Our place in history ...

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Diversity Director, Melinda Wright,
 One Day magazine, & "The Evolution of DCA," by Ting Yu

(Originally published on January 11, 2012, as part of Leadership for Educational Equity's "Teach For America Alumni of Los Angeles" blog: http://blog.educationalequity.org/blog/story/2012/1/11/02311/9807).

DCA should be integrated into every aspect of pedagogy and classroom management. It shouldn't exist as a siloed discussion series, or be reduced to a headcount of representatives of marginalized communities. It is not a free therapy session for people who don't wish to feel guilty because of who they are/how they were raised. DCA must seek out voices capable of contributing to the vital dialogues educators and education policymakers must engage in. TFA ought use its “participant survey” culture to identify the specific ways DCA serves or fails educational and social justice movements, writ large.


Perhaps, like me, you received an email from Melinda L. Wright,
Teach for America’s Senior Managing Director, Alumni Diversity Initiatives, (on December 14, 2011) reading as follows:

“Among the many things I'll be up to in the coming weeks, I'm adding one thing that I hope you'll join me in doing: reading the current edition of One Day magazine, which is a diversity-themed issue.
I recently read this issue and was particularly inspired by both the cover story and the editor's letter written by fellow alumna, Ting Yu (NYC '03). Ting's letter grounded me in the importance of sharing our stories and engaging in authentic conversations around the role of diversity in making ‘One Day’ a reality. Below I have highlighted a bit more about the cover story and an article of particular interest entitled ‘The Evolution of DCA.’
‘The Evolution of DCA’ speaks to our challenges and progress with respect to diversity programming at the Institute. While these sessions have sparked conversations that have often proven difficult, they have also provided an opportunity for us to examine the intersection of race, class, and privilege in our work.”

Intrigued, I took Melinda Wright’s suggestion to heart, and read the latest issue of One Day magazine cover to cover. Doubly intrigued, I opened a Google search window and began rooting around the Internet, in search for published articles and blogs discussing people’s experiences with DCA. Teach for America’s summer institute for new corps members I attended in 1998, did not include a Diversity & Community Awareness component of the same ilk as the one currently in existence. I have, of course, through my own relationships with TFA corps members and staff, developed a notion of what DCA has come to signify and entail. But I did not wish to proceed with the process of documenting my thoughts, without first reading and discussing the opinions of others with an open mind.

Among corps members and staff identifying themselves as members of communities of color, one of the themes I noted was the notion that DCA was essentially designed for white, middle class, corps members in need of exposure to the realities of socioeconomic privilege, and the building blocks of racial/ethnic identity. In plain English, DCA was all about sending white people off to educate students of color without perpetuating the model proffered by Rudyard Kipling’s infamous text, “White Man’s Burden.”

Among corps members and staff not identifying themselves as members of communities of color, one of the themes I noted was the frustration white, middle class, corps members felt at having to sit and listen to tales of how horrible it was to confront racism, classism, etc., when it was not at all clear to them how exactly they were to apply the lessons of DCA to their classroom practice. In this context, DCA was, at best, a reminder of how different they were from the community in which they would teach, and how no matter how hard they tried, they would never fully fit in. At worst, it was a blob of mushy, politically correct gobbledygook, designed to instill the jargon and ideology of cultural and moral relativism.

Because this is a topic of such tremendous importance to me, I am going to try my very best to make my comments relevant to those of you who are still in the classroom, as well as to those of you who have gone on to lives in which you seek to impact district wide, statewide, or federal policy. Trust me when I tell you that I would love to engage in extensive debate over the themes I noted and have taken the time to highlight above. However, in the spirit of the new year, and in accordance with the predictions of the Maya and Hopi people that 2012 marks the end of one world, and the beginning of another, I will remain forward looking.

DCA should be integrated into every aspect of what corps members learn about pedagogy and classroom management. It should not exist solely as a siloed discussion series. It should not be reduced to a headcount of representatives of historically marginalized communities. And it should not be a free therapy session for people who do not wish to feel guilty because of who they are, or how they were raised.

