You Don’t Have to Be Perfect to Fight Racism. But You Have to Try

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I am a white guy who talks about racism.

 

I teach mostly students of color in a western Pennsylvania public school. I write a blog about education and issues of prejudice. And I participate in social justice campaigns to try and redress the inequality all around me.

 

But in my quest to be an anti-racist, one of the most common criticisms people hurl my way is to call me smug:

 

You think you’re so perfect!

 

You’re just suffering from white guilt.

 

You love black people more than your own people.

 

Things like that.

 

Well, I’ll let you in on a little secret.

 

I make mistakes.

 

All. The. Time.

 

I am just like every other white person out there. But I have recognized certain facts about my world and I’m trying to do something about them.

 

America is built on the genocide of over 110 million indigenous Americans and the enslavement of 30 million Africans. The idea of concentration camps didn’t originate with the Nazis. Hitler got the idea from U.S. treatment of Native Americans. Racism didn’t end with the Civil Rights Movement. It just changed shape and was hidden in the way we practiced health care, education, and policing all the way to mass incarceration.

 

And it’s getting worse. Hate crimes have jumped from about 70 incidents a year in the 1990s to more than 300 a year since 2001. And after Trump was elected, 900 bias-related incidents were reported against minorities within the first 10 days.

 

It does not make me special that I am trying to do what little I can about that. It just makes me human.

 

That’s it.

 

I am not perfect.

 

I am no better than anyone else.

 

But I am trying to do the right thing.

 

When I first became a teacher, I had the chance to go to the rich white schools and work with the wealthy white kids. I hated it.

 

I found that I had a real affinity for the struggling students, the poor and minorities.

 

 

Why? Probably because I have more in common with them than the kids who drove to school in better cars than me, wore more expensive clothes and partied with designer drugs.

 

Does that make me better than a teacher who stayed in the suburbs? No. But hopefully it gives me the chance to make a greater difference against white supremacy.

 

 

When I saw how unjust our school system is, I could have gotten out. Law school was definitely an option. So was becoming a technical writer or a job as a pharmaceutical ad rep.

 

 

But I dug in and spoke out.

 

 

I could have left, but who would be there to speak for my students? Who would speak truth to power about high stakes standardized tests, unaccountable charter and voucher schools, inequitable funding and the boondoggle of Common Core Standards?

 

 

So I got active in my union, spoke at rallies, lead marches on incorrigible law-makers and started a blog.

 

Does that make me better than teachers who kept plugging away at their jobs but didn’t rock the boat? No way. But hopefully I have a better chance at helping change things for the better.

 

 

When I saw that politicians in my state wanted to stop the parents of my students from voting by trampling their civil rights with a voter ID law, I started a campaign asking the officials that were tasked with enacting the law to ignore it.

 

 

It was a hard battle that made me do things I was not at all comfortable doing. You try asking a public servant on camera to break the law and go to jail for what he knew was right.

 

Strangely enough, it worked. Along with several other campaigns throughout the state, we got the voter ID law declared unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court.

 

Some people look at that and other accomplishments and think I’m conceited.

 

They say I’m a white savior hogging the spotlight for myself and keeping the very people I’m trying to help in my shadow.

 

That’s not my intention at all.

 

I wouldn’t be anywhere without the help and support of people of color.

 

Everything I’ve done in this fight has been with their help and encouragement.

 

Does that mean I’m impervious to making a racist comment? Does it mean I’ve never participated in a microaggression? Does it mean I see every racist impact of my society and my place in it?

 

Absolutely not.

 

I screw up every day.

 

Multiple times.

 

But that’s the point. You don’t have to be perfect. You just have to try.

 

One of the books that has helped guide me on this journey is Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups, by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun.

 

The chapter on “White Supremacy Culture” should be required reading for every activist organization or budding civil rights warrior.

 

The authors offer a list of characteristics that stem from white supremacy that can affect even the best intentioned of groups and individuals. These norms are difficult to name or identify but can lead to major dysfunction:

 

 

“They are damaging to both people of color and to white people. Organizations that are people of color led or a majority people of color can also demonstrate many damaging characteristics of white supremacy culture.”

 

 

And the number one characteristic is Perfectionism.

 

This involves the following bullet points:

 

  • “little appreciation expressed among people for the work that others are doing; appreciation that is expressed usually directed to those who get most of the credit anyway

 

  • more common is to point out either how the person or work is inadequate

 

  • or even more common, to talk to others about the inadequacies of a person or their work without ever talking directly to them

 

  • mistakes are seen as personal, i.e. they reflect badly on the person making them as opposed to being seen for what they are – mistakes

 

  • making a mistake is confused with being a mistake, doing wrong with being wrong

 

  • little time, energy, or money put into reflection or identifying lessons learned that can improve practice, in other words little or no learning from mistakes

 

  • tendency to identify what is wrong; little ability to identify, name, and appreciate what is right”

 

 

Solutions offered to this problem are:

 

“Develop a culture of appreciation, where the organization takes time to make sure that people’s work and efforts are appreciated;

 

develop a learning organization, where it is expected that everyone will make mistakes and those mistakes offer opportunities for learning;

 

create an environment where people can recognize that mistakes sometimes lead to positive results;

 

separate the person from the mistake;

 

when offering feedback, always speak to the things that went well before offering criticism;

 

ask people to offer specific suggestions for how to do things differently when offering criticism.”

