The People Who Danced in Ashes: Some Thoughts on Costumes and Cultural Appropriation

Well, it’s that time of year. Halloween is upon us, and beyond whatever thoughts we have about which sexualized animal or Game of Thrones character we want to be this year, there’s the hot-button topic of cultural appropriation in costumes.

Listen, my culture is not a costume. I’m all for experiencing, learning about, and sharing culture, but as taking the look of a culture without appreciating the culture itself is hurtful and frustrating.

Let me give you an example.

Last year, a group of folks I knew were going to attend a “Día De Los Muertos” themed party. The party had margarita machines and a taco truck. I, predictably, rolled my eyes at the concept, and told my partner at the time that I didn’t want to go.

For me, the party they were throwing had nothing to do with the actual traditions behind “Día De Los Muertos,” a beautiful holiday where we celebrate loved ones who have passed on. We dance, sing, share their favorite food and stories of them.

“At the very least,” I commented, “they could have the party and like, have a small area where folks could leave a photo or write a little note about someone they loved who had passed on. That way it could honor the spirit of the actual holiday.”

“Well, I don’t think they’d do that,” he said, “because it would kind of bum everyone out.”

And isn’t that the problem?

The reason why Dia De Los Muertos is powerful is that Latinos found a way to dance in the ashes and find joy in death. We are a resilient people who, as I’ve written beforetook horror and tragedy and turned it into song, dance, food and, somehow, joy.

So, if you want to take our clothing and our face-paint to have a party because it looks cool, you should also acknowledge the beauty of the culture that created those things. You should respect and celebrate the community who was able to look death in the eye and laugh loudly, eat and be merry.

I hope people learn more about and want to partake in the beautiful traditions of my culture. I just want them to acknowledge the culture too, and not just the costume you can exploit it for.



Image Source

When You Realize You Are Complicit

The post initially ran in EdWeek Teacher as “The System Wasn’t Built for Us”

First, it was the lack of an indictment for Sandra Bland’s death. Then, it was the lack of an indictment for Tamir Rice’s killing.

As days and verdicts pass, I am only able to ask this question: if the basic structures built for “safety” will not protect us, then what will? 

Moreover, as a teacher, what does this question mean for my students and for me?

For students:  Students need the space to learn about and discuss these stories, as well as process what is going on. Thumbnail image for 17130711447_ca7635c0cb_o.jpg

I’ve seen some teachers say, “I don’t know how to talk about this, so I’m going to move past it.” That fear is understandable, but we must also understand that silence is compliance, and silence is violenceWhen the system is failing, we are compelled as educators not to act as “a cog in a wheel,” as John Dewey once said. We must support our students as they deal with and question the mechanisms in our society that allowed this to happen. We may feel rage (which can look like a lot of things), and that’s okay. Even acknowledging current events, as well as our own frustration and lack of answers can be powerful (Teaching Tolerance and Youth Radio had some great resources if you’d like to do a more in-depth lesson).

Even if your students, like mine, may not directly feel a personal connection to these stories, part of our job is to expose them to questions regarding the larger world and teach them to empathize with communities frustrated and hurt by these situations. For students with whom these events hit closer to home, it’s important to remember this, from Ta-Nahesi Coates’s Between The World and Me:

…all our phrasing – race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy – serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth.

If racism is a “visceral” experience, the space to heal from it is all more important.

dewey.jpgFor educators: We must begin to reframe our understanding of the system that we work in and, thus, are compliant in. Current events have only strengthened my belief that, frankly, the system wasn’t built for me and other people of color or people from marginalized backgrounds. The system will consistently perpetuate existing hierarchies of power.

Unfortunately, our current education system is one of those hierarchal structures. We can either remain silently and willingly compliant, or we can question and change the powers that be at work in our schools. The questions might appear small at first: whose values am I measure by in a teacher evaluation? Do my students feel like they have a voice at my school? Are the parents I work with feeling valued?

As we move forward, though, those questions will get bigger, and the commitment to the work gets stronger. Hopefully, all educators (and administrators and entire communities) will understand this: our job is not to feed content to students. Our job is to prepare young people to dismantle systems that are currently failing them, and help them uplift the voices, and ideas that showcase the best of their generation. 

Recently, Trent Gillis of On Being posted a reflection about Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s final Christmas sermon. King’s feeling that we were a “bewildered human race. We have neither peace within nor peace without…” resonate now.  

The sermon goes on, though, to reminder us of the need for hope:

Yes, I am personally the victim of deferred dreams, of blasted hopes, but in spite of that I close today by saying I still have a dream, because, you know, you can’t give up in life. If you lose hope, somehow you lose that vitality that keeps life moving, you lose that courage to be, that quality that helps you go on in spite of all. And so today I still have a dream.

I leave these words here, as a reminder of what we must hold dear in 2016. Our students still have dreams. We do too. We must continue to push so that those dreams can reach the full majesty of their potential.


Protest image via Flickr: Fibonacci Blue
Quote image via Awo Okaikor Aryee-Price.


