Tag Archives: social justice

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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The New Boston Tea Party

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Anonymous 18th c. painting. Unless otherwise indicated, all art posted here is from the BBC collection, “The Black Figure in 18th c Art,” curated by by David Dabydeen.      (Pictured: A Black man in a red waistcoat and vest with a white high-collared shirt. His hair is in a stylish queue. He looks directly at the viewer with a penetrating gaze, his forehead lit as a symbol of intelligence. He stands before a rich reddish-brown background.)

My fellow white people: The protests you are witnessing now– that you have been witnessing for years– have a long, storied history in American patriotism. What you’re witnessing is a 21st century Boston Tea Party. 

It’s important to understand that police brutality is not new– it’s just newly on video  Black people have, for generations, spoken about police brutality and most white people have minimized or outright denied the problem. Now we have the video evidence to prove Black people were correct all along.

It’s important to understand that this cannot be solved with “just obey the police and you’ll be fine.” Again, we have the video evidence to prove that that is not just untrue, but cruelly, horrifically untrue.

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“Portrait of Ignatius Sancho” by Thomas Gainsborough, 1768.     (Pictured: A Black man with lightly powdered hair gazes off to his right, his face illuminated. He wears a green waistcoat with gold buttons, a gold-trimmed orange vest, and a white high-collared shirt. He stands before a brown background.)

Black Americans have been victimized by violent oppression and police brutality for generations. We have the video evidence to prove that we should have believed Black people when they told us about their own experiences. These are undeniable facts.

We have allowed the violence and brutality to happen, even encouraged it, and continue to do so. These are undeniable facts.

When Black people stage nonviolent protests, we respond by ignoring the reason they’re protesting and denouncing the style of protest. We excoriated them for taking a knee. We excoriated them for using a Broadway stage to speak politely to the incoming Vice President. We excoriated them for wearing shirts. We excoriate them regularly for writing articles, books, and even social media posts. Statements as mild as “Black Lives Matter” and “Please Stop Killing Us” draw howls of indignation from white people. We have made it abundantly, indisputably clear that nonviolent protests are not only ineffective, but hated and ridiculed.

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“A Black Servant,” Anonymous. 1760-1770. Source: medievalpoc.com     (Pictured: A Black boy holds a full wine glass in his left hand and an empty plate in his right with a red serving cloth draped over his right arm. He’s looking straight out and slightly smiling, as a small back and white dog sits on the table, looking up at him sweetly. The dog’s front paws are on the plate, giving the impression that the dog wants the boy to stop serving at table and play. The boy wears a blue waistcoat with a red collar and a blue vest, both with tan buttons. He wears a high-collared white shirt with a vertical ruffle.)

We aggressively minimize Black oppression by smearing and defaming every victim of a police murder. “He was no angel,” we say, as if a Black person needs to be perfectly angelic to earn the right to live. As if we ourselves live up to that standard. As if perfectly angelic behavior protects unarmed Black people from being murdered by law enforcement. It didn’t protect Aiyana Stanley-Jones. It didn’t protect Botham Jean. It didn’t protect Ahmaud Arbery. We work so hard to smear innocent murder victims we point to the misdeeds of family members and even wholly unrelated people.

 

Think about this: The violent oppression is real. Nonviolent protests have been ignored, denounced, and mocked. Reports of police brutality have been met with stony silence, victim-blaming, and deflection. When American colonists began violent protests against the British, most of their ire centered around financial aspects of British rule they deemed unfair, like taxes and trade policy. American culture has enshrined “taxation without representation” as the centerpiece of British tyranny, and modern Americans passionately revere the bloody war we fought in protest as the pinnacle of patriotism. Yet white Americans angrily denounce protests over the murder of unarmed American citizens by our own police. 

“Not all white people,” right? Most of us seem to fall into two distinct groups:

The white people who valorize a bloody war against “the tyranny of taxation without representation” but denounce and mock all Black protests against police murders, no matter how mild or nonviolent;

The white people who valorize a bloody war against “the tyranny of taxation without representation” but denounce and mock Black protests against police murders that include property damage.

We can do better. We must do better. This revolt is a fight for justice against tyranny.

Is there any more obvious example of “tyranny” than the murder of unarmed citizens by police? “Taxation without representation” pales in comparison.

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“Study of a Black Man,” Sir Joshua Reynolds, c.1770     (Pictured: A young Black man gazes off up and to his right, his face illuminated. He looks determined, resolute, and radiant. He wears a white waistcoat and a white high-collared shirt. The background is a cloudy blue sky.) 

These aren’t “terrorists.” These aren’t “thugs.” These are Americans using the time-honored tradition of protest to fight against tyranny. These are Americans demanding that we live up to the promise of “all men are created equal” and “liberty and justice for all,” promises we have, for generations, failed to keep.

Black people cannot do this alone. If they could, it would have been over long before we were born. This is a problem made by white people, and we need to solve it. It starts by seeing these protests as a cry for justice. It starts by listening and believing Black witness, Black truth. It starts by examining our complicity, our failures, our willingness to believe the racist lies we were taught. It starts by understanding that there’s no difference– none– between throwing tea into Boston Harbor and throwing a brick through a Target window. The only difference is that these people aren’t fighting unjust taxes. They’re fighting for their lives.

 

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You’re Not OK? Glad to Hear It.

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Thanks, ableism! I’ll get right on that. (Picture shows a staircase with the words “There is no elevator to success. You have to take the stairs” placed on the steps.)

Our culture is flooded with supposedly “inspirational” messages framing nonstop work as heroic. “Never let anything hold you back,” “Go harder and achieve your dreams,” and similar platitudes permeate our culture. People with disabilities are often the targets of it– “The only disability is a bad attitude,” “Don’t call yourself disabled!” and the whole “differently abled” and “handi-capable” nonsense. The worst of these are “inspiration porn”– people with disabilities used as props to inspire able-bodied people.

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Oscar Pistorius is famous, so I feel comfortable using this, but there are numerous memes just like this using images of children and everyday people. (Picture shows Oscar Pistorius, wearing his specially designed prosthetic legs and a yellow and green racing uniform, running in a race in a packed stadium. Emblazoned in large white letters across the picture is, “WHAT’S YOUR EXCUSE?” in all caps.)

Who does it serve to pretend that any admission of limitations is a sign of laziness, personal weakness, “giving up,” and moral failure? Who does it serve to frame pushing through limitations without asking for help as the highest possible good? Who does it serve to pretend that success is the natural end result of relentless work?

Who does it serve to tell people with disabilities that the highest good we can achieve is to live as if we are not disabled?

Who does it serve to pretend you are OK when you are not, in fact, OK?

I haven’t posted since July. That’s an eight month hiatus. In that time, my husband and I bought our first house. Just before closing, my mother-in-law died suddenly and unexpectedly, collapsing in front of our son as she was taking him to lunch.  While we were moving, I was bit by a venomous spider, leaving a large, blistered wound that took weeks to heal. I had a stalker, angry about something I had written, track down and contact a number of co-workers. Five days after that, I got a call from my husband’s workplace telling me he had collapsed with chest pains and was being rushed to Kaiser in an ambulance. Shortly after he recovered, our daughter had surgery, and had complications that resulted in her calling me at work and sobbing into the phone in pain and frustration. Then I had an extremely painful back injury. Then I lost my job.