 

These are things we should keep in mind as we try to move forward in this fight.

 

Certainly white people can be resistant to criticism and see any and every comment or appraisal as personal or demeaning – especially if that remark is made by a person of color.

 

Frankly, white people need to get a thicker skin about it. We need to realize that this impulse to personalize analysis is often a psychological attempt to avoid looking at oneself and what unconscious aspects of the social order one has internalized.

 

However, those offering criticism must realize that context is everything. We must create an environment where such remarks are constructive. Otherwise, they’ll do more harm than good.

 

None of this is easy.

 

But if we want to be anti-racists, that’s not the job we signed up to do.


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

WANT A SIGNED COPY?

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Since School Vouchers Don’t Increase Test Scores, Racism is an Acceptable Reason for Privatization, Says Advocate

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For decades, school voucher advocates claimed that sending poor kids to private schools with public tax dollars was acceptable because doing so would raise students’ test scores.

 

However, in the few cases where voucher students are even required to take the same standardized tests as public school students, the results have been dismal.

 

In short, poor kids at private schools don’t get better test scores.

 

So why are we spending billions of public tax dollars to send kids to privately run schools?

 

A 2018 Department of Education evaluation of the Washington, D.C., voucher program found that public school students permitted to attend a private or parochial school at public expense ended up getting worse scores than they had at public school.

 

Their scores went down 10 points in math and stayed about the same in reading.

 

These are not the pie in the sky results we were promised when we poured our tax money into private hands.

 

However, corporate education propaganda site, The 74, published a defense of these results that – frankly – makes some pretty jaw dropping claims.

 

The article is “More Regulation of D.C. School Vouchers Won’t Help Students. It Will Just Give Families Fewer Choices for Their Kids” by far right Cato Institute think tanker Corey DeAngelis.

 

In his piece, not only does he call for less accountability for voucher schools, he downplays the importance of standardized test scores.

 

And he has a point. Test scores aren’t a valid reflection of student learning – but that’s something public school advocates have been saying for decades in response to charter and voucher school cheerleaders like DeAngelis.

 

Supply side lobbyists have been claiming we need school privatization BECAUSE it will increase test scores. Now that we find this claim is completely bogus, the privatizers are changing their tune.

 

But that’s not the most shocking irony in DeAngelis article.

 

Parents don’t really care about the scores, he says. Instead they send their children to voucher schools because… You know what? I’ll let him tell it.

 

“Families choose schools for their children based on several important factors, including culture, individual attention, and, of course, safety. Research tells us that parents — unsurprisingly — often value these things more than standardized test scores.”

 

Certainly parents prefer their children have more individual attention. But many private schools have larger class sizes than public schools.

 

Moreover, reducing class size at all schools would be a more equitable reform than letting some kids enjoy smaller classes if they can just get into the right school.

 

However, it is his other two claims that sent my racist dog whistle senses tingling.

 

So parents don’t like the CULTURE of public schools. And they’re afraid public schools aren’t as SAFE.

 

Hmm. I wonder what culture these parents are objecting to. I wonder why they would think public schools wouldn’t be as safe.

 

Could it perhaps be fear of black students!?

 

I don’t want my little Billy to be exposed to all that rap music and kids with sagging pants. I don’t want my little Susie to cower in a class full of thugs and gangstas.

 

This is racist, stereotypical and just plain wrong about what you’ll actually find in public schools.

 

But it’s also typical white flight – the impulse behind the charter and voucher school movement in the first place.

 

Where did the boom for privatized schools come from historically?

 

It was a reaction to Brown vs. Board. When the US Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that segregated schools were unconstitutional, many white parents rebelled. They didn’t want their kids to go to school with THOSE kids. Hence, Georgia Gov. Herman Talmadge’s aborted plan to close all state schools and issue vouchers to private schools instead.

 

Hence, the plan that actually did take place in Price Edward County, Virginia, in 1959 where the public schools were closed and all taxpayer money for education was funneled to segregated white academies that would not admit black students. Though the term had yet to be invented, these were proto-“charter schools.” They were publicly funded but privately run. They were housed in privately owned facilities such as churches and the local Moose Lodge.

 

Hence, various segregationist “freedom of choice” plans in several states that allowed white students to transfer out of desegregated schools. Black students could apply but because of various administrative hurdles were never admitted.

 

This is the history of so-called school choice. And it is a history that DeAngelis, the 74 and the Cato Institute are willing to bring full circle.

 

School privatization advocates pretend they’re defending choice, but what choice are they championing?

 

The choice to segregate?

 

Pardon me, but I don’t think we should be spending public tax dollars to enable bigots.

 

If you want to shield your children from the horrors of kids with darker skin, do so on your own dime.

 

Public money should only be spent on policies that are in the public good – and that’s not segregation. It’s the exact opposite – integration.

 

Learning how to get along with people who are different than you is an essential skill for good citizens. Understanding that people of different races, ethnicities, religions and cultures are also human is vital if our nation is to survive.

 

Being exposed to another culture isn’t a bad thing. It’s the definition of the American melting pot.

 

Our public schools are not perfect. They suffer from targeted disinvestment – especially those situated in urban neighborhoods and those serving larger populations of children of color.

 

But that is because of the same segregation school privatization lobbyists are empowering. If all students went to the same schools, parents wouldn’t allow this kind of inequity.

