What Does It Mean to “Win”?

I’m on the launchpad of the school year, which is weirdly yet incredibly exciting. I thought I would be sad and, while I am bummed to lose my free time, it feels good to get back into the classroom.

With the school year coming up, it makes me think a lot about what I want for my students. Where will we go? What do I want them to do by the end of the year? What skills do these students need so they succeed out in the world? What will “success” look like in room 206?


I know that I’m lucky to have that freedom as a teacher– I haven’t always. “Success” used to be pretty strictly defined for me: 80% of my students making “Proficiency” on a test created by the organization running my school.

Of course, the charter school I was at did this because… everyone does this. Everyone tests their kids. Now. To this day. Students across the nation began taking Common Core State Standards (CCSS) tests last year, after years of taking the STAR or CST or HSA or whatever acronym the state used for it’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) test requirements.

I’m a lifelong product of these. Ever since early elementary school, I can remember having to sit and take day-long tests. A few months later, my parents would happily show me a piece of paper, and while I didn’t know what anything on it meant, I was happy they were happy. The scores on that paper opened doors for me: I was given awards based on the score, I was allowed to test for the Gifted and Talented program at my school (which I’ve written about here). My ability to do well on a long test directly impacted where I am in life.

Now that I’m in the classroom, knowing just how much that ability to test well gave me opportunity, I ache with knowing what so many teachers do: the ability to take a test does not come close to measuring the brilliance of my students. 


I won’t spend too long on this– plenty of folks have written tomes about how testing hurts students.

While testing isn’t a thorough measure of ability for any student, it is especially harmful for students of color (SoC). More and more, studies are finding that there is a racial bias favoring white students in standardized testing.

Knowing this, I had some mixed feelings when I listened to Nikole Hannah-Jones‘s report on This American Life (also below).


[FWIW: This is part 1, with the second part airing in two days. If that drastically alters my response, you can guess I’ll write about it. 🙂 ]

Of course, the reporting is great, and highlights some very necessary things we need to talk about in education: white fragility, biased beliefs about Black studentslack of teaching talent for SoC. These are all important and must be discussed.

My issue, overall, is that the piece still sees “success” and “the achievement gap” using the measuring stick much of the country uses: tests scores. Tests that only look at one small bit of our students’ capabilities.Tests that are inherently racist. Tests that reinforce the hegemony‘s idea of what it means to be successful in American education.

Even if school integration would drastically increase scores for Black students… I have to follow that up with “but at what cost?” Students would not only have to bare the emotional brunt of negative stereotypes (as noted in the piece), but I can’t help but wonder if their “success” is built around their ability to assimilate to White dominant culture’s ideas of “successful.” We can ask kids to do that, but we also know that comes at tremendous emotional and cultural cost.

So, a part of me says… I want more for students. If success built on integration is one rooted in assimilation, I’m not so interested. I’m not interested in perpetuating a world where my kids can’t be all of their amazing selves and not get called “ghetto” or “moke” or “unprofessional” or “angry” or any other coded, racist term we might use.

Beyond that, assimilation didn’t save Sandra Bland from unfair policing. Good test scores will matter less when unfair housing practices still make it hard to find a place to liveWill arming SoC with skills to do well on tests really be what ends inequality in our country?

Still, I also feel Ms. Hannah-Jones’s overall point, made at around 51:30 in the piece:

…What you’re saying is small, incremental progress. But meanwhile, there’s kids in those classrooms. There are kids who are going through these schools and not getting the education that they deserve while everyone’s trying to fix it. It’s not like those kids are removed somewhere and getting a good education while you guys figure it out. 

And therein lies the crux of the issue. We can call for takedowns of power and privilege but… there are kids in seats who need to be taught, who need to be given the tools to succeed in today’s society. How much longer can we ask students to wait while we dismantle centuries of racist educational practices?

Some argue that getting students into these traditionally “white” schools will be the wedge that starts breaking down some of the larger issues mentioned above. I’m not so sure, but I understand why, for many of us, it’s a place to start. I can’t protect my students from bad policing or unfair housing. All I can hope is that I can give them the strength I hope we all uncover within ourselves: the ability to stand up and say, “This is wrong. We need to fix this. Now.”

Advertisements

Why “The Privilege Line” Is A Frustratingly Unfinished Exercise

(and how to make it better…Maybe)

So, recently Buzzfeed’s video on privilege has been making the rounds. The video shows a group of folks doing the classic privilege walk exercise (many exist, here’s one and another, haven’t used either though).

