Tag Archives: privilege

On This Incredible Day

I returned to class to find that one of my students had taken some liberties with a poster hanging on the door. He/she had taped a picture of Sweet Brown, a Black woman made infamous for her reaction to a fire. She essentially became a viral sensation for all the wrong reasons.

Anyhow, her particular response, “I ain’t got time for dat” was what was posted. While I wasn’t shocked when I saw the meme, I was…disappointed, I guess. That’s the beauty about insensitivity and all that’s wrapped up with it (racism, classism, sexism)–when it hits you in the face, you have to deal with it. I mean, I could have simply ignored it, took the poster off the wall, tossed it in the recycling bin, made a comment under my breath about “these kids” and kept it moving.

I didn’t, though. I told the kids that I was bothered by the poster for several reasons, the greatest among them being that it traded in stereotypes. That it made fun of someone who was Black, poor, from a region of the country that was different from ours. And I’m sure I fumbled around for some other words, but I tried to raise awareness, but I also intentionally made a point not to preach. Preaching gets you nowhere. You’re better than this, I said, simply, finishing with something like I need you to be the people that ask questions about what we see, that make things right, that don’t do what’s easy because it’s funny.

On the fly, when grappling with issues like these, I can either be dynamite or dismal. I think I was probably somewhere in the middle: I was tired, I was annoyed and I was, as I said, disappointed. I mean, we’d had some breakthroughs already in class, addressing issues of oppression and inequality, so when this incident reminded me of how much further we all must go…yeah, I was fumbling and stumbling for my words.

I gave the same speech to all the classes. I will probably never know who did it, but at least the message was consistent: you’re better than that. We don’t trade in stereotypes in this classroom. Ask critical questions and make some change in the world.

That night, while checking my email, I found that one of my students had sent me a link to an article about ironic racism, Antoine Dodson and Sweet Brown. He asked if I could send it out on the class Twitter, thought it germane for the conversation earlier that day.

OMG. They GET IT! At least one of them does. All it takes is one, right?!

I can’t quite describe that moment: me sitting at the desk, with some cynicism attempting to dampen my spirits, and there’s this kid’s email…

Next day, I read the article to the group and explain that said student gave me the language I needed to express my frustration: ironic racism. We had some brief discussion and I posted the article, both on Twitter and on the FYI wall (the announcements section of the room).

I am so grateful to him first for being an ally (because I have few kids of color in my classes this year), for being able to speak truth to power, for giving ME the language to use…for taking responsibility for helping us all understand why we need to wake up and pay attention.

Yup. It happened. On that one incredible day.

And I can quickly summarize that in the days after, I ended up having some moving conversations with kids about awareness, about their own anger that people weren’t more outraged, about being invited to bring my fourth period to an assembly for LGBTQ awareness…all small steps to moving us in a positive direction.

I also realized that I, too, have a choice. I can be disappointed in the kids, or I can be heartened that–together–we can string together more incredible days, where events such as this happen.

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Filed under Equity, New School Chronicles

Re-Envisioning the Dinner Table

I was between places for about two weeks. It was an experience I found both unsettling (where to put my dogs, my stuff, my BOOKS?!) and freeing (once the dogs were in their favorite kennel, that left me copious time to loiter in book stores, see neglected friends, attempt to dig myself out of the mishegas that had somehow become my life). It was also during this time that some great friends offered me a place to stay. One of them was a teacher and we’d spend moments here and there throughout those weeks chatting about teaching. She teaches in the city, in an under-resourced school, and she’s amazing because she just gets it done. She does not allow the fact that they are poor, or second-language learners, or have a disability prevent her from teaching them to be great.

I often reflect on moving to the suburbs and now back into the city, the differences between the two places. Finally, in one of our conversations about Lisa Delpit and cultural capital and all that stuff that’s difficult yet critical to discuss, we hit upon it: Kids who are privileged–in whatever ways they are privileged–have incredible opportunities to sit around a dinner table and soak in knowledge. So it might not matter that something is “missed” in school in favor of test prep or remediation. A parent or someone is going to probably mention some fact, or concept, or build background information, fill in those gaps.

For many underserved kids, they don’t have those opportunities. This is not a pity party, so hold on. They have plenty of strengths, but–and I’m channeling Theresa Perry here–they don’t have someone/anyone systematically handing over knowledge and cultural capital in any consistent format.