That’s not even everything, and this was all before the virus. Today is Day 11 of shelter-in-place with no real end in sight.

The past eight months have brought me the greatest turmoil and upheaval I have ever experienced. The blog has taken a backseat to all this, and I hate myself for it.

I have constructed my entire adult identity around being reliable, hardworking, and extremely productive. I have been proud of my lack of work/life balance. Even in the midst of the turmoil and upheaval of the past eight months, at a time I was hiding in the bathroom and sobbing at work, barely able to get through each day, I took just two days off. I have answered work emails in line at Disneyland. I have answered work emails at midnight. I have answered work emails from a hospital bed. Our culture is awash in “Never Stop,” “No Excuses” propaganda, and I am clearly as susceptible to that as anyone else.

Yet the price we pay for that is brutal. We shorten our lives, spread dangerous viruses, and live lives that are less full. We work 70 hour weeks for companies that lay us off without a second thought. We take on punishing “fitness” regimens that drain our time, wallets, and health. We pretend that leisure is just laziness if we’re not using that time to work on a project. We even have to make our downtime about goal-setting and achievement. Meditation apps give rewards for achievements. Level up! Get those stickers! NO EXCUSES.

Even in the midst of this horrific pandemic, there’s pressure to ACHIEVE. What are you writing? What new language are you learning? Which of the 10,000 online events are you attending? How many online events are you offering to your community? What are you DOING? Don’t just sit around online, you lazy jerk! What are you DOING?

I ask again: Who does this serve? Who benefits from the propaganda that claims that smashing our bodies, minds, and lives against the rocks of relentless labor is the greatest moral good, and that any less is a moral failing?

Who benefits from a culture that demands we never admit to limitations?

When we refuse to accept our limitations, we prop up an ableist culture that sees any physical, mental, or emotional limitation as a moral failing. We prop up a culture that centers the bodies of able-bodied, neurotypical people and defines all others by their distance from that “norm.”

When we refuse to accept our own limitations, we are propping up an ableist culture that demands that others refuse to accept their own limitations, that frames limitations as laziness– as moral failure.

When we pretend that “anyone” can be wealthy, thin, or healthy with “hard work,” and that any lapse in relentless work is the “reason” we aren’t wealthy, thin, or healthy, we prop up an ableist, classist culture that serves only the wealthy and powerful. And while there are some wealthy people who “worked hard” to “get there,” they did not work HARDER than poor or middle class people. If hard work = wealth, every nurse and teacher would be wealthy. Most wealthy people inherited their wealth anyway.

Our culture supports the lie that anyone can be wealthy, successful, thin, and healthy through “hard work” because it benefits the privileged when those of us who are not privileged are fooled into believing financial privilege, thin privilege, and healthy privilege are merit-based. We are complicit in this lie when we refuse to challenge the idea that constant, unrelenting labor that ignores physical, emotional, and psychological limits is the highest good, and anything less is a moral failing.

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(Picture shows fluffy pink clouds and the words, “It’s OK not to be OK.”)

 

We are in the middle of a global pandemic worse than any we have seen in over a hundred years, and I say this as someone who had H1N1. I’m not going to list the many reasons people who live in a nation ruled by an incompetent, vindictive, childish narcissist have to be anxious. Suffice it to say: We are anxious. We are not OK.

Ableism demands that we never allow ourselves to be seen as “not OK”– not fully able. Because being dis/abled is a moral failing.

You don’t need to have a blue placard or a medical diagnosis to be dis/abled. You may not be a person with a disability, but the extreme emotional and psychological demands of this crisis– or of life in general– can leave you dis/abled. Unable to continue at the pace at which you’re continuing.

Those of us who identify as people with disabilities are right there with you. We understand. And we all need to agree together that it is OK to be disabled or dis/abled. It is OK not to be OK. Because the alternative– limitations = failure– is at the core of the ableist culture that oppresses us. We need YOU to be OK with not being OK to help us shift the culture toward greater inclusion of people with disabilities.

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Stella Young, 1982-2014. Photo credit: crippledscholar.com (Picture shows Stella Young, a woman looking cute as hell in a long-sleeved red shirt, red lipstick, and a light brown bob haircut, sitting in her wheelchair and looking into the camera with a slight smile and her eyebrows raised. The quote appears in red on a yellow background: “That quote, ‘the only disability in life is a bad attitude,’ the reason that’s bullshit is . . . No amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it turn into a ramp. No amount of standing in the middle of a bookshelf and radiating a positive attitude is going to turn all those books into braille.”)

People with disabilities aren’t inspired by posters of athletes with disabilities emblazoned with “What’s YOUR excuse?” or the label “handi-capable.” We don’t need “encouragement,” or a lecture about “You’re only disabled if you allow yourself to be” or “Don’t let your disability stop you from reaching THE STARS.”

What we need is cultural acceptance of limitations. And whether those limitations are physical and permanent like mine, or temporary and emotional like ::gestures broadly at the quarantined world::, the cultural function is the same. It’s OK not to be OK. It’s OK to need help, whether that’s an elevator or a day off.

Every time you publicly chastise yourself for skipping a workout, taking a day off, getting takeout instead of cooking, allowing the kids to watch TV so you can have a break, or otherwise acknowledging your limitations, you are building cultural support structure around ableism. You are supporting a world that sees limitations as failure rather than as a fact of human existence.

Take that break. Take all the breaks. And refuse to apologize for it.

You’re not OK? Glad to hear it, because it means you are creating cultural space for people with disabilities by using your able-bodied cultural privilege to claim space for limitations, to show that we all still have value– and can still achieve plenty– within our limitations.

It’s important to fight for the idea that limitations and accommodations are not admissions of weakness. PwDs are not “weak” or “lazy” if we don’t do wheelchair basketball or if we need to work from home. You are not “weak” or “lazy” if you need a day off or if you don’t learn quantum mechanics during shelter-in-place.

Accommodations are not burdensome. I cannot “work hard” or “positive attitude” my way out of my physical limitations. Accommodations level the playing field so that we can achieve as much as able-bodied people. The accommodations able-bodied need for their limitations are similarly not burdensome. The more space we create in our culture for acceptance of limitations and the natural and obvious need for accommodations– the natural and obvious need to allocate resources for accommodations– the more inclusive our culture will be.

“What’s your excuse?” I don’t NEED an excuse to have human limitations. And neither do you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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For Gilroy.

From where I sit, I can be in Gilroy in about an hour and a half. Gilroy, like so much of our state, is deeply diverse, and the Garlic Festival is one of the best-attended events in the state. If you wanted to find a huge, densely packed crowd of diverse Californians, you would be hard pressed to find a better place than the Gilroy Garlic Festival.

