Some Bubbling Ideas

These aren’t fully formed thoughts but they are ideas I hope to pursue, either in school or after or just on the side via my writing here, in conceptual articles, or on the podcast.

  1. What is effective anti-racist (or more generally anti-oppressive) public scholarship? Can it be effective if it’s part of an oppressive system (academia, journals)? But if there’s no system, how can it be taken seriously by the systems that need to change? Accordingly, is a fully post-structual response useful, or is it better to create new structures?
  2. What truly moves a person along the anti-racism spectrum? I have possible answers, but I need to speak to people to find out and confirm my suspicions.
  3. Is there, in fact, a greater percentage than expected of “gifted” students of color who have mental health issues? (And then, greater than who, people in general, people at these schools, people of color in general?)
  4. How can “well-meaning” folks learn to see their own complicity in oppressive systems? I know how it happened for me, but does this have to be a purely intrinsically motivated change, or can it be fostered at all?

 

3 Circles

If you are familiar with what is now considered traditional ELT theory, you will remember the 3 circles, inner, outer, and expanding. Now, it’s nonsense (because language and nationality aren’t the same thing), but I want to overlay the concept onto something else.

When we talk about antiracist work (and especially for white folks), I think there are three ways to go about it, two that are necessary, and one that is basically counterproductive yet by far the most common.

First of all, there is deep, challenging internal work, genuine transformation that never really ends, where you understand how prevalent racism is, and you acknowledge how you’ve benefited from it (even if you’re otherwise marginalized – poor, female, LGBTQ, etc). This doesn’t mean that those other forms of marginalization don’t matter, as true antiracism is necessarily intersectional, but they don’t cancel each other out or something silly like that. This is, for an individual person, extremely important.

Second, there’s of course public policy – whether in a home, school, organization, locality, state, or nation-sate – that must be changed to depower white supremacy. This is the work we must all do. Part of my research seeks to interrogate whether, if policy was codified in Master’s program to include antiracist work, more teachers would be able to engage in the transformative work above, or if that work is truly random and intrinsically motivated.

And then there’s the third thing, the place where everyone seems to get stuck. Basically, this is believing that antiracism is an individual competition, where you don’t have to change internally or change policy for the many. For teachers, this means just, I guess I’ll throw some more black people into my curriculum (which you should do), but not challenging the structures around you and within you. Or, it’s bashing Trump and that style of overt racism without challenging policies that have had discriminatory impact around you. It’s going online to laugh at dumb racists (and there are plenty) without actually changing a single thing in your life aside from being glad you’re not that dumb.

Antiracism requires change (in this case, not just for white folks, but for anyone engaged in it). I know I get frustrated because I always realize I have so much more work to do, but that’s the point. In this society, the work is centuries from being finished. For someone like me who likes to be DONE with things to feel comfortable, I’m always going to be a little unsettled trying to do this work. And you should be too.

So if your antiracism is basically a series of memes and jokes about the Real Racists, you’re not helping. Do better. Push for policy – again, in any shared context – and do the work on yourself.

Tescher Problems indeed

I’m not going to link it, but if you go on twitter and look up #tescherproblems, you should find what I’m talking about. Yes, that spelling is intentional, because the tweet includes a typo.

There’s this account, ostensibly a humorous one, that talks about Teacher Problems. Monday, it asked its many followers for things students say that are annoying, using “I ain’t trippin'” as an example. Plenty of people (including me) pointed out that this was a common phrase in AAVE (African-American Vernacular English), though some would contend that the name AAVE is discriminatory. Point being, though, that there is nothing wrong with it.

The account would probably claim it’s just a joke. To me, the real problem is that so many (white) teachers agreed with it and added other things that seem to genuinely annoy them, such as “bruh,” and “you’re doing too much,” all examples of common AAVE phrases.

I can bet you that the teachers that did this don’t think they’re racist. In fact, they probably think that, by virtue of teaching kids of color, they’re immune from racism. Indeed, this is an example of how the altruistic shield works, because it protects them from any self-reflection and criticism that might force them to evolve.

I see this a lot though, not just on twitter. I have had friends who were public school teachers who made jokes about their students’ names. Colleagues who joked about the choices clients made. And I can bet you if I point out that these comments are demeaning and perpetuate oppression, they’d just tell me I had no sense of humor and freeze me out.

