Reading “Inequality In The Promised Land”

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R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy writes about how Black and White children and families experience school and the attendant opportunities in a Midwest suburban district. The title of his book, Inequality In The Promised Land (2014), describes the unfulfilled dreams of Black families who sought better education outcomes for their children enrolled in a suburban school district and the actions of white families that inadvertently or otherwise frustrate Blacks and other minorities in securing the same level of resources, opportunities and influence. Lewis-McCoy spent 4 years conducting one hundred in depth interviews with families, school officials, and teachers along with studying the local demographic and political history of the district referred to as Rolling Acres Public Schools.

It is an academic book and I am all in my feelings. Lewis-McCoy talks about “concerted cultivation” of children that commonly happens in White middle class families. He describes the ways in which those same families throw their political weight around by being particularly vocal in making demands on school officials to insure the best resources and opportunities for their own children by resisting efforts that specifically seek to address racial disparities in both opportunities and outcomes. As I was reading about policy initiatives aimed at ‘closing the achievement gap’ and hearing white residents espouse how much they value the diversity in the community while also locating the reasons for achievement gap disparities firmly within Black families and not in the systems of school, I felt so weary.

My mother was fighting these battles when we were young. She pursued concerted cultivation with a vengeance and perhaps because my brother and I arrived at a time in her life when she was more at liberty to take advantage of certain opportunities, we were able to engage in all manner of extra curricular activities. My older brother certainly had his share of scouting then school sports that filled his schedule. Our home was filled with books, we were used to traveling all over the city, shopping at suburban malls as if we lived there. We knew lots about life beyond our neighborhood. And now as adults, my brother and I are firmly anchored in the middle class.

With my own children I have had the means to similarly pursue “concerted cultivation.” Supporting their varied interests in everything from electronics to club sports, summer camps and theater pursuits. They have gotten the message: “try everything.” Because they may. They enjoy the benefit of an “abstract approach” to their further education, rather than an “utitlity-focused” approach which would suggest seeking a field of study or training likely to yield the best return on investment.

My parents, who grew up during the depression, came of age during the second World War and became race barrier-crossing homeowners in the late 50’s, seemed to be fixated on the inherent value of education. As kids we understood that college was a non-negotiable. My mother completed her BA and my father finished an associate degree. My older sister who was an adult when I was born was the first child of theirs to finish college. The path was set, we only needed to travel it. And we all did.

I see now how painfully aware they were of the fact that our education was not only about the schools we visited but everything else we did as well. We were involved in our conservative Lutheran church, we participated in boy and girls scouts, respectively. We grew up familiar with museums, libraries, theaters, concerts and events in far-flung corners of our Northern section of the state. My parents understood the value of acquiring these middle class understandings. And to some of their Black friends and family members, these efforts seemed misplaced or unnecessary or simply beyond my parents’ means. My mother mentioned this kind of commentary fairly often and used it to reiterate her fundamental aim of “exposure, exposure, exposure.”

I grew up being exposed and now that’s a large part of what I do online. Expose myself to new knowledge, old knowledge, relevant knowledge, recycled knowledge. I share widely and aim to expose others to what I’ve found and am trying to grasp. As I’m working through Lewis-McCoy’s careful study, I am exposing myself (again) to hard realities about White American forms of racism denial that hold us all captive. I have to wrestle with the capacity of schools as systems to perpetuate deficit thinking steeped in classism and racism. At the same time I have to expose myself to my own complicity in school systems that privilege white middle class values over more inclusive, anti-racist curricula and instruction.

That may be why this read has got me more in my feelings than I anticipated.

 

 

 

Incongruity Theory and #RaceTogether

I’ll admit: The Starbucks #RaceTogether campaign has my attention. I’ll fault Twitter which is, of course, where I caught wind of it and began noting the numerous witty retorts appearing in my feed. Above all, I was amused. Then curious, then amused, and now back to curious.

The amusement came mainly through the #NewStarbucksDrinks group of tweets which were ingenious, clever, and in some cases, piercing. Here are a few of my favorites:

https://twitter.com/MonsoonPuma/status/578002739441098752

https://twitter.com/JayOhEeElEyeEe/status/578176759159513088

You get the idea. Lot of wit out there. Lot of wit and humor in the face of exasperation at what appears to be going on. Starbucks CEO, Howard Schultz thinks it would be a good idea for the company’s “partners” or baristas to offer patrons a little race conversation outreach along with their beverage by writing “Race Together”on the cup. The concept, which appears to be full of good intentions (and simultaneously swimming in cultural and societal obliviousness), misses the mark in many ways.  Read this post by Tressie McMillan Cottom which lays out the prickly nature of this initiative in remarkable clarity and also with a modest dose of snark.