 

In protecting their own kids, parents with power and resources would be protecting all kids.

 

But this isn’t the goal of privatization promoters. They don’t care about what’s best for children. They’re looking out for what’s best for the businesses running the privatized schools.

 

So what have we learned?

 

School vouchers do not increase test scores.

 

And when that excuse behind the entire school privatization movement is exposed as nonsense, opportunists have no problem using racism and prejudice to defend their industry.


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

WANT A SIGNED COPY?

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The Alt Right Has a Friend in Common Core

 

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Let’s say you’re a modern-day hipster Nazi.

 

 

You’re bummed out.

 

 

No one wants to hang out with you because of your bald head and your red suspenders and your commitment to the ideals of a defeated and disgraced totalitarian regime.

 

 

What are you to do?

 

 

REBRAND, son!

 

 

It’s simple.

 

 

No more National Socialist German Workers Party! That sounds too pinko!

 

 

Now you’re simply a member of the Alt Right!

 

 

It’s not racist! You’re just committed to traditional attitudes and values — if those traditional attitudes and values come from 1945 Berlin!

 

 

Heck, you don’t even have to call yourself Alt Right.

 

 

You can call yourself a White Identitarian.

 

You aren’t over-concerned with any one side of the political spectrum or other. You just strongly identify with whiteness — and by extension increasing the political power of white people at the expense of all others.

 

 

That’s all.

 

 

It should be obvious that this isn’t merely rebranding. It’s propaganda.

 

In today’s fast paced information age – where every fact is merely a Google away – that can be hard to get away with – UNLESS

 

 

Unless you already have a readymade tool to protect propaganda from the kind of informed critical thought that can pop it like a bubble. Something to insolate the ignorance and keep out the enlightened analysis.

 

 

I am, of course, talking about Common Core.

 

 

What!?

 

 

How does Common Core have anything to do with white nationalism?

 

 

Common Core is just a set of academic standards for what should be taught in public schools adopted by 42 of 50 states.

 

 

Academic standards aren’t political. Are they?

 

Actually, they are. Quite political.

 

Just take a look at how the standards came to be adopted in the first place.

 

The Obama administration bribed and coerced the states to adopt these standards before many of them were even done being written.

 

 

Hold your horses. The Obama administration!? That doesn’t sound exactly like a friend of the Third Reich.

 

And it wasn’t.

 

 

It was a friend to big business.

 

When first created, these standards weren’t the result of a real educational need, nor were they written by classroom educators and psychologists. They were written by the standardized testing industry as a ploy to get federal, state and local governments to recommit to standardized testing through buying new tests, new text books, new software and new remediation materials.

 

 

It was a bipartisan effort supported by the likes of Obama, the Clintons and Bill Gates on the left and Jeb Bush, Betsy DeVos and Bobby Jindal on the right.

 

 

After Obama’s success pushing them down our collective throats, many Republicans vocally decried the standards – often while quietly supporting them.

 

That’s why after all this time very few state legislatures have repealed them despite being controlled predominantly by Republicans.

 

Okay, so what does this have to do with the Alt Right?

 

 

People like Steve Bannon and Donald Trump are engaged in redefining the conservative movement. Instead of circulating ideas with a merely racist and classist undertone, they want to make those subtleties more explicit.

 

Most aren’t about to hop out of the closet and declare themselves open Nazis or members of the Hitler fan club, but they want to make it clear exactly how wunderbar the Fuhrer’s ideals are with a wink and a smirk.

 

For instance, Trump’s campaign slogan: Make America Great Again.

 

 

When exactly was America great? When white people had unchallenged political and social power and minorities and people of color knew their place. That’s when.

 

 

This is obvious to some of us, but we face a real obstacle making it obvious to others.

 

And that obstacle is Common Core.

 

 

A generation of Americans have been brought up with these shoddy academic standards that don’t develop critical thinking but actively suppress it.

 

 

For instance, take the absurd ravings of the Core’s chief writer – and current head of the College Board – David Coleman.

 

 

Going counter to the thinking of nearly every expert on literacy, he emphasized cold or close reading over reading text in context.

 

 

In particular, he said:

 

 

“Do you know the two most popular forms of writing in the American high school today?…It is either the exposition of a personal opinion or the presentation of a personal matter. The only problem, forgive me for saying this so bluntly, the only problem with these two forms of writing is as you grow up in this world you realize people don’t really give a shit about what you feel or think… It is a rare working environment that someone says, “Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.”

 

 

Later, he added:

 

 

“The most popular 3rd grade standard in American today…is what is the difference between a fable, a myth, a tale, and a legend? The only problem with that question is that no one knows what the difference is and no one probably cares what the difference is either.”

 

And finally:

 

 

“This close reading approach forces students to rely exclusively on the text instead of privileging background knowledge, and levels the playing field for all students.”

 

 

However, Coleman was dead wrong on all counts.

 

 

What you think and feel IS important. The requirements of the corporate world ARE NOT the only reasons to teach something. Being able to distinguish between similar but different concepts IS important. And context is ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL to understanding!

 

For instance, today’s spin doctor Nazis soon realized that you can’t go goose stepping down main street blindly espousing how much better it is to be white — better than, say, being black or Jewish.

