Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Race And Racism; Gender And Sexism

Last week, under the title "Girls v. Boys," I wrote about how I remained vigilant, yet largely stood back as some 3-5 year-old boys chanted, "Boy Scouts! Boy Scouts! Boy Scouts!" while a group of girl classmates called back, "Girl Scouts! Girl Scouts! Girl Scouts!" In that post I wrote:

I'm pretty sure there were times in my past as a teacher when I would have barged in to scuttle the game, letting my adult judgement of things rule the day, probably pushing it underground, sending the message that certain thoughts and themes are "bad." I'm glad I've learned to be slow to react, to dig in first and try to see events through the eyes of the kids, which, after all, is the perspective that matters most. It's their play. It's their experience. It's their education.

An anonymous reader commented:

I'm truly not asking this as a gotcha, because I've been in this situation myself with kids and really wondered whether to step in . . . but what if it was the same game, only the kids were separating by race, or another marker? I'm guessing we would step in. Why is gender different?

That's a fair question, one I've been thinking on for over a week now. I don't know if I have any answers, but the following riff, which is what it is more than an essay, is what I've got so far.

Now, in the interest of laying all the cards on the table, I need to say that our school is located in the midst of a cluster of Seattle neighborhoods north of downtown, well-known for its predominantly European-American ethnic make-up. The area's Scandinavian immigrant heritage is belied by the number of blonde heads you see in the photos on this blog. All of our classes enroll a handful of families with Asian-American backgrounds, while very few have Latin or African-American ancestry.

My own background is of having grown up during my early years in the deep south, South Carolina, during an era of court-ordered school desegregation, which I've written about before. I actually like talking about race because, I've found, it's a topic that makes most thoughtful people slow down and chose their words, something I find to be a fruitful thing. I'm navigating my words right now -- it's very easy to righteously offend people when discussing race and gender.

I can imagine how our girl v. boy rivalry might have turned ugly, but it didn't: both sets of kids seemed to be genuinely asserting gender pride. No one was name-calling or otherwise disparaging the other gender.  Plus, Boy and Girl Scouts isn't a particular "charged" dividing line: both groups feature kids connecting with nature, crafts, and one another, none of which are bad things, nor do they in any way try to imply superiority over anyone else. There are times and places in our society in which most of us accept division by gender, when we feel that there is value in it; everything from separate toilets to boy's night out. The moms of Woodland Park, for instance, organize retreats together a couple of times a year. I suppose that if some of the dads insisted, they could be included, but I doubt it will ever be an issue because we all see value of the women of our community getting away together without kids or husbands, not because the kids or husbands are bad, but simply because they are not women.

Our brief schoolyard rivalry did not turn ugly, nor did it threaten to. It struck me as normal and healthy: a moment to stand with those with whom we share a gender and feel good about it, together. 

But, to the question: What if it had been, say, Asian-American kids v. European-American kids? Would I have responded in such a hands-off manner?

I doubt it. I mean, if the kids somehow enacted a racial divide in a way that felt like the essential equality of Boy v. Girl Scouts, I just might let it run its course, but I simply can't imagine a way that race can play out like that. When people divide up by race, it's almost always icky, if not nasty. Celebrating heritage is one thing: insisting that something about that heritage is universally superior, or that another ethnic heritage is inferior, makes it racist. It's like families. Mine is awesome. There are a lot of things about my family life that makes it perfect for me, but I understand that it would be imperfect for others. That's how we all are, I hope. If I go around, however, insisting that my family somehow makes me superior to you, then I'm being a jerk, which is a synonym for the word "racist."

The thing is, young children are very rarely jerks. I've never met a preschooler who tried to make himself feel good by running down someone else, which is a central personality trait of most racist jerks. It's a learned behavior -- racist jerks come from racist jerk families. Racist jerk families don't enroll their kids in cooperative preschools, which is why I don't believe I'll ever be confronted with the scenario my anonymous reader proposed.

But what if I was? What if there was a group of European-American kids chanting . . . What? White Power? And a group of Asian-American kids chanting, again, What? I mean the whole set up is impossible for me to envision. Preschool-aged children, without the perniciousness of having come from a racist jerk family, simply can't get their brains around this idea. Research shows that even very young children can identify certain racial markers, but most of them simply can't actually see race in terms of good or bad without coaching by important adults in their lives. This year, when my 5's class was discussing race as part of our Martin Luther King, Jr. conversation, the whole idea of race was a new one for most of the kids. These are all children of either European, Asian, or Latin-American backgrounds, yet several of the kids identified themselves or others as "black." One of the kids still insists that he's black, even though it's not a fact supported by his actual ethnic heritage. There's something beyond skin color at work in how the children at Woodland Park understand, or don't understand, race. But none of them seemed to have any particular values attached to their own race or those of others. In other words, it's simply not a front-burner topic where we live.