In terms of pedagogy, Jaime Escalante always made mention of the fact that the Mayas invented the zero when teaching students whose parents were predominantly Mexican and Central American. He could have just as easily made mention of the ways in which Cambodians or Egyptians used advanced mathematics to build temples, or how nomadic Native Americans learned how to compensate for gravity, wind, and other variables in aiming during hunts and fishing expeditions. These bits of information, while they might seem trivial to some initially, very clearly paint the notion that the concept being introduced is one that has been and will be applied across cultures, nations, and contexts. Said quite plainly, even calculus does not belong to Isaac Newtown. Every concept has multiple fathers and multiple mothers. We may attribute one idea to one person because that is how we learned it, and because that is what helps us avoid getting accused of plagiarism in college. But our job as teachers is to make our students the owners of ideas and information. They are not empty vessels awaiting one cup of our vast knowledge each. And in order for our students to accept ownership of ideas and information, they must feel as though these are theirs to take. They must not feel as though these are being forced upon them from a source outside of their own experience, outside of their roots of racial/ethnic identity.

In terms of classroom management, I will relate quite plainly my frustration with teachers who send letters and notes home and then complain when parents do not respond to them, or who issue punishments, and then take offense when parents seek out the principal to voice a complaint about the punishment or the reason it was doled out. Doctors used to make house calls. The milkman used to follow the same route as the post office. But for a variety of reasons, teachers avoid, or are told to avoid, home visits. Race, class, privilege, these are all vestiges of power. On campus, the teacher and principal have the power. The difference in level of educational attainment the average TFA corps member boasts, versus that of the median parent of a student in that corps member’s classroom, plus the difference in annual salary an average corps member will clear after food and living expenses, versus the net pay the median parent will clear, is already enough to make it unfair for an average corps member to expect all dealings with parents to take place on school grounds, or via formal written communication. Add to this any other dynamics informed by race, language, religion, etc., and from where I stand, you’ve got to be incredibly naïve not to note the tremendous disadvantage the median parent must bear.

Whenever a fellow teacher would ask me to translate a letter or note home to Spanish speaking parents, I would always ask that teacher if the parents who were to receive this letter were able to read at all. Forget what language the darn thing is in if they only have a few years of school under their belts. Of course there are best practices for classroom management that do not depend at all on a solid relationship with a student’s parents, or any other caregiver in their lives. But when it comes to students who are constantly sabotaging their own education, knowing who has an influence on them, and having a relationship as equals with that person can completely turn everything around, and cause that student to flourish. Developing a relationship as equals with that person means meeting them somewhere where s/he feels comfortable speaking, opening yourself up, and confronting matters you might otherwise wish to avoid.

In my eyes there is a very direct bridge to the policy world here. Obviously we could speak ad nauseam about our racial, class, or other identities as teachers, or those of our students, or their parents. But what do we measure? Since our TFA culture is so data driven, once we step into the world of district policy, or statewide education code, or federal terrain, what exact outcomes should we be seeking in this department and how do we know if we’re making progress? The answer, fortunately, is remarkably simple: follow the various achievement gaps. Using value added instruments, and other constantly improving statistical tools, we are able to disaggregate standardized test scores and see if patterns emerge regarding the role each teacher plays in adding to, or reducing the achievement gap born by black male students who are part of the free or reduced cost meals program. As a teacher, when presented with evidence that I may very well work wonders when it comes to proof of learning for some of the students in my class, yet I have completely failed others, I am able to then demand professional development, tailored for eliminating that achievement gap, from my principal, organized labor representative, school district staff, and elected board of education members. Further, I am able to demand that those observing my classroom also receive the training and tools necessary to help me truly guarantee that all of my students are receiving an excellent education, not just the ones scoring at or above the range predicted by value added tools. By this logic, a policy maker’s job is clear: (1) Provide everyone with access to value added instruments, (2) Reform the structure of professional development so that it focuses on identifying and eliminating achievement gaps, (3) Change teacher certification, credentialing, and tenure so that they include cultural competency components, value and incorporate parental engagement, as well as include the planning time, curriculum flexibility, and resources needed to eliminate existing achievement gaps.