About a week ago, I took up another friend on her offer to have dinner, the night after I’d moved into my new place (finally). Of course I took her up on that! We enjoyed this stick-to-your-ribs soup and then, the parents of another family that was there, too, asked their son about a quiz he had the next day.

The cities in Japan. They quizzed him. Then, because he couldn’t name all the cities, they printed out a map of Japan, labeled the cities with him, and then proceeded to come up with a creative mnemonic for him to remember on his quiz the next day.

I was in awe: it was exactly what I meant about the handing over of cultural capital AT THE DINNER TABLE.

I could not have scripted a better moment if I’d tried.

Now what if we re-envisioned the dinner table, took it out of our houses (for those that even have those things, and let’s be real–not all kids do) and brought it to places where kids could sit down and “eat,” as it were? What if we encouraged kids (and adults, too, most likely) to pull up a table and give them the nourishment that they need?

Classrooms can be such places, yes. Wherever these spaces crop up, shouldn’t we hand over the cultural capital in a way that allows them to walk in the world as more knowledgeable, more brilliant young people?

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Filed under Equity, Writing About Race

New School Chronicles: What Poverty Smells Like

After growing up poor, you have a particular type of respect for your parents’ ability to keep that vital bit of information from you. I grew up dirt poor; seriously, I think at one point our household income might have been less than $18,000. Raised by my grandparents, I remember that they often didn’t have to file taxes because they didn’t make enough. But there was always money for essentials and some extras. True, I envied what my more affluent peers had, but my grandmother always told me that I could do whatever I set my mind to.

Years later, I guess that one of the things I set my mind to was getting the hell out of poverty. I had an unbelievable network of folks (Black and White, mostly White, actually), that had an unwavering support in my potential. More, they helped me reach that potential in myriad ways: small gifts, jobs, connections.

When I taught in the city, I always made a conscious decision to live in the neighborhood where I taught. That’s meant living within a mile of one of the poorest areas of Boston. Recently, I moved to another part of the city. Before, though I lived in that poor area, I lived on particular street that was middle class (some parts even upper middle class). So, I could straddle two worlds: walk to my school and then turn the corner on the way home and think I was in the suburbs. Now, though, I live in an area where I don’t have that escape. I live in a food desert (well, there is a Save-A-Lot), where liquor stores outnumber any other stores, high immigrant population, significant areas of crime (because I obsess about crime stats)…and my street is quiet and tree-lined, but this time, it’s not enough.

Where I live reminds me, too uncomfortably, about being poor. I don’t like such reminders.

And now I have this interesting moment wherein I’m always quick to acknowledge someone else’s privilege, but I best acknowledge my own. See, I’m moving out. After one month, I’m moving BACK to my old, middle class neighborhood because I want to live around people with similar “middle class values.” I do not like the way my apartment smells–a blend of despair, mold, diminishing dreams–the litter that’s everywhere, the sadness that lingers as I walk to the bus stop.

I am privileged. I have savings. I can move. I have friends who are willing to put me up while I’m in between places. I have a choice. I am Black and middle class and I have privilege.

I’ve run into a number of former students (ALWAYS) in my new location. They are all surprised that I live over here, some even ask me if I am “okay” for making such a choice. But THEY live here. This neighborhood is their daily reality, this neighborhood is the place where they grew up, where their families still reside.

They do not necessarily see it as hopeless, and I shouldn’t, either. Some do, but some don’t. Every kid’s experience is different.

But with privilege comes responsibility. I have a choice, after all: I could move back to the old neighborhood, think of this one-month stint as an “adventure” and keep living my relatively comfortable life. Or, I could act on this new information and use it to have a more nuanced understanding of what it means to be Black and Brown and poor as a young person today. I could start being much more responsible for advocating for initiatives that directly benefit these kids. I could understand–I mean, REALLY understand— that just because you’re Black and Brown and poor does not mean you are stupid or have no potential.

I could…

In the last week, I’ve been able to articulate why I have been so uncomfortable in my present situation. I do not want to be reminded of being poor. That is my privilege. Yes, I’m a Black woman, but I’m highly educated and I have the options to choose my life. As someone with that privilege, it’s my responsibility to use that privilege to make the lives of the kids I teach who don’t have that privilege better.

It just is.

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