We know very little about the shooter, but we all knew who he was, because it’s an old story, one we’ve heard many times before.

We know little about the specifics of this particular one as yet. We have a name, one I will not repeat here. And we have the inevitable far right radicalism in his online profiles.

One of his last Instagram posts– again, I will not link to anything that publicizes his name– was a picture of Smokey the Bear holding a sign saying “Fire Danger High Today” with a caption exhorting people to read a well-known white supremacist text, a hate-filled screed that advocates for endless war and the need for white men to rule over everyone else. After making that “Fire Danger” joke, the shooter went to the Garlic Festival and killed three people, including a six-year-old boy, Steven Romero. Fifteen others were injured before police killed him.

As I’ve said, it’s an old story, one we’ve heard repeatedly, relentlessly in the past few years.

The extremist ideology– primarily white nationalism– that created and sustains the radicalized far right has spawned these shooters over and over, and the mainstream right feverishly works to protect this extremism wherever it is discussed. They disingenuously wish to separate the racism and white nationalism of Trump and Trumpism from the iteration of white nationalism just one step to the right in violent hate groups. Trump/Trumpists and many of these groups claim they “deplore violence” while repeatedly signalling that violence is just fine when it’s against the “right people.”

Some far-right extremist thinking supports Trump, but others hate him because they believe his racism does not go far enough. And it’s this tiny wedge, this nitpicking, that the white nationalist mainstream right of Trump and Trumpism often uses to distance itself from white nationalist shooters. It also uses the “lone nut job” and “mental illness” lie, a lie they are only willing to extend as a shield to white male shooters. The facts are clear in this: people with mental illness are far more likely to be victims of violence than to commit acts of violence. If there’s a mental illness that ties all these shooters together, it’s right wing extremism.

This is the end result of “send her back.” This is the end result of “Mexicans are rapists.” This is the end result of “build the wall.” This is the end result of Trumpism in America. And the right is in paroxysms of joy.

It’s not that America was never racist or sexist. It’s that the right found a Golden Calf who would tell them their racism and sexism was good, right, and, overall, FUN. Of course they love him. He gleefully transgresses and anoints their own transgressions. Then he tells them that all those bad people over there– all those Democrats, “globalists” (Jews), “illegals,” Black activists, feminists, Muslims, etc– want to take all their fun away. 

There’s been white supremacist violence in this country for the entirety of its existence. What’s different now is easy access to high-powered weapons, combined with the internet age– the right-wing extremist propaganda machine in a new 24-hour news cycle, combined with the new ability we have to find like-minded people who create the bubbles in which our ideologies are concentrated and intensified. Add a president who is gleefully, openly racist and sexist, who whips his crowds into a hate-filled frenzy so intense that hate crimes spike wherever he holds rallies, a president who winks and grins and says, “Isn’t hate fun?” and here we are.

While I don’t think most conservatives in the US are happy with the idea of killing children in the abstract, there are endless examples of conservatives mocking the suffering of Latinx children at the border (this, this, this), and there are numerous conservatives who defended and even celebrated the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice, who are now surely celebrating the death of little Steven Romero because they think he’s “illegal.” Conservatives don’t want to hurt “people.” They want to hurt the “right people.”

Conservatives are horrified and offended when anyone correctly associates the hatethink ideology of Trumpism with the violence it condones, both tacitly or openly.

Everyone says they want to stop these mass shootings, but the right blocks every practical measure to reduce them, instead offering the weakest and most namby-pamby of responses: Just give more people guns. This isn’t a policy white conservatives enact in their own homes– when Jayeden is hitting Traxxx and Payzleeigh with a stick, they take the stick away; they don’t hand Traxxx and Payzleeigh sticks and allow their preschoolers to re-enact Battle Royale.

And of course, by “people,” they don’t mean people of color.

We all know what the practical solutions are, but the right is in a frenzy to stop them, dumping billions of dollars into preventing even the most common-sense legislation, even those measures supported by a majority of their own rank-and-file. They won’t even allow solutions to their pretend causes of this violence, screeching with anger whenever anyone tries to expand health care coverage. Trump himself revoked Obama-era restrictions on people with mental illness purchasing guns.

So where we are is: Conservatives say the shooting is caused by mental illness, but have worked assiduously to prevent people with mental illness from getting proper care and to ensure that people with mental illness have free access to guns. What conclusion are we supposed to draw here?

We need to end hate- and fear-based propaganda. The brave Sandy Hook parents have successfully sued Alex Jones for defamation. We need to similarly hold other hatethink propagandists accountable. We’ve been tracking the toxic impact of conservative hatethink since the first Black president threw its racism into overdrive: 2014, 2019. We need to stop giving aid and comfort to white nationalists by boycotting advertisers on their shows. We need to demand that journalists call racism what it is, and that they stop pretending that “both sides” always need to be consulted. When one side is “racism is bad,” do we really need to consult “both sides”?

We need to enact sensible gun-control legislation. Most gun owners support stricter gun control measures. A full 69% of NRA members are in support of stricter background checks, and 78% of gun owners who do not belong to the NRA support them. There’s a tiny minority of people in this country who are so weak and fearful they believe any common-sense legislation is the Deep State coming to take their guns– usually because The Jews are beginning the Globalist Takeover. THOSE are the people who are controlling gun legislation in this country, with the help of billions of (probably laundered Russian) dollars poured into propaganda. “The right” in this case are the wealthy and powerful who are funding this propaganda and determining which legislation gets passed and which does not. When you ask people if they want stricter gun control laws, most say “yes.” When you ask people if they like any specific liberal policy proposal without labeling the idea as “liberal,” they say “yes.” But conservative hatethink propaganda has taught them to loathe and fear anything labeled “liberal” or “left.” They’ve been whipped up by hatethink to value hatred of the left– the “hordes” of non-white people “infesting” the nation– more than the concrete policies they actually want.

Too many wealthy and powerful people owe their wealth and power to both conservative media and the gun industry, and will fight us every step of the way. But what’s our alternative? When conservative media instructs its followers to oppose every possible solution, even the solutions to their fake reasons these shootings happen, what’s the alternative? The only way forward is to fight against the propaganda while we fight for the sensible gun control the vast majority of the country– even gun owners– want.

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The White Case for Reparations

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This photo was found in an attic in 2010. It depicts an enslaved child named John next to an unidentified enslaved child, and was stored with a bill of sale for John. Historians have dated the photo to the early 1860s. John is believed to be the ancestor of the man in whose estate the picture was found.

In June 2014, the brilliant Ta-Nehisi Coates published his landmark piece, “The Case for Reparations.” This should be required reading for all Americans. In it, Coates lays out the ways in which Black Americans have been systematically shut out of the generational accumulation of wealth through multiple, simultaneous avenues that include things like redlining and denying mortgage loans, predatory lending, gerrymandering, under-funding schools, wage theft, and outright terrorism through bombing, lynching, and the legal slavery of the 13th amendment.