Let me preface with: props to BuzzFeed for tackling the issue at all. Not enough organizations are even broaching the topic, and it’s a commendable start.

That said, this version of the exercise is unfinished. In fact, most people do this exercise in a way that may have some tough consequences for the PoC involved– me included. I have done and led this exercise multiple times, and each time I have done it much the same way, because that’s how I saw it done. Then, I saw the below reaction, as well as some reactions from folks online:

Someone else from my Twitter TL talked about this, but for the life of me I can’t find the tweet or remember who. If I’m straying too close to someone else’s work, please let me know!

Essentially, when you’re a PoC or from another oppressed background, you inevitably end up in the back. 

And you know that you will.

Lack of privilege, for those who experience that, isn’t new. We don’t usually need that constant reminder– we know. Privilege and “power” as defined by larger society are obvious markers for those of us who lack them. The exercise itself centers on whitenessand the PoC often end up as props to help White people see how privileged they are.

Which… I get. I get often needs to be done. WP need to see, somehow, the privilege they live in, and if this does it, then that might be a start. Still, by refocusing on whiteness, we only (as Brittany Packnett says) “reproduce White privilege” within the context of the exercise, and that rubs me the wrong way.

But here’s what else we can do:

When I do this exercise from now on, I want to start doing the line again, but with a different version of the questions. Something that centers on and calls out the unique ways PoC have their own forms of power, questions that uplift communities and also pushes PoC to question their own experiences with each other. Questions like:

  1. Step forward if you have a strong understanding of your family’s history and culture.
  2. Step forward if you speak a second language.
  3. Step forward if you have a specific community of people who share similar familiar and cultural contexts with you?

I don’t know. I feel like if, the second time, the exercise were done but “power” were REdefined away from common ideas of “privilege,” it’d be an interesting look at where we SHOULD be headed and how we could recenter on something other than the hegemony.

Is that crazy? A horrible idea? Can you think of other, community-empowered questions? Let me know in the comments or something. I’d love to share.

An Astronomical Pull – Re-Centering the Work

I haven’t known what to write.

After the Charleston Shooting, I was at a loss for what to say, and while the conversation has improved from some folks, the amount of hate, frustration, and sheer ridiculousness of what’s out there hurts. There’s nothing I can say that hasn’t been said by some people I respect a lot, like Mr. Chase, Mr. Lehmann, and the EduColor Newsletter.

Then, I saw this tweet:

that led me to have this reaction:

And here’s the thing that people, especially those with power, especially white people forget: power has an incredibly strong pull. Its center of gravity takes anything thrown in its orbit and makes it revolve around Power. Power always wants to focus on itself. Power consistently takes whatever is happening and asks, but what about ME?!

Sometimes, that manifests ourselves obviously: don’t want to talk about it. I am uncomfortable. don’t feel that way/haven’t experienced it that, so someone else’s feelings don’t matter.

Sometimes, though, that manifests much more subtly. Even if you want to be helpful, making everything focus on your needs and trying to help YOU help others doesn’t always feel helpful, especially when it’s about race. In fact, it can be immensely tiring.

I think,when you decide to teach, or when you decide to work in public to service, we must decenter ourselves from whiteness– the strongest power in these discussions– but always myself from the center of the spaces we inhabit. As the teacher, a classroom shouldn’t center around my needs, but the students. We have to realize that it’s not always about us. 

That seems hypocritical, of course, to say on a blog with my name in the URL. So, I am trying figure out my space in the middle— sometimes as a Woman of Color who is working to figure these things out and take up space, and also as attempting to ally to communities that I want to serve. Right now, that means amplifying as many voices, especially Black voices, as I can, and in the words of my friend Bill, “just shutting up and listening hard.”

I hope that my “ally” friends will do the same. We have to learn when to stop trying to “fix” things and just ask “how can I help?” Sometimes that means just amplifying voices instead of barging in with all of your needs and wants.

As teachers, it means making sure our students have spaces to process if they are the ones in marginalized spaces, or that we are pushing them to discuss difficult things, even when it feels scary. It is totally doable. Today, I was able to start the discussion using an easy and effective Teaching Tolerance lesson. Get there.

I fear what happens if we don’t. I worry that we will just continuous be pulled and re-centered around what is most powerful, until everything else is burned off in its wake, left to drift out alone.