Now that I’ve said this part, I would like to indulge in a little bit of storytelling.

I have written extensively about race/ethnicity, socioeconomic class, and other factors related to privilege, identity, power, politics, and pop culture throughout the course of my adolescence and adult life. In 2005, shortly after the passing of Rosa Parks, I began posting some of my thoughts on a page entitled, “OurPlaceInHistory.Blogspot.com.” If you have an interest in discussing how I believe these factors impact elections, historic events, mass media, education and immigration policy, as well as headline dominating events, please take a moment to review its contents. As there are relatively few entries, doing so shan’t prove daunting or overwhelming. Here are four essays to get you started:





Stephen Colbert’s television persona often jokes that he doesn’t see race. This quip is humorous because the notion that perceived racial differences are inconsequential to a man whose ancestry lies exclusively in Northern and Western Europe is particularly ironic given human history over the last two thirds of a millennium. Although it is undeniably true that the racism we must confront and overcome is the result of a colonial, imperialistic, paternalistic, patriarchal, oppressive, exploitative power structures imposed on people of color, what I wish to posit and ask you to consider, are the ways in which we all, regardless of our appearance or identity, actively or passively perpetuate them.

The temptation to live in a world that denies racial difference is in fact one of the traps that we fall into quite often. When society views race as something of no more significance than manner of dress, then it loses a sense of the harm that can be caused by reducing the entirety of a culture to a collection of consumable costumes, foods, beverages, music, dance, and ritual. In the extreme, this manifests itself as a modern day minstrel show such as the one Spike Lee creates in the film Bamboozled, the dissolution of the line between social critique and perpetuated harm that caused Dave Chappelle to walk away from his successful, multi-season sketch series on Comedy Central, or a rise in crass disguises and Halloween garb, such as those highlighted in the “We are a culture, not a costume campaign” (http://lissawriting.wordpress.com/2011/10/23/racism-think/).

In the quotidian, it means casting Taylor Swift as Éponine, and Anne Hathaway as Fantine, in the upcoming film version of Les Misérables, after years of casting actresses of color, such as Felicia Curry, Lea Salonga-Chien, and Daphne Rubin-Vega in these roles. Most don’t see this as even a minor offense. After all, Les Misérables, takes place in France, and French people are now and always have been fair skinned, right? Wrong. Much as it is offensive to ignore the histories and contributions of Americans of color in recreations of the Revolutionary or Civil War, it is simply blatantly inaccurate to whitewash a nation with an extensive Mediterranean coast populated by Mesopotamians, Persians, Egyptians, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Iberians, Greeks, Byzantines, Romans, Italians, Illyrians, Thracians, Levantines, Gallics, Armenians, Arabs, Berbers, Jews, Aragons, Slavs, Turks, as well as a wealth of East Asians, Pacific Islanders, Amerindians, Caribbeans, and Northern and Sub-Saharan Africans displaced by French colonialism. In other words, just as it is offensive to use blackface, brownface, yellowface, or redface to turn a character into a caricature, like Mickey Rooney’s Mr. Yunioshi, in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, or Chloe Michalopolous’ Soledad from East L.A., in Ask A Chola, it is equally offensive to eliminate the presence of people of color when recounting or recreating history, however fictionalized those recountings and recreations may have been intended to be. Whether portraying the population of France as a homogenous collection of tall, thin, small-featured, fair-complexioned, Aryan-propaganda poster models, making a film version of the lives of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, while glossing over the existence of Paul Jennings, and Sarah Hemings, or casting Angelina Jolie as Cleopatra, (after already having cast Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra) the refusal to acknowledge the undisputable, inexpugnable, prominent place of people of color, as well as linguistic, religious, and other diverse peoples throughout history, is a form of perpetuated prejudice unfortunately few are disposed or prepared to confront. As educators, and education policymakers, however, we cannot lose sight of the impact this form of bigotry can have.

