Talking about Class and Culture

In the landscape of identity issues such as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender and gender identity, family structure, religion, and ability/disAbility, I often hear from colleagues, teachers, students and school leaders that there is one topic that seems almost too difficult and taboo to address: socioeconomic status.

The other day, a teacher emailed me to ask how to be proactive in setting up a classroom environment that honors and respects the diverse socioeconomic spectrum. Her concern, much like of other teachers, is that we are about to go on Spring Break. For some of our families, Spring Break is a time of travel and leisure. Some of our families will travel internationally to see family, friends, or to return to a favorite vacation spot or home. Some of our families will stay home, be cared for by family or extended family, or be engaged in a camp or day-care learning environment. And, some of our families will find creative ways to get through two full weeks of vacation by taking turns off from work, bringing children to their work place, finding sitters here and there, or setting up play dates during the work hours so their children will not be home alone. This range of experiences exists at Park School, and this also exists at many other schools in our country. 

This teacher was wondering: "How do I engage the students, in an age appropriate way, to be excited about the break from school while also acknowledging that this is a conversation about privilege and access?" 

Truth is, I stared at her email from about five minutes. I began to draft an email. Then I deleted it. I tried again. Then I highlighted whole sections and cut them out. Before I knew it, twenty minutes had passed and I was still down to "Dear ____, what a great question."

To buy myself some time allow myself the space to respond thoughtfully, I promised this teacher a blog post. 

Truth is, I have stared at this blank screen for about fifteen minutes. I began to draft a post. Then I deleted it. I tried again. Then I highlighted whole sections and ... well... 

You get the picture.

To me, just like race, ethnicity, religion, faith, sexual orientation -- class is an identity. Class isn't just about how much or how little we have; class is also about how we understand money, how we learn about money and wealth, what our relationship is to money and wealth, and what those factors mean to us. Class is about how we behave, how we relate to, and how we manage conversations about ourselves and our earliest messages about class and identity. Like other cultural identifiers, these conversations can be difficult for some, easy for others. But, once I began to understand class as a cultural experience, talking about it made much more sense to me. I became more open to learning about the experiences of people from socioeconomic backgrounds both of my own and outside of my own. I became more open to asking questions about what they learned, what they saw, what they shared and what they felt. And, I became more open about sharing my own, too. 

I can tell you how I deal with conversations about class in my own family. Not long after school started, my children began to tell me about the new friends they had met. They told me about how nice their peers were. They told me how a friend showed them around when they got lost. They told me how they learned the culture of the school -- where to put your backpacks, what to wear to a school dance, and what kind of activities people sign up for after school. They also told me about the ways in which their new friends spent their summer vacations: traveling around Europe; spending the summer in Hawai'i; upgrading to the new iPhone. 

I knew what I had walked into. My children were sharing aspects of class. Of culture. Of socioeconomics in a way they have not experienced themselves. I admit, the reaction in my heart was of sadness. Between the lines, I could hear the question, "Why don't we do those types of things?" in their voices. I could hear them teetering on adolescent jealousy. I wanted to say something that would help them feel better. I wanted to give them something that they could share when the topic of summer vacations or long weekends came up.

Instead, I did the opposite.

I told them that those experiences sounded really interesting. I asked them if they had good questions for their new friends -- what could they learn from their adventures. I asked them, "So, did they tell you what they saw in Europe or what they learned?" or "Did they feel any different being outside of the United States?" or "How did they describe the food in Hawai'i? Was it good? Ask them what they thought tasted the best!" or "Ask them what they enjoy most about the apps on their new iPhone or what kind of music they like to listen to in their playlists. Which songs on their playlist make them dance? Make them laugh? Make them cry? Make them sing out loud like no one is listening?"

I want to teach my children to develop a sense of wonder and of curiosity about other people. I want them to see that it wasn't about what their friends did or what we did, or what they had and what we had; rather, it was about what we could all learn from each other's experiences. How could we open our own hearts and minds to the experiences of others? How do we develop humility? How can we model asking about experiences and developing a real sense of curiosity for each other's lives?

