Thursday, January 31, 2013

Stereotypes and Race: Invisible Attitudes

1987 was a year of firsts.   A college degree, an all-girl road trip (mountain bikes tied on with bungee cords), a solo backpack trek (in the Wasatch mountains), a car payment (1987 Hyundai Excel), aaaaaand an insult.  First insult?  Not exactly - it wasn't that I had never been insulted.   I was 23 after all.  It was that I was just building my resiliency, and didn't have the life experience to repel thoughtless actions from others.

On that first all-girl road trip, my good friend and I drove to Bellingham, WA, to research a graduate program and to spread our wings a little more after five years as an undergrad, two of which focused specifically on Speech and Language Pathology.  It was a good time.  You know, new degree plus a new car, not to mention zealous twenty-somethings with a somewhat single-minded focus on living the dream.  The dream of mountain bikes, trail running, tele-skiing, perhaps a career path in an interesting field of study.  So we drove from Salt Lake City following the Rand McNally road map stopping to sleep in rest areas, and getting in a few runs between long miles until finally arriving at our destination.  Bellingham looked just like it did in the pictures.  Stunning campus enveloped in deep greens high on the most northern part of the state;  I remember imagining what it'd be like to live that close to Canada.

My undergraduate degree was in Speech Language Pathology, but at West Washington University, the department I could potentially study in was "Communication Sciences and Disorders."  I actually thought it was kind of an ironic area of study - communication disorders, given my tangential interests in how people can communicate more effectively (and lovingly).  This field, however, was in things like fluency, articulation, and language which was entirely different.  I guess I find irony in the name of the field and the experience I had at that time and place.  An insult could very well be a "disorder in communication."  

Anyway, my first meeting was with the department chairperson.  He was cordial and neutral, an older man who was processing "thousands of applications from all over the world," he would tell me.  I got the impression he was trying to make on me:  It was competitive.  But I already knew that.  I was serious enough to visit the campus and I paid what seemed like a million dollars to apply for the program.  I wasn't going into it blind without doing my research.  I felt confident about my career path having already accumulated over 300 clinical hours of work which was a pretty good indicator of my personal drive.

But to this guy, the guy who would serve me my first memorable insult, I was clearly just another girl in the chair.  He paged through my application while I sat nervously, admittedly under-confident for this brief and impersonal interview.  The space steamed inequality - a feeling I had as he conducted this exchange that required only "yesses" and "no's" from me.   And then it came out of his mouth rather matter-of-factly:

You won't have a problem getting in this university.  Your minority status makes it easy.

That's what he said.  Even though his voice tone was neutral and calm and it was purely a literal statement, he may as well have been screaming.  Because in my mind it sounded and felt more like this:


Okaaaaay, so part of my college funding was through a minority scholarship, and I did get a generous Asian-American scholarship even though I'm Micronesian (I guess they just figured they'd lump us all together since we're Brown and all . . . ).  And I was always on the dean's list for academic excellence;  not just any dean's list - I made the list of academic excellence for minorities.  So I wanted to scream back at him: "YEAH, I'M A MINORITY" just as plainly as he told me the obvious, but it would have been an empty and silly way to express my self-conscious shame.

After all, I felt a bit of relief.  I mean, why wouldn't I?  There were parents to please, educational loans to defer, and a chance to study someplace where the environment would fit my recreation.  But those kinds of things didn't lessen my shame.  Somehow, this old man made all the contents in my application packet feel worthless.  As if nothing else mattered because I checked the box "Pacific Islander/Other." There wasn't much else to say to each other once his declaration was made.  We shook hands, I thanked him, and left feeling an unnerving internal conflict of excitement and shame.

Why shame?  Because I felt demeaned.  I felt as if no matter what my application packet looked like, I would benefit because I would help meet a quota.  Intentional or not, he insulted me to the bone.

I banked that insult.  Not to hold a grudge or carry negative experiences.  But because I wanted to look at that negative event as just one event.  A single ambiguous interaction that occurred not because the man was a bigot or a racist, but because in that moment, he perhaps had a lapse of intelligence and displayed his ignorance.  I needed to move on.