Since this is a Presidential election year, it’s impossible to ignore the dog whistle and overtly racist rhetoric that permeates political discourse. It continues to perplex me, for instance, that so many from the Tea Party to Donald Trump have managed to capture headlines and hog the media spotlight questioning Barack Obama’s citizenship. Never before has a Presidential candidate, much less a President, had to produce any sort of birth certificate, much less had the validity of such a legal document challenged. Mitt Romney’s father was born in Mexico. John McCain was born in Panama. Yet no such controversies have ever dogged these men. Barack Obama’s racial identity is a factor. When Newt Gingrich calls Barack Obama a “food stamp President,” it is not a race neutral slander. When he specifically says that if the NAACP invites him to speak, he’ll “go to their convention and talk about why the American-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps,” that’s not a statement whose true intent depends on the context in which it was delivered. The same can be said of Rick Santorum’s claim that he, “doesn’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them someone else’s money.” Similarly, nearly every argument uttered against amnesty, welfare, education, and healthcare for “illegal immigrants” is tied to a notion of racial supremacy that deifies Americans whose lineage ties them to Europe (and an arrival date between Plymouth or Jamestown and the zenith of Ellis Island traffic), but demonizes those whose lineage ties them to Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, the Pacific Islands, the Caribbean, or Latin America (regardless of arrival date). All of this, of course, in a nation whose federal government is housed in a city whose NFL team, the Washington Redskins, won’t be changing its dehumanizing name anytime soon. Don’t even get me started on the unparalleled influence the states of Iowa and New Hampshire have, despite the fact that they are two of the least diverse in the country.

The political landscape, and the above-described environment created by consumerist industries, polarize and aversely influence our views on racial difference. Our passive acceptance of, or active participation in these worlds, without objection to their language, images, mindsets, and so forth, contribute to preserving racist macro-power structures. As educators and education policy makers, we must prioritize the cultural competencies and critical thinking capable of countering racist macro-power structures, and doing away with micro-aggressions, micro-assaults, micro-insults, and micro-invalidations. If you are unfamiliar with these concepts, their impact on student achievement, and what research tell us about altering problematic patterns, please review the following:










As I write these words, a number of my friends are still embroiled in a heated discussion about what it means that the “Sh*t White Girls Say to Black Girls” video has already garnered 4.5 million views (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ylPUzxpIBe0). After all, the “Sh*t ____ Say” meme arrived relatively soon after the countless parodies inspired by the “Asians in the Library” rant (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DoLLEZlpUxk). Concurrently, a video rant made by two white teenage girls in Arizona in 2010, following the passage of SB 1070, has officially gone viral. Spreading through social media like a wildfire through kindling brush desiccated by drought, thanks to reposting by Latino bloggers and watchdogs who monitor the escalations in violent rhetoric when advocates of anti-immigrant policies inflame racist and xenophobic sentiments, this video is painful (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bO1PIauwBWs&oref=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DnMBz1q9RUl4%26feature%3Drelated). Beyond explicitly threatening to kill Mexicans with guns, the girls explicitly state their belief that their teachers “are holding the entire class back,” and that the fault lies with the students who are “obviously not American citizens, because if they were American citizens, they obviously would have already learned English.” The fact that over two thirds of English Language Learners are US Citizens by birth, notwithstanding, what is most disturbing is the outright accusation that students from non-English speaking households are to blame for the decline of the public education system, and by extension the demise of American exceptionalism. China will overtake the US economy by 2020. India will do so by 2050.