When I travel to different schools and this topic of socioeconomics comes up, I often find that teachers turn to the "just don't talk about it" approach. They tell me that they never ask the students, "How was your weekend?" or "What did you do this weekend?" But, they then get caught in this bind of, "But am I teaching children to be ashamed of their experiences? How can I nurture this sharing without making people feel badly about themselves for having too much or not having as much as others?"

For our younger students (and, of course, all our students!), there are ways in which we can frame questions or prompts to guide their learning and sharing. Below are some prompts you might put up during your morning circle time or in your warm-up for the day. Do these questions and prompts solve our tension and apprehension about socioeconomic status? No. Of course not. Do they help us get closer to teaching and modeling curiosity, wonder and respect for each other's experiences? Possibly. Maybe. Do they help us start our journey towards finding what works for our classrooms, our age groups and our Selves? I hope so -- would love to hear how these worked out, if you try some of them!

"During this vacation/long weekend, ..."

  • I felt happy when __________.
  • I felt proud when ____________.
  • I noticed that ____________.
  • I learned that _______________.
  • I was interested in _____________.
  • I was curious about ____________.
  • I wondered why ______________.
  • I read ____________.
  • I heard __________.
  • I listened to _____________.
  • I shared _____________.

In our lower division, I have often snuck into morning circle and closing circle (it's my favorite time of day!). Brilliantly, teachers have set up structures for all students to feel heard and affirmed. I can imagine, after this activity, each student simply saying 'Thank you, Carly" or 'Thank you, Alan" after each statement. This acknowledges that the contribution of each student is important in our classrooms. 

Will this work on the playground or the lunch room or the free-period in between classes? Likely not. But, it does help equip our students will the skills to talk about their vacations or long weekends in a way that shifts from "what I have and where I went" to "what I experienced and what I can share."

I'd love to hear about the strategies and ideas you have used at home or at school, too! Feel free to send me an email and let me know!

Also, while this post was about personal and relational engagement about class, our friends over at Shady Hill School spent a whole year talking about institutional approaches to discussing socioeconomic issues. Check out this great article by Head of School, Mark Stanek about this issue. 

Birthing a Political Mommy

I admit. Prior to this year's election cycle, I was never really a politics buff. I rarely paid attention to domestic nor international issues. I sort of knew what was going on  - at least, as much as the daily talk shows would give me. I never took an active role. Never picked up The New York Times to answer my questions. And, I never really engaged in any political activity. Sure, I voted. But, admittedly, I voted just down my party line and never paid much attention to the issues.  

However, like most Americans, this time around was different. For me, as a woman of color, as a mom to biracial children, as the head of a cancer family, and as a person who works with underprivileged students, this election was different. I was obsessed with all things politics. CNN and NPR replaced reality shows (my guilty pleasure). Political documentaries - both Republican and Democrat - replaced comedies and action movies.  Autobiographies of political candidates replaced mindless, romantic cheesy short stories.

 

Growing up, my parents never really talked politics. As immigrants, I think they were more concerned with the day-to-day living as opposed to larger government issues. They voted Republican, I know that. I recall the names of the Republican candidates for whom they voted, but we never really talked about why. When friends came over, they talked longingly of the coryshirtPhilippines and of Filipino politics. I knew more about President Aquino (both of them) than I knew of any American President. As a kid in the 1980s, I regularly wore my bright yellow "People Power" shirt. But, U.S. politics -- not so much. I kept up with Title IX stuff in college, had a basic understanding of legal ramifications of affirmative action in the Michigan case -- all things that affected my life as a college student. However, larger issues didn't get much attention from me.

