Note: This post has nothing to do with technology.
The Student Council at my school ran a video a few weeks ago announcing what the dress up days would be during Homecoming Week. When I saw that Wednesday would be “Around the World Day” (which was also to be the theme of the dance), I said (aloud to my Newspaper class), “Oh no. This is going to be bad.”
I’ve seen enough of what high schoolers do on days like this to expect the worst. I’ve seen/heard of kids dressing up as the most outrageous stereotypes of different “peoples of the world.” I’ve seen “Mexicans” wearing sombrero’s and drawn-on mustaches. I heard of one student who even carried around a janitorial bucket and squeegee as part of his Mexican costume. I’ve seen kids with towels on their heads pretending to be Arabs. And I’ve seen tons of kids with feathers in their hair.
I was speaking to my seniors the day before “Around the World Day.” We had just read a a short story called “Attention Shoppers” by Michelle Serros, in which a young Latina woman (Martina) tries to get her friend to see the discrimination inherent in the packaging and marketing of frozen vegetables in the supermarket.
“And look, look at this, the Latino Style Vegetables are all spilling out of this wicker basket, all overflowing, messy like. Insinuating that we are overflowing, overcrowding what they think is their land. And what’s with this wicker basket? You know, we don’t use baskets to cart our food around. The Malibu Style Vegetables are all neat and in order, properly arranged in a nice WHITE porcelain crock. No problem-causing vegetables here. They’re orderly, dignified.”
Her friend, the speaker, is embarrassed and contends that Martina is “seeing something that just isn’t there.” In the end Martina incites a mini-riot in the aisle and inspires others to recognize the discrimination in the other bags of vegetables, from Asian style to Country style.
At first, the overwhelming response from seniors is that Martina is indeed seeing something that isn’t there, and that this is just a funny example of people being sensitive. When I pushed them to consider the other side, a few students admitted they could see her point, but that she exaggerates the problem. The more I pushed, the more a small group of students – almost exclusively students of color – began to argue Martina’s point. They were able to realize that “it’s not about vegetables,” and that when you see other people pretending to know what your culture is all about, and getting it wrong, it’s upsetting.
It got interesting after that. Several white students began to get upset as they complained about reverse racism, about hearing groups of black students mutter things about “that little white boy” when they would walk by, for example, and how it would not be okay for a group of white people to say the same thing about a black person. They complained about hearing black people call white people “crackers” while the n-word remains off limits to them.
At this point I tried to explain the difference. I tried to explain what it meant to have a culture of power in this country and what it mean to be part of a culture that historically has not had power. I tried to explain why the rules are different for the group that has historically had the power over other groups, even though we may not personally have owned slaves.
Then I found myself warning them about Wednesday. “I’m going to be really upset when I see some of your costumes, I’ll tell you right now.” The entire class was listening. They could tell this was real and they had no idea what I was talking about. It’s just a fun dress up day. I told them the specific costumes I was expecting and dreading: Indians, Arabs, Mexicans. Groups that some people feel they can pigeonhole and whose mockery is for some reason acceptable.
Some students were responding to me as if I were Martina in the story, seeing things that weren’t there. But I could see others, students of color again, silently nodding from their seats as I explained what is so wrong about dressing up as your idea of someone else’s identity, especially when you come from a culture of power and you are pretending to be from a group with much less. The blackface example gets through to a lot of them. I ask them if they think it would be okay if I put blackface on and acted in a way that I though was typically black. Of course not. We talked about why white Americans have realized that this is wrong and why other minorities, ones with less power, have yet to persuade white Americans that we shouldn’t dress up like them either.
I found it interesting that when I talked about power in the context of the school, they understood. Black students are the largest minority here, so they saw how doing something to upset that community would cause black students to vocalize their anger. But when I asked if they though Asian or Native American students would necessarily speak up if they saw a costume they didn’t like, they said they didn’t think so. One Asian student even shared a story: that day someone had told her she was planning to dress up as an Asian on Wednesday. She was planning on wearing heavy eye-makeup to make her eyes look slanted. My student said she thought this was inappropriate, but she didn’t say anything to her friend.
Wednesday was two days later, and when this class – the one that got into the really good discussion – came into my class, it was the first thing they asked about. “Did you see any really bad costumes today, Mr. Fine?” It was the first time all year they had come in wanting to talk about something we had talked about previously (I suppose that makes sense. It would be strange if they came in asking if I had read any good show-not-tell details lately).
They told me about the costumes they saw that they considered (or that they thought I would consider) offensive. One girl raised her hand and said this, more or less:
“Ok Mr. Fine, tell me what you think about this. I saw this guy dressed like an Indian, like with feathers in his hair, and he was running around the hallway like an idiot and saying really terrible things about Indians with his friends. I heard it and went over and said, ‘What the hell?’ A teacher heard me and came out in the hall and told me to stop. I said, ‘What?’ She said, ‘No cussing at school.’ I said, ‘But this kis is acting like an idiot and he’s dressed like an Indian.’ She goes, ‘It’s Around the World Day, so what?'”
This girl, who is black, then wondered aloud what would have happened if she had gotten angrier and gotten sent to the dean’s office, if that would be fair. I found myself in a funny position. I was so proud of her! She actually gave voice to a pretty voiceless population (at my school) in an effort to educate her peers (albeit by merely saying “What the hell.” but still, that’s a great start, and I’m not sure I would be able to say something much more eloquent in the moment). But I had to tell her that I thought she was right and that the teacher was wrong, and that it’s sad that so many adults don’t think about this. I told them I’m not trying to say that I’m the only smart person in the school, but I also may have implied, with tongue-in-cheek, that I might be. And we wondered aloud, as a class, why it seems so acceptable to co-opt and demean Native Americans in this country. I pointed their attention to the fact that the NFL team from our nation’s capital is called the Redskins. This blew their minds.
It was one of those moments, one of those connecting-the dots to see that they hadn’t seen the whole picture moments. And it didn’t really have anything to do with English (and it definitely doesn’t have anything to do with technology), but it sure does have a lot to do with teaching. I don’t think I handled it perfectly. I think I made several white students angry and I couldn’t get off of my soapbox for a while. But it felt like a good day of teaching.
I think it’s interesting how much more receptive my students were to my point about the problem with co-opting other cultures when it happened before they were dressed up. I’ve tried to have this same conversation with students while they were dressed up, but in those situations those students become too defensive to hear anything. I understand that; these are students with whom I had close relationships, and they were embarrassed that they had done something I perceived as insensitive. They had just never thought about it and did not seem willing to consider it. But this recent experience tells me I was wrong. They might be very willing to consider that argument, just not once they have already put the feathers in their hair.