Writing to Transgress: an introduction and table of contents

the following is an abridged version of my division iii project at hampshire college. the title of the project and blog make reference to the writings of bell hooks, specifically Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of freedom (1994). it is her idea of “transgression” — of actively violating the oppressive norms, standards, and silence required by a culture of domination. an integral part of that practice is the elevation marginalized voices and stories, and this is an attempt to raise my own. to that end, i created a series of autobiographical pieces reflecting on my own identity – my whiteness and qeerness in particular. my primary work, however, was getting middle schoolers thinking, talking, and writing about socially constructed identity and systemic oppression. in the spring of 2010, i developed and implemented a curricular unit with a group of 6th graders in western massachusetts. below is an introduction and table of contents for the various parts of the project.

sharing the stories and ideas in this project is encouraged, though if you are exhibiting the text directly, please link back here or otherwise credit the author. with the exception of myself and my college, all names have been changed for confidentiality. thank you for reading!

 

Writing to Transgress: rethinking identity, social systems, and youth

I am a student of critical pedagogy, sociology, and creative writing, three fields I sought to intertwine in my project. I wanted to explore creative nonfiction/autobiographical writing as a way of understanding the self in relation to systems of privilege and oppression, both on my own and with a group of youth. I am interested in how we choose to story our experiences and the personal and political implications of creating these narratives. After spending the preceding years studying the way we are all inculcated into these systems, I wanted to know exactly how much of me they accounted for. The more I explored this question, however, the more I realized that I was asking the wrong one. My socialization into whiteness, maleness, queerness, and every other social construction are all inextricably bound to who I am today. There is no individual somehow outside of or untouched by these systems. I cannot strip away their influence anymore than I can remove my own skin.

What I can do is try and tease out the complex ways they operate on and within me. In order to do this, I have to move away from asking how were my identities created? And instead focus on how have I experience them at different points in my life? The identities were always there – though not always marked or apparent to me – so how did they manifest?

Part I: telling my own story is an attempt to make visible the ways systemic forces have impacted my identity, with a focus on analyzing how I experienced identity in my own schooling and childhood. Employing multiple modes of writing, I critically examine my past, trying to illuminate the larger social forces at work. Explicitly naming one’s identities and the power structures that shape them is always a political act. In exploring my own privileges and oppressions, I am transgressing the silence required by a culture of domination.

The Doll

Conquistadores

Something Between Us

Boy Legs

Make Yourself at Home

We Don’t Talk About That Here

Part II: the identity unit  is an attempt to offer a group of youth the tools to explore their own socially constructed identities –similar to some of what I undertook in Part I, though obviously not as in-depth. It is a collection of twelve lesson plans I created paired with the stories of implementing them. I approached this component with two assumptions counter to conventional wisdom on elementary education: that young people are capable of discussing and personalizing complex social issues, and that as an educator, it is my responsibility to ensure that those conversations are happening. In the tradition of critical pedagogy, I sought to explore how critical thought and social consciousness could be cultivated through the use of personal writing. In order to prepare students to both exist in and work against oppressive systems, I believe it is essential for them to develop an early awareness of those systems and how they affect their identities.

Senior Project Part 2: introducing the classroom and developing a curriculum

Lesson Plans Days 1-4: identity overview and thinking about gender

Organized Chaos: introducing identity and gender

Lesson Plans Days 5 & 6: exploring personal narratives by youth and discussing LGBTQ identity

All Promo Homo: discussing sexuality in school

Lesson Plans Days 7-9: introducing race and racism and writing about racial identity

“…But what does this have to do with today?” Discussing Race and Systemic Inequality [Part I]

Lesson Plan Day 10: power structures, part I (or, you’d better pull up those bootstraps)

Lesson Plans Days 11 & 12: power structures, part II and the final writing piece

“…But what does this have to do with today?” Discussing Race and Systemic inequality [Part II]

In Their Own Words: student writing on identity

Notes on Curriculum: limitations and implications

Conclusion: rethinking the project as a whole

In addition to creating a window into my own experiences and positionality, I hope the stories and lessons here can provide an accessible resource for other educators seeking to explore identity and social justice with young people. The curriculum was always intended to evolve and be adaptable to different educational settings and age groups, so feedback of any kind is encouraged.

Lesson Plans Days 11 & 12: power structures part II, and the final writing piece

Day Eleven: Power Structures, part II

Lesson Development: Building off of yesterday’s lesson on how historic forces have shaped current inequality and landscapes of opportunity in the US, today I wanted to explore how contemporary systemic discrimination and privilege operates. Specifically, I wanted to highlight the concept of white privilege in concrete, accessible ways. To do this, I created a list of white privileges that I thought sixth graders would be able to understand by drawing from and expanding upon the list of white privileges in Peggy McIntosh’s  essay, Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. Additionally, I felt it was important that students begin thinking about what they can do to change oppressive systems. I wanted them to understand how even speaking out against – and so calling attention to – racist, sexist, etc. comments or actions is essential in an era where people believe racism and sexism are largely things of the past.