Waiting for Approval: Bodies in Swimsuits

[I’ve been on a bit of a body-image/fitness kick lately. Maybe because it’s summer. Not sure.]

I am waiting for a man to approve of my body. How did I get here?

That’s what kept running through my mind a few days ago. I was laying on my couch feeling a weird mixture of rejected, angry, and confused. I had submitted for a job, and knew my ability to do it would be based on whether “the client” approved of my “look.”

For context: I occassionally am a promo girl. Nothing crazy, but sometimes I dress in cute outfits, put on make up and hand out fliers and samples. I also get paid $15/hr to do it, which is comparable to what I made as a tutor for a large test-prep company. Plus, student loans.

For the most part, I like my body. It’s not perfect, but (especially after the last post) frankly, I am generally feeling myself. I put hard work into it, and beyond aesthetics, I just like what it is capable of doing. So, when I submitted to work a job for a large sun screen company, I wasn’t concerned. I had worked for them before and it had been a shorts-and-tshirt deal. Easy.

Then, I discovered it was actually a bikini job.

I’m not particularly conservative (I live in Hawai‘i, and swimwear is pretty common around here), so I don’t have qualms about being seen in a swimsuit, but I also don’t have a “typical swimsuit model body.” My stomach is toned, but not always tight. I have short legs. I have smaller boobs for my frame.

The marketing company that I work for asked me to send photos of me in a bikini to send to the client (standard practice). Oomph. It was mid-afternoon on a day where I felt bloated and gross. Still, I changed, took the photos, and was waiting for someone to approve of my body for work.

A part of me wanted to be full of indignation: how dare these people get to pass judgement on me? How dare they feel as though they can decide if I’m “good enough” for the job?

Here’s the thing, though: I had agency and choice throughout this entire process. I submitted for the job initially. When I found out it was a bikini job, I could have said no, or that I wasn’t comfortable, and my employer would’ve been totally fine with that. If, when they asked for photos, I had said no, no one would’ve been salty.

So what do you do when the agent forcing you to validate to your body is no one but yourself? How do you battle all the voices screaming at you to look a certain way when their only yours? If “no one can make you feel inferior without your consent,” as Elanor Roosevelt is quoted on millions of magnets and tshirts around the world, what do I do when I’m not just giving consent, but I’m the one with the megaphone to my ear yelling, “Stop eating that caramel corn!”?


I spent much of the rest of the day waiting around feeling sorry for myself. Finally, my boyfriend surprised me with a rose and banana lumpia, my favorites. He lovingly listened to me rant all the way home, as I tried to figure out who I was angry at. Then, he said something enlightening:

“The thing is,” after he heard me rant about parts of my body (like my thighs) that I knew wouldn’t change, “most swimsuit models aren’t super ‘ethnic’ or even muscularly built to begin with  especially when they’re Brown. They’re white or, here, maybe Asian, and their the stereotyped versions of that: thin, small…”

“…willowy,” I filled in, a word often used to describe Asian female bodies.

“Right,” he said.

I wasn’t sure, but then I remembered that I was also going to flat-iron my hair for the job, since my curls didn’t “fit the look.” Now, it had me asking “whose look was I trying to fit?”


As we push to become more “diverse,” it’s important to remember that diversity isn’t just shades of color on our skin. It’s all aspects of loving and valuing different, perhaps cultural, parts of our bodies: including hair curls, thick muscular legs, and the softness of hips. We cannot keep letting society exoticize brown skin in advertising without accepting the fact that the brown bodies inside it may not match the shape that mass consumption thinks is “right.” I wasn’t the only one yelling in my ear to look a certain way, it was my voice backed with decades of cultural indoctrination that has told me I should look this way.

In some ways, though, I think the work starts with us. I think the work is internal, as it always begins.

If, as Tatum says, racism and its beliefs are the smog we breathe, that means we also have to know when to look at our bodies after a big, heaving breath to clear out our lungs from the toxic beliefs we’ve taken in. If I’m believing societal things about what my body “should” look like in a swimsuit, then they’ve already won half the battle. It doesn’t start with me raging at a company for making me feel this way, it takes me finding the strength to tell anyone that they don’t get to make me feel this way. It takes me choosing to not make myself feel that way.

So some of it starts with me, internally doing the work and perhaps unabashedly going out in a swim suit or a sports bra and being okay with that. I love that other women are out there, doing this. Hopefully as it happens more, it will mean that advertisers catch on, and at some point the “look” will expand far beyond what we’re already seeing. We have to be able to challenge those negative thoughts when we have it, though.


