Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Picking your battles

New class, new students, new issues. Classes started for me last Monday, and as always the beginning of a class is a period of feeling everyone out - I begin to get an idea of individual student mindsets, opinions, and personalities, and they try to figure out what kind of a teacher I am.

Sometimes I am deluged by so much from a student that I don't know where to begin. For example, this opinion that a student expressed in a reaction paper about minorities in his community (paraphrased, of course):

"My community received a lot of African American refugees from Katrina and now white people are a minority group (or they will be at the next census). There is a lot of racism against white people because black people can go into the welfare office and get food stamps even if they have $500 phones, and white families can't get food stamps even if they are struggling."


There are three issues in this short paragraph:

1) Unclear on what the term "minority" means
2) Racist perception of how welfare, etc, is determined and distributed
3) Earnest stress and unhappiness about change in his community.

Which do I tackle?

Although personally I find #2 to be the most problematic, this is the one I don't respond to. At least, not in this arena. Instead, I focus here on #1 and #3.

1) Unclear on what the term minority means

Two sub-issues here:
  • Minority is a confusing word
  • The definition of minority and distinction of who "counts" as a minority requires acceptance of an assumption that many students just can't do.
I'm not crazy about the word minority, because it is confusing. One can be without being in the minority without being a minority. Students often have trouble with this. If white people are in the minority in their community, why aren't white people a minority group? I've decided to continue using this term anyway, because the other term suggested their text is "subordinate group", and many students were uncomfortable and insulted at the idea that non-whites (or non-males, etc) are "subordinate" to anyone. Again, a conflict between what the words mean in general language use, and what they mean to a sociologist or social scientist.

Even if our definitions are the same (and we have gotten over all the weird exceptions, like Amish as a minority group even though they are white because they are a ethnic minority due to their religion and lifestyle - someone always brings up the Amish), many students balk at the definition of minority.

In order to accept the term "minority", you have to realize that the definition hinges on the assumption that some groups are disadvantaged in our society. That is a huge hurdle for many students, who believe that there is no more racism. We've begun to tentatively discuss the ways that non-whites are oppressed, and I can feel the challenge building. Sometime this week, I predict that one or more students will openly challenge the idea that racism still exists.

3) Earnest stress and unhappiness about change in the community

Students often complain about major race-related changes in their community (especially the influx of large numbers of Hispanics), often beginning this sentence with a hesitant "I'm-not-racist-but..."

Is it racist to be unhappy about racial change in your community? Well, the unease here certainly stems from racists beliefs and attitudes, perhaps held at a deeply subconscious level. But the expression of this unhappiness is natural, understandable, and very human.

Who wouldn't be at least a little uneasy if their beloved (or at least familiar) community began to dramatically change into something unfamiliar? New people, strangers, who behave in different ways, speak different languages, and cause things to change. Both large-scale (Spanish on street signs) and small-scale (new Mexican section in grocery store means I can't find the items I usually buy). Change is always difficult, and change on this scale leaves the individual feeling like they have no control over their lives and overwhelmed by the newness around them.

When coupled with the racist opinions of the society at large (Mexicans don't keep their yards clean, they don't care about learning English, they don't really like America, they're just here to send money home), it's no wonder that this unease and unhappiness often erupts in a racial way. At some level we are programmed to dislike change and distrust outsiders. It's easy to use race or ethnicity as a target to dispel some of these negative feelings.

Furthermore, there is no appropriate outlet to discuss these issues. My students often don't even like to mention them, and when they do they qualify them ("I'm-not-racist-but"), because they've been taught that race is something we don't talk about. You're a bad person for even noticing cultural differences.

How can someone not notice large-scale cultural differences like those between majority-WASP communities and majority-Hispanic communities? You would have to be completely oblivious. But this is what we expect ourselves to be. It's natural to have feelings of unhappiness over change, and it's necessary to talk about these feelings.

So I never excoriate students for feeling unhappy that their communities are changing; instead I sympathize with them, reminding them that change is very hard. I want them to talk about their unease. I want them to explore its roots and causes. And ultimately, I want them to realize that their ideas about this new and strange culture are mostly based on false stereotypes, and I want to encourage them to reach out to their new neighbors. But I'm not magic, and this takes time.

So those are the battles that I pick. For now, I ignore #2.

Why do I ignore #2? Why is that the battle that I leave alone?

Because it will come up in our discussion later this week. It does every single time.

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