Tag Archives: diversity

Protect Historically Accurate Casting

A black-and-white drawing of a Black man, barefoot and wearing a short white belted tunic, blowing on a musical instrument that looks like a shofar to me. He's carrying a tall staff and stands among flowers. He has a piece of cloth tied around his head that blows in the breeze around him.
Detail from the Kalender of the Shepherdes, 1490s, Paris

Well, they’re at it again! This time they want to take away our precious American and European heritage with their aggressively political casting. The snowflakes are whining about diversity (as usual). They’re insisting that historical films, TV shows, and plays be cast with no regard to historical accuracy.

They’re insisting that shows about Western history be cast with all white actors.

All jokes aside, whatever era in western history in which your production is set, I assure you that people of color were there. “Historical accuracy” is not an excuse for turning away BIPOC actors; in fact, historical accuracy should compel you to cast them.

The reason people believe there were no BIPOC in certain historical eras is because there are so few BIPOC in historical plays, films, and TV shows. Refusing to cast BIPOC, or relegating them to servant roles or stereotypes, just shows the world that the only dramaturgy you’ve done is on Netflix.

Let’s look at a few examples.

Cheddar Man. The earliest skeletal remains that have been found intact in England belong to “Cheddar Man,” a mesolithic skeleton found in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset. DNA testing revealed that he had dark skin and blue eyes. Cheddar Man lived 10,000 years ago. White skin only developed about 8000 years ago, almost certainly a mutation that was likely genetically successful due to its increased ability to absorb vitamin D in areas of the world with less sunshine. Yes, white people: If Northern Europe had more sunshine, we would all still have dark skin.

Roman-occupied Britain. Many people of African descent came to Britain as Romans with the occupation. Two notable examples of the archaeological evidence are the Beachy Head Lady and the wealthy Ivory Bangle Lady.

A painting of the face of a young Black woman facing outward.
A reconstructed image of the beautiful and wealthy “Ivory Bangle Lady.” Wikipedia has images of the grave goods with which she was buried, including a hand mirror (!!!) and a blue glass jar in addition to the eponymous ivory bangles and more jewelry.

The Knights of the Round Table. One of the Knights of the Round Table was Black– Sir Morien. In the tale of Sir Morien, written in Middle Dutch in the 13th century, Sir Morien is described repeatedly as “black” of skin and hair, and repeatedly called “the Moor.” Morien’s praises are sung throughout the tale as one would expect from the genre; he’s as skilled a fighter as Lancelot, handsome, brave, and, although young, taller than all the other Knights of the Round Table. In the tale, Sir Morien is searching for his father, Sir Aglavale, who had pledged himself to Morien’s mother, an unnamed Moorish princess, and then disappeared before Morien was born. Eventually Morien locates Aglavale, who returns with him, accompanied by Sir Lancelot and Sir Gawain, to “the Moorish lands” to wed Sir Morien’s mother. No one seems to find anything unusual about white Sir Aglavale marrying a Black Moorish woman in a tale written in 13th century Europe.

The head of a Black man wearing a chain mail coif. The statue's nose is slightly damaged.
Detail of a statue thought to be Sir Morien, brought to Magdenburg Dom and called Saint Maurice– also Black— in the 1220s.

Feirefiz. Another Arthurian legend written in 13th century Europe is Parzival, written in Middle High German by Wolfram von Eschenbach, in which the main character, Parzival, has a Black half-brother, Feirefiz. Feirefiz and Parzival share a white father, Gahmuret, but Feirefiz’s mother is Belacane, queen of the fictional Moorish nation of Zazamanc. Feirefiz travels to Europe with a huge Saracen army to find his father, but meets his brother instead. Feirefiz cannot see the Grail because he’s not a Christian, but only agrees to convert after determining it will help him “in love.” He marries the Grail bearer, Repanse de Schoye.

It’s not at all surprising that these 13th century Europeans would be familiar with Moors. Why?

Al-Andalus. Most of the Iberian Peninsula, which now comprises both Spain and Portugal, as well as a bit of southern France, had already been under Moorish rule for 500 years by the time the tale of Sir Morien was written. The Moorish Kingdom on the Iberian Peninsula was called “Al-Andalus.” Portugal regained its independence in the mid-13th century, but most of Spain would continue to be under Moorish rule for another 200 years. For seven hundred years, most of the Iberian Peninsula and a slice of southern France were ruled by Muslim Moors. And before you jump in to claim that these were all light-skinned Amizigh, the art of the period begs to differ, showing a range of skin tones that include both light-skinned people and people who are unmistakeably Black.

Four Asian archers in armor, all facing to one side as they fire arrows at an unseen enemy.
Mongol archers painted in 1305 by Rashid al-Din.

The Mongol Invasion of Europe. This is a special valentine for the Witcher fanboys LIVID at the suggestion that Witcher 3 was too white, and LIVID that the Netflix series cast a few BIPOC actors: The Mongol Invasion of Europe. The Mongols were all over Eastern Europe in the 13th century including Poland, so your “Witcher is set in medieval Poland so diversity is solely political and unrealistic” argument dies in the dust, if it’s even still alive after everyone asked you where elves and giant spider monsters were in medieval Poland. Also for the Witcher crew: Black Madonnas.

Left: The Virgin Mary holds the baby Jesus, who raises his hand in blessing. Both Mary and Jesus have Black skin and hair. Mary holds a scepter in her right hand, and both are wearing golden crowns and golden robes. Right: The same image, but both Mary and Jesus have been repainted to look like white people.
The famous Black Madonna of Chartes Cathedral was repainted white in a controversial 2014 restoration. Most Black Madonnas have been left intact, apart from a few that were repainted in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Black Madonnas of Europe. Hundreds of medieval European paintings and statues depict the Madonna and child with dark skin. One of the most famous is the Madonna of Częstochowa in Poland. Starting in the early 19th century, white people began strenuously working to “prove” that the Black Madonnas were not “intentionally” Black, an activity that continues to this day. Wikipedia flatly states that there is a “wide consensus” among scholars that the dark skin was “unintentional.” Apart from the obvious– no, there is nothing like a “wide consensus”– assumptions such as “Mary must conform to a post-medieval definition of ‘white’ to have meaning to medieval European Catholics” is preposterous. Many of the Black Madonnas are reputed to have been painted by St. Luke himself as he sat with Mary. Whether or not this is true is far less important than the fact that medieval European Catholics believed it, and venerated their Black Madonnas as faithful depictions of the Virgin and child. The face they prayed to in Church, the face they held in their hearts as they heard the words “Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women,” was Black.

Islam in America. Islam was in the Americas before Protestantism even existed. Many Africans who were enslaved in the Americas were literate Muslims, including Omar ibn Said, who wrote an autobiography about his life as a slave in Arabic.

Three trumpeters, all facing left. They're all on horseback, and their trumpets bear the standard of Henry the 8th. The middle trumpeter is Black.
Scholars agree that this image from the 1511 Westminster Tournament Roll almost certainly depicts John Blanke.

John Blanke. Blanke was a Black trumpeter in the court of Henry VIII. He played at the funeral of Henry VII and at the coronation of Henry VIII. Records exist of his marriage and of his request for a raise. The king doubled his pay. Tudor London had a thriving Black population, many of whom married white Londoners. Click here for an article about the book Black Tudors: The Untold Story

Indians in London. There’s documented history that people from the Indian subcontinent lived in London beginning in the 16th century. A man called Suleman Noor was buried in Westminster in 1550. An Indian man named Samuel Munsur married a woman called Jane Johnson in 1613. There’s much more.

Abraham Pearse and John Pedro. Pearse was almost certainly a Black Pilgrim, and John Pedro was definitely Black. Click here to learn more about the Abraham Pearse controversy, which features white people claiming the “prestige” and “fun” of being descended from Pilgrims was “ruined” if their ancestor was Black, and subsequent DNA tests that focused only the Y chromosome, carefully avoiding tests of Pearse’s matrilineal line. Test results showed that Pearse’s father was European, and the white Pearse descendents claimed a victory for white supremacy. They seem nice. To this day no one has tested Abraham Pearse’s matrilineal line.

Lemuel Haynes. He was a Black Puritan who became the first ordained African-descended person in America. He was a Minuteman and an abolitionist as well. Read more about him in this book.

A Black man in spectacular full armor.  His helmet is off, so you can see his bearded face. He holds his sword in his left hand and a standard in his right. His body is angled away, but he looks straight out at the viewer.
This isn’t related to the text; I just really like it. “The Black Knight” by Hans Krell, 16th century Germany.

Zipporah Potter Atkins. Zipporah Potter Atkins, a free Black woman, owned land in colonial Boston. Click here to learn more about her.

Colonel Tye. The most feared and respected guerilla commander of the Revolutionary War was Colonol Tye, a Black man (formerly Titus Cornelius) who took the British Army up on its offer to enslaved men— escape slavery and come fight for the Loyalists, who will pay you and see that you remain free. The unit he commanded focused on enslavers– including his own former master. They were known for hitting hard and fast, eliminating the Patriot target and liberating the people he had enslaved. The British paid him well for this, and as the war went on, his unit was given increasingly important missions. By 1780, he was a major force in the war, raiding militias and escaping with prisoners and plunder virtually undetected and with few casualties.

The Harlem Hellfighters.The 369th Regiment of the US Army was one of several Black units in WWI. These young men first went to France in 1918, and soon distionguished themselves as fighters and as ambassadors of Black American culture; introducing jazz to the French. They saw more time on the front lines than any other American unit, and suffered horrific casualties, losing half the regiment. When they returned home in 1919, they were given a parade down Fifth Avenue to celebrate their heroic deeds.

Speakeasies. To speak to a Bay Area controversy of old, there were many people of color in speakeasies. Even in segregated clubs, they were there as employees. White New Yorkers flocked to Harlem speakeasies to see their unparalleled performers. Many speakeasies that were known as “black and tan clubs”– clubs that welcomed patrons of all races– became important centers for the development of jazz and remained open for decades, such as the Sunset Cafe in Chicago and the Black and Tan Club in Seattle. Black-and-tan clubs were in cities all over the US.