As I feared, what I intended to be a brief blog entry on my reactions to reading the most recent issue of One Day magazine has turned into an endless assault on the senses of the limited readership these blogs enjoy. Regardless, I feel there is value in what I have shared. I am grateful to all of the work that went into this latest issue of One Day, and utterly indebted to the corps members, staff, advisors, and critics, who have contributed over the years to the creation and evolution of “Diversity & Community Awareness.” Moving forward, I hope DCA will continue to seek out voices capable of contributing to the vital dialogues educators and education policymakers must engage in, such as Tulane Professor, Melissa Harris-Perry. (Seen here on January 9, 2012’s episode of the Colbert Report discussing her new book, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/10/melissa-harris-perry-colbert_n_1196634.html). And more importantly, I hope that TFA will take advantage of its “participant survey” culture to learn more about the specific ways that DCA serves or fails corps members, staff, alumni, and the educational and social justice movement writ large. I would imagine one of the things that might emerge is how little time we’ve spent examining the factors that influence notions of race across cultures.

As a Mormon, Mitt Romney knows that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, (the LDS Church) had an explicit policy against ordaining black men to the priesthood until 1978. Yet, 5% of LDS Church members are black, and missionaries have made tremendous inroads in Latin America, the Caribbean, and West Africa, where they’ve built to major Mormon temples. Over 80% of Indians are Hindus, despite Gandhi’s contribution toward the emancipation of the “Untouchables,” the influence of the Hindu caste system is still felt in what, at times, openly denigrates into a disdain for dark skin. Bollywood headliners and other pop icons, especially female stars, tend to have fair skin. Moreover, skin-bleaching creams are not only sold throughout India, but marketed without shame, much less concern over political backlash, or economic repercussions. These products are made by multinational corporations, not just local “beauty product” producers. Yet these multinational corporations are astute enough not to flaunt these wares in nations like the United States, where the legacy of the Civil Rights movement continues to have enough palpable weight to strain their profit margins and public relations (PR) budgets. By offering these examples, I do not mean to attack these two communities of faith, or the membership of any organized religion, for that matter. I merely wish to point to the kinds of viewpoints we can overlook when discussing race.

When I went to school in Mexico as a child, the federal Secretary of Public Education, insisted that all Mexican children learn the contents of, La Raza Cósmica, (The Cosmic Race) an essay written by José Vasconcelos Calderón, and La Raza de Bronce, (The Bronze Race) a poem by Amado Nervo (also known as, Juan Crisóstomo Ruiz de Nervo). From Vasconcelos, we were to learn that the Mexican people were a new “fifth race,” created by merging the Aztecs and the other indigenous empires of the Americas, as well as the peoples of Europe, Asia, and Africa. From Nervo, we were to learn about the greatness of Benito Juarez, the self-made man, born in a tiny adobe home in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, who became a successful lawyer, resisted the French occupation of Mexico, overthrew the Napoleonic Empire, and used liberal efforts to modernize the country, while serving five times as President of the Mexican Republic. In other words, as a child in Mexico, I was taught to ignore racial difference. That there were no white Mexicans, black Mexicans, brown Mexicans, and so forth, there were only Mexicans. Other countries, like the United States, were racist because they lacked the mestizaje that gave Mexico its social cohesion. By deifying Benito Juarez, a dark skinned man with pronounced indigenous facial features, my teachers were attempting to inculcate me into the propagandist fiction that discrimination on the basis of racial appearance did not exist in Mexico. Yet racism was everywhere. Television and film screens, magazine covers, billboards, people walking down the street, sang the praises of the fair skin, light-eyes, and European features. The “güero” aesthetic was better than the “moreno” or “prieto” alternative. When people complained about how hard their bosses were working them, they’d call them “negreros.” I never once witnessed anyone with white skin being called a “naco.” And there could be no greater insult rendered than calling someone an “indio.”