Most white people strenuously reject the case for reparations. This is for several reasons: 1. We do not, on the main, understand what reparations are;

2. We reject the idea that white America owes Black America anything, insisting that the harms of slavery ended when slavery itself ended, and even if they did not, financial compensation is not appropriate. This is a deeply misguided viewpoint.

We as white people need to start viewing reparations as a white issue, a debt we chose to incur that is no more avoidable to white people in 2019 than the national debt.

Coates details the ironclad, undeniable evidence that the harms of slavery and anti-Black racism have had devastating economic impacts on the Black community in America, and continue to do so. He advocates for the passage of HR 40, a bill that calls for the study of the possibility of reparations. John Conyers had introduced the bill– again, a bill calling for just the study of the matter, not for any actual payment of reparations– in every Congress since 1989, and it had been denied a vote every single time.

That Coates is calling for Congress to simply agree to study reparations is, in itself, a testament to the ongoing stranglehold white supremacy has on the levers of power. We have refused to even discuss the possibility that Black America is owed reparations for generations of deliberate economic oppression.

White America freely admits that deliberate economic oppression has happened. It’s all a matter of the public record. Most white Americans are also well aware that race-based economic oppression is still ongoing. For example, the Senate voted in 2018 to eliminate protections against auto lenders from discriminating based on race, a policy that was just five years old. Hiring discrimination against Black people has not changed since 1989, with white applicants still 36% more likely to receive a callback than Black applicants. Black people are almost three times as likely to be denied a mortgage loan as white people. Black people are treated much more harshly at every level of the criminal justice system, and are far more likely to be wrongfully imprisoned. The legacy of slavery continues in its innumerable injustices, and it’s nearly impossible to live in America without being aware of that.

Yet white America has long refused to even discuss reparations. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee has taken up Conyers’ mantle and, together with the Congressional Black Caucus, reintroduced HB 40 in January in the hope that we will finally establish a governmental commission on reparations. The bill has just 90 sponsors, all Democrats. Establishing a commission just to study the possibility of reparations is still, in 2019, controversial.

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Enslaved Black women were routinely forced to nurse the infants of their enslavers. Imagine having to nurse the infant of the people who sold your own children away from you. 

No one is denying that Black Americans have been, and continue to be, aggressively and deliberately oppressed. The facts speak for themselves. What white America is arguing is that Black America does not deserve any kind of redress for that oppression.

Let’s think about that for a moment. White America feels perfectly justified in seeking millions of dollars in damages for “pain and suffering” in lawsuits over uneven carpets and spilled water. We are perfectly happy with a system that takes millions of dollars from a family business due to “negligence”– not direct, deliberate responsibility, but negligence. Yet any reparations for the extreme, horrific, deliberate racist violence and oppression that disenfranchised generations of Black Americans, that caused immense pain and suffering, permanent damage, and loss of life– and continues to do so– is not even worth discussing.

White Americans have a litany of excuses. We claim that we “don’t have a racist bone in our bodies,” that we never personally enslaved or attacked anyone, that our families came to America after the Civil War, that we ourselves are poor and disenfranchised. And even if all that were true, in every case where white Americans claim– true or not– that we have not deliberately inflicted pain and suffering, there is no denying that we have been, by any measure, deeply negligent.

White people sulk about reparations by pretending “reparations” means “poor white people will be forced to make personal cash payments to LeBron James.” Let’s take a closer look at what reparations are actually being discussed. This is a partial list, but it will give you an idea:

Creating government subsidies for home ownership– for example, setting up a fund that pays a 20% down payment on behalf of Black first-time home buyers.

Decoupling school funding from property values and distributing per-student funding equally.

Student loan forgiveness; government subsidized tuition reduction programs for Black students.

Re-asserting and strengthening the Voting Rights Act; requiring Congressional districts be drawn impartially; making partisan gerrymandering a federal crime; requiring districts to maintain a certain number of voting machines per 1000 residents; making election day a federal holiday.

Extensive criminal justice reform, including restoring the right to vote to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people.

Expanded government-funded studies into racism in health care; health insurance subsidies.

And yes, cash payments.

This is by no means a comprehensive list and I am by no means an expert. There is a wealth of information out there about what reparations can mean.

What’s important to remember is that this is not about assessing whether or which individuals deserve to benefit– a favorite complaint of white people when discussing reparations– but redressing injustice we either caused directly or allowed to happen through our negligence.

The first step, of course, is studying the issueHB 40 would do exactly that. Why is this controversial?

White Americans are terrified that a study will daylight what we already know: that we are complicit in the violent, ongoing oppression of Black people. We identify so strongly with the idea that America is the “land of opportunity” and that we are the “good guys” that even the thought of studying the ways in which we already know we have not always lived up to that promise terrifies us. Reparations terrify us because we don’t know exactly what payout is owed, but we know it is a lot.

What’s startling to me is how obviously everyone in the nation would benefit. Reparations would boost the economy into a golden age of prosperity for everyone, not just Black people. The money spent for reparations goes right back into the economy, paying salaries, buying goods and services, investing. There’s no down side for white America but admitting that we were not, in fact, the good guys. While that will be difficult, taking a good, hard, honest look at ourselves is not a down side in the long run, but a step towards a more just society. Reparations benefit white people financially, emotionally, and ethically. But we do not pay reparations because we will benefit. We pay a debt because it’s owed.

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Another image of an enslaved Black woman with a white infant. It was fairly common to have your child photographed with their enslaved Black nurse, evidently to show off your child and your wealth simultaneously. 

How do we pay for all this, you ask? Who cares? No one is asking Rosie’s Bowling Lanes if they can afford the pain and suffering payout when they get sued for “negligence” because someone spilled a beer on the approach to lane 17 and Phyllis Cardstock in the Senior League slipped and broke her hip. White people aren’t angrily demanding “How do we pay for this?” when the issue is a bloated military budget, a tax giveaway to the wealthy, or a wall to keep out non-white immigrants. It’s only when Black people might benefit that we start fretting about the cost– reparations, “welfare,” “Obamaphones,” Head Start. White people would vote to detonate the sun if we found out Black people were getting daylight for free.

Of course there are some ideas about how to pay for reparations (pay it out over time; use eminent domain to acquire former plantation land and gift it to Black historical nonprofits and HBCUs; reallocate funding from the aforementioned bloated military budget; stop paying Trump millions of dollars for food and lodging for government personnel at his tacky golf resorts every single weekend; raise taxes back to Reagan era levels; establish a marginal income tax rate of 90% for every dollar over $10M earned per year from all sources). But the point is:

You pay what is owed because you owe it, not because you decide you can afford to pay it. It’s not charity; it’s a debt. 

Passing HB 40 is, quite literally, the least we can do. All Black America is asking us to do is to read the damn bill. We can discuss a payment plan later.