There’s so much more that I didn’t include here. I have a lot about trans and genderqueer people. I have a lot about women. I have a lot more in general. Native people fought in WWI. The most decorated unit of WWII was the 442nd, made up of Japanese Americans, and remains the most decorated unit of its size in US military history. Viking shieldmaidens were real. One third of pirates in the Caribbean were Black. The oldest human culture that left written records had transgender priestesses and taught that the goddess Inanna could bestow any one of several genders on people to match their “hearts.” The world’s first known author was an Akkadian priestess, Enheduanna. I’ve now spent about a bazillion hours on this post, and I have to force myself to stop. But there’s so much more.

If you don’t see something here, that doesn’t mean BIPOC weren’t there. BIPOC have been erased from history, both through negligence and through deliberate malice. Time to set the historical record straight.

If you need something you don’t see here, I have reasonable rates for dramaturgy. Head over to Melissa Hillman Consulting to learn more. If you’re an artist who needs evidence to take to a gatekeeper who has told you that you won’t be considered for a project because “it wouldn’t be historically accurate,” I will work pro bono to get the information you need into your hands. 

Parts of this post were originally patron-only content on Patreon. Become a Bitter Gertrude patron! Your support of my work makes posts like these possible.

“Portrait of a Moor” by Jan Mostaert, c. 1525-1530. The name and rank of this elegantly dressed nobleman have been lose to time, but we do know that he was a courtier in the court of Margaret of Austria, the Duchess of Savoy and Governor of the Habsburg Netherlands. The symbol on his hat means he made a Christian pilgrimage, popular with the court at that time, to venerate the Virgin Mary.
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Disability & Covid-19

It’s Disability Awareness Month, and in the middle of this pandemic, at the 30th anniversary of the ADA, there’s never been a more important time to center people with disabilities. Unfortunately, the national discussion around Covid-19 has been marginalizing, rather than centering, PwDs.

mask.rebirthgarments

All the images in this post promote independent mask makers. This cute design has a window, making it easier for deaf and hard-of-hearing people to understand you! The maker is Rebirth Garments on Etsy.  (Pictured: A smiling person with very short black hair, wearing colorful garments and a face mask with a plastic window through which their mouth can be seen.)

We are not disposable. Although little is still known for certain about Covid-19, people with chronic illnesses and certain disabilities appear to be at greater risk. “It’s mostly just old people and people with other conditions,” is tossed out by people looking to shut down concerns. Some prominent conservatives have even gone as far as to say that the elderly and/or people with disabilities should be sacrificed to “save” the US economy.

Perhaps the worst aspect of this is around pediatric cases. In news stories about the children who have died, “[Name of child victim] had underlying conditions” is featured prominently whenever it’s applicable. I’ve even seen it on a line by itself. “Reduce your concern,” it seems to say, “This child was disabled, so it’s not as bad.”

PwDs and families of PwDs are facing the very real possibility that our access to life-saving medical care will be impacted by ableism. In areas of the country overwhelmed by serious cases of Covid-19, hospitals face the unpleasant task of triage, and while disability is not supposed to be a concern, ableism– like racism, like sexism, like transphobia, like fatphobia, like every other kind of bigotry– is often expressed in implicit bias. We believe we have “good reasons” for a decision that, when more closely examined, are actually the result of bias. When there’s one ventilator left in the hospital and three patients who need that ventilator, “quality of life” and “best chance for a full recovery” can knock a person with a disability out of consideration.

Both the widespread sentiment that the danger of reopening schools and businesses is overstated because most of the people who will die have pre-existing conditions and the implicit — and explicit— bias at work in triage reflect systemic ableism. Our lives are not just considered less important than the lives of the able-bodied, our lives are considered less important than the economy. Which means, at its heart, that our lives are less important than protecting the wealth of billionaires. It’s not about “getting people back to work,” as the US has ample resources to temporarily provide income to people who must stay home and childcare for people who cannot. We just choose not to because it would require raising taxes on millionaires and billionaires.

The lives of PwDs are considered a more acceptable sacrifice than 1% of the wealth of billionaires.

Our lives are as valuable and precious as the lives of able-bodied people. We will not be sacrificed so you can “reopen the economy” and hold in-person classes, football games, or two-for-one jello shot nights at McCovid’s. You cannot have our children to sacrifice on the altar of capitalism.

masks.mverse

The MVerse is making gorgeous silk masks. (Pictured: Five colorful, patterned face masks arranged in a fan pattern.)

The other group Americans seem more than willing to sacrifice for the economy are people of color.

Two of the most significant conditions correlated with serious Covid-19 complications are asthma and cardiovascular issues, both of which are over-represented in BIPOC communities, especially Black and Indigenous communities. The impact of systemic racism on health has been studied for years, yet there is still widespread white resistance to the fact that racism is a public health crisis. White health– like able-bodied health– is considered more valuable and important.

Anything that primarily impacts BIPOC or PwDs is not a “crisis”; it’s a “special interest.”

Too many able-bodied white Americans do not consider disabled lives or Black lives important enough to protect. We were all in favor of social distancing and shelter-in-place until it became clear that the higher risk was borne by people with disabilities and people of color. Immediately, conservatives peeled off and became stridently insistent that the pandemic was a hoax, masks were “mind control devices,” and every healthcare provider and scientist around the world were somehow lying for “profit.” Suddenly allowing people to die to strengthen the economy was an acceptable sacrifice.

People with disabilities:

If you are a BIPOC PwD, you face all of these same barriers at twice the intensity.

BIPOC, especially Black and Native people, are much more likely to live in poverty due to generations of aggressive economic disenfranchisement, making it more difficult to access medical care. When they do access medical care, they face enormous bias in the healthcare system. Both Black and Latinx people are less likely to have their pain properly treated in emergency departments and are less likely to be believed when self-reporting symptoms.

Black people in particular face shocking levels of bias and discrimination while seeking medical care.

  • Almost half of medical students surveyed in 2016 reported believing that Black people do not feel pain as acutely as white people, have thicker skin than white people, and have fewer nerve endings than white people.
  • In 2015, another study found that Black children with appendicitis were far less likely to be given pain relief in the Emergency Department than white children.
  • In 2017, the publisher Pearson was forced to pull a popular nursing textbook when a page teaching racist stereotypes was posted online. The text claimed, “Blacks believe in prayer and the laying on of hands to heal pain” and “report higher pain intensity than other cultures.”
  • While overall maternity mortality rates in the US are higher than any other developed nation, Black women are three times more likely to die from childbirth complications than white women.

BIPOC people with disabilities, especially women, face systemic barriers to healthcare that make their ability to survive any health crisis, Covid-19 or otherwise, extremely difficult.

mask.consciouschange

This little cutie is wearing a mask from Conscious Change, a Black-owned Etsy shop.  (Pictured: Adorable Black girl with pigtails wears a white t-shirt that says “Black Girl” in black cursive and a black face mask that says “I Matter” in white below a white heart with an black, upraised fist.)

Being a BIPOC PwD is an especially potent intersectional identity because white supremacy measures the worth of BIPOC lives by how useful they are to the white supremacist narrative: Are you making money for white people? Are you appropriately grateful to your white benefactors for the opportunities you’ve been “given”? Do you refuse to participate in protests against racism, including non-violent protests like taking a knee? Are you “happy” or “angry” and “rude”?

Nowhere is this more robust than in the white understanding of Black people. White people see the existence of Black people as being about white people. Every Black event, movement, slogan, or group is criticized bitterly if it does not center whiteness. If you doubt this, remember that they can’t even say “our lives matter” without white people angrily denouncing them as “racists” and responding with “white lives matter,” “white lives are better,” “only white lives matter” and support for white supremacy.

The angry and even violent white backlash to Black people publicly stating that their lives matter, combined with the widespread ableist belief that the lives of people with disabilities are less valuable, means Black PwDs face some of the most virulent and insidious bigotry in the country at the very moment when the nation is hotly debating whether we should sacrifice American lives to reopen schools and businesses.

mask.hipfruit

The Black-owned Etsy store HipFruit has a wide variety of masks, including both floral and BLM designs. (Pictured: A Black woman with long, straight hair and an off-the-shoulder top with navy and white stripes is wearing a face mask featuring white flowers on a black background.)

Government Apathy. This pandemic has highlighted the brutal impact of systemic ableism and systemic racism. Yet, as more and more people suffer, die, or survive with long-lasting medical complications, the government is less and less interested in providing relief. The Trump Administration, aided in large part by their ghoulish GOP allies in Congress, is insistent that unemployment and disability should be slashed, funding for Covid testing and tracing should be eliminated, and the CDC budget reduced in addition to pulling out of the World Health Organization. The press heaps praise upon Trump for wearing a mask in public and for making a speech without a single dangerous lie while his inaction and incompetence have caused the deaths of over 140,000 Americans (and counting).

The pandemic has put a spotlight on some pre-existing inequities. But what we choose to do about those inequities is the critical question. Thus far, we seem content with nothing better than comforting able-bodied white people with narratives like “People of color are at higher risk” and “People with underlying conditions are at higher risk” while half the nation insists that our deaths are irrelevant if the economy rebounds.

When you say, “Black Lives Matter,” please remember that some of those Black lives are disabled lives. When you say, “We should reopen schools and businesses because most of the people who die have underlying conditions,” remember that what you’re really saying is “the deaths of PwDs, especially the BIPOC PwDs at the highest risk, are an acceptable sacrifice to maintain billionaire wealth, since we can’t expect them to pay higher taxes for a few years.”

In a nation where months of conservative propaganda has resulted in 31% of people refusing to wear a mask regularly to protect others, , it’s impossible to predict just how deadly this pandemic will get in the US before we have a vaccine– which anywhere between 27% and 50% of Americans say they will refuse, thanks again to propaganda, this time on the standard sources for antivax hooey on the fringe left as well as the right.

