailing grandfather, and I just finished making arrangements for child coverage for my husband while I’m gone.  Now it’s way too late, and if I wait much longer I’ll miss my day five window.  So in honor of the many phone calls to California tonight and the cross referencing of which flight will get me where when and the plaintive calls to friends who are just like family to us to see who can take the kids to soccer and dance and back again–an evening that’s been focused entirely on family, both the one three feet away and the one 3000 miles away–I thought I’d post a poem I’ve written for my professional work in racial identity development.  My co-teacher and I ran a session tonight for 20+ educators, and we asked them to write a similar poem, following Linda Christensen’s fantastic suggestions.  The idea is to help educators locate themselves in order to better help students navigate these often difficult paths, and it’s something I’ve done for myself and with my high school students to great success.

I’m no poet, that’s certain.  But I took a crack at the poem a few years ago, and I retool it every now and then before sharing it with students; and it’s at least something that I think represents many of the aspects of “where I’m from.”  Here’s the current incarnation:

I Am From

I am from Saturday night poker games,
eggs purchased in crates,
and broken English laughter.
I am from bami and poffertjes
and fist fights with many, many cousins
to “godverdomme” and “Tante” and “Om.”
I am from “Oma” and “Opa,” too.

I am from a stranger of a father,
broken memories from my mother,
an overly logical engineer,
and knowing too much about
alcohol and drugs.

I am from questioning my feelings,
wondering “will they still love me?”
and “maybe it’s a just a phase”
and “what’s wrong with me?”

I am from new families created
By everything but blood
With the strongest of ties
That will never be broken.

I am from a complicated history that
begins on an island,
travels over many seas,
and stumbles through the United States
and back
that ends with me.