Find your Congressional Representative here

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If You’re Angry That Harvard Rejected Kyle Kashuv for Using a Racial Slur, It’s Because You Don’t Know Anything About College Admissions

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Kyle Kashuv. (photo: Getty Images)

Recently a young man was denied admission to Harvard. That’s not much of a story, but this young man is famous because his conservative viewpoint set him apart from his fellow survivors of the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting, which made him a conservative media darling. This young man, Kyle Kashuv, had his offer of admission rescinded from Harvard after it came to light that he had used the racial slur “n****r” multiple times in school-related shared googledocs and text messages in his junior year, when he was 16 years old.

Kashuv showed no remorse about his actions until he learned that someone was planning to make screenshots of his repeated use of “n****r” public. Knowing this would jeopardize his admission to Harvard, Kashuv contacted Harvard in advance and pled his case. That’s “not who I am.” He says he’s “changed” in the “years” since then, as if he turned 16 in May of 1977 instead of May of 2017.

When Harvard denied his appeal, Kashuv went public, posting everything on Twitter, hoping to create a controversy and pretend that Harvard was singling him out because he’s a prominent conservative voice. That ruse has worked, and it’s worked because most people have no idea what the college admissions process is like. I’ve been teaching for years. Here are the facts they’re missing.

Universities rescind acceptances all the time. This is by no means unusual; what’s unusual is that Kashuv is a celebrity. The other students whose acceptances were rescinded this year by various universities are not celebrities, and are not being invited to talk about it on radio and television. All rescinded offers are rescinded due to new information coming to light. Academic dishonesty (cheating and plagiarism), lower-than-expected senior year grades, and dishonesty in your application materials, including falsifying transcripts, lying about extracurricular activities, or, oh, I don’t know, pretending you’re not a huge racist, top the list of reasons offers are usually rescinded. Harvard has rescinded applications of students for similar racism in the past, yet for some reason Kashuv expected to be treated differently. Anything other than special treatment is “persecution of conservatives,” according to the many conservative pundits currently in hysterics over this.

“But he was only 16! How can they judge him so harshly for something he did at 16!” Everything on a college application is something students did at 16– or younger. When do you think they earned those grades, took that SAT, played that cello, or wrote that college essay? Every scrap of information on a university application represents a student between the ages of 14 and 17. If you believe universities should not judge students for their actions at 16, you believe universities should not judge students at all.

Almost all university applications are due in the fall semester of senior year, before any senior year grades have been posted. The entirety of the application represents the student in 9th – 11th grades. Kashuv turned 17 at the end of his junior year. Why should Kashuv’s repeated acts of racism be excused due to his age when literally everything else about him at that age is precisely what universities are judging for admissions? His repeated use of “n****r” is the one and only thing about him that should not be judged for university admissions?

Are conservatives advocating for universities to stop rescinding offers when students are caught cheating or plagiarizing as teenagers, when their senior year grades drop as teenagers, or when it’s discovered students lied on their applications as teenagers? If not, then we know what they’re actually protesting.

Conservatives love to talk about taking personal responsibility, but they only believe that applies to people of color, poor people, and liberals. (Will Laura Ingraham condemn Kashuv’s posts about this as “whining”?) All the very same people who vigorously complained that teenager Michael Brown, teenager Trayvon Martin, and literal child Tamir Rice were “no angels” and should bear the responsibility for their own murders are now upset that a privileged white boy will have to take personal responsibility for his actions in the weakest and mildest way possible– having to choose a different university than Harvard. That “denied opportunity” is angering conservatives, but denying a Black teenager literally all opportunities, stealing his entire future, is absolutely right and just in their eyes, because when a Black teenager is “no angel,” murder is justified, but when a white teenager is no angel, even when he rapes someone, no punishment, no matter how mild, is justified.

Harvard rejects 95% of all applicants. Conservatives evidently believe that white teenagers belong in the top 5% and must commit atrocities much worse than racism or rape to lose that place while Black teenagers must be perfect in every way just to retain the right to draw breath.

People are more concerned about the kid who repeatedly used “n****r” than they are about the Black students and staff who would be forced to sit in classrooms with him. Harvard is rightly considering the health and safety of its current students and staff in its decisions about who they add to their community. It’s telling that people are more worried about protecting this celebrity from the consequences of his own racist actions than protecting the Black members of Harvard’s community from racism. They’re worried about Kashuv’s future, but not at all concerned about the grad student who would be forced to teach his freshman Comp class, knowing full well that Kashuv would take to Twitter with a whining rant about “reverse racism” and “persecution of conservatives” if he earned a B on an essay.

In the application process, elite universities are just as concerned about character as they are about grades and SATs. Applicants must submit a personal narrative and letters of recommendation that attest to their character as hardworking and community-minded. Elite universities are very picky in their decision-making around who they will add to their learning communities, and a student’s character– again, at 16, just like everything else on the application– is a large part of the consideration. It is not at all surprising that Harvard rescinds acceptances from students when racist acts come to light. The examination of applicants’ character during the high school years is precisely what the application process is designed to do. It’s preposterous to imagine that the best way to go about this is to examine everything about a student BUT racism.

I’m writing this on Juneteenth, a time when many people reflect on the brutal racism Black people have suffered, and continue to suffer, in an America dominated by white supremacy. Do we really wish to continue being the kind of nation that believes it’s too much to ask white people who were born in 2001, who grew up with the internet, and who are supposedly academic superstars devoted to the betterment of society to avoid repeatedly using the word “n****r”? Several conservative pundits I refuse to link here have stated that Harvard is setting an “impossible standard” by weeding out students who have used racial slurs, which reveals far more about those pundits than it does about Harvard.

I’ve spent the last six years teaching 16-year-old students after 25 years as a university adjunct. They are magnificent, brilliant human beings perfectly capable of understanding that racial slurs are harmful and why they are harmful. We expect them to take personal responsibility for literally everything else right up until a white male student must face consequences for words or actions harming a woman or a person of color. We expect 16-year-olds to be responsible enough to drive, to work, and to carry the enormous academic workload that college-bound students now must undertake. It is completely and obviously disingenuous to pretend that 16 is too young to understand the harmful nature of racial slurs. We all know that Kyle Kashuv absolutely understood what he was doing and felt no remorse for anything but being caught. What they’re arguing for– what all of Trumpism and modern conservatism is arguing for– is the right to use racial slurs without consequence.

Free speech means freedom from government interference, not freedom from social consequences. “Free speech” means you can say “The President sux” without going to prison. It does not mean that social media companies must host your racist speech, that TV shows must not fire you, or that Harvard must allow you to attend. Actions have consequences, conservatives. Yes, even for you.

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Representation Matters: People with Disabilities Are Done Being Your Inspiration

 

 

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Photo of a version of the American flag with the stars configured to look like the symbol for disability. (Photo credit: money.cnn.com)

We need a long, hard examination of the way we’re representing people with disabilities on our stages and screens. We talk a lot about equity and inclusion, but almost always ignore people with disabilities in those discussions, leaving our industries far behind where they should be on this issue.

We’re still so far behind that casting PwDs as PwDs is controversial. Able-bodied people fight hard for their “right” to cast able-bodied actors to play us, then shut us out of every aspect of the process. Able-bodied people insist they’re doing “extensive research,” yet portrayals of PwDs are more often than not astoundingly inaccurate, more about how you see us than how we really are.