There are many things in life that are “risky,” and “acceptable risks” are part of life. In this case, however, we’re not talking about “risk.” We know this virus is deadly; we know a certain percentage of people will die or suffer long-term debilitating consequences. In this case, “acceptable risk” means “it is acceptable to me that these people will die.”

We refuse to be your “acceptable risk.” Allies, accomplices, loved ones: stand with us. And we all need to remember that BIPOC PwDs are bearing the brunt of every aspect of this crisis.

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Back to School in the Era of Covid: The “Managed Risk” of Student & Educator Deaths

Pictured: The hand of a Black child raised in class.

As educators enter summer “break” each year, we begin planning for the fall. Never in the history of education in the US has that planning been more critical than it is now. The main concern in every other year has been delivering equitable, high-quality education. For the first time, the main concern for the 2020-21 school year is minimizing the number of students and staff who will die (while delivering equitable, high-quality education).

When we believed that white people and people of color would suffer and die in equal proportions, we shuttered all school buildings and sent everyone home. Now that we know that communities of color have higher rates of infection and death, we’re suddenly fine with reopening schools. It’s suddenly “safe” to reopen. Safe for whom?

THE PUSH FOR IN-PERSON CLASSES

School districts all over the country are deciding what to to about the upcoming school year right now, and there’s been a vocal push to reopen schools for onsite classes. On June 18, Texas announced that its public schools statewide will be returning to onsite classes in the fall. Texas governor Greg Abbott also announced that families with “health concerns” would be allowed to make arrangements for remote education. Texas has furthermore announced that masks will not be required, temperature screenings will not be required, and the details around how any of this will be handled (or funded) will be left up to the individual school districts.

Texas has over 5.4 million students enrolled in its public school system and employs close to 400,000 adults. While Covid-19 appears to be less dangerous for people under 18, it’s still dangerous. Even with schools completely shut down, over 90,000 children have been hospitalized nationwide, and the current surge in cases has seen a marked increase in infections among younger people. In California, for example, 44% of new diagnoses are in people under 35.

We know that indoor, in-person gatherings greatly increase infection rates, as we’re seeing with record spikes in areas that are re-opening. As cases rise, the death toll mounts, with many states posting record Covid deaths. If just .001% of those 5.8 million people in the Texas public school system die from Covid-19 contracted as a result of in-person classes, that’s 5800 people in Texas alone.

CDC has recently, due to expanded testing, discovered that about a third of cases are asymptomatic, which has reduced overall mortality rates to 0.5% of confirmed cases, but reveals how the virus is able to spread so rapidly in even brief gatherings in indoor spaces like churches, choirs, and classes. The only way to keep the death rate down is to slow the rate of infection. Yet here we are, proposing to force children and educators into in-person classes knowing full well that infections will spike as a result.

Infections and deaths won’t stay confined to school sites. Families of schoolchildren will see increased rates of infection and death after their student brings the virus home from school, and parents will spread that infection into other workplaces before they even know they’re infected.

How many deaths are we willing to cause to avoid the inconvenience of online classes? And why is it “managed risk” when the suffering and death will disproportionately impact people of color, but it was an intolerable risk when we believed white people would suffer and die in equal proportions?

Here’s the thing: We have a perfectly good alternative. Unlike a restaurant or a nail salon, education has a functional distance option. Is it perfect? No. Are in-person classes perfect? Also no.

If we decide right now to continue with distance learning in order to save thousands of lives, we can spend the summer preparing and addressing the problems of distance learning. And if we do, we will be beginning the 2020-21 school year far more prepared to address inequities than we ever have been in the history of American education.

Pictured: A Black high school student, pictured from behind, raises his hand as his Black teacher calls on him. (Photo: Getty Images)

INEQUITIES ONLINE AND ONSITE

The primary problem facing American education is inequity, whether classes are held in person or online. We have been, as a culture, singularly uninterested in addressing the inequity issues attached to in-person, traditional K-12 education.

You only get answers to the questions you ask. And the questions we, as a culture, have asked so far are all, in effect: How can we do something to address inequity in education without tackling inequity in society at large?

We’ve been content to pretend that failure to successfully address inequity in education is due to “bad teachers” or the lack of the “right” programming rather than systemic inequity in every aspect of our culture.

We’ve been content to accept that school funding is tied to property taxes, and that one child attends a school with state-of-the-art equipment while another comes from an underfunded and understaffed school with broken windows, no heating or cooling, outdated books & broken equipment (and not enough of either to go around), and daily police violence, both in school and out.

We’ve been content to accept economic inequity as part of a larger good– “American freedom” and “capitalism.” We’ve been content to shrug our shoulders about the fact that economic inequity hurts children. “What can we do about it?” We’ve been content to accept that a wealthy family can purchase higher SAT scores and better grades with expensive test prep classes and tutors while poor students don’t even have a local library, and have to race home after school to take care of younger siblings while mom is at her second job.

If that student is Black, they have to worry about whether they’ll make it home at all, whether they’ll successfully avoid police or get beaten, shot, or choked out in the street for “looking suspicious.” If that student is Black, they are many times more likely to be living in poverty due to years of aggressive economic disenfranchisement. If that student is Black, they are at higher risk of health complications from all sources due to the stress of racism.

And if that student is Black, they learn at a very young age that white people are more than content to gaslight them about these realities, mock their concerns, viciously condemn their peaceful protests, use state-sanctioned propaganda to dismiss racism and demonize Black people, and use state violence to silence them.

The impact of systemic cultural racism on students and on education is widely known, yet we have always lacked the political will to do anything about it except Make. It. Worse.

That’s our current reality. That’s the “ideal” we’re willing to sacrifice student and staff lives to return to.

Online education is inequitable, but it is not more inequitable than in-person education. And we have the opportunity to address equity in online education as we invent widespread online public schooling.

Pictured: A Black student works at a desk.

The inequity issues with online education are immediately apparent, and many of them are the same inequities that onsite education has: lack of equipment, lower rates of reliable internet connectivity, higher rates of reliance on older children at home to watch younger children (due to excessively high-priced childcare). If we start now, we can work to resolve many of those issues before mid-August and start school with less inequity than we would have if we just simply reopened in-person education.

We can (continue to) work with tech companies to supply districts with laptops at cost and wifi hotspots. We can provide federal funding to states to subsidize high-speed internet for families in need. We can require businesses to allow parents to work from home, and we can extend wage subsidies to cover those whose jobs don’t have a remote option, effectively extending paid parental leave to cover the 2020-21 school year. We can increase parent education around learner needs, and create a commonsense truancy oversight system run by trained specialists who can identify the problems and work with the families to correct them, connecting them to needed resources. We can increase funding to SNAP and make qualification faster and easier, ensuring our students are fed.

We could provide teachers professional development around distance learning, and create resources based on what we already know from years of pedagogy around remote education. It’s not like distance learning is an entirely new concept; the clunky rollout last year was due to the lack of preparation and planning. Teachers were given just a few days to turn their in-person classes into distance learning right in the middle of the year. None of our classes were designed to be distance learning from the start. Remote education requires a different pedagogical approach, but now we have the opportunity to prepare classes as effective distance learning from the start.

Yes, this will all require a significant increase in funding. No one ever asks where the funding will come from when we want to give corporations and the wealthiest 1% a massive tax cut; no one ever asks where the funding will come from when we want to increase police or military spending. But when we pit money against children in America, money wins every single time. It’s time to make a different choice.

BUT WHAT ABOUT HYBRID CLASSES?

“Hybrid” classes are perhaps the most popular approach amongst politicians. The type of hybrid education being proposed for social distancing means half of the students are onsite on any given day while the other half are at home in online classes. Students rotate from onsite to online, back and forth, to maintain onsite attendance at half capacity. Hybrid proposals also usually provide an option for parents to choose online education for their child all year if they have concerns about the safety of onsite classes– and they should.

The “hybrid” model is not new. It hasn’t been put into widespread use, in part because it requires a deep restructuring of every aspect of K-12 pedagogy. And while hybrid models are a fantastic idea for high school and college, they rely heavily on deep parent involvement for younger children. We often hear “our economy can’t reopen until our schools reopen” because schools provide the vast majority of the childcare in the US. But there’s no safe way for schools to fully reopen, and the hybrid model still requires an onsite parent/caregiver for most students.

Additionally, hybrid classes will only work with a massive influx of new staff at a time when most states are facing staff layoffs. The pedagogy of distance learning is different than the pedagogy of in-person learning. What this means in practice is that Mr. Nagel would have to create the same lesson on apostrophes twice– once for the in-person students and once for the online students– following different pedagogical approaches. Teacher prep time would double, which is– trust me– physically impossible to execute with the current workload. Most teachers are using the majority of their “off” hours doing prep work already.

Most people think that “instruction” is all we do. Graphic from weareteachers.com shows that teachers work more hours per year than average full-time employees for less pay.

And what, specifically, will the students at home be doing? Teachers who teach an online class are available to teach lessons in real time via Zoom, answer questions, and work with students online during class. Teachers who teach an in-person class are available to give the lesson, answer questions, and work with the students in their classrooms during class. But a “hybrid” teacher is supervising a class of in-person students who are working on the necessarily different in-person lesson, and no one is there to support the online students doing a different online lesson unless you hire twice as many teachers. No one can supervise 16 students in a classroom and 16 students online simultaneously.

There are proposals wherein online students are meant to work independently, with no teacher-led instruction, supervision, or assistance. That’s not even worth considering as a national K-12 model. That model will work very well for some students in some classes– heavily weighted to older students– but for every student? Of every age? In every subject?

There are proposals wherein all students meet onsite for four days and then everyone is home for ten. The thinking goes that the ten days at home will be enough time for those who were infected to show symptoms and isolate. Given that families of color will be disproportionately impacted by the ensuing suffering and death, this “solution” is also not worth considering. It’s especially trying my patience that people are not considering how many of those infected people will be teaching staff and how difficult it will be to replace 10 STEM teachers in a single district during an era wherein it’s difficult to find even one. Unsurprisingly, the national shortage in STEM teachers also has a disproportionate impact on communities of color— the exact demographic that will see the most teacher infections and deaths if we hold in-person classes.