 

Becoming a mother thrusted me into the importance of engaging in politics. Selfishly, I wanted to make our country a better place for my own children. However, soon after my daughter was diagnosed with cancer and we were faced with dire health care coverage challenges, I woke up to the fact that the issues that make our country a better place for my own children are the issues that have left others silenced. Painfully, I opened my eyes to the ways in which health care (or, rather, lack of) can destroy families.

 

From my friends, I saw how the war was tearing some of their families apart as men and women were called to serve our country again and again. I witnessed how the ongoing war was keeping mothers and fathers from their children, and how husbands and wives were growing further apart. In my own neighborhood, I saw how predatory lending has destroyed families, property, futures, hopes, and dreams. I see close friends drowning in credit card debt because of unemployment and high percentage rates. Each morning, I drive by the homeless parents and children who just can't make ends meet. I hear the pain in my friends' voices who have family members in Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan. "My children" are no longer just my own. Motherhood has forced me to see politics as a social justice.

 

While my responsibility as a citizen drove my voting interest in the past, my responsibility as a mother has driven my voting in the present. I want my children to see that I take my right and responsiblity very seriously. Because we have family and friends living in places where voting is not a right, I need  my children to see the importance of actively partcipating in the process. Even in our own country, we stand on the shoulders of those who did not have the right to vote, and that is why it is a right I take seriously.

 

This particular election gave me some of the most important teaching moments as a parent. One of the most important lessons we discussed in our home is respect. Respect. During the campaign period, the outwardly displayed and displaced hatred and attacking of character, race, religion, position, ethnicity, and ideas during this election was just horrifying. I was appalled at the imagery people chose to use to ignite terror and fear. I was saddened to see attack of character when people should have been attacking issues. Yet, it provided a basis for my husband and me to talk with our children about respect for people.  It was an opportunity to teach our children that a) not every one has to agree, but b) everyone deserves to be treated with dignity. At the same time, we also teach our children to stand up for what they believe in - no matter who is going to criticize you or judge you. We teach them that, while we must sometimes compromise agreeing to disagree,  no one should compromise their humanity, their dignity, nor the dignity of others in this world.

 

Just after the election, I wrote on my Facebook status that I was "proud to be an American." I received lots of "likes" and "comments" that supported my status. And, I found plenty of my friends who wrote that "it is a sad day for the U.S."  Fine, I respect that. Yet, a comment by a Friend started a 35+ comment thread on my own page. This Friend challenged that I should have always been proud to be an American. We then went back and forth about how I haven't always been proud of our how country, as a whole, treated people both in our history and in our present. But, regardless of our very different views, this Friend and I still treated one another with respect. It is possible. You can disagree and still commit to treating others with dignity.

 

My children are now 6 years old, 3 years old, and 6 months old.  And, unlike some, our children aren't just repeating the political views of my husband and me. We've been very aware of asking them their opinions and requiring them to provide reasons for why they think what they think/ feel what they feel. We challenge them on their assumptions. We push them to think of the person vs the problem. We ask them about intent vs effect.

 

It's not too early. It's not too early to teach children respect, dignity, and appreciation of diverse viewpoints. It has taken the birth of my children  -- my role as a Mommy -- to open my eyes to politics, and my hope is that they will continue a life of social responsibility and justice in their own.

Is There a Right Way?

My husband and I have been trying to make more connections with families in our area - a task somewhat difficult given that so many of our family members live within a 1 hour radius from our house. Weekends are usually spent hanging out with the same brothers and/or sisters along with their kids. But, we realize that we and our children need to also get to know more people outside of that small circle -- no easy task for introverts like my husband and me. 608110045_buttermilkpancakeRecently, we met up with a friend of mine and her husband who have children in the same age bracket as our kids. They are both white, though the mom grew up and was educated outside of the U.S., and have biological white children. We joined them for brunch at their house which gave the kids time to play and the grown ups time to talk.

