Friday, September 18, 2015

My Village (or reflections on prejudice in my community)

About four minutes before I had to walk out the door to catch my train, I realized my daughter had a fever. We scrambled successfully to find care for her, and I made it to work. That night, I put a plan in motion --- just in case --- for the next morning.  I reached out to several friends and neighbors to see if anyone could help if my daughter hadn’t kicked her fever.  As I texted my friend who agreed to help a big THANK YOU, she responded with "It takes a village, right?"

That phrase, with its reported origins as an African proverb, has become part of our culture.  

I've never actually read Hillary Clinton's book though I do remember the controversy it inspired after its publication in 1996. The political line between "village" and "family" seemed artificial to me at the time, and it is only now as a mother who works outside the home that I understand the attacks on Hillary were, in all likelihood, attacks on women in the workforce. Regardless, in my view, having a “village” means that we live as a community, responsible for each other.  We must tell each other when our kids are being assholes.  We must work together for the good of the whole.  We must help when help is needed.

I feel lucky to live in a village where my kids have so many people watching out for them, but I'm also angry about comments that have been made publicly about people who live in my village.

In the last few weeks, two visible instances of prejudice have had me asking myself how I can stand up for what is right.  How can I make a difference, make my community more of a village?

Reflections on the Train and Prejudice in my Community

I am back to the city after a month of working solely from home, which means I have time to listen to my favorite podcasts during my commute.  Last week, I was blown away by The Problem We All Live With from This American Life.

The episode (first of a two-part series) explores contemporary issues of desegregation in American schools.  I add the emphasis to the word contemporary because the story chronicled in the podcast is about the process of desegregating a school in Missouri in 2013.  It also makes the argument that desegregation has been shown to be the single best reform in terms of reducing the achievement (or what academics in my field call, the opportunity) gap between white and black/Hispanic students.

As a student of history undergrad, I completed a full-semester independent study of the history of desegregation of schools.  Thus, I was intrigued by the reflection on the 1960s/70s efforts - and how over the last 30 years, the country has only grown to be more segregated.

I listened on the podcast to individuals in a suburban, White community proclaim the inequities to their children because Black and Hispanic students were, by state order in 2013, about to invade.  I hear their hurtful words, and my stomach dropped for the Black family that had attended the meeting, hoping for a better education for their daughter.

I imagined what I might say into a microphone in a public forum in my kids’ school district had I heard these insensitive - and racist - comments.  I saw myself arguing that my own children would not only NOT be hurt by a robust integration of our small, suburban school, but also be HELPED by it.  It made me sick to imagine that kind of prejudice in my community, but I knew that my small town was not immune.

After all, just days before, I’d seen prejudice rear its ugly head.

A post on our community “parents” page inspired a heated conversation.  Reacting to the controversy sparked by the decision of students at Duke University who refused to read Fun Home, a parent in the closed group shared a status by Franklin Graham that was overtly prejudiced against the LGBT community. The author of the post suggested that we, parents of K-8 graders, must be aware of what our school was doing and that "pop culture theme/movement of the moment" had no place in our kids’ curriculum.

The conversation that followed both angered me (that people in my town defended overt prejudice against gay and lesbian individuals) and encouraged me (that most of the comments reflected my own anger at the overt prejudice shown toward people in our village).

Given the discussion - and the fact that very few people on the thread had actually read Fun Home, I suggested we hold a book club, and after conversations in the grocery store that focused on a “one book, one community” project in our town, I had every intention of organizing it.

And then just a few days later, the day after I listened to that amazing TAL podcast, the one that made me imagine standing at a microphone and passionately arguing for racial justice, someone in that parents’ group reported that groups associated with the #BlackLivesMatter movement had declared “open season on killing whites and police officers” the next day, September 11.  This parent was "afraid" to send her children to our local school.

The language her post used in trying to rally the community (at least I assume that was her purpose) was inflammatory, and it made me sick.  

I do not deny that prejudice exists - and that we ALL have biases that lead to prejudice. I see it almost daily in my job, and I work to overcome it, to make a difference. As a young teacher, I asked my students, mostly White, to think outside themselves, to hear the voices of others that have been silenced through history. As a researcher, I advocate for those who do not have a voice in society. I KNOW that prejudice is very real.

But perhaps I've been remiss in considering the prejudice that exists in my own backyard. Perhaps we all have.  How do we turn our lenses inward to examine ourselves and our own communities?

I'm angry at my community for being part of the problem and for hurting people in my village. I want to be part of the solution. And most importantly, I want my kids to know that we ARE a village, an inclusionary place where we work together for the good of the whole.  This core belief is what drives me, but right now, I’m not sure how to overcome my anger.  I’m not sure what I can do to combat the prejudice that I see.  I’m not sure, exactly, how to make my community part of my village.

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