The hybrid model posits that the online portion is made up of “online activities”– recorded lectures, educational games and videos, online worksheets. Who will create these? How will we fund their creation or pay for existing EdTech products? Educators need to be creating these materials and creating hybrid structures for them right now. We need access to professional development right now. Instead, funding is being cut, and– you guessed it– communities of color are always disproportionately impacted by budget cuts.

Pictured: The word “EDUCATION” stenciled in red on a yellow wall, partially covered by graffiti. (Photo: Harvard.edu)

BUT AT LEAST THE HYBRID MODEL IS SAFER, RIGHT?

LO– and let me be perfectly clear about this– L. The cornerstones of the hybrid model for 2020-21 are maintaining social distancing and sterilizing classrooms between classes. Both are completely, laughably impossible.

Even if students could be convinced to maintain social distancing– and they will not reliably follow the rules because they are children— there’s just not enough square footage in most classrooms to allow for it unless we break classes up into thirds or even, in higher populated districts, fourths. It’s not physically possible in most schools.

Students in a classroom on Hempstead, NY. (Photo: CBS2)

And remember that students spend a great deal of time outside the classroom in passing periods, at lunch, on their way to and from school, in the bathroom. Social distancing for the 50 minutes they’re in my classroom does not matter if they’re on top of each other everywhere else. If you think students won’t sit in each other’s laps, draw on each other, share food, or kiss each other, you have never met a teenager.

In addition to the impossibility of enforcing social distancing, there’s not enough time between classes to sterilize the desks, equipment, door knobs, window ledges, and other surfaces, and even if there were– even if we shortened every class by 15 minutes to make that time– schools have been so inadequately funded prior to the proposed 2020-21 budget cuts that teachers have been forced to purchase basic equipment like pencils and paper out of pocket. So who will be paying for all this disinfectant? Have masks and gloves been purchased? Hand sanitizer? What happens when a classroom supply runs out? Where is this funding coming from when schools are so strapped for cash they’re sending out pink slips?

There will be no social distancing and the classrooms will not be sterilized, period. Oh, the states will protect against liability by wringing their hands and saying, “But we told you that you had to have social distancing and sterilize classrooms!” But they have no current plans to provide enough equipment or funding to do so. Instead, they’re telling us, “Do more with less.”

Students will get sick. Teachers will get sick. And some will die. The families who will be protected from this are the ones who choose to keep their students home full time, and without state and federal subsidies, that will become more and more weighted to the wealthy.

When those students and teachers get sick, when death begins to stalk our schools, will we shutter them all and send everyone home, moving to online education anyway, but without preparation? Or will we see that the burden falls much more heavily on people of color, and continue to see that as a “manageable risk”?

That brings me to the bottom line.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Do you think the people in power don’t already know everything I’ve said here? If white people died in equal numbers, the risk presented by returning to in-person classes, either full time or in a hybrid model, would be considered intolerable. We’re considering in-person classes to be a “manageable risk” because the bulk of the suffering and dying will be done by BIPOC children, families, and educators.

Does your school district claim that “Black lives matter”? Here’s your chance to prove it.

Keep the school sites closed. Flood schools with increased federal and state funding for everything I’ve discussed above, plus partnering with special education teachers to create safe solutions for students with disabilities. It can be done. But we have to start now.

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Diversity Training Will Not Save You

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Pictured: A smiling Black child in a pink flowered tank top stands on a green lawn holding a sign that reads, “We said Black Lives Matter. Never said only Black lives matter. We know all lives matter, We just need your help with #BlackLivesMatter for Black lives are in danger!”

Every company, every school, every nonprofit is scrambling to hire a “Director of Diversity” or relying on their current one to navigate them safely through this crisis. Nearly every organization has felt the need to respond in some way. White-run organizations– including police departments all over the country– are promising further “diversity training” for their staffs. The problem is: Diversity training doesn’t work.

Why it doesn’t work is not the fault of the DEI professionals working in the field. Quite the opposite. The problem is how we– especially white people in positions of power–approach the issue of racism. We think of it as “a problem” that can be “solved.”

White supremacy is not a workplace issue that a diversity specialist can “solve” for you. It’s a systemic cultural issue that manifests in the workplace in the same way it manifests everywhere else.

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A group of young Black people wear masks that say “I CAN’T BREATHE” as they attend a protest in Chicago. Photo by Nam Y. Huh.AP. Source: “Do the Work: An Anti-Racist Reading List” by Layla F. Saad.

Upper-level management is almost entirely white across the US, and white people don’t think of ourselves as “racist”– we think racism always lies somewhere else, with someone else. We think of it as a relatively simple issue– we’re “not racist,” so Jerry in Legal can just stop being racist by following a few simple guidelines and the problem will be “solved.”

We think this issue is about how individual white people treat individual people of color, and while that is absolutely one aspect of this, it’s not everything. You can fire a racist cop or a racist politician or a racist investment manager, but the replacement is just as likely to be racist– intentionally or unintentionally– if you don’t address the underlying issue of systemic white supremacy, and you can’t do that if white people aren’t willing to do the hard work involved.

Diversity training is an invitation to begin that work, not a “solution” to racism in the workplace or otherwise.

White people– especially white liberals who consider themselves “woke”– imagine diversity training will be our moment to stand up and denounce the racism of those bad people somewhere else while our Black colleagues clap. The moment we realize that this work demands examining our own complicity and the ways in which white supremacy has shaped us as white people, we react defensively, even angrily.

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What white people imagine diversity training will be like           (Pictured: A white woman with blond hair and a bright blue dress [Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen in HBO’s Game of Thrones] is held aloft by a crowd of people of color dressed in earth tones, all reaching for her.)

Let me tell you two brief stories about diversity training.

I once worked in an extremely liberal workplace in an extremely liberal area. The org, despite its progressive identity and location, had never done any DEI work in its history, and there were some resultant problems. Three women of color & I co-founded its first DEI committee. I believed most of these progressive white people would embrace the journey ahead and we would Get Things Done. I was spectacularly wrong.

Most white staff were defensive; several were openly hostile. Many were offended at the very idea they might need diversity training. One of the worst offenders flat-out refused to attend; in staff meetings, others crowed about their hostility to the trainers (“I really got her!”) or pointedly stated that the “ideal community” was “homogeneous.” White leadership protected and defended the bad behavior. Eventually, the hostile work environment forced us all four of us out.

What a child I was. This was before Robin DiAngelo’s book came out, and I was still under the naive impression that progressive white people would “be better.”

Those employees (with one exception) sat through those diversity trainings. They sat through every single one. And it did almost nothing. The average retention there of Black staff is two years.

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Pictured: A tweet by comedian Ziwe Fumudoh that reads, “Right now every employer in America is terrified that their Black employees will be honest about their work experiences.”

You may have already heard my second story:

A few days ago at a protest, police in San Jose, CA shot their own diversity trainer at point-blank range with rubber bullets for daring to try to stop them from continuing to fire on peaceful protesters. They illegally aimed for his groin and ruptured his testicle. Witnesses captured the moment on camera, confirming that the trainer was standing, hands up, in broad daylight, speaking calmly. And they shot him.

I don’t doubt that this man, Derrick Sanderlin, is an excellent diversity trainer. What I doubt is that the cops who shot him had any interest in taking that work seriously. Yet the SJPD, just like the org in the first story, just like almost every company and organization in the nation, have “diversity” listed as part of their mission.

“Diversity” isn’t the same as “equity.” A “diverse” culture can still be a white supremacist culture. Whatever you think the presence of Black people will do for your org, it’s not going to happen if they know you’re hostile to their truth.

A universal truth of teaching is that you can’t teach someone who doesn’t want to learn. Diversity training  is useless if white people are not willing to accept that we’ve been just as impacted by white supremacy as people of color. We have to be willing to accept that our culture relentlessly produces and promotes racist ideas, and we have to be willing to fully accept that people of color are far more adept at identifying and defining them. And while this post is about racism, please remember that the same can be said for women and sexism, trans people and transphobia, people with disabilities and ableism, and so on for all marginalized groups.

White people must listen and believe when people of color identify for us the impact white supremacy has had on them. After that, cleaning up our mess is our responsibility. People of color, diversity trainers, and anyone else can suggest solutions all day long but it’s our individual responsibility as people– not just as working professionals– to act on those solutions.

Overthrowing systemic white supremacy is a revolution that starts in your own heart and mind. It’s a lifelong process of anti-racist work. Each new day will bring a new realization of a racist concept you have been taught that you need to confront, examine, and work against. That feeling of defensiveness is your clue that you’ve hit paydirt. Whenever there’s a discussion of race or racism, and you feel defensive, you’ve found an area that needs work. It’s your job to stop yourself from reacting defensively and do the anti-racist work required.

There’s no Certificate of Completion. That Certificate of Completion you got for doing your workplace diversity training is nothing but an invitation to reconstruct your own humanity, and that work will never be done.

The work is all there is. It’s one foot in front of the other, and you will fail. We will fail. But we must keep trying. To pretentiously quote Samuel Beckett, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

The stakes could not be higher. Lives are counting on us to do this work, and those lives matter.

 

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Black Ariel: Casting Controversy Under the Sea

 

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Halle Bailey. (Photo: Leon Bennett/Getty Images for Essence)

By now you’ve heard that Disney cast someone called Halle Bailey, a young singer, as Ariel in a live-action Little Mermaid. While I was stuck trying to figure out why they would cast someone in her 40s as Ariel and then discovering that it was not, in fact, Halle Berry but someone else entirely, because I am #old, don’t watch TV, and have no idea who anyone is, the rest of white America was, evidently, freaking out.

Twitter exploded in a #notmyAriel campaign/Klan rally. It’s exactly what you would expect– a lot of emotional displays about how the fictional character of Ariel is “supposed to be” white, and that “little white girls deserve to see themselves represented.”