We’re all educators. We need to love our students. I’m not immune to finding this stuff funny, I surely did ten years ago, but not anymore. I think the first rule of education is to love your students, and it’s a shame that so few of us seem to show love and respect to everyone we teach.

Which Angle?

Most of my writing and eventual research comes from the angle of different types of racial theory, mostly because of the central conflict of my life, the desire for acceptance and refusal thereof in white spaces, regardless of my family income, and the resultant belief that it was silly to consider racism because of my social class.

Consequently, and especially because I care deeply about plenty of individuals with money, it’s more comfortable for me to focus on race while bringing in other forms of oppression alongside it. My work must be intersectional (though I hesitate to use that word, since that was specifically about being a woman of color when it was introduced) or it is of no use.

I worry sometimes that my focus on race will obscure the need for class reform and gender equity and the like. But I also know that I am not a credible messenger on topics with which I have little experience. I seek to include many forms of oppression in my work, but my angle will remain tied to race (and whiteness specifically) and, honestly, in this country, we are so bad at dealing with race that there’s plenty of work to be done in that realm.

But I do want to be clear that advocating for antiracist ideals does not mean I will pretend that we don’t also need to fight misogyny, ableism, and, of course, capitalism. They’re all tied together, but we can only use but so many lenses at a time or else the argument becomes muddlged and unclear.

Just know that the liberation I seek is expansive, even if the angle is specific.

The Dilemma

I came up with a really great idea yesterday, one that I think I can pursue as a research, theory, and conceptual focus in my writing for many years, regardless of what I end up doing professionally (because I’m going to write no matter what).

I want to share it with the public because I want to be sure it’s as good as I think it is, but I also don’t want to share it because it’s not yet fully formed.

It is a challenge for me to hold onto an idea for more than a short period. I get excited and I crave the response that sharing it brings. I’ve greatly enjoyed seeing that people are responding to my recent publication (which is here, by the way, and you should read it), but even that was hard to wait for because it took several months.

Nevertheless, I know, if this is as strong as I think it is, that it can wait until I get farther along into my studies and my other writing. I can keep it quiet as an end goal, the big idea I am building towards.

I think I know I need to keep it quiet because I know it will work. Stay tuned.

(Sort of) published!

I have (sort of) been published. It is not something I can really say is journal-level, though I do think journals, especially the exclusive, pay-walled kind, are outdated in a lot of ways. But in terms of being reviewed and approved by my peers, this is the first time my writing has been through others and then been released. My first official-official publication is pending (you will surely hear about it if it occurs), but this is cool. And those who have read it seem to find it resonant.

The article is here, though the formatting is awful on their site, so I would advise you to download the newsletter. I’m on page 7.

I won’t recap the whole thing, but the gist of the article is a debate I have with myself as to whether the racial discrimination in ELT should be referred to as racism, systemic racism, or white supremacy, and why. The conclusion I come to is that all of them are accurate, but that racism and white supremacy might cause far too much white fragility to be productive, and also using “systemic” is precise in that it forces people to stop thinking racism is the province of Bad Individuals. The fact that it seems to really resonate is genuinely special to me, and I want to remember this feeling.

The best thing about it, though, is that the theme of the issue is “diversity,” and that’s a dumb theme, and I made a point of saying so, and, surprisingly, they left it in. The pull quote is,

The use of the term diversity obscures the deeper issues at play, and is often diluted into a call for diversity of thought that contributes to ongoing racial erasure, leaving us precisely where we began.

And yes, I could indeed tag that as (Gerald, 2019). 🙂

 

Just Deserts

In some research I am doing, I have been looking at studies on “implicit bias,” which I’m sure you’ve heard of if you’re the type of person who reads what I write. Through all my searching, I only found two studies (really two parts of the same study) where a version of the Implicit Association Test was used with regard to the field of English Language Teaching, and in this case it was performed on students. So in my research methods class, I am proposing that we use this instrument on ELT professionals.

Yet that’s not very compelling to me. Will it show that, like every other group of people, ELT professionals also have implicit bias towards white people? Of course. And the evidence is weak that implicit bias can really be altered, as it seems to descend from a life of being influenced by a world that reifies the message that people of color are worth less than whites.