I didn't tell anyone about that event until much later, and to only a few people.  It was hard to admit feeling shame, and it was even harder because it was confusing.  Like, why should I have felt shame in the face of ignorance?  It took a long time to understand it.   In retrospect, I believe that White American man was probably decent, moral, and kind; he probably believed in equality.   I am certain he didn't give that interaction a second thought.  Why?  Because his actions and their meaning were invisible to him.  After all, he told me some "good news" and was acting with only the best of intentions.   He most likely would have found it difficult to believe that he could even possess a biased racial attitude, which I suspect he could have explained away with a seemingly valid reason anyway.

And that's why until today, that recap of my year of "firsts," including my first memorable insult, was only for a select few.  Because as the recipient of that racial remark - there was always the nagging question of whether it really happened.  That is the power behind racial attitudes - that the person offending doesn't always see that it's happening.

Thankfully, the trip didn't end on that note - we did an amazing ride on stunning terrain, learned about microbreweries, and spent an inordinate amount of time in a used bookstore before making our way back to Salt Lake City.  While that experience was an eye-opener, it was also a time to review my status as a minority.  Internally, I questioned every opportunity, decision, and advice when it came to applying for school funding - exactly what kind of minority was I?  Did I deserve assistance?  Was I worthy in spite of being a minority?  It's incredulous how a single statement can change a person.   Be thoughtful out there, especially if you're in a position of power - you might not intentionally mean to do harm but you also might not be aware of the power behind invisible racial attitudes.  

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Stereotypes and Race: Suburbium Snapshot

Direct and frank.  That's the path this conversation about stereotypes and race needs to take.  In my opinion, listening to our own narratives and the stories others tell us, is one way to transcend underlying negative beliefs and perceptions about people in a diverse world.  More importantly, it serves to help us understand ourselves and others.  I'll never forget when Zach Kimbrew enrolled midway through the school year as a seventh grader - he was quiet and unassuming at first, then turned into a charming intellectual with a knack for writing.  As he grew into adulthood, so did his strong voice that he uses here to convey something very important: The power of language and the real effects of stereotypes and racism.  I love Zach's attitude as he looks back at a hurtful life event, and challenges us to look at our own assumptions and"continue the conversation."  Read on . . .

               I didn’t realize-nor appreciate-the organic puddle of love and understanding from my peers and educators that I was once accustomed to living in when I was a student at Madison East High and Sherman Middle school. For the majority part of my schooling experience in Madison I felt understood and encouraged by my teachers and counselors. Their genuine care was obvious; I felt their compassion through their words and their commitment to my progress. So when I entered a small private college (in Madison) that professed their love for diversity I expected to encounter “progressive” or “open-minded” individuals that Madison’s reputation claim to possess…But I was in for an interesting reality check.

               Just like most freshman at the college, I had a freshman-specific advisor (we can call her Jane) to help me select the courses that I needed to obtain my desired major (Secondary Ed, English.) During our monthly meetings, while discussing which courses I should take, Jane would consistently recommend other majors that had lower standards for attainment, while emphasizing the difficulty of the English/Secondary Education major. This wasn’t an isolated conversation, we had regular meetings like this; meetings that - maybe not intentionally - seemed to promote doubt.  As I sat in her office, I immediately thought of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, when young Malcolm Little tells his teacher about his dreams of being a lawyer, and his teacher recommends carpentry instead.  In addition to our monthly meetings, my advisor also taught a freshmen-only course that I was in.  Despite our discouraging meetings, I enjoyed the course she taught; it provided a great way for freshman to build relationships, and aided our transition to college;  I felt comfortable participating and expressing myself during class.

One day Jane setup a meeting - to my surprise - between her, an African American staff member and me.  During the meeting, Jane expressed her frustration to the African American staff member, “I am having a hard time understanding Zach; It’s his Black English.  If he was a foreign exchange student I wouldn’t have a problem with telling him that I can’t understand him, but since he is not I feel bad.”  I replied, “I didn’t know you had a problem understanding me.  You could have told me; I don’t mind clarifying myself if someone is confused by my vocabulary.”  Throughout the meeting Jane didn’t speak directly to me, Jane spoke to the African American staff member like we were in a courtroom, and she was a plaintiff pleading her case.  When the staff member and I were speaking to each other briefly; Jane interrupted, “I can understand him now when you guys are speaking to each other.”  Then Jane brought up a past conversation we had in class where I told the class about a Filipino dish that my family cooks, and she expressed her confusion about the dish when I explained the recipe to the class. Again I tried to explain the recipe, “It’s called Pancit, and it has rice noodles, chicken, and cabbage.” When I had said cabbage, looking at me for the first time Jane interrupted, “you mean sauerkraut.” I said, “No, I don’t think so, just cabbage.” Jane nodded, “That’s sauerkraut!” At the time, I wasn’t knowledgeable enough about sauerkraut to debate her, so I had no reply. (I have tasted Sauerkraut before and I was certain that there wasn’t any in Pancit).