 

 

But you can hang up posters in college campuses that say the same sort of thing in a cutesy, passive aggressive way. For instance: “It’s okay to be white.”

 

If we look just at the text, as Coleman advises, we see a rather innocuous statement.

 

 

There’s nothing racist here. It’s just a simple statement that being white is also acceptable.

 

 

However, if we add back the context, we find an indirect racial undertone.

 

These posters weren’t put up willy nilly. They were hung on college campuses where white nationalists wearing MAGA hats were recruiting. They were pasted over Black Lives Matter posters, accompanying drawings of Donald Trump.

 

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In context, then, this statement doesn’t just mean “It’s okay to be white.” It means “It’s okay to be pro-white supremacist, to be pro-white power.”

 

 

And that brings up two other examples.

 

 

MAGA – Make America Great Again.

 

Take it out of context and it’s innocuous. It just means to increase the abstract greatness of the country to what it was at some unspecified time in the past.

 

However, if we put that statement in the context of the Trump campaign and its xenophobia, homophobia, Islamophobia, transphobia, etc. — then it’s meaning becomes clear. As noted above, it’s an ode to white power and nostalgia for greater white privilege.

 

 

And “Black Lives Matter”? Why do many of these same Identitarians take exception to that slogan and the movement behind it?

 

 

The Alt Right says BLM is reverse racist. They claim the name BLM means “ONLY black lives matter.”

 

 

Context tells us differently.

 

 

The BLM group was formed in response to the indiscriminate murder of people of color and those who committed these crimes not behind held accountable. Officer Darren Wilson not indicted for killing Michael Brown. Officer Daniel Pantaleo not indicted for killing Eric Garner. Officers Timothy Loehmann and Frank Garmback not indicted for killing Tamir Rice. And on and on.

 

 

Yet the Alt Right is allowed to mischaracterize a simple call for peace as if it identified a terrorist organization.

 

 

Why? Because context has been banished from the building.

 

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I’m not saying that Common Core has caused these problems, but it has allowed them.

 

I doubt this is what Coleman, who is Jewish, intended.

 

 

But whenever you water down critical thinking – even if it’s for purely practical ends – you end up hurting everyone.

 

 

The best societies praise intellect and tolerance.

 

 

For all their faults, our founders knew this. That’s why they emphasized the importance of public education.

 

 

If we had ensured everyone in the country had access to the best possible education, this modern Nazi subculture wouldn’t be able to make as much headway as it has.

 

 

This is yet another way that our obsession with unrestrained capitalism, neoliberalism and plutocracy has put us on a road that may end in fascism.

White Kids Need Black History, Too

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It’s Black History Month.

 

That means your local public school is pulling out all the stops.

 

We’re making murals of artists from the Harlem Renaissance. We’re jamming to jazz, blues, R&B and hip hop. We’re reading excerpts from the “Autobiography of Malcolm X.” We’re writing journals about what it means to be the people we are and to come from wherever we come from.

 

In short, we’re having a lot of fun.

 

But each child responds differently to the siren call of Black History – especially when the person making the call is a white teacher, like me.

 

Today I asked my classes of 7th grade students – most of whom are impoverished and/or minorities – “Would you like to talk about some Black History?”

 

And the responses I got were all over the place.

 

Some of the children enthusiastically took to their feet with a robust “Yeah!”

 

Others nodded. Some were merely quiet as if they didn’t think I were asking a real question. And some honestly ventured “No.”

 

In one class, a white student got so upset at the suggestion we spend valuable class time on Black History that he fell to the floor and almost hide under the table.

 

I’ll admit I was somewhat shocked by that.

 

What was he so reticent about? I mean I know the kid. He loves black culture. We all do. What does he have against learning about black people?

 

He’s a big heavy metal fan. What’s heavy metal without Jimi Hendrix?

 

He loves standup comedy. What’s standup comedy without Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy or – heck – even Steve Harvey?

 

And didn’t I see him the other day watching the preview to Marvel’s “Black Panther” with baited breath?

 

“What’s wrong?” I asked him on the floor.

 

“Mr. Singer, I really don’t want to learn about Black History.”

 

And it was on the tip of my tongue, but I didn’t say it – “Dude, if anyone needs to learn Black History, it’s you.”

 

I patted him on the back and told him he’d survive. But I let him stay on the floor.

 

Then we moved on.

 

We watched the video for the song “Glory” by Common and John Legend just to set the mood.

 

The kids were almost hypnotized. I’m not sure if it was the images from the movie “Selma,” the gorgeous singing and piano playing or the unexpected joy of hearing someone rapping in class.

 

When it was over, most of them couldn’t wait to talk about a few well-chosen people of color.

 

We started with the black power fist from the 1968 Olympics, talked about Tommie Smith and John Carlos, why they did what they did and even how it related to modern day protests like those initiated by Colin Kaepernick.

 

This got kids asking all kinds of questions. We talked about the origin of the slave trade, the science behind melanin and skin color, police brutality, the prison industrial complex, and (in one class) we even took a deep dive into the lyrics of the National Anthem to discover why some people find it to be racist.

 

In short, it would be difficult to find a more productive 20-30 minutes. Kids were engaged and thoughtful, many looking up further details on their iPads as the bell rang and they left the room.

 

All except the white child on the floor.

 

He had participated in the discussion – reluctantly. But he hadn’t moved from his cave.