Accordingly, I’ve looked at a few studies on system justification and meritocracy, not so much on whether the system is truly just or meritocratic (it’s not!), but whether or not the participants believe they exist within a meritocracy. I have no particular justification for the claim I am about to make, but there is a thread I am trying to draw through the literature review I just submitted to my professor that suggests that there is a chance a person’s external beliefs can be changed, and even if not, their behavior might be malleable.

I say all this to say that I doubt it’s possible to erase implicit bias, regardless of the nonsense the NYC DOE is trying to do. So I spent some time thinking more deeply about what meritocracy really means, and I did the corny thing and straight up found the definition. There’s a curious word in there, and that word is “deserve.” Basically, in a meritocracy, people are to be rewarded according to what they deserve.

Most Americans believe their country is meritocratic, despite all evidence to the contrary. 

So what does it mean that they can see the system for what it is – and, similarly, they tend to believe things are rigged – yet also see it as meritocratic? It goes back to that word, “deserve.”

Simply put, we have, for centuries, taught that the status quo, which prioritizes the few over the many, is the only way, and though some have always pointed out how wrong this is, we tend to accept it at face value. Why? Because a part of us, without realizing it, believes that the people who have fewer rights deserve their station in life.

This could apply to all sorts of discrimination, but ultimately, when it comes to racism, my point is simple: people believe, simultaneously, that they are not racist but that racism is deserved, even though they would never express it as such.

Can this be changed? Probably not just through a debate or a conversation, hard though one might try. Maybe through an entire educational program that has yet to be developed. I think there is some real unexplored value in developing a theory about people’s opinions on who deserves what kind of treatment. I think that, ultimately, people really do give people exactly the amount of respect, consideration, and kindness that they feel they deserve, whether or not they realize this or are willing to express it. And I think if this could developed and analyzed, real change could occur.

People really do give people what they feel are their just deserts, within the confines of social obligations (eg, professional hierarchy), and it absolutely applies to racial discrimination. It’s something I’m going to think about and gather research on, and perhaps make it the focus of my conceptual work in early 2020. To paraphrase a well-known movie, deserve’s got everything to do with it, much as we might pretend otherwise.

 

A Dream Coming Into Focus

The class I’m enjoying the most this fall is a research seminar where we basically get time to deeply consider the direction of our work and pursuits. We’ve only had 2 sessions (vs 4 of the other classes) and will only have two more, but in just these two times, I’ve gone from basically being completely uncertain about where to go with my research to pretty well set.

Leaving aside the particulars of quant/qual and the actual work I hope to publish, let me tell you about a dream I have.

These days, most English Language Teachers are, as I’ve said before, Teachers of Standardized English, even if they don’t refer to themselves that way. They’re mostly white, like any group of educators, and there is, in my view, a not-great undercurrent of savior syndrome in the field. It’s not bad for a job to be fulfilling, but too many of us see our job as some sort of charity, and unless we’re volunteering (which some ELT folks are, but still), it’s still a job with professional standards and expectations. I want this image to die.

What I want to do isn’t to make English stop being taught. That’s silly, because, for all the railing I could do about colonialism and racism, people still move to places where the language is spoken and want to acquire it. But imagine this, if you will: An adult moves to New York and, like their relatives before them, is absorbed into a community of their home language. They want to go to school and/or work, so they decide they need to acquire more English. They don’t have the money to pay for a private language academy, and they hear about a nonprofit or another organization that offers free or low-cost classes. So they go and sign up and return for the first day of class. If this was happening now (and it is probably happening literally today), they get to their first class and it’s a smiling white woman, and the student has about a 50/50 chance of leaving before the session ends. But imagine they get to class and there’s a teacher from their own community at the front of the room. Imagine someone who knows their experience existing in a world that oppresses them racially and culturally. The person doesn’t necessarily have to speak their language – in NYC, you can’t be expecting everyone to speak every language, after all – but just that sharead experience would go a long way. I remain convinced – and there’s research backing me up, though not in the same context – that part of the reason my classes were so well-attended at my last job was the shared experience of being something of an outsider, even though it wasn’t always voiced.