After the meeting, I wasn’t comfortable expressing myself in Jane’s class.  I felt hurt, unsupported, and that the College’s notion of Diversity was merely a slogan.  Though it never verbally came to life, I felt encouraged to assimilate- as opposed to expressing my own thoughts - from some faculty members who shared the narrow lens that Jane saw through when encountering difference.  Through my years at this college, I constantly compared these encounters with my past experiences with staff who worked in MMSD schools.  The big factor was experience.  I noticed that people, who had genuine, good-qualitative relationships with people from different backgrounds, were more understanding and willing to embrace differences.  Though it can be uncomfortable working with others outside one’s cultural norm, it promotes personal growth.  Instead of arguing Sauerkraut vs. Cabbage, it could be simply learning something new.

If you use the term “Black English” referring to the speech of African Americans, understand that there is a lot of damage being done. The idea of “Black English” is filled with White supremacy, fascism, and elitism.  It implies that the way Black and Brown people speak is inferior and inappropriate. Language and dialect is a very important part of a person’s identity, so when you humiliate that aspect of a person, you limit the experience and education of all persons involved.  For example, when Jane devalued my vernacular, my honest participation and self-expression stopped in class, which robbed my classmates of a rich conversation and learning experience without them even knowing.  Also one should understand that language is constantly evolving; words and their meanings - they come and go -continue to change.  Let’s end the concept of “The proper way” to speak; different words and languages are opportunities to learn about people’s histories and cultures.  Let’s work to understand the capacity of the words we use when talking about groups of people; especially when talking about people outside our own background. Ask yourself: “What are the implications of my words?”  Being self-critical is a process, an extremely important process.

If you’d ask Jane if she considered herself a racist or white supremacist, Jane would reply with conviction, “absolutely not!”  When we examine her language and action inside her workplace, we find Jane is a consistent contributor to the racist, white supremacist Machine.  Jane was in a pivotal position (of power) that greatly affects the future of many young people.  Jane could have seized the precious moments given to guide young minds to meaningful paths.  Instead Jane added to the ocean of oppression minorities wade through.  There are many Jane characters - in full effect - in a variety of settings, not just in colleges.  Let’s continue the conversation to work it out.

To end on a lighter, positive note;  during my last semester at the college I was recognized as a valuable mind, good writer, and captivating speaker.  For my graduation ceremony, I was asked to write and give the end-of-ceremony blessing to the students, faculty, staff, and families at the Alliant Energy Center.  It was a great feeling to go from being disrespected for my speech to being appreciated because of my speech.

Zach is an educator in Madison, WI teaching sexual health at various middle schools and community centers.  He enjoys writing, watching films, and learning new languages.  No surprise, he also values exercise - crediting Ms. Matson for getting him hooked on "Sweatin' to the Oldies"  as a pre-teen.  He spends his free time making sure his nieces and nephews are physically active.  Zach wants to be the greatest writer/filmmaker/educator in the Whole Wide World!  

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Race and Stereotypes: A Diplomatic Letter

Experiencing the harsh realities of stereotypes, and issues related to race and culture brings certain feelings to the forefront.  I've always been of the mind that if there is going to be systemic change, there needs to be on-going, real conversation, and we need to do it now.  Sometimes it's the observer who calls someone out, and by doing so, builds strength in continuing this long conversation.  Emma, whose been a part of the long conversation about stereotypes and race, witnessed an incident and chose to respond to it by first asking questions and gathering information. She took one step further and addressed an issue that did not sit well with her.  I'm proud of her for doing the right thing, and for modeling action in a diplomatic, thoughtful way.  Read it right here by my audacious 17-year-old . . .

Dear Ms. Domini,

My name is Emma Werntz, a senior, and also the girlfriend of Trenor Seals.  We have never spoken before, though one of your actions came to my attention on December 4th during the passing period after late start.  I don’t mean to alarm you, I would just like to point out a cultural difference that is both overlooked by the Code of Conduct and your actions.