I can’t offer that kind of analysis but I can appreciate and share it. What grabs me about this topic is seeing it from its origins: in white corporate America. I watched the 6 minute video where Schultz explains the thinking and in-house community forums on race that were held in the previous 6 months.

Overflowing with good intentions. And seen as a white-to-white communication venture, it might work. There are plenty of white people who may want to engage and participate in this kind of activity and perhaps shed some guilt in the process. But the assumption on which #RaceTogether actually rests is that we all (POC included) have an equal need for the same conversation and nothing could be further from the truth.

For corporate America this initiative is novel. It’s eye-catching and bold. For the rest of us, particularly people of color, it just looks stupid and clueless. And so it becomes a source of mockery and derision because we see an outrageous incongruity. In explaining where comedy gets its fuel Kathryn Schulz says this:

As its name suggests, incongruity theory posits that comedy arises from a mismatch – specifically, a mismatch between expectation and actuality. According to this theory, funny situations begin with an attachment to a belief, whether that attachment is conscious or unconscious, fleeting or deep, sincerely held or deliberately planted by a comedian or prankster. That belief is then violated, producing surprise, confusion, and a replacement belief – and also producing, along the way, enjoyment and laughter. In other words, the structure of humor is – give or take a little pleasure – the structure of error.

Being Wrong, Portobello 2010, p. 323

That seems to be what has happened here. There’s the corporate belief: “we really need to have this conversation about race. Let’s get our partners to do the talking.” And there’s the wider response, especially on social media, which says, “LOL, are you serious? you have no clue, no preparation. Just keep your “conversation”and give me my latte.”  Incongruity and the resulting sense of “surprise, confusion”-  this can happen to white people in these situations who fail to grasp or anticipate that fundamental incongruity of belief and experience when we, people of color and whites, venture to just talk about race (not to mention racism).

One other problem I have with this is the commercial piece. The initiative is a PR-thing designed to sell beverages and newspapers (USA Today is a partner in this massive effort). How clever of some people to seize this opportunity to build on the buzz and profit from the dramatic events that have pushed this agenda to the fore. Part of me resents the idea of having a corporately branded/sponsored conversation about a topic of significant importance to me. Even if more information regarding racial disparities in the US is disseminated, circulated, proclaimed from every major media outlet, it will not suddenly elicit changes in behaviors, attitudes, environments, policies and structures which perpetuate them. Again, if you are operating from a place of more or less unchallenged privilege, then talking more about race while drinking a nicely flavored warm beverage will probably sound like a good idea. A great idea.  A noble and also cool idea. Corporate America lives consistently in this space, so sure “Race Together” sounds harmony-inspiring and paradigm-busting, it must be a ‘win-win’ proposition. Who wouldn’t want to “Race Together” with their favorite barista?

If nothing else, the Starbucks example offers us a unique “comedy of errors” from which let’s hope the originators are learning. We have the #NewStarbucksDrinks hashtag to provide us comic relief throughout and an avenue to once again showcase some of the sharpest minds in the country. I am choosing to celebrate the ingenuity I have seen arise from this fraught scenario and for the time being I’ll enjoy my tea at home.

Understanding the Implications of Race

Understanding the implications of race presents challenges.
Understanding the implications of race can be a source of struggle.
“Understanding the implications of race” is a typical phrase I might use to introduce the topic of race in a non-threatening way.
What if I tried out something a little closer to home like:
I don’t always understand the implications of race.
Or
I would rather look the other way than understand the implications of race.
Or
I am tired of wrestling with understanding the implications of race.

And yet race is always there. If you can see me. If you can only hear my voice, you might assume something different, as I was told in my youth: “you don’t sound black.” (from a white perspective) and “You talk like a white girl.” (From the black perspective)
Yeah. The implications of race.