“They’re subverting Andersen’s original intent!”

As soon as the rest of us began pointing out that this is a film about a mermaid, and therefore a fictional story about a fictional creature who isn’t “supposed to” look like anything, they switched to this– Hans Christian Andersen’s supposedly inviolable intent.

Disney made many changes to Hans Christian Andersen’s original, but the only aspect the #notmyAriel hysterics care about is the mermaid’s skin color, described in the original as “white.” Yet Disney changed the most basic aspects of the story, remaking the plot entirely into a love story. In the original, the mermaid (who isn’t named, let alone given the name of a male Shakespeare character), is far less interested in the young prince than she is in obtaining an immortal human soul so she may go to human heaven when she dies. Her grandmother gives her the idea of marrying a human as a way of obtaining a soul:

“Why have not we an immortal soul?” asked the little mermaid mournfully; “I would give gladly all the hundreds of years that I have to live, to be a human being only for one day, and to have the hope of knowing the happiness of that glorious world above the stars. . . . Is there anything I can do to win an immortal soul?”

“No,” said the old woman, “unless a man were to love you so much that you were more to him than his father or mother; and if all his thoughts and all his love were fixed upon you, and the priest placed his right hand in yours, and he promised to be true to you here and hereafter, then his soul would glide into your body and you would obtain a share in the future happiness of mankind.”

Souls being, evidently, sexually transmitted.

In the end, she doesn’t marry the prince after all, but leaves him to his bride– who is not the sea witch, but a human princess– and flings herself into the sea to die without an immortal soul. She is then carried into the sky by the “daughters of the air,” who promise her an immortal soul for her continued good deeds and self-sacrifice, and assure her– and all the children in 19th century Denmark, one assumes– that good, obedient children shorten the lives of the “daughters of the air” and therefore bring them to the “kingdom of heaven” more quickly, but bad, disobedient children add time to their “probation” on earth.

Andersen’s happy ending isn’t a wedding, but 300 years with Sky Lesbians ending in Danish Christian Heaven.

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The original 19th century illustration of the “daughters of the air” by Vilhelm Pedersen. (Robarts Library, the Internet Archive)

Fealty to Andersen’s original is a ruse, of course. The one and only change white people care about is that, in one of the many retellings of this story, the mermaid will have dark skin.

Note that none of these white people are demanding that a Danish actress be cast in the role; just a white one. In all other respects American white people, who voted for Trump and continue to support him, despise Denmark and the entire Nordic Model. They despise democratic socialism; they despise single payer health care; they despise unions; they despise “big government” and the social safety net. They despise everything about Denmark, but they feel entitled, by virtue of their whiteness alone, to claim ownership of Andersen’s story and demand that its heroine not be representative of Denmark but representative of themselves– of white Americans.

“Little white girls deserve the see themselves represented! Does this mean we can cast white people in Black roles?!” 

It’s preposterous to say that this one casting decision is a problem because white girls “deserve to see themselves represented.” The original white Ariel will continue to exist both in the animated film and in the mountain of related merchandise. And of course, white people are dramatically overrepresented in the media in general.

White people know this. The issue is not that white girls need representation, or that the integrity of Andersen’s original needs to be preserved, or that live action Ariel needs to look identical to animated Ariel, with her inhuman proportions. The issue is that white people believe they are so much better than Black people, so different than Black people, so deeply connected to norms of representation, that it’s an affront when a Black person is cast in a “white” role. This is hardly the first time this has happened. Michael B. Jordan as Human Torch, Idris Elba as Heimdall, the Miles Morales Spider-Man, Noma Dumezweni as Hermione, and just the consideration of Idris Elba as James Bond spring to mind. Even Amandla Stenberg as Rue in The Hunger Games despite her description in the books as having dark skin and hair.

“Then why can’t we cast white people in Black roles?” is right up there with “Why isn’t there a White History Month”? and “Why can’t I wear a White Pride shirt?” This is an obviously disingenuous question, but just to be clear: WE DO. All the time.

Whitewashing is one of the most common practices in Hollywood, and often entire eras and areas of the world are whitewashed. One of the knights of the Round Table, Sir Morien, was Black; one of the most feared and successful Revolutionary War fighters was Colonel Tye, an escaped slave who led an entire regiment of Black soldiers for the British, attacking Rebel slaveholders and freeing their slaves; Moses’s wife is described in Numbers 12 as a Cushite– an Ethiopian– and God punishes Miriam for complaining about it; one of Henry VIII’s best court trumpeters, John Blanke, was Black, and was so valued the king gave him a handsome raise in pay; there were Black Puritan clergy (Lemuel Haynes) and Black Puritan women who were landholders (Zipporah Atkins). I could go on. These aren’t contested stories or theories by amateur historians. This is all part of the established historical record, all routinely overlooked in film depictions.

We so deeply believe that white is the default, it’s common for white people to complain about the inclusion of characters of color at all. “But why does he have to be Black?” or “Why does she need to be Asian?” are common critiques, as if one needed a specific reason to be anything other than white. White people consider white to be “generic human,” and any other type of character must therefore be some kind of specific racial commentary. The only reason to cast a Black actor is if you’re speaking specifically about Blackness within a white context. If you include a Black character who never specifically discusses Blackness within a white context– explaining what it means to be Black in a white world, talking about the struggles of being Black, absolving white people of racism by offering easy solutions like “Just be my friend”– white people demand to know why that character is even there. 

Diversity in casting, for these people. is about white people graciously scooting over to allow people of color a small amount of space that we define for them and that exists only in relation to us. It’s therefore a massive affront and highly offensive when Black people “take” something that’s “rightfully” ours because it’s something we did not define as set aside for them to use to explain their lack of whiteness to us.

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Super cute piece by artist Alice X. Zhang of Halle Bailey as Ariel

People angry about Black Ariel are shrieking all over the internet right now, “Why don’t they just find an African story to do instead of ruining our stories?” Sure, except you get angry about that as well, Ashleighee. Apart from the fact that The Little Mermaid is not “ours” and a Black actress does not “ruin” it with her Blackness, these are the very same people who get angry when Black stories are produced by mainstream studios. Those studios are “pandering” and “too PC.” Black Panther, Dear White People, and Luke Cage were all “racist,” with too few white actors and white characters who weren’t shown “positively.” When Black films are confined to Black spaces, they’re fine, but when Black films come into the mainstream, the culture we define as “white space,” we demand that our needs, stories, and visual representations be centered.

So let’s be clear: This isn’t about one remake of The Little Mermaid with a Black American instead of a blue-eyed Dane. This is about white anger about any story being told in which white people are not the heroes, the center of the narrative, and the posited audience. They’re perfectly fine with a colonial New England, ancient Rome, or Tudor London with zero Black people on screen; they’re perfectly fine with white Europeans playing ancient Egyptians; they believe it makes perfect sense for a “galaxy far, far away” to have enough racial diversity to sustain Wookkiees and Hutts but not enough for humans to be anything under 99.77% European, yet they are absolutely livid over one Black mermaid. It’s not about character or narrative integrity and it never was. It’s about preserving the vision of a white-dominated, white supremacist world.

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Rashida Tlaib Shouldn’t Apologize. You Should for Your Sexist Double Standard.

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Congressional Representative Rashida Tlaib (D-MI).   (Photo: Al Goldis/AP)

Oh, the horror! Newly sworn-in Congressional Representative Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) attended a MoveOn event last Thursday evening during which she used some colorful language to refer to former reality TV personality and Russian mob-linked “real estate developer” Donald J. Trump. She stated that the new Democratic majority in the House was going to “impeach the motherfucker.”

Interestingly, few on either side of the aisle are complaining about the substance of Tlaib’s statement. Even Republicans are beginning to recognize that a line has been crossed when your POTUS, whose understanding of foreign affairs is limited to which foreign leader has the hottest wife and which nation’s bribes– sorry, “Trump Hotel bills“– are the largest, spouts obscure Kremlin propaganda on live television. No, what people are upset about is her use of the word “motherfucker.”

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How dare she

While Tlaib is surely not the first person to refer to Trump in such a way, this event is being treated as if it’s a National Scandal. If you ever needed an example of the sexist double standard in American politics, here it is.

Tlaib’s comment has launched 1000 hot takes about how “dangerous” or “divisive” her single f-bomb was, but when men use the same kind of language, they’re consistently portrayed as lovable scamps, “tough talkers,” or “real.”

Trump himself has used profanity hundreds of times publicly at his rallies, used profane insults in his tweets about fellow politicians and about NFL players, used profanity to brag about sexually assaulting women, used profanity to insult nations with Black populations, and that’s just off the top of my head.

In Beto O’Rourke’s concession speech last November, he said of his campaign team, “I’m so fucking proud of you guys,” and everyone found it charming– so charming, in fact,  someone is selling several T-shirt designs emblazoned with the quote. And don’t come at me with their different contexts; Tlaib is being slammed for her language, not for her sentiment, while Beto remains the Great White Hope of the Left.

Joe Biden’s profanity is considered charming earthiness, part of a roguish public persona that has served as the inspiration for hundreds of memes.

And in case you’re wondering whether race is playing a role here, I give you Kirsten Gillibrand’s use of “fuck” at NYU, June 2017.

Again, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Swearing is nothing new in American public life, yet when it’s done by a woman of color, suddenly it’s an unforgivable sin for which she should immediately apologize.

In many of the preposterous hot takes written from the Hypocrisy Fainting Couch, Tlaib is chastised for being “divisive” and for failing to understand that her profanity doesn’t “build bridges” to bipartisanship, as if all Mitch McConnell needs to repent his evil ways and lead his party to oust the Russian asset in the White House is a kind word and a smile.

Over and over, both in these op-eds and social media, I’ve seen people bloviating that Tlaib should apologize because “we expect more from women,” “women should adhere to a higher standard,” “we shouldn’t sink to their level.” What this means is that we have one standard for white men, wherein their profanity is winkingly categorized under “boys will be boys,” and another for everyone else, an impossibly high standard set up to ensure our failure before we even begin.