 

“Can I talk to you, Mr. Singer?” he said.

 

I told him, “Sure.” And he went on to tell me the kinds of things his grandparents say about black people.

 

He told me about their virulent opposition to Kaepernick, how they though black people were just whining about nothing and that racism had been over for fifty years.

 

It’s a hard position to be put in by a student.

 

You don’t want to contradict their folks, but you can’t let untruths pass by either.

 

I asked him what he thought about it. He wasn’t so sure.

 

So I told him just to think about what we had said. I asked him to keep an open mind.

 

For instance, I said, if Kaepernick shouldn’t take a knee during the National Anthem, when should he protest?

 

“How about with a sign in the street?” he said.

 

To which I responded that black people have done that and been told that was just as unacceptable.

 

By this time another student came back into the room and walked up to us. She was a white girl who’s usually very quiet.

 

“Mr. Singer, thank you for talking with us about all that stuff today,” she said.

 

I told her she was welcome and asked her what she thought about it.

 

“I just wish all this stuff wasn’t happening,” she said.

 

I asked her to elaborate.

 

“I mean that black power fist thing you showed us, that was like a hundred years ago.”

 

“Fifty years,” I corrected and she repeated me.

 

“And it’s still happening,” she said. “I just don’t understand why. Why can’t we all just live in peace?”

 

I smiled at her and the boy who had been quietly listening.

 

We spoke a bit further and they walked off together in deep conversation.

 

There are many great reasons to talk about Black History.

 

For children of color, it shows them that this nation wasn’t built entirely by white people, that they too are a part of America, that they have much to be proud of and to aspire to.

 

But that’s not the only reason to teach it.

 

Black History is important for white kids, too.

 

It teaches them that the world isn’t just about them, that we’re stronger together, that our differences aren’t something to be ashamed of but something to be celebrated.

 

But especially white children need to learn about their responsibilities as white people.

 

They didn’t start racism. Neither did I. But it has been practiced in our names and we have benefited from it.

 

If we don’t want to be a part of it, we need to recognize that and take a stand against it.

 

I acknowledge that’s an uncomfortable truth for middle school students. And it’s something I can’t simply sit my kids down and discursively tell them.

 

But in generating these conversations between children of different backgrounds, ethnicities and upbringings, I think it provides the chance for them to come to their own conclusions.

 

It’s a dangerous place to be.

 

Allowing kids to think for themselves means allowing them to come to conclusions you might not agree with.

 

The boy from my class might come in next week further convinced of his grandparents’ prejudice. Or he might not. But I suspect he will have thought about it some.

 

That’s all I can do.

 

As a group, white people could use more of that honest reflection. As adults, we become fixed in our thinking and rarely have the bravery of giving something a second thought.

 

But children’s characters are still being formed.

 

Conversations like this one give me hope for the future.

 

Black History is not just about the past. It’s about where we’ll go in the future.

 

Moreover, it’s not just important for black people. White people need exposure to it, too.

 

I know I do.

White Privilege, Public Schools and Ugly Christmas Sweaters

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This is one of those stories that’s been bothering me for a while.

 

I won’t say it happened recently or at my current district, but after teaching in the public school system for almost two decades, you see a lot that most people never hear about.

 

So it was almost Christmas break and my middle school students were shuffling in to homeroom.

 

One of the girls turns to me and says, “Mr. Singer, am I okay to wear this?”

 

Hold up. I teach English.

 

I am not a fashionista or even particularly clothes conscious. So this question took me by surprise.

 

In the split second it took me to comprehend what she was asking and focus my eyes on the girl, I was expecting she might have on something too revealing or perhaps had an inappropriate slogan on her shirt or a marijuana leaf.

 

But no. She had on a simple blue long sleeve sweater with a red Superman symbol in the middle.

 

I was about to say that what she was wearing was perfectly acceptable, but then I remembered the dress code.

 

It was a new directive from the school board, and it was – frankly – a horror show.

 

We used to have a perfectly fine dress code that only made students refrain from clothing that was dangerous, inappropriate or sexually explicit. But then someone on the board heard about a neighboring district that modeled itself after a private school academy – so they had to do the same thing here.

 

It was beyond stupid. Only certain colors were allowed. Only certain kinds of clothing. No designs on t-shirts. And on and on.

 

I frankly paid no attention to it. But administrators did.

 

Though they rarely punished students for being late to class, improperly using cell phones or dropping an f- bomb, they swept through the building every morning to make sure every student was undeniably in dress code – to the letter.

 

And if a child was wearing a verboten item of clothing! Heaven forbid! That child was sent to in-school suspension for the remainder of the day unless a parent brought a change of clothing.

 

The same students would sit in “The Box” for days or weeks while their education was in suspended animation because they just couldn’t figure out which clothes the school board considered to be appropriate. (Or more likely they wanted a vacation from class.)

 

So when this girl – let’s call her Amy – asked me about her outfit, it was a pretty serious question.

 

And a difficult one.

 

 

Normally the Superman symbol would violate dress code, but I remembered that since it was only a few days before the holiday break, as an extra treat, students had been allowed to wear an “ugly Christmas sweater.” It was either that or conform to the usual dress code.

 

 

So all around me children were wearing fluffy red and green yarn creations sporting snowmen, Christmas trees and Santas.

 

But Amy was wearing a big red S.