Students as Change-Makers: Pushing the Edge Podcast

Earlier this year, I had the chance to speak to the amazing Greg B. Curran for his podcast Pushing the Edge. We talked about what I’m learning and want to learn more about regarding student voice and agency, as well as the term “minority.”

You can listen to the episode here or find it on iTunes here. I had such a good time recording it, I hope you take a listen! Plus, I sound like a SoCal-hippie teacher about 25% of the time (28:15 is my favorite, and I would like, “Man, are we teaching kids to think about the SYSTEM?!” to be on a t-shirt), which PJ and I had a good laugh over.

The Small Sprigs of Hope

This post starts with a life update, since it’s been a while.

This past week was Halloween. Normally, Halloween is a bit upsetting. It’s usually got a lot of crappy, racist/sexist/culturally appropriative costumes that make me squirm or make me angry. This year, though, Halloween was pretty great.


My students were adorable; every costume was fun and not offensive. Huzzah! The only Día de Muertos display came from our Spanish teacher, who dressed as La Catrina and taught kids not already in her class about the actual holiday.

Later that night, my guy and I went out in Waikiki which, while crazy, was actually a pretty great time.

Then, of course, I just had to go on facebook.

Which, you know, wasn’t so bad at first! After understanding what facebook is for me, I’ve come to either just accept things or hit that “unfollow” button, so I can sort of disengage (which I imagine others have done to me). I don’t want an echo chamber, but I think ensuring my space and time are what I need is also healthy.

Then, I stumbled onto the page of someone I had unfollowed already. I should’ve known better because the first few posts already had me like

and then reading the comments I was all I sighed and felt some part of my psyche beginning to suit up. I felt compelled to call them out (and perhaps complicit if I didn’t). Everything I was seeing was so against what I believe to be right, and I have spent so much time in the online world having these discussions, that I instinctually began readying myself to join in a sprint of having this conversation.

Then, I stepped back for a second and thought,

Did I really even know this person? Did I actually care about their opinion or if they changed? If I had unfollowed them in the first place, why was I about to jump into the pit of ridiculous argument with no real outcome? Was it worth my time, energy and frustration?

So, I did something different.

There was something so freeing about this moment. Part of it was that, as I’m growing up, it’s good to realize that I don’t need to deal with everyone. Some people just need to be let go.

The other, though, is that I found a small sliver of hope where I often struggle. I normally see conversations about appropriation or privilege and cringe. I feel angry and, mostly, helpless.

Lately, though, there’s been a shift within me. The more I see people having these conversations, those of echos of hope have started to reach me. Even more importantly, though, is that the more I have these conversations with my students, the more confident I feel that we’re pushing each other towards actual change. 

Last week, as my 7th graders read The House on Mango Street, they got a brief lesson on White flight. Today they’re exploring gender identity and expectations. My 9th graders are deep into To Kill a Mockingbird, and already making connections about bias, perception, and racism. They are pushing me to think more deeply. They are asking the questions, and even if we don’t agree, I’m so proud of them for thinking about it.

So, that’s fine, person on Facebook. Let your fragility allow you to be complacent as a half-way “ally.” Accept cultural appropriation and enjoy the commercialization of my people this Halloween.

For now.

I’m not stressing. On a larger scale, I am feeling more assured in Dr. King’s words about that long arc bending towards justice.  I am believing, more and more, that tides will turn. I am hopeful for the day when what you perceive as “small potatoes” will get called out as signs of larger beliefs we don’t accept anymore. So, someone else can teach you another day.

Who knows? Maybe it’ll be one of my students.

Cross That Line – On Viola Davis and Representation

When I was sixteen, I was sure I was going to be an actress.

I ended up initially getting admitted into USC as a theater student. There are lots of reasons I didn’t continue with a career in acting, the biggest being I realized I didn’t actually love it. It was also clear from my first few years in “the industry” just how few stories there were for people who looked like me. The ones that did exist were only showing in then-small theaters like CASA0101.

It also felt like the stories that did exist would never let someone like me in them. “You’d make it a ‘Latina story’ if I cast you,” one person told me, apparently meaning it wouldn’t be marketable. I was asked if I could have a more “cholo” or “ghetto” accent. This is what it means to be Brown in Hollywood (and I’m sure it was far worse for those who pursued the career more seriously).

I have no doubt these structural issues continue. This is why seeing Viola Davis’s Emmy Acceptance Speech last night warmed me so much:

Davis is… amazing. She not only wins, but she uses her platform to call out systemic racism in Hollywood. Davis quotes Harriet Tubman and provides historical context for her speech, and she shares the win with other Black women.

There is still so far to go, but the sixteen-year-old actress in me smiled. Her speech is a source of strength and light for all young actresses and women of color out there. Viola Davis’s win and her subsequent speech show us that change can and must happen, because we will keep demanding it. Stories from people of color matter, and we deserve to play roles in those stories.  As Davis points out, these stories have the power to “redefined what it means to be beautiful, to be sexy, to be a leading woman, to be Black.” Her win confirms that the power of representation to expand the mindsets we can have about ourselves (and that white media will have about us).

Her speech also reminds us of this important truth: the work continues, and we win when we call out tough truths and support each other along the way. Bravo.

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.”