Trenor came to school with a black head wrap.  The ‘Dress Code’ on page 31 of our student handbook states, “No hats or head coverings are to be worn or visibly carried upon entering the building until the end of the school day.”  Let me begin with saying that this part of the Student Procedures section, I believe, is poorly written in regards to race and religion.  I understand that this is out of your control and I will address this problem with the administration separately.  

However, there is a clear difference between a head wrap: (imagine the material of a pair of black tights):

a beanie: (knitted and considered a hat)

and a cap: (clearly a hat)

A hair wrap is what many African Americans wear during the transition period of their hairstyle, what they use to protect hair that is being conditioned for a length of time, or they may simply just not want to put the effort into their hair that morning.  (A hair wrap is to an African American as a ponytail or messy bun is to a white person.)  In Trenor’s case, he is in a hairstyle transition.  Normally, as you are probably aware, he has cornrows or long braids that have the look of dreadlocks (or dreads.)  These styles require much attention and time (hours).  At this point in time, Trenor had to take out his cornrows because they had overgrown and were beginning to fall out of order.  With no one to immediately do his hair, he chose to use a hair wrap for the day to protect his hair and keep it out of his face.  

I understand that you are enforcing the ‘Dress Code,’ and you have a right being in the position of a Dean or any other adult figure.  However, when you asked Trenor to remove his “hat,” it was culturally insensitive because a hair wrap is more than just a “head covering,” it’s a tool.  In no way was his face covered, but clearly visible and out of shadow.  Trenor also explained to me how he passed Mr. Brown and Mr. Antonio in the hallway, and neither said anything.  Being that they are African American, they understand the use of a hair wrap.  

On page 31 of the ‘Dress Code’ it also indicates that, “Prior permission to wear head covering may be granted by a Dean.”  Although Trenor did not have “prior permission,” there was also inconsistency between your enforcement and Mr. Brown’s.  I believe that the wording of this code puts many students in the position of accusation when it comes to race and religion, however it also relies on the Deans to be fully knowledgeable of culture.    

Like you, I am also a white female, and I am learning about cultural differences everyday.  Trenor’s hair wrap is no different to a student who practices the Islamic faith and wears a hijab, or a student who practices the Jewish faith and wears a kippah, a Buddhist who wears a kasaya, or a white person who wears their hair in a bun.  

Thank you for your time,
Emma Werntz
Counselor: Gust Athanas

Emma is a high school senior and a lover of all things good and kind.  She enjoys dancing, nature, and family.  Her adventurous spirit shows up in her life list, where it’s not just about the things she’s crossed off, but the things she adds to it.  Of all the important things, she's a wonderful big sister to Misa and John-Pio. 

Friday, January 18, 2013

Stereotypes and Race: Why I Only Write Checks at the Grocery Store

               I wanted honest experiences that tell the reality behind stereotypes and racism because too often, personal experiences are dismissed or undermined as being "overly sensitive" or perception-based.  If you think this after reading this piece by Melissa Matson, check yourself.  Melissa's story expresses the raw emotions of how anger and embarrassment turn to fear.   I was reminded of the significance of dignity when faced with the ugliness behind stereotypes, and I'm thankful Melissa was willing to tell just one of her stories.   Here she shares her reality, and I really love her bright wit!  (She's this way in person, too.)  Read for yourself . . . 

Hi, my name is Melissa Matson….and I am a single mother. A proud, single, Black mother. I have the most beautiful little replica of me walking this earth; I wouldn’t have it any other way. I found out I was pregnant the week before finals during the last semester of my senior year of college. I was scared. Terrified, actually. Then I gave birth and I discovered single moms (or maybe just parents in general) kind of give up their rights to most fears once they have a child. I was scared of driving; then I took a nice little ride on public transportation with my infant, her stroller, a diaper bag, and my big purse. I quickly got over that fear. I was scared of bugs….and maybe I still am a little. But, I have to be supermom and save my kid from the bees and spiders and scary ants. I was scared of being a mother. But, the nurse said, “There’s a baby in there!” So I had to suck it up and figure it out. I’m a work in progress…so is my kid. But, we’re getting there.