 

By any definition, that’s not a Christmas sweater, and if the administrators wanted to take a hard line on the rules – and they usually did – she was out of dress code.

 

I told her what I thought. I said I had no personal problem with it and wouldn’t report her to the principal, but if she had a change of clothes, she might want to consider using them.

 

She didn’t.

 

And even if she did, it was too late. An administrator barreled into the room and proceeded to examine each child’s clothing.

 

Amy took her backpack and put it on backwards so that it covered her chest and the offending S.

 

Even that didn’t work.

 

When the administrator got to her, he asked to see what was under her backpack. She sighed and showed him.

 

But miraculously he said, “Okay,” and moved on.

 

Amy and I both breathed a sigh of relief. She was saved and wouldn’t have to spend the rest of the day in our school’s version of prison.

 

Before we could get too comfortable though, the hushed silence was broken when the administrator started screaming at another girl in the back of the room.

 

“That is not in dress code, and you know that’s not a Christmas sweater!” he screamed, cords standing out on his neck.

 

“How many times have I told you, but you think you can get away with anything…” and he continued to yell at her as she stomped out into the hall and presumably her locker.

 

And as she left, I saw that he was right. The girl he was yelling at – let’s call her Jada – was not wearing a Christmas sweater. She was wearing a plain gray and white flannel shirt. I don’t know how or why, but I guess that violated the dress code.

 

And for this offense she spent the day in in-school suspension.

 

I guess that’s not really Earth shattering, but it really bothered me.

 

It just seemed so unfair.

 

Jada was by no means a perfect student. But neither was Amy.

 

They both frequently broke rules and did pretty much what they wanted. They both could get an attitude, be catty, and mean.

 

However there was one distinguishing difference between them that immediately jumped to your attention – the color of their skins.

 

Amy was lily white. Jada was chocolate brown.

 

Now I’m not saying this administrator – who was white, by the way – was a virulent racist. I don’t know what went on inside his mind or heart.

 

In fact, I’d always thought of him as a fair-minded person who did his best to be impartial and treat students equally.

 

However, here was a case where he got it dead wrong.

 

Did he let Amy go because she was white? I don’t know. Did he come down on Jada because she was black? I don’t know.

 

My guess is that he was moving in a fog. He went to at least half of all the homerooms in the building checking each child to make sure they were in dress code. For some reason, when he looked at Amy, what he saw didn’t set off alarm bells. When he looked at Jada, it did.

 

Perhaps he remembered that Amy’s dad was a local cop and he didn’t relish having to call the police station to tell the officer that his daughter needed a change of clothes. Perhaps when he looked at Jada he was reminded of all the times she had been written up or defiant.

 

I say again – I don’t know.

 

However, there is little doubt in my mind that this is an example of white privilege – in action if not in intent.

 

The administrator gave Amy the benefit of the doubt because of her whiteness and came down on Jada because of her blackness.

 

This may not have been at the forefront of his mind – it probably wasn’t – but I believe that somewhere in his subconscious, racial attitudes and preconceptions played a part in this snap decision.

 

If I had taken him aside and mentioned it to him, perhaps he would have reconsidered. But probably not since I was just a subordinate.

 

Perhaps later after school over a few drinks he might have thought better of it.

 

 

But this kind of thing happens all the time.

 

White people make snap decisions about people of different races based on these same shadowy, unexamined racial preconceptions.

 

And in each case, the beneficiary is invariably the white person and the loser is the black person.

 

That’s white privilege. People like me and Amy get the benefit of the doubt, while people like Jada and the majority of my other students don’t.

 

It’s something we, white people, need to acknowledge.

 

I’ll say one more thing about dress codes.

 

I accept that they are necessary in a public school setting.

 

It’s difficult to teach if students parts are hanging out, if they’re displaying coded messages on their chests, have advertising or rude statements on their clothing.

 

I once reported a girl for wearing a shirt that said “WTF.” She didn’t realize that I knew what the acronym meant. Another time I reported a student for wearing flip-flops. They were dangerous because kids could trip and fall but also the incessant slapping of plastic against heels drives me bonkers.

 

 

But other than that, I rarely get involved in dress codes.

 

Frankly, I think too strict a restriction on what students wear and too stringent enforcement of such policies does more harm than good.

 

It’s the school equivalent of broken windows policing. Instead of lowering crime by cracking down on the little stuff, too punitive severity in a dress code teaches kids that rules are arbitrary. Moreover, it creates fear and distrust of authority figures.

 

And – intentionally or not – it is a mechanism for enforcing white privilege.

 

Anytime I’ve had to oversee in-school suspension, there have been a disproportionate number of students of color in there for dress code violations than white students.

 

I know that’s not scientific, but it’s the data that I have.

 

In fact, I strongly suspect that discipline based on dress code enforcement is rarely reported to the state or federal government because it would show a major uptick in discipline against black students. It would further prove that minorities are written up more than white kids and get more strict punishments.

 

Standardized dress is as bad as standardized tests. We shouldn’t demand all our children dress alike and conform to a nonsensical norm.

 

Especially when the norm is whiteness.

 

Ugly Christmas sweaters, indeed!

 

I mean how white can you get?

Black Progress Does Not Come At White Expense

People of different races hold hands as they gather on the Arthur Ravenel Jr. bridge in Charleston

 

Relax, white people.

