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On Why the Question Should Always Be: “How do we extend our humanity?”

So this week in my class we are doing my lessons on –isms. I decided to explicitly teach it this time after I realized that there was a lot of confusion among adults about how –isms worked, and I figure if the adults don’t know the kids need to be explicitly taught. I teach at a very diverse school, which is good because I am such an advocate for school integration, however the thing about teaching in that environment is that it is a lot harder to have the race/class/gender conversation because, well, frankly, white people are really good at shutting down dissent, so I basically have to be prepared to really lay down the law to make sure ALL of my children feel safe.

I told them today that I wanted them to understand that they weren’t responsible for the system they inherited, that it is systematic, and that they were all included in all systems as members of a society. I also showed them one of my favorite Ted talks. I mean all of that by the way. It can be problematic having someone as radical as me in the classroom if I bring the anger in there and take any aggression out on my white children, who by the way, don’t want any part of this system either. They also don’t know how to talk about it, which is my job.

Here is the thing though, when we talk about race or class we act as though the system doesn’t impact the dominant groups in the room. We talk about it as though it is pure privilege and the discussion ends there, but I’d like to propose an alternative way to think about it, at least when we are dealing with children. Kids are very fair, they want to do the kind and correct thing. They have a lot of empathy. And we, as adults, then beat that out of them.
We can talk about how gender expectations affect our boys, and they do and I have, but this goes beyond that. The system as it exists hurts children in dominant groups. It hurts them because it separates them from others by dehumanizing people. Because they grow up in a world where they are taught AGAINST their natural instinct to love others, to see everyone as human, there is a large part of humanity whose beauty they never see, and it stunts them too. They see people in a fundamentally negative light, because they’ve categorized the vast majority of the world as being “bad” and this makes it impossible for them to assume the best. It stunts their growth and relationships both because it narrows the pool of people they can know but also because they’ve been train to dehumanize others which means they can never really love anyone at a deep level. It makes it impossible to connect with another human being.

The kids don’t want this. They want to love, they want to care, they want to be positive about others, and they want things to be fair. But we force them into a system that removes that possibility. Our gender issues, for example, mean that many of my peers at Stanford will only ever have intimate partners on the basis of financial exchange. That is a profoundly sad way to live one’s life. Our issues with race make it impossible to develop empathy, an essential skill for well-adjusted adults. Because they’ve bought so much into the system and the system dehumanizes a huge swath of the population they can’t critically think or deal with dissent or alternative views and that stunts their intellectual development.

I am not trying to say that these issues are fundamentally more important than the oppression of the non-dominant group, but I what I am saying is that we need to shift the dialogue. Children don’t have a choice, adults do. You can feel however you want about adults, but ALL of my children are being oppressed by this system. Our failure to discuss this is perpetrating a system by keeping the dominant group out of the dialogue and making it impossible to discuss the issues. It is also hurting everyone by stunting the humanity of all of us. I think if we saw things as less a us v. them mentality that would ensure that the struggle for justice is one in which everyone is given their humanity, which is what they are entitled to. We are asking the wrong question. The question should always be: how do we expand our humanity.

No one is free while others are still in chains. We can’t take away the humanity of one group to give it to the other. We see this even in activist circles, where some people will fight ferociously for queer rights but still be racist because as oppressed groups we think that any resources given to another group is a loss of resources for our group. Instead of discussing why we don’t just give people the resources and humanity we should give, we sit around and debate which group is more oppressed and which group deserves it more. It perpetrates the system by dividing and conquering. It is helping no one. There is no limit to humanity, the only limit lies in the minds of the people who fail to understand that basic truth.

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3 thoughts on “On Why the Question Should Always Be: “How do we extend our humanity?”

  1. Great post. What grade do you teach? I’m teaching 4th this year, i also have a very diverse group of kids, and am struggling with how to present these themes without creating barriers. I honestly think kids are better at this than adults because they are more loving to each other than we are, but i want to make sure, as you say, that everyone feels safe. Would love your further comment on this.

  2. Great post. I’m wondering what age you teach? I’m teaching 4th grade this year, to a very diverse group of kids, and i think your post proposes a helpful frame for these conversations. I’d love to hear more!

  3. I have it easier (or harder pending on how you look at it) because I teach high school. But I think the most important thing is to emphasize that it wasn’t their fault or choice and then to make sure you provide lots of examples about how it affects them. Then I do a lot of exploration (today they are making their own isms) and I use a lot of mixed media and open discussion. Modeling is important too. If you do it the way they should.

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