It was our first real get-together, so we kept the conversation pretty light. We talked about work, where we lived prior to our current location, things we did over the holiday, etc. At one point, though, the discussion touched race, diversity, and our children. Both sets of children go to racially diverse schools. The mom talked about how she doesn't encourage her children to use racial descriptors when referring to people. On the flipside, she doesn't discourage it either. She said she pretty much waits and sees how her child will talk about a particular person. My husband then said, "For us, we always bring up color and encourage our kids to do so. When our kids describe others in their classes, one of the things they talk about first is whether the child has 'brown skin' or 'peach skin'. There are two boys named Tyler in the school, and when we ask for clarification, we ask if it's the Tyler-with-the-brown-skin or Tyler-with-the-peach-skin."

For my husband, who is Puerto Rican and who, too, has worked in predominantly white environments, he has always expressed frustration in the practice of using every single other descriptor about a person other than race, especially when race is the only thing separating someone from all others.  So, it's the "see that guy over there... kind of athletic build .. with the brown hair... with the book bag... standing up straight... with the nice smile...." rather than, "The Puerto Rican guy in that group." You know what I mean....

The mom responded with, "We don't bring up race because we're afraid of doing it wrong."

It got me thinking -- I definitely didn't get the "colorblind" vibe from her. Not at all, in fact. She has lived in enough places and knows enough not to live in a whitewashed world. I got the sense that it was a true issue of  "I don't want to mess it up". But I was wondering, how many other diversity saavy parents out there have chosen not to talk obviously about race? Is there a right way? More specificially, is there a right way for white parents? Is there a right way for parents of color? And, is there a right way for parents of transracial adoptive children?

Most parents of color I know always talk about race with their children. I remember when my daughter had just turned 2 years old, and we were walking on a city street. We walked by a tall Black man, and she said, "Mommy, he has brown skin."

"Yes," I responded. "He does."

That was all. No big deal. I didn't "shush" her. I didn't falsly patronize a stranger by saying how beautiful his skin was, how smart the man must be, etc. My daughter's statement about brown skin was just an observation. She noticed his brown skin in the same way she noticed the car that we walked by was red; color was just a part of her vocabulary.

A few weeks ago, one of my colleagues came to me asking for advice. She said that she picked up her 6-year old son from school and asked about his day, his friends, etc. Her son mentioned a few of names of some kids, and then said, "There is also David. But, we don't like David because we don't like Black people." My friend said she nearly drove off the road in shock. "What do you mean we don't like Black people? Where did you hear that? Who told you that??" she screamed, later admitting that she probably shouldn't have reacted so strongly at that moment. "Oh, never mind. Sorry, Mom, I mean, yes, we like Black people. We like Black people, right, Mom??"

My colleague -- again, another person who I consider diversity saavy -- realized her reaction had just simply scared him into not talking about it anymore rather than engaging her son in the conversation. Now, when she tries to revisit the conversation -- even weeks later -- her 6-year old son clams up and says, "I don't want to talk about it, Mom. I'm so sorry. I like Black people. I really like Black people." She's struggling to re-engage him into the conversation. She says she tries to bring up race and the color of skin in very nonchalant ways, but her son immediately flies into apology mode and wants to end the discussion. I encouraged her to buy some children's books that have kids of color in it, etc. Her son likes to hear a bedtime story each night, and so I suggested this might be a good way to introduce the discussion back again without obviously talking about the comments in the car.

My colleague asked questions that many of us hear often: "Where did he learn that? Why did he say 'we' don't like Black people?  Am I doing something that is sending him messages about Black people? Is it school? Kids at school? Television that we watch?"

"Probably a little bit of all of the above," I replied.

Was this the "we-don't-want-to-do-it-wrong" example that my brunch friend was talking about? Did my colleague do something wrong by reacting as strongly as she did with her son? Or, was she just sending a clear message that the sentiment of  "we don't like Black people" is unacceptable?

wrongway1So, back to my question -- is there a right way to bring up race? Is there a wrong way?

What Am I First?