 

  • Review yesterdays card game:
  • · What was it? Why did we play it? What were the two main things that made it unfair? What did that represent?
  • How do racism and other forms of systemic discrimination operate today?
  • Physically run through a scenario/skit to illustrate this: Ms. Pierre is working for a corporation that is hiring right now. Everyone in the class needs a job, so we all have to apply. That’s fifteen people all going for the same job! A lot of competition, it’s going to be hard to get that job… But what if Ms. Pierre imposes her prejudice on the job – she decides that someone with brown eyes just isn’t what she’s looking for. She doesn’t make that official – that would be illegal now – so she still lets everyone apply, she just doesn’t seriously consider anyone with brown eyes.
  • · Now how many people are left competing for the same job?
  • · Is it easier or harder for non-brown eyed people to get that job now?
  • · Do the non-brown eyed people even notice?
  • Even though official discrimination is illegal now, when many people in positions of power hold prejudice, it becomes part of a system.      Continue reading

Lesson Plan Day 10: power structures, part I (or, you’d better pull up those bootstraps)

Day Ten: Power Structures, part I

Lesson Development: I created this lesson in an attempt to provide students with an accessible simulation of the real world effects that systemic discrimination – specifically racism – has on society. I wanted to create an easy to play game that would clearly illustrate the way privilege and discrimination make it easier and harder for certain groups to acquire and retain wealth, and to get students thinking about how efforts to redress inequality must take into account how the economic “playing field” is not, and has never been, level.

As readers can see in the structure of the card game below, I specifically designed it with the historic economic experience of African-Americans in mind. However, the parallels the game draws to legal discrimination, as well as the consolidation of wealth, allow the game to provide more general lessons on systemic inequality and privilege. There are also references to specific moments in the history of United States’ racial opportunity structure. Part Two of the game is meant to represent the post-Civil Rights era, where white supremacy is no longer inscribed in law, but de facto white economic privilege remains. At the same time, the second phase of the game also provides one more added “bump” for some players, intended to represent the way the GI Bill, which, only two decades prior to the Civil Rights Movement, provided many white soldiers returning from World War II with privileged access to jobs, education, and housing.

I chose to call the game Bootstraps, referencing the false idea that the socioeconomic structure in the US provides all people with equal economic opportunities, an idea invoked by the old expression, “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps!”           Continue reading

“…But what does this have to do with today?” Discussing Race and Systemic Inequality [Part I]

“Why did they do that?” Will asks me on the afternoon of my first day at Miller’s Hill. I have just explained how scientists let four hundred black men go with untreated syphilis for nearly half a century in order to study the effects of the disease.

I hesitate, my eyes lingering on his otherwise blank “Tuskegee Experiment” note card. How do you explain the dehumanization of racism to an eleven year old? “Well, the scientists, who were white, thought that they could do whatever they wanted to black people.”

“But why?” He scrunches his brow, genuinely confused.

I continue, “Since white people were in power – and for the most part, they still are – they could do horrible things to black people without consequences. So sometimes, they used them for experiments.”

Will’s eyes suddenly widen. “That’s awful!”

“It is. And the experiment would have continued if the press hadn’t found out about it and made it public in the seventies. Of course by then, many of the subjects had already died from the disease, and the others were very sick.”

Will is suddenly solemn, his mouth opening and closing slightly as his eyes dart from me to the Wikipedia page. Outside of Slavery, it might be the first time he has heard of any state sanctioned atrocities his racial group has perpetrated.

One month later, Naomi and I sit with the class on the carpet for our race and racism lesson. “So, who can tell me the definition of racism?” I ask the class, soliciting the mainstream definition before expanding it into racial prejudice plus institutional power. Surprisingly, students accept this new definition with little contestation.

“So how do people have power in our society?” I continue, “What does that mean?”

“Like, having a lot of money?” offers Sara, a quiet, tall, and tremendously freckled white student.

“Right! Having money is one way people can be powerful in society. What else?” Students consider the question for a moment. When no responses are forthcoming, I direct their attention to the back wall, where we have hung the ads from the gender lesson, under the heading, “What do these images tell us about ourselves?”

“What about those ads and the messages they send? Do you think people who control the media are powerful?” The class offers a collective noise of agreement before we discuss other powerful people in society, like politicians, lawmakers, police, corporate leaders, and education administrators.

“And what race are most of people in these positions?”

Without hesitation – and almost in unison – the class responds, “White.”

Alexis suddenly perks up. “They’re all men, too!” I am increasingly awed by students’ perceptiveness and acceptance of concepts and information so contrary to mainstream messages.

“Being in power is about more than political positions or laws. As we just mentioned, it’s also about the media and who we see.” Naomi tells them, “For example, think about Disney movies. What race are the main characters usually?”

Several students murmur, “White,” Before Jaden, exclaims, “But what about Mulan or Pocahontas? They’re not white!” A few students nod their heads in support.