Tlaib’s moment of profanity isn’t nearly as destructive as the endless purity tests for women in politics.  Is she “likeable”? Pretty enough? Nice enough? Not shrill? Not too loud and demanding, but loud and demanding enough in a non-threatening way? Does she fight hard, but only about certain issues, not about, say, sexism? Is she thin enough? Does she dress well, but not too well? Does she defer to the men or does she treat them the way they treat her?

Has she ever made any mistake ever? Then she’s “unelectable” due to her “baggage,” a label we will cement to her name through dozens of articles “asking the question,” a stance that gives us plausible deniability even as we give the idea weight and importance.

When men make precisely the same mistakes, they’re forgiven, immediately, applauded for their half-assed “I apologize if I offended anyone,” if the incident is even given that much attention. In a nation where a child molester, a judge who protected a child rapist, an open white supremacist, an “acting Attorney General” who defrauded veterans and threatened those who complained, and an entire rogue’s gallery of grifters and grafters have all garnered the approval of Republicans at the highest levels of government, a woman of color is criticized by people on both the right and the left for uttering a single swear word in the fight for justice against that very criminality.

The problem we have is not that Tlaib said a naughty word. The problem is that our systemic sexism and racism holds women, especially women of color, to an impossibly high standard, and uses their failure to meet that impossible standard as evidence that they are unfit for power. “It’s not that she’s a woman,” the lie goes, “it’s that she did this thing”– “this thing” being something for which men are routinely forgiven– or even congratulated. The left laughs at Trump for saying Tlaib “dishonored” the country moments after using the same language himself, but our own hypocrisy is no better.

Tlaib herself, to her credit, is not apologizing, and has made an iron-clad case for impeachment in an op-ed for the Detroit Free Press. I strongly recommend reading the whole thing, but I will leave you with this quote:

“This is not just about Donald Trump. This is about all of us. What should we be as a nation? Who should we be as a people?”

We should, as a people, strive to treat woman and people of color with the same respect we treat white men. Those of us on the left, who claim we uphold diversity and equity as core principles, need to stop the devastating attacks on women and people of color while we wink and nod at white men for the same behavior.

 

 

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I Can’t Go On. I’ll Go On.

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Photo: Associated Press

Desperate refugees are being teargassed at the border for having the audacity to take the Statue of Liberty at her word. The economy is slipping badly due to Trump’s mismanagement. The (putative) President of the United States praises the people who financed 9/11 while disparaging the Navy Seals who killed Bin Laden, praises convicted criminals while attacking law enforcement and judges, praises dictators and white supremacists while insulting US allies, disrespects the rule of law, American tradition, American values, and the Constitution, and lies, and lies, and lies again.

Meanwhile liberal lion Nancy Pelosi’s speakership is being held hostage by conservative Democrats who are insisting she hand power to House Republicans in exchange. Climate change is poised to ruin our economy on its way to ending our ability to live on this planet and somehow– insanely– this has become a partisan issue. A new study rolled out that confirmed the findings of multiple studies over the past 18 months: people support Trump due to “white anxiety”– we used to call this “racism”– a fear of people of color “dominating” the US and “displacing” white people.

And that’s just the past few weeks.

That’s a tenth of what has happened in the past few weeks.

The US is being held hostage by a minority political faction hostile to the rest of us. A Republican recently told me, “Republicans aren’t interested in democracy. We’re interested in freedom.” Freedom to oppress, freedom to discriminate, freedom to defraud.

It’s a lot.

In the theatre community, I’m seeing a lot of despair. What good is art while racism and sexism are gleefully celebrated throughout our society? What good is art when 40% of the nation supports open hatred, open ignorance, open rejection of science, knowledge, and basic facts? Why are we fiddling as Rome burns? How can it ever be enough?

Yet we MUST GO ON. Because we are more than enough. We are the most powerful tool in the resistance.

There is no way to overstate the power of art. There’s a reason this whole destructive cycle began with the establishment of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and conservative “infotainment” in the 90s. There’s a reason it ends up here, with Trump’s lying showmanship and conservative propaganda given more weight than actual journalism, science, or expertise.

The Cambridge Analytica papers showed that Steve Bannon invented the concept of the “Deep State” as propaganda, and that revelation had exactly zero impact on the people who believe in that lie. Why? Because art is more powerful than any one piece of factual evidence. The person who controls the story controls the truth.

Art matters. Representation matters. Art creates culture. Conservatives know this and are using it to promote the racist, sexist panic that preserves their political power.

When Donald Trump goes on television and insists that Mexicans are “rapists,” he knows that’s not true. When he claims white supremacists are “very fine people,” states that non-white countries are “shitholes,” says that Central American refugees are “terrorists,” “diseased,” “child grabbers,” or “Middle Eastern,” he knows that’s not true. When he insults prominent Black Americans, he invariably uses classic white supremacist language: Maxine Waters is “low IQ”; Don Lemon is “the dumbest man on television”; Andrew Gillum is “a thief”; Civil Rights icon Rep. John Lewis “does nothing” for his “burning and crime-infested” district, and many, many more. Of course he knows none of it is true.

Sure, it’s lying, but more importantly, it’s THEATRE. He’s performing for conservative white Americans who support him primarily due to “white anxiety” and “racial resentment.” He’s putting on a show for them that may as well be entitled You’re Right to Feel Superior to Black People. It runs in rep with You’re Right to Be Afraid of Brown People, Women Exist to Be Decorative and Obedient, and I Don’t Care What the Constitution Says and Neither Should You: Give Me Unrestrained Power to Shut Down The Black and Brown Infestation and Make America Great (and White) Again. It’s running eight shows a week on the Great White Way along with Fox News’ Everyone Who is Not White and Conservative is Bad, InfoWars’ The Sky Is Falling and It’s the Jews’ Fault and Mike Pence and Lindsey Graham’s experimental dance theatre piece, Hate Keeps the Closet Door Shut.

Very few people actually believe Trump’s lies. They’re just fans of the show.

You don’t fight theatre with facts. That’s why facts and logic aren’t working, why Trump’s base will swear they believe his lies over their own eyes and ears.

You fight theatre with better theatre. You fight narrative with better narrative. And we are much, much better at this than they are.

It’s hard, I know. It feels at times like all is lost, like every scrap of progress we’ve made against evil since Civil Rights is being encinerated, like every step forward we’ve made for women, people of color, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, Muslims, Jews, everyone is being dragged back to the 19th century. But they’re not winning every battle. And THEY WILL NOT WIN THE WAR.

We outnumber them. And we are better at this than they are.

You, the theatremakers, filmmakers, TV writers and producers, all of you making art: YOU ARE THE VANGUARD. Fill your stages and screens with stories that fight this evil. Celebrate difference. Hire and promote women, people of color, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities. Fund that show written and directed by Black women and promote the hell out of it. Cast a trans lead. Put three nonbinary people with disabilities on your story team.

Be deliberate. Go on. Your art is your activism, and there is nothing more powerful on this earth.

Keep pushing. They will not prevail. This moment in history is temporary. They will NOT be the ones who tell the American Story. We will. We are.

Go on.

 

 

 

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Back to School: Creating an Equitable Workplace

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Only 2% of K-12 teachers nationwide are Black men, and just 4.5% are Black women. Black teachers are 50% more likely to leave the profession than white teachers. Just 4% of university faculty are Black. (Photo: teacher.org)

This piece is the second in a three-part series about education in the US. The first is Back to School: How to Be a White Teacher, As Taught to Me By Students of Color.

A few years ago, when I was the senior lecturer at [name redacted] university, the only time my “senior lecturer status” was ever mentioned was when the department chair offered me a class in Black theatre because they “had to” due to my “status.” I told them to hire a Black colleague instead. My “status” as “senior lecturer” had never come up before and never came up again. In fact, that same year I was roundly scolded for “assuming” I had a particular class just because it had been offered to me. They suddenly announced at the last minute they were hiring a white man, lecturing there for the first time, and when I brought up the fact that the job had already been offered to me, I was sternly rebuked. So much for my “senior lecturer” status. I was scolded again by senior staff for later refusing to assist the new hire without pay.

My story is not unique. It’s not even particularly unique in my own academic career. White educators, especially white male educators, experience enormous privilege in the workplace, whether they know it or not.

White men are over-represented in all academic leadership roles. In public high schools, 70% of principals are male, almost all white. Independent schools fare no better; 90% of school heads are white and 64% are male. Over 86% of public school superintendents are men and 92% are white.

White men also enjoy a host of privileges as teachers. In an era when student test scores have become a (mystifyingly) critical marker of teacher performance, white men are assigned high-performing classes more often than women and people of color. Men are given better evaluations than their female colleagues and colleagues of color, even when teaching online classes with literally identical, copy-and-paste content. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in non-union independent schools, men are paid a full 32% more than women. Even in unionized public schools, men are paid 12% more than women. This may sound impossible given the codification of pay scales in teaching positions, but schools have a great deal of flexibility in determining which step on the pay scale a teacher begins when hired and what kinds of classes, certifications, and degrees they will accept for pay-raising post-graduate education. Educators of color are less likely to be retained, and Black teachers’ expertise in both subject matter and pedagogy is routinely downplayed or overlooked.

In short, discrimination is rampant in academia, and, although this piece focuses primarily on race, it’s not limited to race alone. Teachers with disabilities are routinely refused accommodations, and in most areas of the country, transgender, non-binary and gender-nonconforming teachers are deeply discriminated against. Shockingly, half of transgender teachers report being harassed by colleagues and administrators.

White educators, we can create a more equitable workplace for educators of color. Male educators, you can create a more equitable workplace for women. Cis educators, we can create a more equitable workplace for transgender, non-binary, and gender-nonconforming educators. Able-bodied educators, you can create a more equitable workplace for educators with disabilities. While this piece focuses on race, there is much work to be done in all areas of inequity, and the techniques described below can be used to create diversity, inclusion, and equity for all.

