November 22, 2013

Racist PB&J? (Alternate Title: Shitty White People Playing Dumb)




Apparently, about a year ago, the Portland Tribune ran an article about a Portland, OR elementary school that was taking some specific measures to help teachers be more sensitive to the needs of children of color. One of the things that was mentioned as an example of "subtle racism" was a classroom activity involving peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Instead of explaining what the activity was or why it would be considered racially charged, the author, Jennifer Anderson, decided to just throw that in there without context and then include a bunch of decontextualized quotes from the principal, Verenice Gutierrez, to make her sound kind of anti-white and crazy.

So, here's the thing. Apparently, a fairly popular writing activity/assessment is to have students describe, in as much detail as possible, how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Gutierrez pointed out that some of the schools students are first generation immigrants, and most countries outside the US don't eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The activity is supposed to involve taking something that all of the kids know how to do and have them describe how to do it. If you've never eaten a PB&J sandwich because your parents never make them at home, you're not going to be able to explain how to make one. This is an activity that has an unnecessary obstacle built in for kids with different cultural backgrounds. Some people are arguing that that doesn't have anything to do with race or ethnicity, because it's a cultural difference, and that would be true if we were talking about a classroom with a bunch of recent immigrants from Europe, in which case the activity would probably be modified pretty quickly because white European kids don't have the same stigmatized expectations attached to them. When Mexican or Somalian kids fail, it's assumed to be caused by something else, not bad teaching - it's a crappy, baseless assumption, but you know that there are people, even well meaning people, who think that way. We're talking about something that all of the white kids in the class can do, and likely some of the non-white children can also do, but the ONLY ones who are adversely affected are children of color. For something to be racist, it doesn't have to affect EVERY SINGLE PERSON of that race. It is racist because it exclusively disadvantages children who are not white.

Anderson also speculates that the school is running a drumming class going on during lunch periods that is exclusively available to black and Latino boys. The basis that it is discriminatory apparently came from an anonymous letter saying that girls and children of other races had tried to sign up but were not allowed to join. It's hard to piece together what's going on there, since the original article is so poorly written, but what's most likely going on is that it's an intervention for at-risk students, as group drumming lessons have lead to positive outcomes for kids with behavioral issues. Considering the fact that 65% of the student body at the school in the article is black or Latino, there is only space for 30 students in the class, and girls at the elementary school level are known to have less behavioral issues, it doesn't seem unbelievable that  the kids who need the class the most happen to be black and Latino boys. Anderson wrote a year ago that a teacher had reported this drumming group to the ACLU, who apparently decided not to pick up the case. Considering the fact that the ACLU takes discrimination pretty seriously, I'd wager that if they don't think this drumming class is a problem, it probably isn't one.

Predictably, a bunch of shitty white people are working themselves into a frenzy over this whole thing. The article somehow resurfaced over the past couple of days and people are responding as though it is recent news. They're storming the school's Facebook page to give reactionary 1-star reviews and idiotic commentary is spreading like wildfire across conservative outlets. Particularly offensive to these shitty white people is the fact that Gutierrez made several references to white privilege, or in other words, she pressed the panic button for shitty white people collectives across the US. Somehow, there are people who live in the US, the same US that I do, and claim not to have noticed the fact that some things are a little easier here for white people than they are for almost everyone else. More specifically, white culture is the dominant culture in the US, so when little white kids go to school, they're likely to encounter lessons and expectations that were designed by people who share their cultural background. It's not always intentionally discriminatory, it's just the way things happen. That makes a difference. It doesn't mean that no white person has ever had a hard time with shit (duh) or that no person of color has ever had an easy time with shit (obviously that happens sometimes too). It just means that most of our institutions are designed with white people in mind. It's an advantage: one that isn't earned, isn't based on merit, and isn't based on general ability or intelligence.

So when that teacher at that school decided to use the PB&J activity, their white privilege prevented them from being aware of the fact that it was an activity that wouldn't make sense to some of the students. They likely had not had the experience of being in a classroom where things that were expected to be "universal" knowledge were not part of their personal background. Things that are problems for people who are outside the dominant culture are invisible to members within the dominant culture (until someone brings them to light). That doesn't mean that the teacher is a racist bigot or anything like that. But it does mean that being informed and aware about that privilege will make the teacher more sensitive to the needs of students with different cultural backgrounds. Why would that possibly be a bad thing? If you don't want to level out the playing field to help disadvantaged kids succeed, there's something broken in your brain and I don't know what to tell you.

This is why efforts for "equality" shouldn't always involve treating everyone exactly the same way. As an analogy, let's say you and all your friends are going to a movie that starts at 8pm. Your friends all have the evening off, so they decide to meet up for dinner beforehand and then walk to the theater together. You have to work until 7:30pm, so you can't join them for dinner. Let's say your friends demanded that you need to be treated "equally" and insisted that after you get out of work, you have to go to the same restaurant and eat dinner and then walk to the theater alone. You're going to be really late to the movie (or maybe even miss it altogether). Would that demand make any kind of sense? Of course not. Assuming your friends aren't totally unhinged, they'd have no problem with you just driving straight to the theater from work and maybe buying a hot dog at the concession stand or something. Because it isn't a contest. Because it doesn't hurt them for you to be on time for the movie. Because it's more fun for everybody when you all get there on time.

There's nothing wrong with making exceptions so that the system works for everybody.
It doesn't hurt anyone to use an example other than peanut butter sandwiches in writing class.
Unless your definition of "hurt" is that you and your kids don't get an unfair advantage anymore. If that's your working definition, I have some advice for you: suck it up.