“That’s true, there are definitely exceptions to the rule,” I say. “But generally, if you can count all the exceptions on one hand, it’s actually proving the rule.” Jaden gawks, and then leads the class in counting off Disney princesses of color one by one.     Continue reading

Lesson Plans Days 7-9: introducing race and racism and writing about racial identity

Day Seven: Thinking About Race

Lesson Development: My main goal in this lesson was to introduce students to the definition of racism as racial prejudice plus power, a definition contrary to the mainstream definition of racism simply as racial prejudice. I felt it was essential the students have some context for systemic racism, so I also included a brief history on the creation of white supremacy. Additionally, I wanted to use the lesson as an opportunity to analyze some of our own racial prejudices and stereotypes. To get the conversation on stereotyping started, I employed another essay from Starting with I called My Lebanese Passport, by a Lebanese teenager who gets racially profiled at the airport. Lastly, I wanted to use the lesson to explore some false or problematic notions of race/ism the students had expressed during previous lessons, such as the belief that white people are all mixed race, or that racist jokes are OK as long as no one they offend is present. It is important to note that this is entirely too much to tackle in one day; after failing to get through the lesson in a single day, I split it across two.

  • Define Race: Race refers to our physical characteristics, especially skin tone, which is regulated by a chemical in our skin called melanin. Physical characteristics of racial groups are the only things genetic about race. Everything else we associate with specific races is learned behavior or a stereotype.
  • What does mixed race mean? “Even though a lot of white people have heritage in different countries, it doesn’t mean that they are mixed race. For example, I have Irish, Italian, and French heritage but I’m still just called white.” Racial groups are based on skin color and geographical origin, not necessarily national origin.
  • What does “white” mean? What does “people of color” mean?
  • What are the different races?
  • Define prejudice: Literally, pre-judgment, especially of a person or group.
  • Define racism as prejudice plus systemic power. This means people of color can have racial prejudice, but not be racist. This is likely to confuse students at first – they will likely want examples of how white people are in power and how people of color are disadvantaged.
  • How do people have power in our society? Who does what? Take answers from the class, important things to discuss include:
  • · Running companies
  • · Voting/holding public office
  • · Media control (refer to the ads from day 3 if necessary)
  • · Wealth
  • · Legal system – police, courts, lawmakers
  • · Schools – Whom do we learn about? Who asses students, and how? Naomi suggests discussing NCLB and the achievement gap, as this may resonate.
  • “Was it always this way?” How did racism start? In the late 1600s, ruling whites owning both slaves and European indentured servants (people who had debt, wanted passage to a colony, etc – they usually worked in three to seven year contracts to earn their freedom) feared organized revolt. So they divided the two groups by giving their European servants privileges (esp. jobs as slave overseers themselves) African slaves did not have. This made poor Europeans feel that they were more important and better than African slaves. At the same time, Europeans needed justification for keeping Africans in perpetual, race-based slavery, so they made up stories and rumors that said people with darker skin are less than human. The combination of the special privileges given to poor Europeans and a general denigration of all things of color encouraged poor European colonists to see themselves as having more in common with their wealthy European owners and less as an oppressed social class having more in common with African slaves (and therefore, less likely to partner with African slaves to overthrow wealthy Europeans). The idea that whites were superior to other colors also conveniently served as justification for the genocide of the indigenous [define] and the theft of their land (this also fit well with previous justifications of Indigenous peoples being “savage heathens”). “White” replaced terms like “Christian” and “Englishman” to separate European immigrants from Africans and Indigenous peoples as well as other people of color. (Though it is important to note, some later Europeans immigrant groups – notably the Irish and Italians, and more recently, the Jews – were not considered white when they arrived in the US. These groups had to give up parts of their cultural heritage that marked them as foreign before being allowed the privileges of whiteness. Of course, these groups were only able to do so because they had the physical characteristics already associated with whiteness.)   Continue reading

Conquistadores

Whiteness teaches white people that whiteness doesn’t exist. Among all the rules, codes, and products of whiteness, its greatest trick is to remain invisible to those privileged enough to reside inside it. It is always centered, always operating, woven through nearly every aspect of our contemporary social fabric. Educational institutions are no exception.

I wipe the flecks of silver onto my jeans, and tuck my nose and mouth into my shirt to avoid the fumes. Usually, I desperately avoid spray paint and its noxious odors, but this is important. Holding the helmet at arms length, I douse the helmet in a final shower of silver and lay it down beside the others. I am surprised when I find it looks good. We have been working on them for weeks, first coating balloons in several layers of papier-mâché, and then painstakingly bending cardboard around the bottom edge for the brim, and another piece on top to create the fin, a feature of the helmets I never quite understood. For the final realistic touch, we took dry peas that had been cut in half and glued them in lines along the brim and fin. I had been skeptical then, but after the paint the peas really do look like tiny screws. I pull my nose from beneath my shirt and admire our crafts; twenty-six glistening Spanish Conquistador helmets in a line on the blacktop, their excess paint trickling into tiny pools around their brims. Our unit on the discovery of the Americas is nearly over. Continue reading