Fond of academic expression as I am, I like to use my big, “book words” when I write and speak. Growing up I learned that this was largely the privilege of white people and that to employ such language as black girl meant that I was special somehow, an exception, and at times even laudable. I speak this truth now at 50 and not before. Because understanding the implications of race may cause tension.

What if everyone I dealt with understood the implications of race?

How much of my education dealt with understanding the implications of race?

To what degree am I equipping my sons with an understanding of the implications of race?

The more I use the phrase, the more distant and academic and impersonal it becomes, “understanding the implications of race.” It becomes a construct, a full-on abstract; something to be studied, codified, standardized and shelved.

Perhaps an admission would serve well:

I’m not sure I understand what the implications of race actually are.

Or a disclaimer:

Until we clarify what is meant by “understanding the implications of race” our conversation can go no further. So let’s hold off for the time being.

Meanwhile, my implicit understanding of the implications of race keeps bubbling up in my reactions to the reports I read, the newscasts I see, the social media streams I follow.

When I recently read Nicole Callahan’s post, “Friendship and Race and Knowing Your Place” I was struck by how well she captured aspects from my own undisclosed racial playbook, like here:

Rules for getting along with white people, practiced (sometimes consciously, but often not) from early childhood until my twenties:

Always sound reasonable.

Never sound bitter.

If they ask whether you think something they said, thought, or did is racist, the answer they’re looking for is No.

Don’t remind them that you’re different.

If differences happen to come up, act like they don’t matter.

If they seem to accept you, feel grateful.

Read more at http://the-toast.net/2015/01/26/friendship-race/#Pdzq0mS2tH6ltXcI.99

Nicole Callahan writes expertly about understanding the implications of race. And my own understanding flourishes in response.
Whatever you do to further your understanding of the implications of race, practice listening and observing and questioning. Resist giving yourself the benefit of the doubt.
Challenge your assumptions about how well you understand the implications of race and I believe this is how we will move our thinking and feeling on race from “out there” to “in here,” from the “neighbors’ stuff” to “all our stuff.”
Understanding the implications of race presents us with a challenge. It presents us with a calling to activate and empower our best selves to action.
The implications of race call for our collective and individual understanding.
What is your response?

Boston Black and Making Sense of Ferguson

I read this article after I read this post and my devastation is growing.
Race in America is not my preferred topic of discourse and then it becomes inevitable. In order to process what is happening, what continues to happen and what appears to have no end in sight, I brood and I write.
On the other hand, while visiting the Boston Children’s Museum yesterday I experienced a wonderful thing: a positive validation of my identity as an African American. In an exhibit entitled Boston Black, I found examples of the black culture I grew up in presented in a way that was inviting, informative and engaging. What amazed me more than anything else was my response. I genuinely felt moved at finding my lived experience reflected in a mainstream museum space.

And yet, the events in Ferguson overshadow any warm fuzzy feelings I was having about my museum encounter. Reading sentences like: “America is not for Black people.” (Greg Howard). Or

The police mantra is “to serve and to protect.” But with black folks, we know that’s not the mantra. The mantra for many, many officers when dealing with black people is apparently “kill or be killed.”

(Brittney Cooper). These sentiments unfortunately resonate with me. Following the #Iftheygunnedmedown hashtag on Twitter deepens the impact with visual reminders of how mainstream media’s involvement is everything but impartial. It saddens and disturbs me that I cannot feel more optimistic about what the future holds for this country I grew up in.
As I continue to read the many views on understanding the ongoing assault against black men in America, I cannot help wondering whose voices are missing in this conversation? Where will we find the antidote to the increasing militarization of police forces across the country? Who is responsible for the protection of basic human rights of citizens in this country?
And why does that appear less and less clear in our black communities?
P

It’s Not Only White People Who Need to Learn about Race

I started to write a post about how much I still have to learn about race in the United States and quickly realized that I could not tackle that in under 700 words, nor would I like to try. For me as an African-American woman there are all kinds of assumptions out there about what I should know about race and racism. There is less talk about what I may need to learn.

That said, some recent readings have opened my eyes to the ways in which race plays such a significant role in American society still, even though much of the rhetoric around racial socialization (color-blind, post-racial) would have us believe otherwise.  My encounter with each new text revealed layers of my own misconceptions, false beliefs and fuzzy comprehension.