I still have one fear though. This dreadful fear that sends chills down my spine and despair to my heart every couple of weeks…..the grocery store. Oh gosh….grocery shopping is my least favorite chore. I hate it. Passionately. And it’s all because of one guy. We’ll call him Tim. Tim was the manager at a large grocery store here in Madison, WI. One day a few years ago, my daughter and I were doing our shopping. She was being a little angel, only begging for everything at eye level. I was being the great mom that I am, telling my three year old to get a job and she can buy anything she wants. Normal mommy-daughter stuff. I get to the check area, which is horribly backed up, and stand in the shortest line. Up walks Tim, about a minute into my wait. And Tim, probably believing he is going to save me some time and make my day and win himself a customer service accolade, looks at me and says, quite loudly, “I’m sorry ma’am, but the card scanner at this check out line is broken, so we aren’t able to accept EBT cards. You can follow me over to this line.”

Why you little….such and such (mommy’s don’t curse). If looks could kill, little Timmy would have fallen right then and there.

You see, Tim had been informing people that the card scanner didn’t work in that line. I had heard him as I walked up. I wasn’t worried about it. I had my checkbook. What he hadn’t done to the other people that walked in that line was tell them that their EBT card wouldn’t be accepted. Guess what made me different from those other people? I was a Black woman with a cart full of groceries and a little kid begging for candy. Black woman with a cart full of groceries and a little kid….of course EBT is involved. Why? Because there is a group of people that believe that any Black person that eats well probably gets government assistance. Don’t believe that group exists? Go check out Rupert Murdoch’s Twitter feed. I don’t follow him. I’m not a masochist. But he posted an interesting tweet after the 400 pound woman in New York fell through the sidewalk. He tweeted, “How did fat lady who fell thru street get to 400lbs? Welfare, stamps, etc? Then leave us all with 20yrs immense health bills.” See, the 400 pound woman was Black. And of course, Murdoch, in all his old man wisdom, knows that it is IMPOSSIBLE for a Black person to afford food. The government HAS to be helping them. Duh. And because of overweight Black people, healthcare is unaffordable for all. Double Duh.

Why you little……such and such (no cursing, mommy).

Murdoch is so blinded by ignorance that he forgot to check the facts presented by the media company he founded. Ulanda Williams, the woman that fell through the sidewalk, is a social worker. She works. Meaning she probably buys her food with the money she earns from the job she works. And she probably receives healthcare benefits, which she more than likely pays for, from the job that she works. I can’t help but wonder if people stare in shock as she pulls out her wallet and pays for her groceries with *gasp* money? I can’t help but wonder if when she walks into the doctor’s office, people stare in anger and blame her for their high health care premiums?

I want to be clear. I support the Foodshare program provided by the state. I support most government assistance programs. I believe sometimes people fall on hard times. It’s not a hand out; it’s a helping hand. Big difference. I also know there are some people that use the system inappropriately. And I believe they should be punished. But I don’t believe people should be made to feel shamed if they need help. There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re not a bad person. I also know that everyone that uses the system is NOT Black. I suspect everyone knows that. But some people need a scapegoat. See, my fear of grocery shopping is not that people will think I’m on welfare. My fear is that people will use me as a way to affirm their delusional beliefs about Black people. That we’re all lazy. That we’re all on welfare. That we all have kids just to receive some kind of government assistance. I don’t want to be THAT person. Because we’re not all THAT way. Trust me.

Is my fear a little irrational? Possibly. But, so are some people’s beliefs.

Little Timmy, the grocery store manager….I just smiled at him, and politely informed him that I would be paying by check. Then I rolled my eyes so hard my contact lenses almost fell out. And I decided, since I can’t forego grocery shopping for the rest of my life, from then on out I’d only write checks at the grocery store. It’s my little way of protecting the virtue of my African American brothers and sisters.

Melissa received her bachelor's degree (and Jada) from Lakeland College where she majored in psychology.  Her masters in psychology is from Walden University.  She works for the Department of Workforce Development as a senior tax specialist, and before that, was the ever-so-loving nanny to John-Pio and Misa in their early years of living.  In her spare time as a proud single mother, she likes journaling, wacky dance contests with Jada, practicing yoga, and urban line dancing. 

Monday, January 14, 2013

"Baby Mamas" and Not Wives

I've had a lifetime of experiences living in my brown skin.  Deeply Micronesian - I'm proud to be of this race, even though I unfortunately come face-to-face with stereotypes and racism.   One of the most productive ways to understand this issue is to talk about it and hear how others experience it, even if it causes discomfort.  This next series of posts is about Stereotypes and Racism, and I'm honored that one of my closest family friends, Bethany Matson, is here to share her story.  This particular experience that she describes opened my eyes to yet another subtle incident that goes unnoticed (unless of course, you are the person who is offended).  I love her reflective and casual voice, and the way in which she relates her story.  Read on and get some perspective on something real . . .