I don’t mean to say we should kick out the good teachers we have. No. But there are always new Standardized English teachers being developed, and especially since it’s often a second career type of thing, we have the opporunity – and, I’d argue, the obligation – to change the new faces we place in these spaces.

How do we get there? The work I hope to do would catalogue how often race and other forms of oppression are part of new Standardized English teachers’ syllabi and/or lessons, and then I would speak to professors who emphasize these issues to have them share why these topics are so important for new teachers to learn. From there, if I can publish on these things, I can find work promoting these ideas, and maybe the industry can grow and change in some small way. Maybe.

For now, it’s just a dream, but at the very least, it’s never been clearer and more tangible than it is now.

Of Two Minds

I feel as though I’m of two minds at all times when it comes to the work I am doing (and hope to continue doing) in the field. So these are some conflicted thoughts I have that I believe others committed to social justice in education can relate to.

On the one hand, I would prefer never to publish in journals that the public (and really, I just mean the educator public, since other folks probably won’t care) can’t access without paying. I think open-source is the future and it’s the only fair way.

On the other hand, the open-source journals don’t carry the same weight as PRESTIGE. And you need the Names to do a lot of things in academic or academic-adjacent work.

On the one hand, there is so much I want to write and say that is critical of the education I have received thus far and how I feel I’ve been let down, particularly as a learner of color.

On the other hand, would I not be in the position I am in to write the way that I write had I not attended these institutions? Can I prove the counterfactual that I’d be better off had I studied in other places? I cannot. It’s a sample size of one, and there’s no control group, to be a wonk about it.

On the one hand, I want to shout that there is such a poor understanding of the ordinariness of systemic racism that, yes, you can perpetuate it even if you’re a “good person.” I have perpetuated it too.

On the other hand, to make any progress, I’ll need support from a broader community, and I can’t be running around with a rhetorical flamethrower this early in my career.

On the one hand, any writing and presentations I do may make more of a splash if provocative.

On the other hand, they’re likelier to just not be accepted/published, or, if they are, just make a splash while sinking to the bottom after a short burst of activity. Provocation isn’t sustainable, because you just end up chasing it instead of doing good work after a while.

This last point is the crux of the internal debate I have now made external: it might feel cathartic to poke people, but it’s not very productive to make that a goal in itself. If it happens, be prepared, embrace it, roll with it. But if you just want to shake people up for its own sake, you won’t really succeed for more than half a second, even though the system does need to be shaken to its core.

So that leaves all of us, with a clear-eyed view of what needs to change, looking for small ways to chip away at a mountain. By the time it’s reshaped we won’t be here, but the small steps are worth taking anyway. At least that’s what I choose to tell myself. On the other hand…

 

 

Laugh to Keep from Crying

This story. If you don’t want to click through, a white female news anchor watches a cute gorilla make faces at a camera and then tells her black male co-anchor that he “kinda looks like” him.

That’s bad enough, and she was internet-dragged for it (and made a tearful apology the next day, which he verbally accepted, and she will never think about it again).

But what I want to focus on is his response. He laughed, and said, “he kinda does.”

Now, I don’t need to teach you the history of black people being compared to various ape-like creatures. This man doesn’t need that explained to him in any way (although that lady surely does). Those stereotypical images are so ingrained in our national psyche that this person probably didn’t even think before she made the association (which just makes it a different kind of bad, to be clear).

I am focusing on this because, not to get too deep, but I think about my own experiences in various educational institutions, where classmates or teachers have done some really messed up things, and my response was usually just to laugh.

The sad thing is, though I remember a lot of these, how many occurred that I just blocked out of my mind because it was easier to go along to get along?

The time my history teacher, for no particular reason, made a point of describing how, during his time in the Army, black solders walked “with a hippity-hop,” and, far worse, how everyone turned to look at me to see what I thought, but no one said anything. What could I have really done? He was beloved. And frankly, I liked him – I still do, I saw him briefly last year. It’s easier just to laugh.

There are a few studies on racial microaggressions, cataloguing experiences, but the laughter, I think is an interesting subject. As I bat around ideas to fully focus on when it becomes dissertation time, the exploration of laughter as both protection for the marginalized and weapons for the majoritized is a topic I feel deserves further scrutiny.

We’ll see if there’s something I can do with this.