Why Elementary Teachers Need to Be Intersectional Feminists

I am not the best at this kind of thing, that I will state off the bat. I am trying to be better. Please do not be afraid to confront me.

Feminism is simply the idea that people of different sexes are equal. Intersectionality is an overlapping, or intersecting, of social identities, creating a whole person (or community) different from its components. Someone’s experience is shaped by many things, such as:

  • race
  • gender
  • social class
  • nationality
  • sexual orientation
  • religion
  • age
  • mental disability
  • physical disability
  • mental illness
  • physical illness
  • incarceration
  • immigrant status

And probably more that I am not aware of yet.

So, my experience as a white woman has definitely shaped me. There have been times in my life where my gender has made me feel like a target, where I felt vulnerable or even scared. But, there have been other times when I have consciously used my white femininity as a shield in ways that I don’t think a black, Latina, or Asian female could have. So on one hand, I am part of a historically oppressed group, but on the other, I am also a member of a historically privileged group. This is completely by accident of birth, and not something I can change about myself; the least I can do is acknowledge it.


Having privilege has allowed me to “not see” some of the things that other people go through. It’s not that I’m completely blind, it’s just that I take for granted how different others experiences are. For example, I am a white person who was raised in a large Christian family. People demonstrated curiosity or confusion towards us sometimes, but I wouldn’t characterize that as negative. It didn’t occur to me until high school or college that my family would probably be perceived and treated very differently if you changed just one variable about us. What if we’d been a large black family? Or a large Muslim family? I can only imagine some of the things people might say, only because I have heard some of the things people say about black people and Muslims. What I can’t imagine is how it must feel to live through that every single day of my life.

My career — specifically, where I work now — has challenged me to be more observant of others’ lived experiences, especially in regards to children.

Children occupy a strange place in our society and culture. They are disenfranchised: they have no right to vote, and minimal other rights compared to adults. They are often ignored, forgotten, even dehumanized by many of the moving parts in our various systems. When they come up in discussions, we always want to do what’s best for them, but seldom consult them ourselves. There are reasons for that, sure, but I think it’s wrong for us to talk about them and over them with little talking with them (with genuine, actual listening).

My students are living a different experience than I am, day in and day out. Part of that is generational context; just thinking about the differences in technology makes my head spin. But it comes from other areas, as well. I have students who speak a different language at home than they do at school. I have students who live with a disability, or have family members with disabilities. I have students who are different races and nationalities. The teachers in my district used to be among some of the lowest paid teachers in the county, and yet our salaries as teachers were above the median income for families in our city. I have students who are affected by the incarceration of a parent, which is sometimes an extended or repeated experience. Some of my students challenge ideas about gender. I have had former students come out outside of the classroom, identifying as LGBTQ.

I am no good to my students if I cannot see past myself and empathize with their lives, however different from mine they might be. Children do not choose the circumstances of their birth, the color of their skin, the language they first learn, how much money their parents make, and on and on and on. There is so much out of their control. It is unfair for me to force them to pivot to me. And I have to accept that, while I am an authority in the context of my classroom, I am not the authority. There are things I do not know and will get wrong, and it is my responsibility to educate myself and do better. I have the maturity and the experience and the duty and obligation to pivot myself to students.

In the bridge of the song “Cold War,” Janelle Monáe sings, “Bring wings to the weak and bring grace to the strong.” As a teacher, I am a strong person in the educational setting; I have authority, and I have responsibility. I need the grace to supporrt my students through their challenges, wherever those challenges come from. I also need grace to accept and act on the criticism I need to be a better person. More importantly, I need to bring wings to my students, children. I need to empower them by sharing knowledge, developing their skills, and building them up. Once they have their wings, they will be able to fly on their own.

Electric Ladies, Will You Sleep?

I went to the Women’s March on Washington yesterday. I have every intention of reflecting more on the experience, but at the moment, I’m a bit tired, and I have to prioritize work-related tasks, and sleep.

But if you were wondering why I marched? The shortest possible answer: because Janelle Monáe challenged me to.

I asked a question like this
Are we a lost generation of our people?
Add us to equations but they’ll never make us equal.
She who writes the movie owns the script and the sequel.
So why ain’t the stealing of my rights made illegal?
They keep us underground working hard for the greedy,
But when it’s time pay they turn around and call us needy.
My crown too heavy like the Queen Nefertiti
Gimme back my pyramid, I’m trying to free Kansas City.

Mixing masterminds like your name Bernie Grundman.
Well I’m gonna keep leading like a young Harriet Tubman
You can take my wings but I’m still goin’ fly
And even when you edit me the booty don’t lie
Yeah, keep singing and I’mma keep writing songs
I’m tired of Marvin asking me, “What’s Going On?”
March to the streets ’cause I’m willing and I’m able
Categorize me, I defy every label
And while you’re selling dope, we’re gonna keep selling hope
We rising up now, you gotta deal you gotta cope
Will you be electric sheep?
Electric ladies, will you sleep?
Or will you preach?