We’re still so far behind that casting PwDs has been called “exploitative,” as if our physical presence must always be measured by the gaze of able-bodied people. It reminds me of the way sexist writers claim women are “flaunting” their bodies by simply appearing in public. Our physical presence in the world as PwDs (or women, for that matter) is not about you. Our physical presence as PwDs is so deeply othered that any public performance is automatically suspect– it must mean something. Add to that the relentless infantilization of PwDs by able-bodied people, and our every appearance as actors results in a flurry of pearl-clutching about how we’re being “displayed,” “used,” or “exploited,” as if PwDs are children who need protecting instead of actors who need jobs.

It’s “exploitative” when we play ourselves, but ennobling when you play us.

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During preproduction for the film The Upside, released in January 2019, producers refused to consider actors with disabilities for the role of Dell Scott, a quadriplegic character, instead first casting able-bodied actor Colin Firth, and then replacing him with Bryan Cranston, drawing criticism from disability rights activists. (Photo by David Lee/The Weinstein Company depicts Cranston seated in a wheelchair on a busy city street, laughing as actor Kevin Hart stands on the wheelchair behind Cranston, leaning down and laughing.)

We’re still so far behind it’s considered a special kind of acting triumph when an able-bodied actor plays us because, like actors who gain weight or allow themselves to be made “ugly” for a role, they’re working hard at lowering themselves, appearing less glamorous, less desirable, less perfect. The actor is ennobled by their humility, by the sacrifice it took to present themselves pretending to be what we are every day of our lives. 

We’re still so far behind that the types of stories we tell about PwDs all center around our difference: inspiration porn, tragedies, the Manic Pixie Sick Girl (and as she’s lowered into her grave, he realizes he has finally learned how to live), and the DEI Sidekick (Hi. I’m here to make the producers look inclusive and the protagonist look sympathetic oops time to die to provide motivation for the protagonist). There are more (so many more) but you get the idea.

Please note that all of these are almost always played by conventionally beautiful, thin, able-bodied white people, and that these issues are intersectional. While this piece focuses on PwDs, bear in mind that people of color with disabilities are facing two major hurdles; female-identified and genderqueer people of color with disabilities are facing three, etc. Women of color are in fact the vanguard of disability rights activism.

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Writer and activist Imani Barbarin, who runs the blog Crutches and Spice, is the force behind #DisTheOscars, an advocacy campaign around disability representation in the media. (Photo by Madasyn Andrews depicts Barbarin, a Black woman with long, thin dreads, smiling in a garden setting, wearing a blue flowered dress and a black jacket, with one of her crutches visible on her arm.)

In the United States, between 13 and 19% of the population are PwDs. That’s a sizable population, yet we are aggressively shut out of every aspect of visual narrative, our stories stolen from us and told by able-bodied people, for able-bodied people.

This begs the question, “What are our stories?” It’s an important question, because the answer is: ALL OF THEM, KATIE. We’re a massively diverse population occupying every race, gender, sexuality, age, belief, and socioeconomic status. The vast majority of our stories are not “disability stories.” We are people with disabilities– people first– and the majority of our lives are spent wrapped up in the same issues everyone else has. Yet nearly every film, play, or show that hires an actor with a disability is doing so specifically to tell a “disability story”; when that narrative is over, the actor is released. We’re rarely allowed to tell any other kinds of stories. Disability is only represented when the story is about disability in some way.

Because we are hired far less frequently than able-bodied people, even with similar training and experience, we’re seldom in the room when these stories are developed, and if we are in the room, we’re one voice– often brought in late in the process as a low-ranking temporary hire (“disability consultant”). It’s no wonder that stories about PwDs are so often about the impact the PwD has on an able-bodied person.

Lack of representation is a vicious circle. Because we are so seldom represented as anything but life support for able-bodied inspiration, PwDs are almost never considered for “straight” roles. It never occurs to producers and directors to cast an actor with a disability in a story not specifically about disability, because they, like the rest of us, live in a world where PwDs are dramatically under-represented throughout all of our media and have come to see that under-representation as “normal.”

Our industries create fantastic, imaginary worlds, but we can’t imagine a Juliet with a mobility device? Our imaginations can comprehend time travel, dragons, talking animals, alien cultures, telekinesis, and 500 different kinds of afterlife, but a disabled Hedda Gabler is incomprehensible? You think that if you cast a PwD, the narrative becomes about the disability because those are the only stories we allow PwDs to tell. 

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Marilee Talkington, a brilliantly talented actor, has a long career of playing both blind and sighted characters. Talkington has played blind characters on several TV shows recently, drawing praise from the National Federation of the Blind and their #letusplayus campaign. (Photo by Cheshire Isaacs depicts Talkington from the shoulders up: a white woman with curly red hair, blue eyes, and coral lipstick, wearing a wine-colored sleeveless top.)

Allow people with disabilities to tell all kinds of stories, including our own. The right to portray someone different than you is not the exclusive province of the able-bodied. Able-bodied people defend their right to play us with “It’s called ‘acting'” without ever once considering that we can do it too.

Hire people with disabilities at every level, from conceptualization to casting to audience management, not just in temporary positions meant to shield you from controversy. When you talk about “inclusion,” remember: we’re here, and we are not going away.

 

 

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Teachers Have Been Telling You For Years that Rich People Cheat the System. Here’s What Else We Know.

 

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Photo: Angela Litvin, Creative Commons

The nation exploded in surprise that thirty people nationwide, including two famous actresses, were indicted for participating in scams to get their children into elite universities. Educators similarly exploded in surprise, but for a different reason– we were shocked that the wealthy and powerful were being held accountable for something that’s been widespread for decades. Educators have known about this– and more– for years, yet no one has listened to educators about the widespread inequities in education.

Are you ready to listen now?

Let’s start with the obvious:

Standardized tests are worthless. Educators know that performance on a standardized test is nearly useless in measuring a student’s overall performance in a subject or in predicting a student’s future performance in that subject. A standardized test only measures how good students are at taking standardized tests, which is why plonking down $1300 for an SAT prep course can bring a student’s scores up so dramatically in a such a short period of time. I’ve been teaching both university and high school students for 30 years, so believe me when I tell you that teaching someone how to take the SAT in my subject is entirely different than teaching my subject. Take a look at the job requirements for a Kaplan employee— they’re not looking for a PhD in the subject or experience teaching it; what they want is a high SAT or ACT score in the subject. High standardized test scores can be bought if you have the money for a test training class. Add to this our longstanding knowledge that people with economic privilege score higher on standardized tests overall, and you can see what these tests are really measuring.

But that’s not the only reason standardized testing is problematic. The SAT, PSAT, and AP exams (among others) are administered by a company called College Board. On the surface, they appear to be a nonprofit devoted to creating and administering standardized tests. Have you proctored one of these exams recently? I have. When students take the PSAT, a practice exam whose scores are never distributed to anyone but the students and their high school, College Board insists on students providing full legal names, home addresses, and social security numbers when each exam is already given a unique identifying code. College Board asks for pages of optional information such as phone numbers, GPA, and whether a student’s parents are US citizens.