EXAMINE RETENTION RATES. A site’s retention rates are key to understanding the experiences of those who work there. Is your site able to retain white people, but struggles to retain people of color? Are men retained longer than women? Has your site lost a number of women of color all within a short time frame? Examining your retention rates will provide valuable insight into whether your site is truly welcoming and equitable. If your site utilizes exit interviews, perhaps compiling the answers of the people of color who have left your site within the past few years will prove enlightening. Believe what people of color tell you about working at your site, and pay careful attention to trends in the compiled exit interview data.

ENCOURAGE DIVERSE HIRING AT YOUR SITE. Diversity in the workplace, both in teaching staff and in leadership, has numerous benefits. Although our student population is now “majority minority,” US teaching staff is 80% white, with many sites lacking even a single Black or Latinx classroom teacher, even in diverse areas, while evidence continues to mount that students of color have better outcomes when they have teachers of color. A 2015 Stanford University study showed that Black students are disciplined more harshly for the same infractions than white students. The odds of being assigned to a “gifted” or advanced program are 66% lower for Black students and 47% lower for Latinx students than they are for white students, even with high placement test scores. Non-Black teachers have lower expectations for Black students than Black teachers do, even when evaluating the same students. Non-Latinx teachers have negative perceptions of Latinx students, especially when they’re EL students. A more diverse teaching staff is the first step in creating a more equitable education for students of color. White staff will also benefit from working alongside educators with diverse perspectives and experiences.

Is your site hiring? Spread the word to colleagues of color. Post on social media and ask your friends to keep an eye out for candidates of color. Mention to administrators the critical importance of a diverse staff. Advocate for candidates of color when they apply. When you have the opportunity to invite guest speakers to your classroom, look for people of color regardless of the topic. Both students of color and white students need diverse role models.

SUPPORT YOUR COLLEAGUES OF COLOR. It’s not going to do much good if you hire educators of color and then dismiss, minimize, or contest everything they have to say. This is diversity without equity—hiring people of color and then relegating them to a voiceless underclass. Practical ways you can support your colleagues of color (and remember that all of these can be extrapolated to colleagues with disabilities, LGBTQ colleagues, etc):

  1. Educate yourself. Read writers of color and believe what they have to say about whiteness. If you’re uncomfortable with their critiques, work to change the impact of whiteness on their lives rather than fault writers of color for telling the truth of their lived experiences. A better understanding of the experiences of your colleagues of color will increase your effectiveness as an ally.
  2. Listen and believe your colleagues of color. Do not argue with people of color about their lived experiences of racism, especially if your argument is about intent (“I didn’t mean it that way!”). Impact is much more important than intent. If a colleague of color trusts you enough to educate you about something racially problematic happening at your site, or something racially problematic that you’ve done or said, listen to them. Your colleague of color is taking an enormous risk by discussing this with you. Honor that by listening sincerely. Then support your colleague if further steps need to be taken, such as bringing a proposed policy change to administration, or requesting administration reverse a racially charged decision.
  3. Work with administration to get diversity and equity training for the whole staff, and approach the work sincerely by educating the staff about white fragility beforehand. I’ve been through many diversity trainings, and I honestly think most white people imagine diversity training will just be a lengthy affirmation of our cherished belief that we are “not racist.” We imagine that we will sit for a few hours shaking our heads in dismay about “those racists over there” while congratulating ourselves for being “not that.” White people in diversity trainings become enormously fragile, defensive, and even angry the moment they realize that diversity training is actually about combating our own implicit racism and the ways in which we support systemic racism. White people will angrily or tearfully insist we’re “not racist” and “a good person,” insist we “don’t see color,” insist the trainer is incompetent, crow about our resistance to the training (such as boasting about “stumping” the trainer with whataboutism or examples of “reverse racism”), state that we feel “attacked,” dismiss accounts of racism by people of color as “exaggerated,” and more. Staff-wide education around white fragility could provide some tools to mitigate those all-too-common negative reactions to the work. Until white staff are past fragility and defensiveness, little progress can be made.
  4. Work to create clear policies and procedures. When we leave decisions to “case-by-case bases,” more often than not, implicit biases create inequity. Clear policies and procedures, applied equitably, can insure that decisions are as untainted by implicit biases as possible. For example, it’s startlingly common for white male administrators to plan privately with white male educators, securing the most desirable classes and assignments for the white men and then offering the remainder to the women and people of color on staff. “We didn’t know you were interested!” is always the excuse, an excuse created by keeping initial planning secret so the question is never asked. Codifying equitable policies would avoid the resentment that such favoritism breeds, increasing retention.

DIVERSIFY LEADERSHIP. In the US, the vast majority of educational leadership is both white and male. Such homogeneity not only reduces effectiveness, but perpetuates itself in that white males are far more likely to hire and promote other white males, minimize or discount their errors and failures, and assume competence even with extraordinary evidence to the contrary. (We’ve all been in situations where a white man who failed spectacularly at another site is hired for a position of leadership at ours.) Homogeneity in leadership leads to the implicit biases common to that group running unchecked through the industry as a whole. Leadership– from department leadership all the way through the superintendent and school board or board of directors– must reflect the diversity of the surrounding community if it is to effectively serve that community.

Diversity without equity is not effective. Hiring women and people of color and then refusing to pay them equitably, promote them, or even listen sincerely to their input is not reflective of a true “commitment to diversity,” a phrase every school and university across the nation displays proudly on their websites. We have much work to do in our industry– and in our culture at large– to live up to that promise. Let’s get to work.

Next: Back to School: How to Fix the “Broken Education System”

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Back to School: How to be a White Teacher, As Taught to Me By Students of Color

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Image: JSTOR Daily (daily.jstor.org)

This is the first piece in a three-part series about education in the US.

I taught for many years as a lecturer at a state university in the Bay Area. Once, after the first day of class, a young Black student stopped me to ask a routine question. He was a freshman, at the start of his college journey. We walked together to my next class for a bit and chatted. I asked him what I asked many of my students when we had a chance to chat: What did he want to do with his life? What were his dreams and goals? He stopped in his tracks, turned to me, and said, “No white person has ever asked me that.”

This was very early in my teaching career, and was a formative moment for me. In one comment, this teenager had given me a master class in being a white teacher, and in whiteness in America. No white teacher– no white PERSON– had ever cared enough to ask this young man the ubiquitous, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” That broke my heart and changed my life as a teacher. I began to think hard about how white teachers serve– or do not serve– students of color. I began to think hard about the many ways in which living in a society flooded with racist messaging has influenced the way we teach, the expectations we have of our students, the material we teach, and our classroom cultures.

While many assume education is extremely diverse– I’ve had white people tell me they believe their whiteness is a liability on the academic job market– 80% of public school teachers are white, and 90% of full-time professors are white (but when you include underpaid lecturers, that number drops to 79%). A full 77% of K-12 teachers are women  (but of course just under a quarter of full-time professors are women). White men are given school leadership roles at all levels– K through grad school– at astonishingly higher rates than anyone else, even though they are underrepresented in K-12 education. The more prestigious the educational institution, the more likely white men are chosen for leadership roles.

Most American teachers are white, and most of us are teaching under some form of white male leadership, while the US student population is more diverse now than ever before. Yet we’re also confronted with the reality that white fragility around conversations about race and white resentment are both at a fever pitch, making support around these issues from parents, colleagues and, most importantly, administrators uncertain and often conditional.

How do we support all our students whether leadership is on board or not? How do we create a curriculum and a classroom culture that support the needs of all students using the tools available to us, with or without outside support?

EDUCATE YOURSELF. Read writers of color, and not just when they’re writing about race. Seek out writers whose lived experience differs from yours and learn what they have to say about a wide variety of topics. Believe what writers of color have to say about whiteness. If you begin to feel uncomfortable with a writer’s criticism of white people, lean into it. This is where the growth happens. Don’t allow yourself to pretend that your own resistance, defensiveness, or anger mean that the writer is “wrong.” Defensiveness, resistance, and anger are far more likely to mean that the writer is discussing an uncomfortable truth you do not want to confront. Do you want your students to give up the minute something gets difficult? If we’re asking for that kind of disciplined effort from 14-year-old students around algebra problems or essays, we can certainly give that disciplined effort ourselves about the systemic racism that has destroyed lives for generations. If you’re unhappy with the way writers of color critique whiteness, work to change the impact of whiteness in their lives rather than dismiss the writers for telling the truth.

BUILD A DIVERSE CURRICULUM. Don’t worry about being a white teacher teaching material by people of color. Just don’t present yourself as an expert in the race-related material. It’s enough to be the expert in, say, novel structure; you do not also need to be the expert in Black lives to teach a novel by a Black writer. Read the work of Black scholars when prepping Black material. Present the material to your students as something you are exploring together. Tell students why it’s important to read writers of many different perspectives. Model humility; model the desire to learn about people different than yourself, to learn from people different than yourself. Demonstrate to your students that material by people of color isn’t “Black history” or “Latinx literature” but “history” and “literature.” “History” and “literature” are not naturally white, requiring modifiers to demonstrate distance from the natural whiteness of the fields. All work comes from specific perspectives, including white-written work. We just pretend white-written work is “neutral” and “universal.” White work is heavily influenced by the writer’s whiteness, not “neutral,” but we read whiteness as “neutral” and everything else as defined by its distance from whiteness. All work is both specific in perspective and universal.

Scholars invented “the canon” and we can reinvent it to include writers of color. Writers of color are not temporary diversions from “important work,” existing solely to speak specifically about people of color for a moment before we return to work about more universal themes. Writers of color are firmly enmeshed in the same web of influences and references, and handle the same universal themes, as “canonical” writers. But because scholars privileged white work and relegated, for example, Black work to a “Black lit” or “Black history” sidebar, we’ve been taught to see it as an extra, a detour, a specialization. American writers of color are only considered “canonical” when writing about their identity, while we deem white writers the only people capable of writing work that speaks to the human experience as a whole. Does that seem exaggerated to you? Look for the American writers here, here, and here. Works by writers of color about identity are critically important, and of course do indeed contain universal themes, despite generations of white academics ignoring that. But works by writers of color about other topics are also important and also deserving of inclusion in curricula. Any list or syllabus that includes Orwell and Bradbury but not Butler is broken. Academics invented the broken canon, and we can repair it. Start with your syllabus.

