Why We Don’t Have Structural Change

The last post was not in any way meant to negate the necessity of teaching about structural racism. Rather, I was trying to raise concerns about age-appropriateness and being aware of the context of whom one is teaching, as well as who is doing the teaching, and if the people that Critical Race Theory is trying to address–African-Americans–are getting to do the talking. Critical Race Theory aims to educate people about structural racism, which is a necessity. And structural racism is only one area in which we need to make structural change. The elephant in the room in the United States is class differences (something we have only been discussing more publicly since the advent of the pandemic), and then of course there is the structural change needed for women. Activists have been fervently trying to address these issues for decades, especially since the 60s, and a good deal of legislation has been enacted. But why is there still not structural change on the level we need it?

Institutions are slow to change in any context. But when we live in a culture that so adores individualism, structural change is even more difficult. People are very nice and supportive on an individual level, but may not support actions made in the law or by the government. Consider these examples.

My friend Kathy (her name and some details are changed) has lived in different parts of the world and is herself of multi-ethnic heritage. She loves traveling, meeting people of different cultures, adores children. She has a high level career in a field where she has to navigate dealing with many men. Kathy is one of the kindest and warmest people you could ever meet, always includes people in her gatherings and adored by everyone. And yet she has no faith in the government or governmental institutions, and when I expressed my horror at Trump separating children from their parents, and thank goodness we have a more compassionate administration, she mentioned that she had seen a documentary on how human traffickers dump children from Latin America, and that it is a big racket. Kathy is fed up with politics, and while I would not call her Republican, I would probably describe her as apolitical or libertarian. She dislikes both Democrats and Republicans, thinks all politicians are corrupt. I have struggled to understand how she lives with this dichotomy, how she can be so incredibly kind in her personal life and yet cannot support any sort of government actions that enact social change. I believe that this is because on an individual level, it is easier to get along with different people, but when it comes to looking at the larger scale, it involves money and politics, two things she and others does not want to involve herself in.

A gay man I met who is from the South said that everyone in his neighborhood is very kind to him and his husband, he is well respected as a teacher, and in his church. But he mentions that at the polls, people will vote differently. Again, a sign that people may be going on a personal level, but not on the societal change level. And also (according to Southerners) people will be very nice to your face, as is required socially, but think otherwise.

The Black Lives Matter movement and protests were very strong in California last summer, and people came out in droves to protest despite the pandemic. However, when it came time to vote, at the polls, voters did not approve measures for affirmative action that would’ve helped black people in education. One could argue that the number of people supporting Black Lives Matter is smaller than the number of people who don’t feel black people need any privilege (the sort of people who callously say “All Lives Matter”), and this very well may be true. But the point is, the action needed to help black people structurally did not pass. 

Think about the myriad donors to universities, educational institutions, arts organizations, etc. A symphony may not be able to survive without Mr. and Mrs. Generous Benefactor’s contribution of $5 million, and a cardiology wing of a hospital may not even be built without their money. But if you were to ask this millionaire couple if they would vote for a candidate who supports healthcare for all, it’s possible that they would not. 

Look, for example, at people who serve in the Armed Forces. While I respect these people individually, and many of them are incredibly nice and very admirable on a personal level, I do not necessarily support the institutions they serve, as I am a pacifist and feel that America spends too much money on defense rather than human welfare. 

As a final example, a woman can sleep around like a man, post nude selfies of herself online, and correct people on their sexist language. But can a woman get elected president over the most incompetent moron America has ever seen run for office? Does a woman get adequate maternity leave? Does she get affordable childcare?

It is this NIMBY-like mentality where people do not think structurally that is affecting our country deeply. Our excessive American individualism encourages us to feel that if we have done well on a personal level, if we are individually nice to others, then we have done enough. But I believe this doesn’t work. The CEO of an insurance company might’ve himself lay in a hospital bed after an injury, wondering how he was going to pay his bills, but when he’s making $20 million a year and millions still have inadequate healthcare, all his personal compassion makes no difference. Our puritanical work ethic and individualism with money are killing us; class disparity is increasing radically, and it is my belief that a class issues are a large part of what is driving problems with race as well as gender. 

No one is perfect, perhaps we are all hypocrites to some degree, and people can’t be forced to act on things they don’t believe in. My only hope is that with the current administration, America will learn to be less selfish with money and opportunities, and live up to the ideal of equality and justice for all. If true equality is not possible now, then at least we need to start working on ending discrimination, violence, and life-threatening inequality.

Thoughts on Critical Race Theory

I am not African-American/Black. I am not white. I am Indian-American, the daughter of Indian immigrants, so I feel this gives me a unique perspective on race in America. People like me owe a great debt to the civil rights movement, as it led to greater diversity in American society, and laws being created to treat people equally. My generation is the first generation to be equal by law in terms of race and gender. I am also an educator with a strong commitment to inclusivity, have taught in diverse settings and have deep roots in international education. I have tried, especially with international students, to show black people in a positive light, as endless stereotypes abound overseas, and have included texts by black authors such as James Baldwin. My MFA analytical thesis was on a novel each by Toni Morrison and Jane Austen. I have been mentored by black people at each stage of my education, in my different fields. I myself suffered discrimination by a white-majority, country town population.

