Friday, July 13, 2007

The Wrong Boxes

In the last post I spend some time parsing culture versus class. I said our efforts around promoting diversity have been somewhat off the mark, that it’s money and its effects on day-to-day living that create the real differences, the ones that impact what we do in the classroom. That said, it's been suggested -- more than once, and more privately than publicly -- that the big ticket item of classroom diversity is less about the tension between class and culture, and more about the differences in and between cultures. What I hear folks say is that my sense of how diversity impacts teaching is derived from my environment, and skewed by it. I wrote this:

…It’s been easier for me to understand (a little) and connect (a little) to my kids’ ethnic and cultural backgrounds that it has been to understand and connect to their socioeconomic background…

and I’ve been told it’s less a product of being a White, upper-middle class male, and more about being a White, upper-middle class male teaching in a predominantly Latino immigrant community.

Last Year’s Kids:
Black 5%
Asian 7%
Latino 88%

The claim here is that I would have increased difficulty connecting, understanding, and valuing ethnic/ racial (and when can we stop using that jingoist, white-man’s-burden, non-biologically valid term?) differences if you flipped the percentages. If my class looked like this:

Black 88%
Asian 7%
Latino 5%

people tell me I’d think and talk and write about these issues much differently. I get this from people I respect, people who have taught in both communities, and some environments that have a more even distribution. There seems to be a great deal of private agreement on this topic.

And I wonder what this means.

Are we saying Black culture is less compatible to the White culture of public education than Latino culture?

Are we saying White teachers are less compatible to Black students than Latino?

Maybe ethnicity is again the wrong way to view these issues. Are we saying that it is easier to value the cultural differences in immigrant populations?

These are important conversations to have, and valuable. But I think they underscore the problematic nature of conversations around diversity. All too often we put White in one box and Everything Else in the other and draw comparisons. Failing that, we put White in one box, Black in the other, and ignore all the other ways in which these issues come into play. This is how a place like my school, which is 86% Latino (of which almost all are Mexican), earns the label of diverse. If it were 86% White, no one would call it diverse. Words are the intellectual frames that contain and support discourse, and when we get sloppy in their implementation, our thinking gets similarly weak, and slopped around.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have you read the article, "What it takes to make a student" by Paul Tough in the New York Times Magazine? (Nov 2006) You can google it; it'll turn up. The article takes a stab at trying to decouple class from ethnicity. It draws on research from the 1990's about class differences in parenting styles. So it may be old news to everyone. But I found it very relevant to my experience. In my admittedly limited experience in Oakland (2 years student teaching/interning grades 4-6), I would agree with you. I found class & socioeconomic differences - especially as expressed in parenting style - so much more confounding and hard to bridge than ethnic/cultural differences.

11:46 PM  
Blogger Miss Profe said...

I think that Black/White relations carries with it so much historical baggage that it remains the racial dichotomy with which the US has yet to deal with fully. And, given that most Latinos *do* come here on their own accord, that same historical baggage is absent.

We also have to be careful not to supplant socioeconomics with race. In other words, to say that socioeconomics trumps race is highly mis-guided. With a few notable exceptions, regardless as to how much wealth or education a person of color has, and, as a Black American, I can only speak to that, one is still regarded as being not as good, or the N-word. Like it or not, many still believe that, and many Black families, despite their comfortable middle/upper middle class life style, are still teaching their children that they have to be *better* than the average person of the majority race.

To speak more directly to your post, as a teacher of color at a predominately White, *very* upper middle class independent school where 70% of the families pay full tuition, I cannot relate to that type of wealth. I cannot relate to the fact that students "lose" (more like leave and forget) $500.00 cameras in the locker room, high-end brand name clothing outside on the lawn, and drag and fling $100.00 backpacks around - I can't relate to that. And, given the handful of Black and Latino students who also attend school at this same school and with this same population, some of the same materialistic behaviors are evident, but there is a far greater respect for personal belongings and where things come from.

But, I am not sure that I could relate any more effectively to the situation with with you are dealing, either.

7:01 AM  
Blogger TMAO said...

anon: Thanks, I'll take a look.

miss profe: Thanks for your thoughts. I don't doubt your statement about the dangers in letting SES "supplant" race... in a national setting. That said, I do have to wonder how much the "many" you speak of, respond negatively to Black culture, and how much they respond negatively to the kind of things you find in a culture of poverty -- one that is no doubt occupied by a disproportionate number of Black people. Still are/ would be the same negative opinions visited upon "poor white trash?"

I also wonder how that applies in the narrower sense of a teacher teaching kids from different backgrounds. You mention "notable exceptions," and I think some of those exceptions exist in schools. The beliefs of the "many" are not isolated from what happens in the classroom, but is it the prime mediating factor and consideration between and among teachers and students from different backgrounds?

I don't have a completely worked-out thesis on this; I'm more about discussion than assertion here (for once).

7:58 PM  
Anonymous doingitforthekids said...

I think miss profe is definitely on to something as far as Black/White relations in this country are concerned. As true as this is, however, activists from other minority groups could no doubt make a strong case with regard to their groups' relations with the dominant white culture over history.

Is it possible that even respectable teacher-types are susceptible to subtle notions of racism? We've all heard, I think, of the designation of Asians as "model minorities". On the surface this is easy enough to dismiss, as it is, in fact, a horribly disrespectful and racist statement. But these things are powerful, and I think that in our society it is possible that we create a hierarchy of race, with each group trying to leapfrog over the others.

This is not necessarily a very developed theory of mine, so bear with me, but could that explain the statements about the kind of compatibility you could expect to have with groups of kids based on their ethnic background?

I completely reject the idea that students perform better or worse depending on the race of the teacher. There might be something to that as far as the initial meeting, but any teacher worth their salt ought to be able to acknowledge, validate, and break through any barriers caused by race, ethnicity, or economics.

7:41 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...


What kind of relationship do I expect to have based on ethnic backgrounds? In a general sense, I want kids to feel like I know a little something about their cultural history, mores, and values, and am open for them to bring more and teach me more. I want them to see their ethnicity reflected in what we read, what we talk about, down to the silly examples in grammar assignments. I want to create a space where their understanding of their ethnicity merges well with what we're all working for, with the drive toward educational equity that has proved so elusive.

That said, I expect to connect with kids through issues that are (to whatever extent) separate and apart from their ethnicity. Small thing, but I've taught huge numbers of brothers, sisters, cousins, and friends at this point. "Do you remember so-and-so? He's my brother." Pow, and we're in. Little stuff goes a long way, and I'm not sure that, as a teacher, you have to go about modeling your profound understanding of a child's ethnic heritage, as much as you need to show you know enough and care enough to get the door open. Things tend to take care of themselves after that.

10:13 AM  

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