                Everyone gets asked personal questions about themselves.   It's how you get to know someone, make connections, and maintain small talk (which I’ve never been good at doing).  In my personal and professional life, dating (well, trying to), and meeting new people - basically you get similar questions about your age, kids, relationship status, siblings, etc.  I have noticed for a long time that people rarely ask me if I’m married or if I have children; they always ask me, “How many children do you have?” 

Now it might be easy to say that this is more of a societal issue in that women of a certain age are supposed to have children.   Or maybe since I work with children people expect that I have them.  However I rarely get asked if I am married, how long I’ve been married or if I want to get married.  I may get asked if I am single or if I have a boyfriend, or want one, but NEVER  about a husband and I almost always get asked about kids before I get asked my relationship status.  Again, some people might say there is a devaluation of marriage in our society or talk about the proliferation of unmarried co-habitating couples. 

For me it goes beyond that.  It goes back to this idea that many women of color, specifically black women, are thought of as only being “baby mamas” and not wives.  Thinking about the controversy over the Oxygen network airing a show about the rapper with all the “baby mamas”  - it’s called “All My Baby Mama’s”.  There’s a big controversy over the show, but there is an almost exact show called “Sister Wives”, that has proven to be quite popular. 

I know there was controversy over the polygamy aspect of the show, but not about this man having multiple children by different women.  On Sister Wives, there are 16 kids between 4 women, all living together as a family.  This is basically the premise for both shows.  Whatever the controversy, the white women get the title of “wife”, even though they aren’t all, if any, married to that guy, but the black women are “baby mamas”.  Again you could say there is an added aspect of polygamy or religious difference, but really it’s all the same.  Yet, these women are viewed differently.  I’m probably not the first person to notice this difference, but it’s pretty disturbing to me.  I don’t watch “Sister Wives” and wouldn’t watch “All My Baby Mamas”, (well maybe if they did a crossover show together I’d tune in, just to see if they could interview that many kids).   The point is that both have the same concept. 

People are always surprised when I say I don’t have children, but they don’t flinch when I say I’m not married.  I’ve noticed that white women around my age, at work or friends, get asked about their relationship status and rarely get asked about how many children they have or even if they have children.  There are probably tons of statistics and charts about how few black women are married and are single parents that someone could quote to justify themselves, but honestly unless there is a new abundance of cultural anthropologic statisticians, for the most part it’s just people making assumptions.   (Super random, but whenever I use the word “assumptions” I think of Samuel L. Jackson in “A Long Kiss Goodnight” when he says, “When you make assumptions you make an ass out of you and me” LOL, Classic.) 

Black women can always be viewed as somebody’s mama; I’ve been complimented on kids who are not mine on several occasions.  Vera often talks about people not realizing that she and Brad’s children are their children, because of their varying skin tones or assumed ethnicities.  Recently my sister Melissa took her daughter Jada, Misa, myself, and my other niece out for manicures.  Melissa referred to Jada as her daughter and a woman pointed to Misa and said “and this is your daughter too?”  And Melissa politely corrected her with, “no, no I just have one”.   Then in December for Jada’s birthday we all were at the Nitty Gritty with John-Pio and when I took Jada and John-Pio to the bathroom a  woman tells me, “oh my gosh your kids are so cute!”  I politely corrected her with “oh thanks they aren’t mine, but they are super cute!”  No one hesitates to assume that just because a child is with us, they came from our wombs. 

When I tell people that I don’t have kids, even if they haven’t asked me how old I am, they assume something is wrong:  “Oh, you can’t have kids?” Or my favorite ,“Oh are you a lesbian?” (so funny because I know more lesbian women/couples with children than without).   Like it can’t be a conscious decision for me not to have kids.  I notice that when someone who is not black gets asked the same questions they tend to get more follow up questions like,  “Well do you want children?“, “When are you going to get married?”, or “Are you still looking for someone to marry?”  And there are far more personal questions or assumptions (there’s that word again) about their fertility issues or sexual identity.    I’m not given that choice about children or marriage; there is just an assumption that I am not married , never will be, and maybe don’t want to be.  That,  I’d probably just be content being a “baby mama”. 