So why do I have certain questions and concerns about teaching students Critical Race Theory? 

One of my concerns is that, pedagogically, race theory needs to be taught in an appropriate manner for each age. Teaching a kindergartener that they are privileged and discriminating simply because they are white (or any non-black race) could only lead to misunderstanding and self-hatred at a fragile age. What would be more useful would be to teach younger children the importance of loving one another and playing with one another regardless of one’s appearance. Naturally, young children are going to have questions as to why black people are being killed by policeman, or why some people hate black people for no reason. These should not be overlooked, and honest answers should be given about how America has a history of treating black people badly. The personalization should be left out of it for children.  A friend of mine who is a second-grade teacher in the South had her students write a letter to a well-known civil rights activist. Constructive activities and appealing to (most) children’s natural sense of injustice is key here. Nipping racist attitudes in the bud is best done sooner than later, because sometimes there is no turning back once these things are ingrained. Get kids to be actively anti-racist from the time they are little.

Questions are going to come up that can come across as racist, such as the physical appearance of others, questions of what is beautiful or ugly, skin color etc. Colorism is a sad fact in MANY communities, such as Indian, Filipino, Latino, black, etc. A sense of moral correctness is, I think, a better approach at a younger age than political correctness. This is not to say that children should not be instructed not to use certain words. Ultimately, the socioeconomic and demographic factors of the classroom will have to determine how race is taught. Telling Appalachian kids or Colombian refugees in Miami they have white privilege is not going to be the best approach. We must be honest with children, because they have the best BS detectors and are naturally empathetic.

As children get older, in later elementary and junior high school, naturally, there is more discussion and understanding of history, discussing certain milestones and civil rights, and talking about the institution of slavery becomes critical. As kids get older, they increasingly parrot what their parents say without thinking–if a child has a racist father, then it is important for the child to understand what the origins of racism are. Through the early teen and later teen years, then students are developmentally and intellectually capable of understanding a lot more about history, culture, class, and race. Through these tween and early teen years is when students need to understand about structural racism and what it means. Students may protest that they or their families individually are not racist at all and not discriminatory. While this is true, they need to understand history as well as what happens even today. This is a good place to introduce statistics. 

By the end of high school and into college is where discussions of privilege are very key. College admissions is fraught with inequality (our whole education system, frankly, but it is exacerbated in post-secondary education). I think we need to couch discussions of privilege not simply in terms of whiteness, but in terms of economics, which indeed intersects with race and privilege (with whites and Asians, most often.) People’s racial attitudes are becoming more solidified during this period; it often takes a huge shift in geography when a student goes to college to truly understand what race means. Seeing that everyone north of Columbia University was brown and a minority made a deep impression on me during my first graduate program and made me reevaluate my opinions on K-12 curriculum.

It is also important to provide social support for children who hold different opinions than their parents or community. The students may be supporting critical race theory, but the adults they know may not. Children need allies in teachers. They need safe spaces and safe people to talk to when they are being discriminated against, and when they are seeing people being bullied.

Throughout all of this, there is one key element that must not by any means be ignored: what black people themselves think. Often, well-meaning white liberals want to hit people over the head with a particular set of beliefs, ignoring what people feel and think. Showing all points of view on critical race theory is key, that there may be some black people who support or disagree with it, or certain elements of it. Also key is not allowing any sort of “my way or the highway” approach to teaching critical race theory, as this is what happens all too often. This is what creates a political correctness backlash. A student may disagree with one aspect of critical race theory, while supporting other aspects. All too often, multiculturalism and political correctness has been applied with a single brush, with educators who lack a complexity of thought repeating simplistic notions of what they have heard like a slogan.My long-held belief has been that we need more than one paradigm when talking about race or gender in this country. That may be what alienates a lot of otherwise well-meaning people who are appalled by any sort of discrimination and systemic or institutionalized injustice. There is always the danger that the lone black kid in a class, say, bears all the responsibility for speaking up for their entire community. This happens to anyone from a minority group.  Also, I have long asserted that white people are not all the same and that the white experience is not monolithic.  In one classroom experience, a very shy, awkward daughter of Russian immigrants (who possibly had a personality disorder) confessed to me that she felt that she was wrong by being straight and white. When I expressed this to the director of my institution, she said we needed to talk to this student about white privilege. I felt this was absolutely wrong. 

My (admittedly controversial) position is that if we take away the political correctness and cultural politics charge away from educating students, we could make much more progress than we have. I don’t want to be naïve and dismissive of the importance of these issues in education. We need to show young people that these are important issues, get them engaged in a fight for justice, and make them understand that discrimination has been entrenched in our social structures for centuries. Educators and school boards need to understand the complexity of race and culture as well. It is a shame that they are often being targeted by angry, narrow-minded parents, often afraid for their lives, by the right wing or conservatives who are afraid to discuss the ugly underbelly of America. Education has the obligation to get children and young people to learn and question their world around them. In the still-relevant, immortal words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Intelligence plus character–that is the goal of true education.”