As for my “approval,” I was asked to be a back up for the job. I laughed after finally getting word, bemused at how riduculous I had been about the whole situation. I respectfully declined (and it wasn’t a problem) and got up to look in the mirror. Above it, is a race-medal hanger PJ got me that says “Run Like A Girl.”

Thank you legs, I thought, thank you thighs and feet and arms. Thank you grandma for the hair and mom for the eyes and family for the caramel skin and generations back for this body that runs, that moves, that works. Thank you Lord, for the blessing of a working body at all. Thank you. Thank you. May it always be glorified, just as it is.

The Paradox of High Expectations

Recently, I received an invitation to a group on Facebook that filled me with a strange joy and abject terror.

Screen Shot 2015-03-28 at 7.42.17 AM

Yes. It is, in fact, time for my 10-year reunion. Time seriously flies.

I do want to make something clear: I loved high school. I had a great group of friends, and thankfully still have many of them in my life. I had great teachers who pushed me, challenged me, and also humor me with a visit when I come back. All-in-all, I was very, very lucky, and look back on high school with great fondness– a privilege I know that not a lot of people have, even at my own school.

Still, I dealt with taunting– some of it the normal high school stuff, but some, as  I’ve written about, around race. In middle and early high school, I remember quite a bit of racially charged taunting, and I know my older brother faced similar things. Anecdotally, I always felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb– one of a small handful of dark-skinned kids in my classes.

Continue reading

#RaceTogether and Speaking with Your Ears

So, I just found out about #RaceTogether, a partnership between USA Today and Starbucks to begin conversations about race because, apparently, “we are all one human race.”

And… I appreciate that sentiment. Like lots of things, I think it is well-intentioned, for sure. Still, I am a strong believer that intent < actual impact for those you may want to help. And while this is well-intentioned, I worry about the actual impact of this for two big reasons:

1) The concept itself assumes that people of color are not already talking about these issues, or that these concepts are new. It assumes we need help talking about race from a large corporation that’s likely not where we come from.

If you’re not from an oppressed background, it’s easy to forget that many PoC are thinking about these issues all the time. We are often navigating these issues, whether with others or silently and subconsciously. This means you’re sort of deciding to come in and tell us how to do something that we’re doing.

2) You’re asking a bunch of folks to jump into conversations about race, which can bring up a LOT of emotions and be difficult for both parties. I worry that micro aggressions, misunderstandings, and defensiveness will abound. In fact, I know they will, because that’s what conversations about race do: they unsettle the status quo we’ve come to accept about our implicit and explicit biases. Stuff is gonna come up.

So, normally, you prep for that. You read some stuff. You prep emotionally. You come to terms with things. I don’t foresee that happening in a 5 minute interaction after waiting in a too-long line for coffee.

You really want to know how I developed identity and race from my parents? How they had to teach me how to deal with oppression? You want to ask Black men how they try and explain what it is to grow up Black? Is that something we’re willing to share with strangers? Are we ready to also talk about my own internalized racism?

More importantly: is that something the baristas are willing to listen to? That Starbucks is ready to hear? Because it’s going to be really hard. I hope so. The way this has started out doesn’t lead me to think so.

So, Starbucks, if you want to talk about race, that’s ok. That’s great. I encourage you to remember something a mentor and colleague told me when I started teaching: speak with your ears, not your mouth.

Instead of forcing us to talk race with a hashtag and forced conversations starters, you might want to listen, learn, and ask how we start these conversations first. You may learn that the loudest thing you say to us is providing your intentioned, focused, listening silence.


A quick addendum (3/20/15):

Thanks Teaching Tolerance for sharing my piece! I’ve had some good discussions since.

Here’s the thing: I think hope is good, and like I said, I appreciate the intention. My concern is that a “small stumble” or “fine tuning” that needs to happen in the execution of this could lead to big, negative ramifications on a community or individual consumer.

So I ask: wouldn’t it have been better for Starbucks to partner with or donate to a community organization that serves this purpose, instead of assuming they know best and forcing the conversation in the way they see fit?

Part of being an “ally” to communities of color means asking what they need and really listening first, instead of just jumping in and assuming you know how to fix the problem. While I love them, this is an issue that my former employer, Teach For America, ended up having to face. You’re not really allying with our communities if you’re not willing to listen to us first.

So. Here’s to hope, and here’s to the hope that the future includes much listening, THEN doing.