Lately, the United States has been in a bit of an upheaval. It’s weird knowing that I am living through the ‘next’ civil rights movement. In some ways, it’s taking a different form than the fights in the 1960s, but make no mistake (not even a good one): it is happening. Gay marriage is becoming more and more acceptable. Women’s issues are coming to the forefront again. The average white person is starting to have to take a good, hard look at what it means to be a person of color. In other words, everyone is starting to consider the standard topics of any pre-service teacher’s diversity course.
I initially chose not to write about Ferguson, even though it troubled me deeply. At least I had the option – it’s safe for me to comment, because I am white. I also chose not to write about a situation that affected female gamers, that I will not name by name – it’s not safe for me to comment, because I am a woman. Besides, what could I say? I didn’t know. I don’t have any answers.
But in light of the recent #slowchatpe topic, I figured I could expand on my thoughts in a blog post a bit more than through 140 characters at a time. The questions all have to do with how we handle things like gender, race, socioeconomic status, and so on in our classrooms. And my classroom is one place where I cannot be silent.
Specifically, the topic asked about gender and do we teach our students differently. Doug (@theweirdteacher) had me clarify my position, and my answer is… yes, yes I do. Educationally, in the grand scheme of things, I think that all people of all types can achieve the same basic educational goals. There will always be people who have more talent in any given area, and that’s okay too. But to treat our students all the same is doing them a great disservice. Their life experiences are vastly different depending on how they identify. Things like sexual orientation or religion can be hidden as necessary. They flavor every action we take, but if one is careful, no one in the public sphere would ever know. But things like gender or race can’t be hidden. They’re there for everyone to see and judge.
When it comes to gender, I have a mental dilemma because I teach Spanish – a gendered language. I can’t get away from it. Some of the first words you teach in any language are boy, girl, man, woman. I have changed the way I address my students as a whole and am more than happy to use a different pronoun when asked, (what do I care if someone identifies as male, female, intersex, trans, or ungendered?) but I otherwise operate inside the binary. And the thing is, although I personally do not care one way or the other about the gender binary, asking other people to think outside that binary before they’re ready is a recipe for disaster. Because whether I like it or not, events in everyone’s lives are affected by that binary. So I do treat my male students differently than female, because by the time they are 14 or so and in my classroom, they’ve had gender roles beaten into them since the moment their conception was discovered. Most of us accept them, for good or for bad. And as someone who had approximately zero self-esteem until I was 16 or so, I can relate.
When I was growing up, I liked ‘boy’ stuff. I liked to play video games. I liked to read books with swordfighting, magic, or robots. I watched X-men and Ninja Turtles. But I wasn’t a ‘tomboy’, either. I didn’t like sports. I didn’t like to get dirty. I was the cautious friend (who had no spine so I went ahead and did all the dumb things anyway). Being a middle schooler who didn’t fit into either standard category of gender was a very rough time. As I grew into a young woman, I became more confident about my interests and the femininity of my body even though being ‘one of the guys’ made for some pretty ridiculous dating scenarios in high school. But then I was presented with a different problem: how grown men treat grown women. When it comes to teaching my students, my past experiences flavor how I perceive the world and therefore how I interact with others. I have had things happen to me, that might happen to my female students, that my male students will never experience. I can say with fair certainty that my male students and colleagues have never:
-been asked to go home with a stranger while carrying out groceries from a store in the middle of the day
-been physically picked up by a stranger because they were ‘tiny and cute, and it’d be funny’
-been followed up to the door of their apartment by a stranger asking for their name and what they were doing later, and then being called vulgar terms for a woman because they told the stranger to go away
These are some of the more extreme examples in my life, but I could name probably 10 more incidences off the top of my head without thinking. So yeah, I teach my students differently. But it also makes it easier for me to identify with people of color, even though I am as white as the Nebraskan snow. Because stupid, uncontrollable things happen to me because I am a woman, I can more easily understand stupid, uncontrollable things happening to someone because they are black. Or don’t speak English. Or are poor. Or are trans. Or are gay. It makes it easier to understand that people of color have a disproportionately high population in our prison system. It makes it easier to understand that gays experience housing discrimination. It makes it easier to understand that poor students don’t have the same systems at home to promote education. White, cisgendered men don’t have the same ease of acceptance because they are the American standard. They have to work extra hard to be sympathetic and empathetic to the concerns of others. Of course, if you’re a white, cisgendered man reading this, you probably are one of those who is asking ‘how can I help?’
In the end, we can’t break the system as individuals. Nobody cares about just me, or just you, or just that teacher over there. We have to work together. We have to fight slowly and ceaselessly. It is going to take years. We can use our words and experiences to help push our students in the direction we want them to go (that is, to be kind and accepting of all people and to understand the problems of Otherness) but I don’t feel that being ‘gender neutral’ or ‘colorblind’ is the best way. To do so ignores the rich experiences of the people around us – again, for good or for bad – and that would be a shame. But we can absolutely work to increase the number of good experiences and decrease bad experiences through thoughtful discourse like we’ve been having, acceptance, and love.