Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Square Peg, Round Hole: Is My Form of Allyship Enough or Too "Neutral?"

Like many people lately, I have been doing the work of examining and re-examining my position and roles within the society to which I belong, unwilling to be a passive observer of the pain of others, unwilling to look away, and certainly unwilling to claim that the realities of inequality are in any way overblown or "fake news." Continuing to social-distance, I've watched protests and rallies on the television and followed the tweet-reporting of news outlets and citizen journalists, focusing in on hashtags close to home from the places where I shop, eat, socialize, and work. I've read articles and posts such as "75 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice" by Corinne Shutack, grateful to discover links to additional news outlets such as Blavity and The Root to help broaden my perspective. Not much of this process has been terribly pretty, and despite whatever expression I'm wearing in photos or videos that I've shared or tone I've expressed on social media over the past two weeks, I've been a blotchy, red-nosed and swollen-eyed crier.  My heart hurts, and there is a large part of me that is very glad that it does.

During an education-related Twitter chat I shared and attended yesterday, I responded to several prompts and content provided by the moderators related to societal racism and teachers' roles in helping to dismantle it by being allies and actively identifying themselves as "anti-racists." Participants shared resources, experiences, ideas, and responded to and asked a lot of tough questions in an effort to better recognize, understand, and change, if necessary, pedagogical practices that allow and support ongoing racism within our nation's classrooms and schools.  Participants demonstrated transparency, expressed emotions, articulated their hopes and intentions, and for the most part, met one another (as we know to do with students) right where one another was at. But I have found Twitter chats (like many other social media platforms) to be an awkward framework, especially when full-fledged discussions are better supported by time, space and within face-to-face venues.  No one yields the floor, and you have to know how to open another column (if using Tweetdeck) or directly tweet an individual or small group while effectively and efficiently using the remaining numbers of text characters available to try to make your point or explain your thoughts.  And if the topic is as emotionally charged as it was for this particular chat, honest yet carefully selected words can still open up a potential can of worms if someone feels motivated to respond with a tweet that attempts to read as a polite challenge while failing to avoid sounding like an outright rebuke.

During one portion of the chat we were asked to respond to the following prompt and questions:

Heavy, deliberate, and necessary questions to reflect upon, right? And considering the constraints of the platform, an opportunity ripe for misunderstandings, judgment, and unsolicited advice.  Understanding the moderators' intentions in selecting the topic and asking such pointed questions, I didn't feel baited and chose to participate in the chat in order to dialogue with other educators about ways that we could help to dismantle racism. Me being me (more on that below), I replied that I didn't consider myself racist, and added that "I am not as knowledgable about other global cultures and nationalities as I could be. I consider people all part of the human race, but I could definitely benefit from more discourse, travel & reading to broaden myself." Later in the evening, I found that that particular tweet had the following responses. 1. "I don't know you and I'm not calling you racist... just thought I would gently point out that most people who are in fact, racist, don't consider themselves as racist" and 2. "...white and white passing folx [sic] need to also realize not racist is a neutral state- we need to strive to be anti-racist."

During the chat I didn't try to misrepresent myself, I didn't portray myself as a person who was going to insist upon straddling some fence of neutrality over the topic of racism, and I never suggested that only actions like the ones I planned to utilize would be effective within our classrooms and schools. I didn't describe myself using the label "anti-racist" but I also didn't suggest that I would be uncomfortable if anyone else felt like describing me using the phrase. Though I didn't experience some new revelation about racism to which I was previously unaware prior to the chat, I contributed where I could, gladly stockpiling the links and resources shared by others for further examination.  I replied to the authors of the comments politely and sincerely. But the comments continued to bother me, and I wondered what the motivation had been behind them. I felt bothered because:

While I am the daughter of a woman and a man, I have been "the product" of a white woman who slept with someone not white my entire life.  Raised for my first ten years in Texas, I spoke English like my mother and some Spanish like my friends, but not Inupiaq like my father's parents. I was raised in El Paso, Texas, Barrow (now Utqiaġvik), Alaska, Fairbanks, Alaska, and Delta Junction, Alaska. I preferred enchiladas over muktuk, corn over spinach and okra, duck soup over chicken noodle.  I didn't (and still don't) prepare indigenous foods from my native culture, but loved smoked salmon and thought Eskimo doughnuts (fry bread) were better than funnel cakes but not my mother's homemade baked bread. Despite the opinions of others who lived in the diverse communities in which I was raised, my identity was my own and my non-traditional upbringing worked for me.  My childhood was enough, and I am not ashamed of it.

I like jewelry, clothing, adornments, accessories.  I like the sparkly stuff, the fluffy stuff, and the stuff with interesting patterns and textures. I like the washable, the dry-cleanable, the handmade and the repurposed. I enjoy music: classical, folk, 80s rock, 70s pop, Tony Bennett's and Lady Gaga's duets, Reba and Garth generation country, global instrumentals, Eskimo rhythmic drumming and Christmas standards. I seek out new-to-me music often. I enjoy exploring diverse literary and film genres but have my favorites: kids' books, science fiction, intellectual humor, fantasy, song lyrics and some poetry. I have a thing for Marcrest dishes (the divided vegetable bowls especially), Noritake china and plastic Tupperware lunch trays. My preferences are my own, they are enough, and I am not ashamed of them.

I became aware early on that I was too brown for some and too white for others and I have spent most of my life being told that I'm a woman who "can pass." I have been given a good talkin' to by parents, community members, colleagues and even strangers for "not speaking my language," which they all assume(d) is Spanish. I have been called out by high school classmates for "trying to pass as Native when we all know you're half black." I have been hit on by men who thought it was charming to greet me with "Well hello, my little Latin Lupe." I have been told I'm not Eskimo because "they're not even a real thing." I've been told I'm not white because "just look at your tan." I've had my hand grabbed by a man who, after having his wife cook and serve me a meal in their diner while he asked me questions such as "What are you?" and "Which half of you is native?" decided that he should congratulate me afterward with "Honey, it works for you."  I was supposed to smile and be gracious at the granting of this seal of approval too, which I failed to deliver. It has been explained to me on more than one occasion that I've been hired to fulfill an affirmative action quota and not because I'm highly qualified, and I've been identified as a token representative of my native culture by some colleagues while others can't bring themselves to look me in the face if I'm wearing a kuspuk and mukluks as we pass one another in the hallway.  As a mother, some of my children's' friends or parents have appeared momentarily startled upon meeting me, I'm guessing (perhaps wrongly) because they didn't know that my sons and daughter were passing. I watched Hispanic shop owners try hard to impress upon my mother that they were choosing to ignore her while multiple salespeople showered me with attention, and I've been told by native uncles and aunts that my grandparents told them that they shouldn't marry other natives because they weren't going to get anywhere unless they married whites.  Most stereotypical attributes that have been assigned to me or assumed about me by self-appointed representatives of their own racial groups have been wrong.  Despite others (all others, not just white others) trying to determine how to label me in order to identify where they feel I should be placed in the hierarchy of discrimination, my self has been enough, and I am not ashamed.

If asked, I identify myself as non-religious, but I am familiar with Christian faiths because of my exposure to them.  I was baptized Episcopalian, attended Latter-day Saints services with the family of my mother's best friends, and have Catholic, Methodist, Jewish, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Jehovah's Witness, Baptist, agnostic and atheist friends and family.  I collect religious icons, I do not pray, and I celebrate Christmas as a winter holiday, happily singing every verse to well-known non-secular and secular songs.  I am not upset by well-wishers saying "Merry Christmas," "Blessed Holidays," or "Happy Solstice." I don't wear cross jewelry, nor do I find it attractive on others, no matter how dainty or bedazzled. I don't wear rings, charms, necklaces, bracelets or earrings shaped like or depicting nooses, electric chairs, guillotines, torturer's racks or lethal injections either: to me, crosses symbolize torturous deaths, not joyous rebirth.  I don't believe saviors are necessary but I'm convinced that it's not my place or my right to insist that others abandon their deities or meditations about the universe: I've met people who have lost everything, and their faith is a lifeline. I have not felt inclined to explore any religion more deeply in an effort to better define my feelings about spirituality or the future.  My reality is enough and I am not ashamed of it.