Here’s why: College Board makes millions selling the student data they collect to anyone with the cash to pay for it. Here’s the link— buried deep on the website– that helpfully provides various payment plans. You can buy information on individual minors for just 45 cents “per name,” pay $7.710 for the right to roam free through the collected information of minors in an “unlimited annual subscription,” or upgrade your annual subscription to an unlimited “Segment Analysis Service™” for $17,750. Here’s a chart of the kind of data you can buy— including race, GPA, “religious interest,” and whether the student is a “first generation” American.

Is the ACT better? No.

Companies that market various services to students purchase your child’s information in order to market to them. College Board pressures students to check the box opting in to “Student Search Services” by requiring test proctors to read a paragraph extolling its virtues, pretending that opting in will result in elite universities recruiting them– without considering that universities are just as likely to use that data to eliminate them from consideration. Students are also told that opting in will result in scholarships contacting them, a deeply unethical promise that plays on the very real fears around paying skyrocketing tuition. This private company’s executives are dangling the false promise of scholarships to students to entice them to hand over data– data that those executives sell to enrich themselves and ensure their own children have unfair advantages over the very students whose data they sell.

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Photo: gvarc.org, Creative Commons

Standardized testing exists to generate wealth for testing companies, and for companies that purchase the marketing data testing companies gather.

But testing companies aren’t the only private companies lining their pockets with public education funds. Two of the most successful education profiteers are companies that market educational systems and companies that create charter schools.

 

In the past few decades, schools were suddenly labeled “in crisis,” and the phrase “failing schools” was everywhere. Nothing had changed– in fact, literacy rates were at an all-time high– but suddenly schools were all “failing” due in large part to “bad teachers” protected by unions. Never mind that non-union states have lower test scores than union states. Facts were not the point. This was marketing meant to shift public opinion, and it worked beautifully. Standardized tests were quickly positioned as the key factor used to measure “teacher effectiveness” and identify “low-performing schools” by demanding that scores rise by a set percentage each year in order to “pass.” This makes no sense, as pedagogical effectiveness can only be measured using a complex variety of assessments and data. Just ask anyone who’s been through a WASC report. This also makes no statistical sense, since the student population at any given site or in any given teacher’s classroom changes from year to year, so you’re comparing two different populations. But, again, this was not about facts. This was fear-mongering meant to manufacture a crisis. The crisis was manufactured by business-friendly politicians so that corporations could sell us the solutions. 

In addition to the billions of tax dollars shelled out to testing companies, and the additional profiteering in selling your child’s data, there are further billions to be made in educational systems and charter schools, all of which depend on maintaining the mythology that schools are “failing” and that we must continually hemorrhage money into private companies to “save” our schools.

 

 

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I’ll just take this over to the private sector #savingschools #wedogoodwork

It’s important to understand that the educational system is unfairly structured in favor of the wealthy at its core. Public school funding is based on property values. Yes, you read that correctly: higher property taxes means more money for schools, because so much about K-12 public education is district by district. This translates into endless benefits for the affluent: higher teacher salaries that attract and retain talent, smaller class sizes and more varied classes (including the art, music, and theatre programs that translate into better grades and better student retention), better facilities, better extracurriculars– in short, everything that educators know improves student outcomes. Poor Black women are jailed for “stealing” educations when they falsify residencies to get their children into higher-rated schools, but those schools are only better because the wealthy unfairly structured the system. While the children of the wealthy are given the best of everything, my public school teacher husband has had to seat students on the counters because there were not enough chairs. But there’s plenty of money in his district to spend on educational systems and charter schools.

Educational systems. Without getting too deep into the ed policy weeds, pre-2018, schools that went into “program improvement” were forced into choosing from a list of draconian measures that included firing every single teacher or purchasing an expensive “program improvement” educational system from a private company. While the rules have become somewhat less draconian, “low-performing schools” are still singled out through testing and are still required to take steps to “improve.” These “educational systems” sold by private companies are expensive and proprietary. Teachers must undergo hours of training on the new system and have almost no flexibility for what we call “differentiated education”– changing things up for individual students who have different learning styles, the gold standard in pedagogy. While I have all the academic freedom I had in university teaching in my private school classroom, my public school teacher husband is required to teach to a system that is, in a word, wretched. I’ve found multiple errors in the material the system requires his students to use, everything from teaching students erroneous grammar to study questions that don’t match the reading . Even without the errors, no educator on the planet would say a one-size-fits-all system was pedagogically useful. It’s the antithesis of effective pedagogy. Yet these essentially useless systems drain billions of tax dollars out of schools and into the pockets of the corporate profiteers who sell them, while those corporate profiteers send their own children to expensive private schools with individualized instruction.

Charter schools. Charter schools are run by private companies but, somehow, are considered public schools and funded by your tax dollars. The charter school system was a gift from a business-friendly government to private companies as the first step towards privatizing education. Literally any company that files the paperwork can start siphoning tax dollars out of the local school system and into their own pockets without having to prove they actually know how to teach.  Don’t get me wrong– there are good charter schools out there run by true believers with a vision– but too many charter schools are run by people with no experience in pedagogy or school administration. In order to collect public funding, you need students, and charter schools have aggressively marketed themselves. Shady charter schools have run wild in areas that lack economic privilege, preying on desperate parents, promising a better education than the woefully underfunded public schools– schools the charters are helping to defund– and pretending to deliver results by manipulating test scores through weeding out low performers in the admissions process, “counseling out” low-performing students, and suspending them or just marking them absent on test day. Charters are notorious for low teacher pay and poor treatment of teachers because they’re exempt from hiring union teachers, just as they’re exempt from almost all the regulations and oversight we put in place to ensure high-quality public schools. While there are good charter schools, the program itself was designed as a love letter to regulation-hating corporations who wanted to privatize public education, and as such it privileged the needs of the wealthy over the needs of the students, and created a host of problems for which charter schools have become notorious among educators. And while all aspects of privatization of public schools, like charters and vouchers, have been the darling of the right, it’s worth noting that charter schools were created by the Clinton Administration and heartily supported by the Obama Administration.

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Photo: Ted S. Warren/AP

 

This is the tip of the iceberg; there’s so much I’ve left unsaid, including the critical influence of racism on all of this. This is just a taste in the hope that people will begin to listen to educators when forming ed policy. For decades, we have formed ed policy around the lie that educators cannot be trusted to helm education, and now we have a ship that has been all but handed over to corporate raiders and privateers.

For the past few decades, education policy in America has been set largely by business-friendly politicians who have done everything they can to use public education funding to line the pockets of the wealthy. They have allowed testing companies to collect and sell personal data about minors. They have wildly overstated the efficacy of standardized tests and increased their importance in every sector of American education to create revenue for testing company executives. They have used those standardized tests to create impossible standards for schools to meet, and when schools inevitably “failed,” they forced schools to purchase expensive “program improvement” systems from private companies. They’ve used those standardized tests to justify handing public funding to private companies to open “charter schools” with no oversight. In short, bad ed policy has opened the coffers of public education and tacked up a sign saying, “Carpetbaggers Welcome.”