 

Take a breath.

 

It’s okay.

 

America survived its first black President.

 

You didn’t have to freak out and elect a neo-authoritarian-pseudo-populist!

 

Holy Crap!

 

Donald Fucking Trump!

 

Talk about an over-reaction!

 

But I get it.

 

You’re scared.

 

You’re used to the faces of authority being white and male. Yet for eight whole years you had to endure Barack Obama – a far from perfect neoliberal politician, who none-the-less gave the U.S. the most stable two terms in decades.

 

And then you were asked to vote for a white face (sigh!) that unfortunately was attached to breasts and a vagina! Oh the horror!

 

Seriously, white people. Sit the fuck down and listen to some sense.

 

You don’t need white supremacy.

 

You don’t need male supremacy.

 

You can function just fine in a world where people of color and women have the same rights as you and yours.

 

I know. Sounds crazy! But it’s true.

 

Think about it.

 

Let’s say unarmed black people were no longer killed by police at a higher rate than white people.

 

Would that hurt you?

 

I don’t think so. In fact, it might actually help, because then we could focus on the fact that police in this country kill far too many unarmed people – of any race – than they should. In most countries, they make lots of arrests but kill almost no one. Here, they kill hundreds – thousands!

 

We need to demilitarize law enforcement. We need new training programs that emphasize de-escalation of violence – not a shoot-first-ask questions-later mentality.

 

And it’s hard to focus on that when racism and prejudice get in the way. We need to fix racism first. Only then can we address the root issue.

 

Here’s another example.

 

Let’s say we had truly integrated public schools.

 

No run down under-resourced schools that just happen to serve mostly students of color and yet across town we’ve got the Taj Mahal with marble columns and a broad curriculum that just happens to serve the best and whitest.

 

Instead we’d have schools that serve everyone – a broad mix of cultures, races and ethnicities all properly resourced and offering a broad range of curriculum and extra-curricular activities.

 

Would that hurt you?

 

I don’t think so. In fact, it would actually help because every child would get what he or she needs to succeed. Crime would drop, and even prejudiced and racist attitudes would begin to disappear because it’s harder to hold xenophobic views about people who you actually know because you’ve learned everything with them since you were in kindergarten.

 

There’s one thing you have to understand. Racism isn’t an ideology. It’s a sickness. It’s a virus that blinds people to real truths about the world and makes them more prone to holding views that are just plain wrong.

 

The same with sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia and a plethora of modern day maladies that should have gone the way of small pox and polio.

 

Inoculating yourself against prejudice will not hurt you. Living in a society where everyone has the same rights doesn’t impinge on those you already have.

 

Yes, it will mean dismantling white supremacy. But that’s a good thing. You don’t really want the world to prize you just because of the color of your skin.

 

Do you?

 

Do you want to get into college just because you’re white?

 

Do you want to get a job just because of the hue of your epidermis?

 

Do you want the sum total of your value as a human being to be dependent on the way light reflects off your skin?

 

I don’t.

 

I’m white, and I don’t want that for me or my posterity.

 

I want people to judge me for me – not some preconceived notion of who I am based on culturally received generalities and the amount of melanin in my outermost cells.

 

Fuck that shit.

 

I’m me. And if that’s not good enough for anyone they can just go and jump in the river.

 

I don’t need white supremacy. And I don’t want it.

 

I refuse to sit back and accept things I don’t deserve while others are denied what they do deserve just so I can get some free stuff.

 

I refuse to let my society continue to be built on a foundation of prejudice and cruelty.

 

We’re all human beings. It’s time we treated everyone as such.

 

That means everyone gets the same human rights.

 

To paraphrase Oprah – YOU get human rights, and YOU get human rights and EVERYONE gets human rights!

 

For white people that means losing a certain sense of normativity.

 

White will no longer be considered normal. Neither will male.

 

It’s just another way to be – no better or worse than any other.

 

That doesn’t mean being ashamed of your whiteness. Hell. We can revel in it.

 

Imagine reconnecting with all the messy ethnicities we’ve plastered over to claim this homogenous white overclass! Imagine being Polish again, and Czech and German and Scandinavian and so many other nationalities that we barely connect with because we don’t want to draw attention to ourselves as anything other than white — That’s me. Just white. Plain white. Nothing to see here. White.

 

We’ve had to sacrifice a whole lot to get that status. But we don’t have to keep sacrificing. We can be who we are, too.

 

The Alt-Right Nazis are out there in the streets chanting, “You will not replace us.”

 

How about we replace ourselves.

 

Why don’t we redefine who we are as – who we are.

 

Not homogenous. Not white. But specific human beings belonging to various cultural, ethnic and religious groups and societies.

 

Human beings all taking part in the symphony of homo sapia, engaged in a robust love of all things people and a recognition that all people are human.

 

Think for a moment what that truly means.

 

Take a deep breath.

 

Let it in. Let it out.

 

It means letting go of this irrational fear that anti-racism is anti-white.

 

So, let me say it again – no. Black progress will not come at white expense. Nor will female progress or anyone’s progress.

 

Because we go through this life together.

 

We are one race. We are one people – though we are also many – and we will survive or perish together.

 

Take my hand and let’s build a better world for all of us.

 

Let us all benefit.

 

Let us all progress.

 

Together.