Mexico is not alone in seeking a path forward from a troubled racial past through the creation of a nationalist propaganda that seeks to join its diverse people in one new harmonious race. This mindset influenced all of the Spanish speaking Latin American countries, and Portuguese speaking Brazil as well. There, mestiçagem was explained by the “less severe” Portuguese caste system that accommodated widespread interracial marriage and miscegenation. Yet nothing can erase the history and legacy of African slavery and indigenous genocide in Brazil, not even the fame and fortune of international non-white Brazilian superstars, from Pelé, (also known as, Edson Arantes dos Nascimento) to the present. It is this very history of slavery and genocide throughout the Americas, followed by relentless efforts to do minimize the damage of these histories through a propagandist narrative of a “rainbow” past, magically molding into a common, cohesive, social present, that makes the real work of unpacking privilege and confronting racist power structures so amazingly difficult. If you don’t believe me, take a few minutes to review the responses Latinos gave when confronted with the “race question” on the 2010 Census. As someone who participated in the campaign to guarantee that a record percentage of US residents completed their Census forms, I was asked to take on the prickly assignment of writing an unofficial set of instructions for how “Hispanics” might answer the race question on their Census forms:

Latinos who do not consider themselves racially “white,” or racially “black,” or racially “Asian,” are encouraged check “American Indian.” In the tribe section write “unknown” and then indicate country (countries) of family origin–Mexico, El Salvador, etc.–in parentheses. Also, please note that each individual is allowed to identify him/herself as belonging to more than one racial group. We are free to write “Latino” or “Chicano” or whatever we like on the Census in the race section without checking the “American Indian” racial identity box. However, after quite a number of years advocating that ethnicity, culture, and race are in fact different things, it makes most sense to identify one’s self using as many identifiers as possible. Further, from an objective standpoint, the “brown” most people of Latin American heritage wear on the outside, or can point to in their family line, comes from, in whole, or part, the indigenous peoples of the Americas that were living and flourishing here long before people from the continents of the Eastern Hemisphere arrived. Just because the explicit text of the current Census form ignores this fact, does not mean we should. At the end of the day, the borders of current nation-states (Canada, the USA, Mexico, Guatemala, etc.) are not the borders that nomadic or agrarian indigenous peoples adhered to. From a “racial” standpoint, all of the peoples of the Americas, whether Mapuches in Chile, Inuits in Canada, Navajos in Arizona, or mestizos in Mexico are related. We share a genetic ancestry, and a history of sudden and forced, as well as gradual and peripheral assimilation into the countries (El Salvador, Argentina, Nicaragua, etc.) we now call home. Again, it is important to check all of the boxes we know apply to making us who we are in terms of racial and ethnic identity. If I had an Asian great-grandparent, for example, I would most certainly indicate that fact, even if that person died before I was born. There are rumors that my father’s family includes an individual of African descent, but I have no real proof of this, and therefore I did not include this when filling out my Census form. I did, however, make note of the fact that my Mexican identity includes “American Indian” and “white” racial components. No matter what, it is critical that we complete and return the Census so political representation and material resources can be appropriately apportioned. So make sure you fill out and mail in your household form!

As a final thought, Id like to share a Vivir Latino blog entry I feel highlights why the Civil Rights movement shouldn’t be viewed as a 20th Century historical happening, but rather as an ongoing introspective and outward-looking endeavor. Entitled, Filling Out the Census While Latina or How My Mom is White and I’m Not, it stresses the need to revisit it for the sake of future generations (http://vivirlatino.com/2010/03/18/filling-out-the-census-while-latina-or-how-my-mom-is-white-and-im-not.php):

“I don’t claim Afro-Latinidad, as that hasn’t been my personal identity experience... but I also don’t claim whiteness... Rather, as a Puerto Rican I identify as mixed race, including ‘white’ Spanish colonial roots, African roots, and Indigenous. So, I check off all three... My mother is horrified by this. She checked off Puerto Rican and white for herself and my sister, without asking my sister how she identifies racially. This doesn’t surprise me but it makes me sad. When I was a child, the aunt that raised my mother would pull out old Puerto Rican history books and point to conquistadors with my same last name. As a middle schooler, I identified as ‘Spanish,’ denying my Rican roots. So this is a common narrative that has been passed on in my family, a narrative that shifted directions with me through my own process of politicization. The narrative my children are growing up with is complicated but clear in it’s complexity of not denying any part of our real history.”


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