Believe educators when we tell you where the problems are– and where they are not. Stop allowing the wealthy to enrich themselves by raiding public school coffers. Put education policy back in the hands of educators. 

 

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“We Shouldn’t Rush to Judgment” on the MAGA boys? Who Does That Serve?

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Omaha elder and Vietnam veteran Nathan Phillips.

The response of some of my fellow white people to the jeering mob of MAGA boys mocking a group of Native people (including Omaha elder and Vietnam veteran Nathan Phillips, pictured above) after the so-called “March for Life” anti-choice rally in Washington DC on Friday, has been less than spectacular. I’ve had all I can take of “let’s not rush to judgment” and “let’s avoid knee-jerk reactions” and “the media is playing to extremist assumptions.” 
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When you label people of color pointing out racism (or women pointing out sexism, or people with disabilities pointing out ableism, etc) a “knee-jerk reaction” or an “extremist mindset,” who does that serve? 
Whenever people of color discuss an incident of racism and we respond with “Let’s not rush to judgment” or “There could be guilt on both sides,” we’re deliberately ignoring every scrap of sociopolitical context. Who does that serve?
Let’s start with “let’s not rush to judgment.” We can all see in the video that their behavior is appalling, so what, precisely, is the white defense of the MAGA boys against people of color labeling their behavior “racism”?
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The white defense comes in various flavors of “we shouldn’t rush to judgment because we don’t know the whole story” and “They were just [standing there, dancing, smiling, etc] and did nothing wrong.” If you believe that there’s some important context that needs to be applied to this in order to fully understand it, you’re right. If you believe that there’s any context that could be applied to this to justify the actions of the MAGA boys, you’re wrong.
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If you believe knowing “the whole story” could exonerate the MAGA boys, you’re stating that the racist behavior of these MAGA boys could somehow have been earned by the Native elders. You believe that, at least some of the time, people of color share some blame in racism against them. That argument is, at its core, racist.
If you believe that the boys were “just standing there” or “just dancing” or “just” anything, you’re ignoring the entirety of the sociopolitical context, as if this incident happened outside of our culture and time; as if a white mob swarming a small group of people of color, MAGA hats, or chants of “build the wall” are minor details that have no cultural meaning or bearing on understanding this encounter.
Who does it serve to ignore the fact that the actions of the MAGA boys happened within a pre-existing framework of white supremacy? Who does it serve to ignore that MAGA gear is a symbol of racism, an implied threat? Who does it serve to ignore that high school racism in the US has been widely accompanied by students shouting “TRUMP” and/or wearing MAGA gear? Who does it serve to ignore that mobs of white males, especially displaying racist symbology, have a long history of terrifying violence in the US? 
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It’s Privilege 101 to excuse racism by scraping away the context and keeping focus on the actions of the moment, so that the person wielding their privilege is framed as just innocently doing X. “All he did was say she looked nice,” “All he did was stand there and smile,” “All he did was say that there are a lot of Jews in Hollywood,” “All he did was use the OK sign.” It’s a well-worn trick to protect privilege.
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So when we pretend that the sociocultural context of this incident just doesn’t exist, who does that serve? It serves white supremacy.
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Racist pro-Trump graffiti found on a Spanish teacher’s door at a high school in northern California. Racist pro-Trump graffiti and other expressions of pro-Trump racism have risen to alarming levels at US high schools. While the election of Trump has clearly emboldened young racists and contributed to the frequency with which racists express themselves openly, Trump’s election is a result of longstanding systemic racism, not the cause of that racism.

 
Perhaps even worse than “let’s not rush to judgment” is the claim that people of color are having a “knee-jerk reaction” rather than a reasonable response. When we make the claim that people of color are having a “knee-jerk reaction,” we’re insisting that people of color don’t know racism when they see it and are just reacting emotionally, without thought. We’re insisting that our “thoughtful” reaction that does not “rush to judgment” is superior, and should be deferred to. We’re insisting that there are ways in which people of color bring racism upon themselves, and that they are required to test all events thoroughly against white-created standards to satisfy us that they did not deserve the racism we gave them. We’re insisting that people of color require our consent to identify our actions as racist.
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“But we don’t have the whole story.” While white people have no business telling people of color what is and what is not racist, let’s set that obvious fact aside for the moment to entertain the possibilities around “the whole story.”
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Look at the statements conservatives are making in the MAGA boys’ defense:
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“He drummed right in that boy’s face.”
“He walked over to them before they swarmed him.”
“There was a group of Black people there calling the boys racist and homophobic slurs.”
“That Native elder has a history of instigation.”
“One of the Natives told the boys to go back to Europe.”
“The Natives were just using the boys for a hateful political stunt.”
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Even IF conservatives are correct and every one of those statements is true, none of it excuses the way the MAGA boys behaved, none of it erases the sociopolitical context that gives cultural meaning to a swarm of MAGA gear-wearing white boys surrounding a small group of Native elders and jeering at them.
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People of color are not “rushing to judgment” or having a “knee-jerk reaction.” They’re identifying something they’ve learned to identify through generations of experience.
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Taken from the video.

There’s a reason the smug smirk on the featured MAGA boy’s face has instigated such a visceral reaction from everyone who is not white or male.
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Speaking from personal experience, every woman knows what that smug smirk means. Every woman knows what it means when a privileged white boy blocks your path and stands inches from your face with a smug smirk. Even most white men know, if they’re honest, the face of the smug, taunting bully. We have all been victimized by that boy, watched as the adults excused it, watched as their mothers lied– as this boy’s mother has apparently done— to make us the aggressors.
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To quote Ruth Graham from the Slate article I linked in the first paragraph:
“Anyone who knew the popular white boys in high school recognized it: the confident gaze, the eyes twinkling with menace, the smirk. The face of a boy who is not as smart as he thinks he is, but is exactly as powerful. The face that sneers, ‘What? I’m just standing here,’ if you flinch or cry or lash out. The face knows that no matter how you react, it wins.”
To the widespread knowledge of what entitled bullying looks like, add generations of racism and genocide against Native people. Add the daily grind of being a person of color in the US and having “TRUMP” shouted at you as a taunt as you’re just trying to go about your business, having “Trump is deporting all of you!” shouted as you as you’re walking down the street. Add generations of having to carefully scrutinize white behavior, learn its signs and symbols, merely as acts of self-preservation. White people, we have no evidence that people of color are “rushing to judgment” here, and plenty of reason to trust the judgment of people of color when they tell us that something is racist.
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Most importantly, no one is asking white people for a ruling on whether or not this is racism. That is not our role here. Our role is to ask ourselves what our level of complicity is in allowing this to happen and what we can actively do to ensure that it never happens again.

 

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