The first read proved to be a conceptual game-changer:

Reproducing Racism: How Everyday Choices Lock in White Advantage, by Daria Roithmayr, NYU Press 2014. This book blew me away with its sobriety and clarity in describing how current racial disparities in American society may be locked in even if all forms of discrimination were to cease today. Roithmayr’s case is well argued and draws on current research in law, sociology and economics. She writes in the introduction:

Where conventional models focus on intentional discrimination, the lock-in model focuses on self-reinforcing structural processes like social networks and family wealth distribution. The lock-in model emphasizes both the unfairness of early anticompetitive conduct and the need for significant government “antitrust” intervention to dismantle white monopoly on advantage.

Reading this book felt like an odd form of cleansing. At last I understood much more about the world I grew up in and how my family’s history is reflected in her descriptions of the early consolidation of white advantage. Roithmayr explains not just how white advantage became the norm in such areas as political participation, housing, education, and employment, but also how it perpetuates itself even when steps are taken to break the cycle. This text is essential reading for anyone who struggles to understand white privilege and every form of racial gap we can identify in current American society.

Shortly after completing the Lock-In book, this link to Black Women in the United States, 2014,  arrived in my inbox.  The report was published by the Black Women’s Roundtable of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation. Just reading the executive summary, I got chills while recognizing how many significant  struggles remain, particularly in the areas of health care and economic advancement.  And these disparities despite remarkable increases in educational attainment.  Although there are points to celebrate, I was struck by how much ground must still be covered by black women in the US.

Finally, I ran across an article on the National Association of Independent Schools’ website: What White Children Need to Know about Race. At this juncture I had to recognize that in spite of my efforts to make sense of my own racial experiences through targeted reading, reflection and substantial dialogue, I still have much to learn about facilitating and initiating dialogue regarding race with my students, colleagues and even within my family.  This article by Ali Michael and Elenora Bartoli details the reasons why white families are likely to avoid talking explicitly about race with their children, the implications this tends to have for white children’s understanding of race and racism and then outlines specific steps that schools can take to actively support the development of positive racial identities. What I appreciated so much about this article was the authors’ capacity to show what can be done without shaming the reader for not knowing. They conclude with this:  “If we want a racially just world, we need racially aware schools.”

Here’s my lesson: it’s not just white people who need to learn about the dynamics and realities of race in America. It’s me, too. These readings alert me to the fact  that each of us has the opportunity to change and influence racial dynamics for the better, now and in the future. And before I can make a difference, I have to understand difference in many more ways than one. The buck starts here.

And I’m about to go read Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations.”

 

Finally Looking Under the Hood

Oh boy.
Stephanie Rivera tweeted some thoughts the other day which caught my attention via @theJLV because THEY WERE ALL IN CAPS. In my understanding, all caps in electronic communication is the equivalent of shouting. What was she shouting about?

Then she went on to write this powerful post: Advocacy in the Age of Colorblindness.. (Please read her blog post FIRST before reading on.) While I have certainly read my fair share on race in American society, and more specifically in education, this post and the comments it provoked landed like few others. Altogether they hit me at my core, pitched me into my past and lifted up the blinds on my present. Just like that – the exposure of widely held thinking among some white educators, the struggle to maintain decorum in the face of an emotionally charged set of triggers, and certainly the dedication to student voice throughout – Stephanie Rivera touched a piece of my own vulnerability in matters of race, identity, culture and education.
In the comment section Adam Beckham points out from his vantage point as a white male:

I can have an innovative curriculum and be tech-forward and all the good stuff we’re demanding from teachers, but I’m not going to get into their hearts like a black teacher can. They know I don’t go home to their neighborhood. We can both listen to some Houston rap and talk about it, but they know we are from different worlds and share different destinies. And they can know that while they know I love them and work for them every single day.

I can sit with them and read “Space Traders” by Derrick Bell all day long, but at the end of the day I’m still a white male. That’s not a bad thing, *there’s nothing wrong with being a white person or a male person*, it’s just not the whole meal they need to eat. It’s good to have some of me in the mix, but I can’t be all the options on the menu.

A kid shouldn’t have to go all day without seeing multiple, successful people reflecting their lives and cultures. That’s injustice. We would never accept that for our kids as white people. It’s unimaginable.