Hidden Figures Is Incredible, You Should Go See It

Spoilers ahead.

Hidden Figures is a film about three women “computers” — people who worked doing math calculations for NASA in the time leading up to manned orbital flights. Katherine Goble (later Johnson) is an actual math genius, who, due to her hard work and unmatched talent, pushed her way up to the Space Task Group, where her knowledge of analytical geometry earned her respect. Mary Jackson, with the encouragement of her supervisors, goes to court to secure her right to continue her education at an all-white high school, so that she can pursue her dream of becoming an engineer. And Dorothy Vaughan, frustrated by doing the work of a supervisor with neither the title nor pay that comes with it, sees an opportunity in the IBM computer; she teaches herself and those she leads to program the monstrous machine and make themselves indispensable.

It is an excellent movie. It is a movie about scientific progress, and the risks and rewards that come with it. It is also a movie about civil rights. It is a movie that demonstrates the important lesson that progress depends on progress.

There are no bad guys in this movie. I haven’t seen every movie ever, but I’ve become inured to the trope: when a movie is about racism, there is usually a big ol’ racist jerk, like an inverse white savior; for example, Hilly Holbrook in The Help. It’s a character who conveniently embodies prejudice and discrimination, and in defeating them, protagonists symbolically defeat racism. In Hidden Figures, racism is not so much a part of characterization as it is a part of the setting. White people are dismissive or ignorant, but never overtly, intentionally cruel. Racism is something that the white people in the story are simply not sensitive to until confronted with it. Kevin Costner’s character is confronted with it when he realizes that Katherine, who he relies on, has to take forty minute bathroom breaks because the nearest “colored” women’s restroom is a half a mile away. Like a good manager, realizing that the rule helps no one and hurts his team, he abolishes the rule. I think perhaps the most powerful interaction of this vein occurs in a women’s restroom between Octavia Spencer’s and Kirsten Dunst’s characters; the scene is so thoughtful and polite and well-acted that I audibly gasped.

I liked how the cinematography used color to draw attention to our leads, especially Taraji P. Henson’s character. In a room filled with white men in white shirts and black ties, where the only other woman is wearing neutral tones, Katherine Goble is wearing turquoise as brilliant as her mind. Her mug is the one brown one among alabaster ceramic. She is special, and it’s not hard to see if you’re willing to look; her rise feels hard-won yet also inevitable.

These were important stories to tell, and I’m glad to be an audience for them. I highly recommend this film.

The Heroes We Need… to Be

 

The Haines House is a local historical landmark that was, years and years and years ago, a stop on the Underground Railroad. When you take a tour there, they show you the restored parlor, the kitchen, the herb garden, the bedroom, and the attic where escaped slaves would hide before continuing their journey. The last time I was there, I was particularly impacted by a small artifact — a handmade topsy-turvy doll. Though the  topsy-turvy doll’s  original meaning and purpose is uncertain, according to our docent, the  folks who lived at the Haines House used theirs as a signal. When a child played outside with the white side of the doll showing, it wasn’t safe to move. But when it was, the child would play with the black side showing, so that local allies would know their help and care was needed.

My city is not perfect; our current situations are shaped by institutionalized inequality despite our historical high ideals. But still I take inspiration from the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses used by fugitive slaves in the 19th century to escape to free states and Canada. This network was made up of former slaves, abolitionists, and allies, who all knew on some level that owning other people was wrong and were willing to do something about it. When we look back, and realize someone we otherwise admire espoused hateful beliefs, we often excuse it with a wave of the hand, remarking, “They were a product of their times.” To me, the Underground Railroad disproves that notion. You can live at a time when horrible things are acceptable at a societal and legal level, and still reject them morally, and act on your convictions.

We have our heroes of American history: the presidents, the pioneers, the inventors, the warriors. Many of their names will trip off our tongues readily. But the Underground Railroad reminds us that heroism is not a competitive enterprise: you don’t have to shine the brightest, you don’t have to be the first. You don’t have to change the whole world to change one person’s world for the better. Heroes are often made in the crucible of crises, but just as often heroism is an incremental, daily commitment to do what is right. This is who I aspire to be in my classroom and community day after day after day. Even children can be this type of hero to one another. Anyone could be, so long as your ambition is truly to make life easier or better for others, not to go down in history.

So, even though it’s only December 17th, I’m committing to my 2017 New Year’s Resolution now. I want to commit to doing heroic things in my daily life. Things that are small, and would be easier not to do, but have a measurable and net-positive impact on somebody else. Things like showing compassion to a challenging student. Things like picking up the phone and calling my representative — and, even when the topic is unpleasant, beginning and ending my message with sincere, positive greetings. (“Have a nice week” as opposed to “I hope you step on a Lego while barefoot.”) Things like tweeting a personal, supportive message at someone who deserves to see one.

