Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Lady Instructor Suffers for YOU

I finally did something that I've been avoiding - I watched Precious. And it was just as depressing and infuriating as I expected it to be, but I made myself watch it with the intent that I could write a blog entry about it, in the hopes that spewing my opinions into space would somehow provide catharsis.

Yes, I know, I'm such a poor little white person who is whining about just watching something that is some people's lives.

Anyway, for the three people who weren't paying attention (unlikely that those three will intersect with the three who read this blog, but oh well), Precious, based on the book Push by Sapphire, is about a black, obese 16 year old who is pregnant for the second time (a product of her father raping her), reading at a 2nd grade level, and physically abused daily by her mother. Oh, and she's living on welfare in the ghetto. Oh, and she's HIV positive.

This is the type of story where just as you're thinking "THIS CANNOT GET ANY WORSE", things get worse. Did I mention the HIV? Oh, and her oldest daughter is named Mongoloid and has Down's Syndrome.

This movie is like the physical representation of intersectionality (called "Double Jeopardy") in the textbook I use for my class, which is a dumb term because it implies that no one belongs to more than one minority group, but I digress). Intersectionality occurs when an individual is disadvantaged by belonging to more than one minority group - in Precious' case, she is black, poor, a woman, and fat. Each is a strike against her, and if three strikes are out, imagine what four is like.

I wondered as I went into the movie if my viewing of it would be biased by the utterly fantastic Gabourey Sidibe (playing Precious), who was not an actress before auditioning for this movie and who has released a series of interviews in which she is fabulous, funny, and utterly unapologetic about her weight despite the best attempts of all to suggest that she should be. In short, I have kind of a girl crush on her. I also very much enjoy Mo'Nique (playing Precious' mother Mary), particularly after she did not shave her legs before attending the Golden Globes in a floaty knee length dress. However, both women handle these parts fantastically, particularly Mo'Nique who almost makes you feel sorry for a woman who has allowed her boyfriend to abuse his daughter for 13 years and who beats and sexually abuses Precious on a daily basis.

This movie also features Mariah Carey with no makeup on! In frumpy clothes! Playing an overworked and ineffective social worker. In one hilarious exchange, Precious asks Mariah's character what race she is. Mariah coyly responds, "what race do you think I am?" Precious refuses to answer. A perfect summation of our fascination with and embarrassment about classifying everyone in our culture.

As I watched Precious as she is admitted to an alternative school and begins to change her life circumstances for the better, I wondered how my students would respond to this movie. I thought immediately of two negative reactions that I can imagine some having:

1) Perfect example of how black people harm themselves through their lifestyle. Mary is abusing welfare by claiming both Precious and Mongoloid as dependents, even though "Mongo" lives with her great-grandmother and Mary certainly is providing a dangerous home life for Precious and not bothering to better herself or look for a job. Without a historical understanding of how black people have become an urban underclass, or the belief that there is such a thing as institutional racism, Mary's predicament becomes entirely her own fault.

2) This is so over the top that it can't actually be real. Or, alternatively, this is a typical black experience. Precious has been criticized for presenting such a bleak view of life in the ghetto, with the perspective that no, this is not a typical or even a common life for black people in America, even those who live in the ghetto. And that criticism is accurate. However, I think that the movie itself addresses those concerns. Precious' terrible circumstances are shocking to everyone - the social worker, the tireless teacher at the alternative school who becomes Precious' hero - people who see the worst the ghetto has to offer. They are not presented as common or everyday.

Authors of stories about minorities are often accused of not representing an accurate experience of that group in whatever society they are writing about. This isn't fair - we don't ask that stories about white people represent every white person's experience. Sapphire chose to tell a story about one individual trapped in a horrific situation and we shouldn't demand of her that she tell the story of all black people everywhere. The reactions of outsiders (who are either black or ambiguous, like Mariah, but who are not white) give us all the clues we should need that Precious does not represent the experience of all ghetto inhabitants.

But she does represent the experience of some, or combines the experience of many. Poverty, poor schooling, sexual, physical, and emotional abuse, rape, teenage motherhood, bullying - perhaps few young black women experience all of these, but many experience some of these. And we can examine Precious' story to see how intersectionality contributed to her situation.

Let's say, for example, that Precious wasn't poor, wasn't black, wasn't fat, wasn't a woman. How would those modifications have altered her story? Could this story happen to a middle class white man? Well, sure. Barring the pregnancy part. Would it be as likely to happen to a middle class white man? Arguably, no, it wouldn't. Middle class white children are more likely to be protected by the system instead of oppressed by the system.