Surprised by Charlottesville? You Haven’t Been Paying Attention

 Charlottesville-neo-Nazis-alt-right

 

America is a funny place.

 

On the one hand, we’re one of the first modern Democracies, a product of Enlightenment thinking and unabashed pluralism and cultural diversity.

 

On the other, we’ve built our entire society on a cast system that is the basis of our economics, politics and cultural mores.

 

We’re the land of Benjamin Franklin, the Wright brothers, Duke Ellington, Toni Morrison, and Sandra Day O’Connor.

 

But we’re also the land of Andrew Jackson, Jefferson Davis, Charles Lindberg, Bull Connor, and David Duke.

 

Tolerance and love are as American as apple pie. But so are racism, sexism, prejudice and anti-Semitism.

 

“It is not as though the United States is the land of opportunity, or a hypocritical racist state,” says sociologist John Skrentny. “It is one or both, depending on context.”

 

 

So this week when people saw Nazis marching openly in Charlottesville, Virginia, the only thing that was really so surprising about it was how surprised so many people seem to be.

 

“That’s not my America!” they seem to be saying.

 

To which I reply, “Hell, yes, it is! Where have you been the last 241 years!?”

 

We base our salary scales on genitalia! You think we’re really so freaking advanced!?

 

The shade of your epidermis determines the likelihood of police arresting you, charging you, even killing you regardless of your having a weapon, whether you resist arrest or simply lay on the ground with your hands in the air.

 

Regardless of the evidence, if you’re convicted, the length and severity of the sentence are all partially determined by the amount of melanin in your skin. The cultural derivation of the name on your resume determines the likelihood of employers calling you back for an interview. In many places, your rights are legislated based on whom you love.

 

Our schools are segregated. Our taxes are levied most heavily on those with the least means to pay. Our prisons house more black people today than did slave plantations in the 1860s.

 

Yet a bunch of white dudes carrying Tiki torches shouting hate filled puns (“Jew will not replace us”? Seriously?) somehow doesn’t compute?

 

Come on.

 

This is America.

 

Racism and prejudice are not threats smuggled in past border security. They’ve always been here. At least since Europeans came offering trade and peace with one hand and guns and smallpox with the other.

 

The land of the free was stolen from the Native Americans. Our national wealth was built on the backs of slaves. Our laws and electoral system were built to empower one group at the expense of others.

 

Yet reformations in this process are rarely met with celebration. Instead of memorializing the end of slavery, we embrace the institution with fond remembrance.

 

Nor did prejudice and bigotry end when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, after Brown vs. Board, the Voting Rights Act, Freedom Rides, sit-ins or civil rights protests.

 

America has always been a place hostile to the under privileged, the second sex, religious dissenters, the brown skinned.

 

At most, we had become less confrontational in recent years, but we never really changed our core values, our social structures, who has power and who does not.

 

During my lifetime, people started to equate having a black President with the end of racism. Somehow they ignored the everyday reality for most black people.

 

They ignored the constant prejudice against the poor, the continued bigotry against LGBTs, the Islamophobia, the increase in hate crimes.

 

If there has been any change during the past eight months, it hasn’t been with the degree to which Americans are prejudiced. It’s the degree with which we’re willing to hide it.

 

Whereas before racists would claim to be colorblind, that their actions were completely devoid of racial bias, today they sigh and repeat the dusty slogans of Jim Crow Alabama or 1930s Berlin.

 

And somehow people are actually surprised about this.

 

It’s because too many of us have swallowed the lies about living in a post-racial society.

 

You thought we were beyond all that. It was a brave new world, morning in America, and we were finally treating everyone equally – unless you looked at what we were actually doing.

 

Mainly this is the reaction you get from white people. They rub their eyes and just can’t believe it.

 

You don’t see this too often from people of color, Muslims, LGBTs and some Jews. Why? Because they never had the luxury to ignore it.

 

That’s what we white folks have been doing since the beginning.

 

Whenever these issues come up, we have a knee jerk reaction to minimize it.

 

Things aren’t that bad. You’re just blowing it out of proportion.

 

But, no. I’m not.

 

That’s why you’re so damn shocked, son.

 

You haven’t been looking reality square in the face.

 

So when we’ve got undeniable video footage of angry white males (mostly) marching through Southern streets brandishing swastikas and assault rifles, it catches many white folks off guard.

 

They’re not prepared for it – because they haven’t been doing their homework.

 

We’ve been living in a bubble. Especially those living in major metropolitan areas.

 

That kind of thing never happens around here, right?

 

Of course it does!

 

Just because you live above the Mason Dixon Line doesn’t mean you’re safe.

 

You have a black friend, you like authentic Mexican food and you laugh while watching “Modern Family.”

 

But you haven’t opened your eyes to the reality outside your door.

 

You send your kids to private school or live in a mostly upper class white district. You have an exclusive gym membership that keeps out the riff-raff. You work in an office where that one token person of color makes you feel sophisticated and open-minded.

 

You’ve got to wake up.

 

You’ve got to educate yourself about race and class in America.

 

Because those people you saw in Charlottesville aren’t an anomaly.

 

They are an authentic part of this country, and if you don’t like it, you have to do something about it.

 

You can’t hide behind denial.

 

You have to take a stand, pick a side, and be counted.

 

Because one day soon, the torches will be outside your door.

 

You have to decide now – do you want to brandish or extinguish them?