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!  

1 comment:

  1. FYI: It is cabbage that goes in that dish, like you would put in cole slaw, only you cook it. You do not put saurkraut in cole slaw! Wow! As if you wouldn't know the difference between cabbage and saurkraut! How insulting!