So here I am walking a tightrope. I argue that Precious represents an exception, but then argue that she also represents a system of oppression shared by a much larger group of people than if we examine the experience of middle-class white men. So which is it? Precious represents the worst excesses of a system that systematically oppresses poor black women. She is the poster child for the way our society fails these groups, and in Precious' case she has been failed almost completely (at least until the point the movie begins). She is the exception and the norm, representing neither, underscoring both.

And she is strong. "Yesterday I cried." She says. "But fuck that day. That's why God or whoever makes new days."

Sunday, March 28, 2010


One of my students has informed us all that if we hadn't given "fire water" to those Indians, this mess never would have happened.

Her comment, overall, was sympathetic.

But jeez, word choice?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Quick Post: Tolerance sucks

"Tolerance is a shitty contract between the privileged and the oppressed.

The privileged agree to “tolerate” otherness and difference as long as the other doesn’t make demands upon fighting for rights or equal treatment under law.

The other agrees to not challenge privilege in exchange for a false sense of security."

From AngryBlackBitch, full post here

Right on!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Belief in Racial Equality and Belief in the American Dream

I've spent a lot of time considering why many of my students seem to be so resistant to the idea of systematic institutional racism. I can show them graphs and charts and reports and statistics that demonstrate institutional racism, such as this graph showing that the highest white unemployment rate ever recorded in the US (9.1% in 1984), is about the same as the lowest black unemployment rate ever recorded in the US (about 9.1%, in 2001). Or this study, which found that having a stereotypically "black" name on a resume means that you are called for an interview 50% less often than having a stereotypically "white" name on the exact same resume. Or this chart, demonstrating that white men with a criminal record are called for an interview more often than black men with no criminal record.

That's just in employment and the workforce. Health care, education, criminal justice - all of these have their own depressing and enlightening studies that demonstrate a devastating pattern of racism.

My students react to this information in one of four ways: complete shock, resigned agreement (this generally from minority students who are already well aware that society is out to screw them over, thankyouverymuch), complete denial, or ignoring me. It's the last two that I am concerned with today.

Often students will rally to vigorously defend their worldview, informing me that my statistics are skewed or just plain wrong. They often fall back on two explanations for their position: personal experience or "lifestyle".

The former nonscientific position is basically, "well, I've never seen any racism in my workplace or in my community, so there isn't any". I gently remind these (usually white) students that their experience may be different from others, and that their anecdotes are not comparable to a well-performed study.

The latter, more frustrating, insulting, and generally impossible to argue with position is basically, "minorities (particularly blacks) are responsible for their own problems in our society because of their poor lifestyle choices". I respond more directly to these attacks by saying something like, "it sounds like you believe that black people are, as a whole, lazier than white people." I feel a responsibility to stick up for the non-white students in my class who have to hear this bullshit and who have been informed that anger is not a viable response. Students who take this second position are often impossible to shift from their little world of denial.

Sometimes, it is minority students who stick most fiercely to this second position. I'll cover this phenomenon more completely in a later post.

My husband and others have professed disbelief as to why someone would remain so convinced that there was no institutional racism in the face of such overwhelming evidence. Well, for one thing my class may be the first time ever that my students even hear about institutional racism (thanks, Texas Textbook Commission). It is a new, overwhelming, and scary idea that challenges everything my students think they know about the world.

Specifically, it challenges the American Dream, and this is why I face such resistance.

Every American has their own version of the American Dream, but most involve some kind of ever-increasing wealth and prosperity. Children doing better than their parents. Self-reliance, determination, hard work, and pulling oneself up by one's own bootstraps are all popular aspects of the Dream. Some Americans have already achieved this, have made their millions and are content at the top. These people are not in my Associate's Degree level classes.

There is no room in the lexicon of the Dream for someone (never mind a group of someones) for whom success is out of reach. For someone who has glass ceilings and glass walls that are pushing in around them - someone for whom a job at McDonalds is a major score. Institutional racism, sexism, classism - these show us that for some people success is difficult or impossible. Not through any fault of their own, but because despite their efforts they are battering themselves against a glass box that may never crack.

No! My students tell me, almost frantically. It is the individual who determines success or failure! If I work hard enough I can make it too! Luck - this they are willing to discuss. Privilege - no way.

My students are caught in the web of the American Dream and are dedicated to belief in it so that they can continue to propel themselves forward. I have had students who were formerly homeless, addicted, or abused. Students who have worked in retail, fast-food, or factories for their entire adult lives, and are dreaming of something better. They don't want to hear that it will be more difficult for them to reach their dreams, and who can blame them?