If you’re a Humanities teacher, diversifying your curriculum is easy, especially if you’re already seeking out diverse writers and educating yourself about diverse perspectives. There are literally thousands of articles and lesson plans available online. There are social justice-focused lesson plans, lesson plans about writers of color, lesson plans based on primary source material written by people of color throughout history, and so much more. If you’re a STEM teacher, this might seem more complex. How do you “diversify” an Algebra 2 curriculum? The website Teaching Tolerance has sample lessons for all subjects and grade levels, and is a great place to start. They also published a useful article about diversity in STEM teaching called “Planting Seeds, Growing Diversity.”   There are many resources online for STEM teachers looking to create diverse curricula.

EXAMINE YOUR IMPLICIT BIASES. Implicit biases are unconscious responses to internalized cultural messaging. In a culture rife with systemic racism, we encounter racist messaging every day of our lives. (The same goes for misogyny, transphobia, ableism, etc.) Our implicit biases are not consciously racist, but rather a reaction to our understanding of our culture shaped by a lifetime of racist messaging. All humans have implicit biases and must work to uncover what they are before working to counteract them. I won’t lie to you; it’s difficult work and it’s never-ending, but the results are critically important for teachers. What are your expectations of your students? Do you unconsciously expect white boys to be “better” at some things? Do you allow a Black girl’s math errors to slide because “that’s the best she can do”? Do you see rowdiness from Black students as “inappropriate” and requiring consequences, but rowdiness from white boys as “high spirits”? Do you make up nicknames for students when their names are “too hard to pronounce”? All humans have implicit biases, and all Americans, especially white Americans, have a host of implicit biases about race that we must examine intentionally in order to overcome. Not sure where to start? Take a look at this article from the Yale Center for Teaching and Learning, “Awareness of Implicit Biases” and NEA Today’s “When Implicit Bias Shapes Teacher Expectations.”   This is a life-long project with no finish line, so don’t look for quick, easy answers or a bullet-pointed “to do” list for the classroom. This is about examining our own thoughts and behavior over time.

RESPECT STUDENTS’ CULTURES. One of the most frequent mistakes we make as white teachers is around the usage of English dialects such as AAVE (African American Vernacular English). What we call “correct” or “proper” English is just one style of communication students will need to use as a tool in a few, very limited settings. Even in the business world, most communication is done in a slang-y, jargon-y English that is nowhere near “correct.” While formal English skills can indeed open doors for you as the lingua franca of many aspects of our culture, it’s just one style of English communication. When I mark something on a paper as “incorrect” grammar or syntax, it is “incorrect” for formal English, not for all English communication. “Correct” grammar and syntax are always changing. Case in point: Americans insisted on using “momentarily” incorrectly so persistently dictionaries now include “in a moment” as an “alternate usage” along with the original “for a moment,” which quite frankly galls me, but language evolves despite my personal feelings about it. White people complain bitterly about various dialects but don’t know how to use “whom” properly and can’t tell the difference between “every day” and “everyday.” I see white people writing the utterly incorrect “I drink coffee everyday” while sneering at the usage of “ax” for “ask,” a pronunciation that goes back 1200 years. Learning to code switch from AAVE, Hawaiian pidgin, or Spanglish to formal English is a skill, and a deeply useful one. When teaching, emphasize that you’re using one style of English—formal English—in your classroom, not that you’re using “correct English.” No one dialect is always “correct” for every setting.

Think about when formal English is required in your classroom and when it isn’t, and be certain that you’re monitoring that equally. During class discussions, too many teachers allow white slang while “correcting” students who use AAVE (even though the vast majority of “white slang” was appropriated from AAVE). If you’re using “cool,” “hang out,” or the prepositional because (“because science”) but “correcting” students who use “finna,” “ax,” or “I got out the bed,” you’re creating a classroom culture where random white slang is acceptable but a longstanding dialect with its own grammar and syntax–AAVE– is not.  We need to teach formal English to our students, but we can (correctly) recognize that code switching is a complex and useful skill rather than denigrate one dialect while teaching another. You don’t need to denigrate other English dialects to teach students formal English any more than you need to denigrate English to teach Japanese.

LISTEN TO STUDENTS AND COLLEAGUES OF COLOR. Most of what I’ve ever learned about serving students of color as a white teacher came from listening to students and colleagues of color. But in order to listen to colleagues of color, you need to have colleagues of color– and you need to have colleagues of color who are able to speak out without consequences. In the next piece, I’ll examine our role as white allies in creating diversity and equity in the academic workplace.

Next: Back to School: Creating an Equitable Workplace.

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Your Nonprofit is “Committed to Diversity”? How Diverse Is Your Board?

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“People ask me sometimes, when do you think it will it be enough? When will there be enough women on the court? And my answer is when there are nine.” — Ruth Bader Ginsberg

Few consider it odd that almost all Supreme Court justices in the court’s 229 year history have been white men, but many considered Justice Ginsberg’s statement to be highly controversial. The idea of an all-female court seemed upsetting and threatening to many people, but an all-male court has always seemed unremarkable.

In nearly every nonprofit company in the US, the board of directors is overwhelmingly white and male. One or two white women or Black men on an otherwise white male board is considered “diverse.” And when they get a seat at the table, women and people of color struggle to be heard in white male-heavy environments, their voices discounted, their points of view ignored. Endless studies and articles discuss this problem. Entire industries have developed around corporate diversity consultants.

This has enormous repercussions on every aspect of our lives in the US. Health services, education, social services, legal services, civic and environmental advocacy, the arts, and international relations all have significant nonprofit presence. White men– usually white, able-bodied, cisgender, straight men with Christian heritage– control these industries, set their priorities, and determine how resources are distributed without significant input from other points of view.

Few people outside of the nonprofit world know how much power the board of directors has. Most of us know that the board hires the head of the organization, a decision that has enormous repercussions for the institution as a whole. The head is the gatekeeper for every aspect of the organization, and it has been an ongoing, pervasive problem that the people boards choose for the big chair are almost always white and male.

Just as importantly, boards approve annual budgets, and where the money goes– and where it does not– directs everything about a company. Is your building ADA compliant? Do your staff go through regular diversity and equity training? Do you do hiring outreach to communities that are under-represented in your staff? Is budgeting for any of those a priority or considered an “extra”? What we choose to fund has far-reaching effects on every aspect of our organizations.

You cannot be “committed to diversity” unless your Board is diverse. We need to ensure that our boards have an understanding of a multiplicity of experiences, have a wider range of contacts, and can speak with authority to a wider range of people. A diverse board has innumerable benefits while a homogeneous board has just as many drawbacks and limitations.

When boards hire a new company head, they see a white man with little experience as “a fresh new voice” but a woman or person of color with the same (or even more) experience as “not ready.” They see a white man who has failed in other places as “a risk-taker” or “a maverick” but see women or people of color who have failed in other places as just failures. White boards give white men the benefit of the doubt while judging women and people of color too harshly. They see white men as being able to speak to a “universal human experience” while seeing, for example, a Black woman as having a limited, specifically Black and female, perspective.

Our culture assumes that all positions of power are rightfully white and male, and any diversion from that is a deviation from the norm– a place made specially for difference. We assume that white men are “neutral,” able to make decisions unweighted by identity-related points of view, and that everyone else is irrevocably marked by their identity, their judgment skewed by their distance from white maleness. Yet it is a certainty that whiteness and maleness are very specific points of view that clearly impact judgment.

A white person will not have the experience to always recognize and understand racism when they see it. A cisgender man will not have the experience to always recognize and understand sexism or transphobia when they see it. When confronted with racism, many– perhaps the majority– of white people reject it, defend it, or make excuses for it. When confronted with sexism, the majority of men reject it, defend it, or make excuses for it. Men insist that stories about women can’t be universal, but automatically assume that stories about men are. White people insist that Black, Latinx, or Asian stories can’t be universal, but automatically assume that stories about white people are. A film with an all-Black cast is a “Black movie,” but a film with an all white cast is just “a movie.” We label any story that’s not white, male, cis, hetero, and able-bodied as a creation for a niche audience, but the truth is, there is universality in any story, because there is far more that binds us than separates us. White men have been trained to see themselves as “neutral” and everyone else as marked by their distance from that neutrality. This is all summed up by the images below. These are male:

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And these are female:

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Even in simplistic cartoon icons, something extra is needed to denote “female,” because neutral is read as “male.” Every position of privilege is “neutral” and everything else is measured by its distance from that privilege, requiring modifying adjectives or visual markers.

Of course this point of view is a direct result of living in a culture that bombards us with this messaging relentlessly. It’s a catch-22: If we want to change our cultural messaging to embrace the universality of all human experience, not just white male human experience, we need to create that messaging in our culture– through the art, the marketing, the writing, and all the other cultural artifacts currently produced by organizations that overwhelmingly favor the work of white men, hire white men, and promote white men to positions of leadership.

While the gatekeepers are mostly white and male, gatekeeping throughout our culture will have a necessarily limited perspective. When the gatekeepers are homogeneous, outside perspectives, outside needs, and outside trends will always be imperfectly understood or even missed entirely. Having a diversity of voices in the room so dramatically improves an organization’s ability to serve its community, one would think a diverse board of directors would be a requirement for obtaining and retaining the 501c3 nonprofit status. As nonprofits, we exist as “public benefit corporations.” Who are we benefiting if the gatekeepers in our organizations are all drawn from the most privileged demographic in our culture?

It all boils down to this:

There is no “commitment to diversity” without diversity. 

We need to diversify our boards or stop claiming we have a “commitment to diversity.”

 

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