What am I first?by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Liza Talusan (originally posted on Anti-Racist Parent)

My children seem to have a knack for asking me really deep, thought-provoking questions at the most inconvenient times. Usually this is when we are racing out the door, late for school/work/day care. This time, it happened on the way to driving my sister, a kulingtan musician, to teach at a cultural school in Boston.

“Mommy, what am I?” says my 4 1/2 year old daughter, Joli, from the backseat of the car.

“What do you mean, ‘what are you?’” I ask, as I glance into my rear view mirror for a hint of meaning on her face.

“Like, what kind of kid am I? Okay, Filipino. But, then… then.. what’s the other kind of kid I am?”

“Puerto Rican? Do you mean Puerto Rican and Filipino? Daddy is Puerto Rican. Mommy is Filipino. So, that makes you Puerto Rican AND Filipino.” “But, Mommy, what am I FIRST? Am I Puerto Rican FIRST or am I Filipino FIRST?”

“You’re BOTH first,” I reply, with echos of my mentors on biracial identity models and child development theorists prominently ringing in my ears.

“Will Daddy get mad if I want to be Filipino FIRST?” says Joli in a voice barely loud enough for me to hear her.

“Honey, you are not something FIRST, you are both ALL THE TIME.” “Well, don’t tell Daddy, okay, Mommy? But, I’m going to be Filipino first.”

(cue my breaking anti-racist heart!)

With nearly all of my friends and extended family members identifying as biracial or multiracial — but being neither of those myself — I am very sensitive to situations that individuals find themselves in when it comes to the “choosing” question. I knew that external influences would eventually lead my children to ask the questions. I just didn’t think one of them would ask me questions at age 4 1/2!

Joli seemed fairly happy with my assertion that she is both all the time. I engaged my husband that night in conversations about where she might be getting these messages. I’m quite confident that my family — made up of all interracial couples and children — isn’t giving her the message that she must choose or prioritize. In her diverse pre-school, I have to imagine that they are not giving her those message either. Dora? Sesame Street (given Deesha’s recent post)? Or is it some of those awful Disney shows that we allow her to watch, but only with a parent watching with her?

As a newly affirmed Anti-Racist Parent, I still can’t help but wonder how much influence or environmental control we really have in our children’s lives. I truly admire Joli’s inquisitiveness and maturity about her complex identity, yet it was hard to hear it from a child of an “anti-racist parent.” Since that day, I’ve grown more aware of Joli’s comments about differences she sees in her world. Just the other night as I was brushing Joli’s and Jada’s hair, Joli made the comment that Jada had “prettier hair” (4-year old interpretation: Joli has thick curly hair like my husband; Jada has wavy, loose hair like me). While much of this can be the typical sibling rivalry, I do read into it as a reflection of her growing awareness of her multiracial identity.

I’ve been more aware of Joli sticking up for other people and other lifestyles. The other day, when reading a bedtime story of a family with a mother, father and child, Joli said to me, “You know, Mom. Not everyone’s family is like that family. Some kids have two moms, some kids have no moms, some kids have two dads, some have different types of skin…. that’s important to know.”

(cue my cheering anti-racist heart!)

I have to remind myself that raising my own awareness, that of my family, and that of others is why I do the work I do — why I live the way I live. There are moments of great heartache, moments of great joy; but there are always opportunities for learning and understanding.

And, that is why anti-racist parenting — whether as parents of children, of a community, or of our world — is not a means to an end but a process full of life and meaning. It’s a process that is fluid and malleable. It’s a commitment, a lifestyle, a mantra, a prayer. It is both an outlook and an outreach. Times when I am uncomfortable confronting a racist joke, disabling a racist conversation, or challenging a racist decision, I am awakened to the fact that I am my children’s best teacher. They will make decisions based on what they have seen me do, ways that they have seen me act, and words they have heard me say. If I am to be their best teacher, I need to also be their best student.