Doing small, challenging things does not necessarily make me the hero I want to be, because I am the sum of all my actions and more. But maybe by doing heroic things, I may become the hero I need to see in my own reflection.

 

People Are Allowed to Talk About It, Yell About It

In fact, I hope they do. I’m glad many are doing so.

I have seen this attitude on social media, and I have overheard conversations in real life to this effect: the election is over, the people have spoken, end of story. Another key phrase includes, “What’s the point of protesting anyway?” It’s almost like folks are conflating activism with acting out.

So, I am not someone who has been to many protests or rallies. When I had the time I didn’t have the interest, and now that I have interest I also have a full-time job. I also try not to discuss the traditionally controversial topics of religion and politics in public online, though I am very comfortable discussing those topics with close friends.

But. My feelings started changing with this election.

I mentioned before that I did not get my wanted-for outcome, but I was feeling this way regardless.

I have a big concern with the ideas of civic duty and obligation. It takes a huge effort to get people to go to vote, so for many of us, that feels like the extent of it. Really, voting to make your opinion be heard? It’s not enough.

It’s like we vote, and then we expect our elected officials to know exactly how we would like them to govern by… reading our minds? Or keeping up with our individual vague, passive aggressive social media posts? Do we really think the conversation ends at the ballot box?

I had resolved, long before the outcome was known, that I wanted to stay engaged. I live a life shaped by politics and policy, so I may as well feel listened to about it. How do I make my voice heard?

I figure out where I stand on issues, through research and reflection, not all of it easy, not all of it comfortable.
I figure out what matters most to me.
I call and write my congresspeople and senators.
I take part in demonstrations, and communicate to others why.
I can volunteer and donate to causes I believe in.
I can support members of my community more directly affected by policy shifts.
I remain receptive to other ideas.

I think it’s worth noting that many of the protests I see reported are at high schools; perhaps that’s what I see because I spend so much time on the education side of Twitter. But, anyway, many high school students are not yet old enough to vote, yet many will be directly affected by changes in policy that originate in this election. They couldn’t use their vote as their voice, so they’re using their feet as they march.

And I really, really want to quash that pernicious “the people have spoken story over” narrative, especially when I hear it said in front of children by adults with authority. It’s true that not everything is up for debate. One candidate lost the election, and the other one. But there are bigger issues at stake. We need to hold our representatives accountable for their decisions, and large-scale demonstrations help them know that, while we elected them once, we may not do it again: they are beholden to us. We do what we can to keep them accountable.

I will be the check, and I will find my balance. And I hope that others will join me.

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I Have Complicated Feelings on the Pledge of Allegiance

Last Thursday, my spouse and I went to dinner with friends, and when our conversation touched on Colin Kaepernick, I asked this question:

“What do you guys think of the Pledge of Allegiance?”

I feel a little silly saying this: I had to muster some courage to ask my real question as a follow-up. What do you do with the Pledge of Allegiance, when you’re… just not that into it?

I have complicated feelings on the Pledge of Allegiance, as an American and separately, as an educator. This is a truth that goes back several years for me, well before Kaepernik took a knee; evem before I had a Jehovah’s Witness in my class. (Though, talking to a third grader who was very informed on her faith’s religious teachings was undoubtedly an experience that left a big impression on me.) My feelings are hard to put into words, and even then, I don’t know whether my experiences are relatable. I am not accustomed to talking about this.

I think my biggest fear is that this is a topic that people just… take for granted. That there’s only one obvious and correct thing, so why question it? I perceive that to doubt the Pledge out loud is risky business, so I usually keep my thoughts to myself. And I’m a person with relative privilege. If I’m afraid to bring it up, how must someone with much less power — a student, a child, a religious or racial minority — feel when they’re uncomfortable with ritualized nationalism?

So my heart swelled when I saw this on Twitter:

As an educator, I have complicated feelings on the Pledge of Allegiance. I’ve felt that way for several years now, and it’s always been something I’m very, very hesitant to talk about. So I am really looking forward to this Twitter chat tomorrow.

What do I hope to get out of the chat? Honestly, just a conversation would be great. I don’t feel like I want to be convinced to be pro-Pledge or anti-Pledge. I’m excited to hear perspectives different from my own, sharing points I have never thought of or considered. Hopefully maybe even some students will participate. I don’t want to come to a conclusion in my feelings, I wanted to be supported as I explore the topic.

I’m open to being persuaded — I don’t mind being wrong. I do fear being made to feel stupid or wrong or bad because I had asked the question to begin with.

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