Everyone can succeed in America. We need to believe that, sometimes, just to keep going. Reality may be too painful.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Lessons Learned From Faculty Workshops

Enrolled in a three-day faculty workshop designed to get instructors used to the online classroom (where most of the participants have already taught classes).

Lesson learned? Teachers ask the same dumb questions that my students do! The same questions that have already been answered at least once, and possibly twice, by our instructor!

Also: assignment included watching an online video that did not have subtitles. The Deaf teacher was not amused.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A misunderstanding of percentages

I say this: "White people go to college and graduate in higher numbers than black people, as you can see in this graph".

My student's response? "Well obviously, there are more white people than black people in the US so of course more white people go to college. You are WRONG about that institutional racism thing."*

My students think I am dumb, you guys.

*All quotes are paraphrased

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Seeing Race

I titled this blog "Seeing Race" because of the number one comment I hear from my students: "I don't even see race!"

People, I cannot tell you how much hearing this pisses me off.

First of all, it is complete bullshit. Sure, when you have a close friend you don't think of them in terms of their race. You think of their sense of humor, of the good times you had together, of the way you can sit in a coffee shop and talk with them for hours, of that book of theirs you've had for six years and should probably return, of that time you got drunk with them in college... etc. At some point their race isn't the first thing you notice but you definitely know what their race is.

And when you meet someone for the first time, you quickly perform three observations: 1) gender, 2) race, 3) age. Is this person a man or a woman? What race do I think that they are? And are they about my age? Following that are all the other things you notice.

But race is for sure in the top three. And to claim otherwise is just so ridiculous. Not only is someone's race generally pretty obvious, our society places a high importance on race. The most important calculation (white or not white?) is possible 95% of the time (although personal definitions of "white" may vary).

When we can't tell what race someone is (if they are mixed-race, from an unfamiliar part of the world, or whatever), we file that away. Eventually, if we become friends with this person, we'll probably ask about any mixed signals we can't clear up ourselves. I think it took me about a month to ask one friend, who I believed was Indian, what was up with her Hispanic-sounding last name. And then I got to learn about Portuguese settlers in India. See, I get to learn something and everyone wins!

I would surmise that some people probably become a little anxious if they are unable to determine the race of a new acquaintance, just as some may become quite anxious if they are unable to determine gender. This distress may be entirely subconscious, but I bet it's there.

When my students tell me that they don't "see race", I'm tempted to respond, "and how long have you been blind?"*

It's silly to pretend that we don't notice race, so why do my students spend so much energy lying to me, their classmates, and themselves?

We are all the same. Race doesn't matter. Treat everyone equally.

We have spent so much time shoving these platitudes down each others' throats that we have been reduced to claiming that we don't even see black skin, epicanthic folds, blue eyes, or any of the other racial indicators. So we insist on showing everyone that we have taken these values to heart in such a degree that we boast about our cluelessness.

In contrast to the peasants in the children's story The Emperor's New Clothes, insisting they could see what wasn't there, we shout over each other in desperate competition to be the most ignorant about what is the most obvious.

And if we don't even "see race", how can we talk about it? How can we celebrate our different cultures? How can we explore the race related problems that continue to taint our society? We can't. Because we are just so awesome, so above the problem, that we claim to not even notice it.

When my students say that they don't "see race", they are really telling me that they don't see the continued prejudice and discrimination suffered by minority groups.

*I've always wondered if blind individuals identify race when meeting a new person. Do they rely on cues like accent? Do they ask other sighted people? What are the other non-visual clues that I, as a sighted person, am completely unaware of?

Saturday, March 13, 2010


After listening to another of my stories about my students' opinions on race, a friend of mine poked me suspiciously.

"What?" I asked.

"I was wondering how you were managing to talk to me all the way from 1962." She replied.

And that is why I began this blog. I teach "Multiculturalism" to Associates Degree students at a well known, accredited university. When I began, I was shocked to hear many of the opinions my students were freely sharing with me, viewpoints that expose the strong current of racism and prejudice that still exists in our society.

"Racist" is one of the worst labels that can be applied to someone in our supposed post-race society. So naturally, none of my students think that they are one. Or know one. And everyone agrees that stereotypes are bad - except for the stereotypes they believe.

In this blog I will explore what my students believe, why they believe it, and the techniques that I use to introduce new ideas into their worldviews. I welcome your comments.