That final sentence is what brings the whole topic home to roost for me: Recognizing what would be unimaginable for my white colleagues and friends as an absolute given through most of my education and career.  Also Mia adds nuance to the dialogue by describing her desire as an Asian-American to have had Asian role models during her school experience.  She writes:

I identify as Asian and I would’ve really appreciated an Asian teacher to be a role model of an Asian American to me. Most of my childhood I learned how to be “white” American and to reject my culture not simply because of my white peers but because of the adults in my life that didn’t understand my culture.

These comments drive home the point that this conversation is not only about skin color – it’s about culture and identity which have many facets – although skin color is the most prominent identifier of minority groups.

For that New Orleans student who was brave enough to assert his own view of what might do him and his fellow students more good in school, I hope he continues to voice his opinions whether or not the adults in his environment are able to hear his message or not. While I was in high school, I doubt that I could have acknowledged or articulated what was missing in my education. I just took what was there for granted. In my case, what was there: predominately white private schools with no teachers of color. I just did my part to make sure I fit in.

And fit in I did. So seamlessly did I fit in that I also began to buy into the notion that race and color were not really so important. My academic, social and professional success were testaments to that, right? When I moved to Europe and created my life here, being African-American and a native English speaker seemed to open more doors than close them.

Well here I am, nearly 50, looking back at almost a quarter century involved in education and what have I learned? The divides are multiple and deepening and the inclination to look away, reshuffle our vocabulary and assert “mission accomplished” appears to be growing. I notice this now looking back, for instance, on my professional career and considering the tremendous lack of visible role models and mentors of color. When I was ready to consider pursuing formal roles of leadership, where were my colleagues of color, especially in independent education, who could share their experience and advice? When I attended conferences, when would I encounter a facilitator or keynote speaker of color doing the type of work I aspired to do? Almost never, unless I was attending the NAIS People of Color Conference where that was precisely the point of the exercise.

I may not live in the US anymore, yet it is my home culture. And being black in America has different nuances and implications than in any other culture in the world. I still live in the shadows of my particular racial narrative. And I sure do recognize the struggles of my colleagues, my family, friends and others to overcome these divides (of color, culture, language, gender, sexual orientation) with understanding and through dialogue. For this reason, I felt a special appreciation for Stephanie Rivera’s thoughtful analysis of the dynamics taking place on the BAT facebook page. When we take the time to actually look under the hood, we may find that even if we’re not sure exactly what it is we are seeing and hearing, we can still recognize when something is not right. And get help to discover what really is the matter.

An entirely personal response to #Thisisnotatest

Dear José,
This is not a review.
Rather, reading This is Not a Test has given me much to ponder over the last couple of weeks and I want to say thank you for that. So many topics have cropped up in my reflections: race, privilege, US public education and the ills which seems to plague it…all these themes which give me pause again and again.

And yet, what makes this book, your book, stick in my mind and resist dissolving like a thousand other texts in my fuzzy memory, is the deeply personal nature of the writing. In bringing so much of yourself: your history, relationships, hardships, victories, progress and setbacks to your work and therefore to your writing, you have provoked me to study my own narrative and perhaps for the first time truly see how the dots connect to create meaning.

Here’s the thing: as I read This is Not a Test, I found myself underscoring the differences between your situation and mine (age, gender, subject, grade level, school type, location) and every time being drawn into the narrative more deeply by the kinship of color, teaching, language, love of students and clearly, love of learning. There are parts of the story which make me uncomfortable or which elicit a sense of guilt for not having pursued a particular path. My inner dialogues in response to your story have pushed me to examine the fact that as I stake my reputation on being an outstanding listener, how often am I using that to avoid speaking out? When you described finding your voice as a blogger and activist, I wondered to what degree I already filter and block much of my own content to insure that I don’t offend anyone.

This kind of probing reflection does not come with each new clever title. No, it is specifically you, proud black Latino male teacher, papa, activist, author José. And your impact on me, proud African-American female PE Specialist turned leadership coach living in Austria, is indeed something to write home about. When we dare to write and put ourselves on the page, the words, sentences and paragraphs are but a fraction of the whole package. Yet sometimes that very unique fraction is just enough to budge the needle in the direction of change; in fact, of being changed.

No more excuses, it’s time to make my own fraction count. Thank you for providing the impetus.

Sincerely,
Sherri Spelic
@edifiedlistener

P.S. The print version of your book arrived with Leo Buscaglia’s Love: what life is all about (1972) in the same package. A fine match.