Maybe this is not an experience everyone has, but it is something that I have noticed.  I don’t mind being asked about how many kids I have; I LOVE kids and being a parent is one of the most challenging (and rewarding) responsibilities any of us will ever have, so maybe it is complimentary that people look at me and assume that I could take on that role (I needed to throw some optimism in, New Year’s resolution).  One day though I hope that someone asks me first if I’m married, and when I say no, they say “well I have the perfect guy for you, he is 6’2, funny, a head full of hair,  and a closet full of cardigans and bow ties “(I know I don’t have very high standards!).  But until then I’ll just stick to my answer for the “how many kids do you have” question with and flash of my ring finger while singing, “first comes love, then comes marriage, THEN comes the baby in the baby carriage!”

Bethany is a social worker who advocates for the rights of children and families.  She received her undergraduate degree from Lakeland College, and her graduate degree from Edgewood College.  Along with being dedicated to the work she does, she enjoys shopping, reading, and watching true crime shows.  The Naputi-Werntz family loves her for her style, brains, and heart! 


Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Racial Stereotyping

When I saw this picture in Lakeshore catalogue, a place that sells educational products, I silently engaged in this string of thought:

"Yeah my Chinese friend Suzi Lee dresses like that every day and that Latino doll totally epitomizes my sister-in-law, Ruth.  Definitely, for-sure all Native Americans look just like that, and my two students from Africa totally rock that pictured wardrobe.  And all the Japanese kids I know have that exact hair style and live their every day lives wearing that kind of red flowery outfit."  

It's exasperating how print media perpetuates stereotypes.  It's particularly maddening that this page comes from an educational catalogue.  But that's beside the point.  The real issue here is racial stereotyping is wrong and it's important to talk this out - with each other, and with our kids.  When my kids saw this catalogue tonight, the first thing they said was "oooooooh" and they spent a few minutes eagerly scanning the book of novel items.

They got to the page above and I stopped them.  It took less than 10 minutes to have a brief conversation about racial stereotyping where I voiced my disapproval of it, and why it's important to critically examine what they see and hear and witness people doing in the media.   Comparing the images they saw on that page to the people they know in real life was important.   

You're right, Suzi Lee doesn't dress in that traditional gown all the time, and Auntie Ruth does not wear a traditional Mexican dress every day, either . . . And for the record, Chamorros do not wear grass skirts and coconut bras.

Just another in-the-moment opportunity to fill our personal bank account with knowledge against discrimination, racism, and stereotyping. 

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Kill 'em

I had one of those brief heartening moments today, a moment I want to bottle and give away jar by jar. Brad took John-Pio skiing so Misa and I spent the day doing practical things - cleaning, birthday party, organizing, and homework. As she put the final touch on her journal entry, a routine she does for better or for worse, she closed the book with a deep sigh.

It started with, "I'm nervous about going back to school tomorrow," and continued for several minutes more of painstaking revelations about how hard it is to be nice, even when other kids are not.

What a battle it can be to hone in and just listen, to resist the urge to advise and relate, take sides and give her all the answers to such a universal problem. But I listened with deep empathy seeping out from my bones, because I know - just like my mom and dad taught me - that to really understand and give perspective, you have to lay down your arms and simply listen.

Misa finished venting. I sat quietly holding her in my lap because she's still willing and little enough so I can, and I asked her what she was going to do about this.

And just like that, as if she was the character Vennelope in the charming movie, "Wreck-It Ralph," (my new favorite movie, by the way), she said quite pragmatically,

I'm just gonna keep killing 'em with kindness.

I couldn't tell if it was her resolve or a forced solution in an effort to get through her emotions quicker, but it was sweet. It reminded me that for young people (and adults too, no doubt), relationships and friendships can be built on that basic virtue of being a nice person, even though it can be exhausting, sometimes without much in return.

In the end, Misa and I talked about possibilities. I told her there's always the curse of "This might not work" nestled in the back of the mind.  That curse though, can also be a blessing - a way to believe that in the midst of all that she was feeling, her attitude of killing 'em with kindness could forge something unexpected.

That old lesson from my little 9-year-old is already helping me ease into my week a little lighter and with a lot more optimism.  I'm just gonna keep killing 'em with kindness is a good old-fashioned mantra.