I take rude, inconsiderate, malicious behavior personally and I have a visceral, emotional reaction to it. I don't appreciate or approve of discrimination based on ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion, age, or physical limitations, perhaps because I can empathize with those who have had and continue to endure it.  While I don't consider myself racist, I'll admit I haven't met everyone on this planet and therefore can't tell you with one-hundred-percent certainty that I'd never recoil if I were ever to encounter some form of melanin that might disgust me or fill me with fear.  Of the people within my immediate vicinity however, I can discern between which ones I want to spend more time with, and which ones I want to, forgive the pun, avoid like the plague. That discernment is not based upon skin color but behavior.  If I have an eclectic taste in food, clothing, music, decor, literature and film genres, I think it's fair to extrapolate that there's more than a slight chance that I have diverse friends and family, too. My friendships are mine, and they are enough, and I am not ashamed of them.

I have long considered myself both a member of some type of square-peg-round-hole society and a continual work in progress. As I explore why I care how others describe or interpret my stance regarding racism, I'm faced with additional questions: Is my form of allyship enough?  Is dialoguing with others, continuing to add representative literature to my classroom library, looking through curricular resources with a critical eye and modeling mutual respect as I continue to partner with those different from myself enough?  Is caring for my diverse friends, family, students, colleagues and neighbors in my way enough, or are my actions only considered valuable and committed if I shout from the rooftops "I AM ANTI-RACIST?" None of the decisions I make as a teacher for my students or as a contributor to my profession are "neutral."  To end systemic racism (and frankly all sorts of other -isms), don't we need all kinds of allies in all kinds of settings working toward a common goal?  The loud and the quiet ones, the sitters and the standers and the marchers and the ones who make their family members change the channel to watch the protests when they'd rather play video games?  The affirmers and the describers and the accusers and the ones willing to listen and to record and to persist in ways great and small?  None of these allies' actions are "neutral."

It's not in my nature to relabel myself in an attempt to gain the approval of others and I strongly dislike superficially performative exercises. "Why wouldn't you want to call yourself an anti-racist, Michaele? It's a good thing."  Why do people believe that they should dictate to me what I must or must not call myself, and how loudly or publicly I must do it?  "What if we call you anti-racist?"  Go right ahead.  If anyone decides to describe me as a brunette-cookie-baking-crocheting-kindergarten-teacher-anti-racist, I don't have a problem with it.

Holding my students' hearts and minds in my hands is an essential part of my job as a kindergarten teacher, and trying to anticipate what changes, if any, I need to implement in order to support them as best I can is par for the course. Every summer I reflect upon the school year, plan for the start of the next teaching adventure, examine shifts in education and grow my pedagogy through professional development and Twitter chats with other teachers.  But even if I could usually direct my attention to coursework and chores, this summer, this week, I cannot dismiss my feelings or pretend to be thick-skinned: I am raw right now. Though the women who responded to my tweet have no way of knowing all of me, they believe they are obligated to call out or "educate" others who may not immediately match their image of an ally. Their tweets may have served to affirm and proclaim their commitment as advocates and anti-racists in their minds, but the implication that somehow I was falling short felt akin to public shaming, which is not how to alter my choices, or likely, how best to create an ally.

Edit, June 11: Here is Dr. Ibram X. Kendi discussing anti-racism. Though the hardcover version of the book he co-authored with Jason Reynolds, Stamped, is on backorder, it is available via Kindle.



Psst: I've got nothing against allies who want to wear and share their intentions.  You can find this shirt here.

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