Okay, I survived Halloween.
One thing you might not know about me is that I loathe Halloween. It wasn’t always that way though — I used to love it as a kiddo and as a young adult. Back in the day, I grew up in this amazing neighborhood and, every October 31st, everyone gathered together and trick-or-treated well into the night (well, I mean, “well into the night” was like 8pm…. we were just kids!).
I realize the moment when I hated Halloween. It was when I began working in student affairs and a big part of my job was helping peers and the community deepen their awareness of differences. And, every Halloween, some genius (usually drunk on something) would dress up as an offensive racial stereotype: sexy Geisha, a taco (and then run around in a “Mexican” accent), and, my favorite of all, blackface.
Urgh. I f’ing hate Halloween.
Those folks ruined it for me. Because soon enough, for me, Halloween was no longer about candy or community. It was now about me being “that person” who had to tell you about being “that person.” Thanks a lot.
There are so many aspects of my work that I love, particularly when I get to help others work through stereotypes and biases and prejudices. And, around this time of year, I get lots of requests from others who are seeking some help in having difficult conversations with their families, teachers, peers, and friends about stereotypes. The most common? Yup, Halloween for sure. The second most common? Thanksgiving.
I said it: THANKSGIVING.
“Why Thanksgiving, Liza?”
Yes, why Thanksgiving indeed…..
Does this sound familiar:
As we prepare for our unit on celebrating Thanksgiving, we’d like for you to help your child with a project. Please send your child to school with a paper shopping bag. Throughout the next few weeks, we will be learning about Indians and Pilgrims and how they came together to celebrate the feast of Thanksgiving. We will be talking about joy and kindness and how important is to be nice to each other, just like the Pilgrims and Indians were to each other. For our final celebration, we will have students decorate their paper bags to wear as Indian vests in our annual Pilgrims and Indians parade. We look forward to learning about how important this holiday is as we celebrate coming together and being thankful! From, your child’s teacher”
People usually are reaching out to me because they a) can’t believe their teacher sent this home; b) they know history and are well aware that the Pilgrims and Indians (or, ahem, Indigenous People) were not friends - you know, murder and disease and all that; and c) paper bags? seriously?
People also write to me saying that they are worried about coming off as “that person” — that person who is seen as a total buzzkill or that person who is too sensitive.
I get it.
So, what’s your ask?
Well, folks have been asking what they can do. What would an email to the teacher look like? How do I balance wanting to put a deathly end to this activity without a) hurting the teacher’s feelings and b) not coming off as a total jerk.
Yes folks. It’s possible.
So, here you go. My gift to you. I write this from both the lens as a former classroom teacher, as a diversity and inclusion practitioner, and as a parent. Feel free to use this, tweak this, edit it to your own school and community. But, do something. Please don’t stand idly by when you get an assignment like this. It perpetuates very problematic - and historically inaccurate - stereotypes and cements these “first messages” into your child’s experiences. We owe it to our kids to tell them the truth and to not teach them false narratives.
First, thank you so much for the communication you’ve been sending home regarding my (child’s) progress and assignments. I appreciate hearing about what is happening in the classroom and updates about the curriculum and learning opportunities.
Recently, you sent home an assignment for (child) to deepen the learning experience about the Pilgrims and Indigenous People of this land. And, I hope you receive this email in the spirit that I am writing it — one of wanting to make sure that all of our children are experiencing validation and sense of belonging in our classrooms and schools.
I have some concern about the request being made for my child to engage in an art project in which they are asked to “dress like an Indian”. As we know, clothing and symbols have such significant meaning in the lives of Native people. And, I’m uncomfortable with the activity of my child — who does not identify as Native American — “dressing like an Indian” in this way. I have deep respect for the culture and traditions of Native people, and this makes me uncomfortable to have my child create clothing in this way out of a paper shopping bag. I believe we can still teach students about the importance of clothing and the significance of symbols without asking them to culturally appropriate (dress like) Native cultures.
I am also very interested in making sure that my child understands the very difficult truth about the relationship between Pilgrims and Native people. When I was growing up, I certainly was taught that these two groups were “kind, friendly, and worked together.” But, as I learned more about this time in history, it is clear that this was not historically accurate. Because I want to do better for my child than was done for me, I am committed to not repeating that same story to them. I believe that our children are smart and can handle knowing that these two groups were not treated equally. When the Pilgrims came, they took the land of Native people, and frankly, would have died without the support of Native people. I have also made it so clear to my own child that in 2018, our country still struggles with providing equal rights for Native Americans. Therefore, I find it challenging to have takeaways that the relationship between Pilgrims and Indigenous people was of love and kindness. I want my child to know that we, in this country, have not be fair and kind to Native people, and that we still see this today.
(Teacher), I appreciate that this email is filled with concern, and I hope you are receiving it in the spirit that I am intending. I believe in the power of education and the absolute crucial role you play in the lives of young people. I also deeply respect you, and that’s why I’m writing this. My child looks up to you as their teacher and, because of that, believes everything that you say, do, teach, and share. And, because of that, I need my child to know the truth about this time in our history.
Our children are strong, resilient and deserve to know about our nation’s history. I’m a believer in hands-on projects and really neat ways to do creative activities as a family - so I’m grateful that you are thinking creatively in this way!
I know you already have so much on your plate between lesson planning, daily work, and even having to read emails from parents like me! I don’t want to just complain without providing some resources or ways to think differently about this project. So, I have provided a few examples here:
“Teaching Thanksgiving in a Socially Responsible Way” is a good read and has some links to great activities to use in the classroom: https://www.tolerance.org/magazine/teaching-thanksgiving-in-a-socially-responsible-way
“Thanksgiving: Exploring Perspectives” article that provides good perspectives from Native people about Thanksgiving. It also includes lots of discussion questions that are easy to adapt: https://www.morningsidecenter.org/teachable-moment/lessons/thanksgiving-exploring-perspectives
A blog post by Dr. Liza Talusan about family activities during the Thanksgiving break. http://www.lizatalusan.com/to-loosen-the-mind/2017/11/14/family-practices-during-the-long-weekend
(Teacher), please know how much I appreciate your communication home, your willingness to go above and beyond as a teacher, and the hard work that you do each and every day. Thank you for reading this, and I welcome a chance to talk in person or over the phone if you have time.
So, I’m updating here. I want you to know that this did happen to me, too. And, I used a similar approach and it was a lovely learning process.
However, you may need to get a bit dirtier if the message isn’t quite clear. You may need to highlight that it is problematic that we dress up as “Indians” but would never conceive (I think?) of dressing up as other cultures. For example, if I wanted to really drive home a point, I’d include, “So, I see that you don’t want to budge on this issue of our children dressing up as Native Americans. Okay. Well, I’m curious. When we get to Black History Month, what kinds of materials should I prepare? I’m guessing you’ll be sending home an activity where I dress up my child as a slave and paint their skin black and have them sing slave songs during a morning musical presentation? Or, how about Asian Heritage Month? How much tape would you like me to use to pull the corner of their eyes back to get that perfect slant? What sorts of accents should we start practicing now? OH? Oh, we won’t be doing those things because they are offensive? Ah. I see. So, help me understand, again, why you want me to dress up my child as a Native American? Yeah. Thanks.”
I know. I’m an a-hole. But, some folks just won’t get it the first time.