I would say, if you have a group of preschoolers shouting racial epithets at one another, you have a problem that goes far beyond your school. And you should absolutely step in.

Why, then, is gender different? In many important ways, it isn't. There are sexist jerks just like there are racist jerks. But gender is different because gender is a biological fact, whereas race is not; while it is a social fact. The overwhelming majority of us are biologically a gender, while racially we're all half-breeds of one kind or another. I come from a family which is a Euro-mix that includes Danish, English, French and Irish, while my wife is mostly of Hungarian-Irish-German-Jew extraction. Our daughter is . . . Whatever she says she is, frankly. But we are unquestionably a family of one male and two females (five if you count the dogs). 

Gender really tends to come into focus at around 4-5 years-old and intensifies until around 7-8, a point by which most children figure out that there's a lot of leeway within the stereotypes. Under my watch, most girls go through some sort of "princess" phase. For some, it lasts for days, while others explore the idea for years, taking it into adulthood. Under my watch, most boys go through some sort of "superhero" phase. For some, it lasts for days, while others explore the idea for years, taking it into adulthood. I tend to think of these as the great gender myths that underlie Western culture. Young children are driven to make a study of these myths, work that is as serious as any study there is, one that some of us spend our entire lives researching. I think when kids separate themselves by gender and chant "Boy Scouts" or "Girl Scouts," that's what they are doing. It's both science and art, which is, after all, nothing more than the study of archetype; an exploration of the polar extremes of gender roles as a starting point of understanding ourselves and others.

When it's about race, however, we are not dealing with any sort of "real" dividing lines. Our first black president had a white mother. We call him African-American, but other than a few cosmetic similarities,  the only thing that makes him "like" your average Kenyan man are the things that make all humans similar. What we call race are a collection of superficial markers around which some of us, racists, have built theories that assert there are some sort of deeper differences with regard to intelligence or other capabilities. Real scientists, however, find the whole idea of race to be a social fabrication, one with no use other than to divide people. There are positives to be gained by sometimes dividing ourselves up by gender, there is nothing but negatives in dividing by race.

Race may not be real, but racism is. Racism is a weed to be eradicated. The children at Woodland Park have very little experience with racism, at least compared to children in other parts of our nation where I know that schoolyards are often divided along racial lines. I grew up in schools in which the black kids and white kids barely mixed. When my family moved to Oregon in my early teen years it was at first quite confusing to be suddenly in a world in which people weren't divided up by racial markers, but rather by economic ones that I really didn't at all understand or even "see" for a long time. Having come into contact with classism so late in life, I tend to have far less baggage about it than I do with racism, about which I still have some knee-jerk tendencies I'm working to unlearn.

So, all of this to say that I don't worry so much that the children I teach will grow up to be sexist jerks. We are a cooperative community of strong, thoughtful, nurturing, intelligent women and men who are raising strong, thoughtful, nurturing, intelligent children, and whose lives bely gender stereotyping that disproves many of the media fueled lies. I also don't worry that they will grow up to be racist jerks, if only because the racism in our community is buried quite a ways underground, complicated by economics, not showing up in ways that preschool aged children can understand -- not in a way that would lead them, at least, to stand in racially divided groups chanting at one another. I'm not saying that none of us are sexists or racists, but we all hope to not be, which is something important.

I've often confessed to living and teaching in a bubble. While I don't see evidence that the kids I teach are judging one another based upon skin color, I do know that children elsewhere have been taught to. 

I'm aware that both racism and sexism are pervasive and deeply ingrained, even institutionalized, in our society. I've made it all sound too simplistic here. Today, I've written about the preschoolers I know within the context of our little school. Please don't think that I'm trying to suggest that we have somehow found a way to be "above" it, or that I'm ignorant of the wider world and the depth of the problems. We simply live in a place at a time that our adult racism is not overt enough to come into the children's day-to-day play. As several of the commenters on the Girls v. Boys post suggested, the important thing is that we engage in dialog on these important and complex topics. I hope I've sparked you to think about racism and sexism today. And, no doubt, I've made some people angry. If you have anything to add, dispute, or clarify, please do so in the comments. I will, however, be moderating the comments and will not post any that I feel are racist, sexist, or that call out other commenters in unkind ways.

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Anonymous said...

"There are positives to be gained by sometimes dividing ourselves up by gender, there is nothing but negatives in dividing by race."

Hmmm. I don't think I can necessarily agree. What about, say, a Black Students' Union at a college? And many other such examples. My college had a special interest house for people of color. I don't believe you were allowed to live there if you were White. I didn't have an issue with this.

I do have this sense that children probably don't engage in exactly the same kind of essential I'm this/you're that/this is who I am identity work around race in the preschool years as they seem to around gender. But....I'm not totally sure that this isn't me speaking from my position as a White person. I suspect that children of color do experience this rather more strongly. And that it's confusing.

Also, I live in the South, and I live in a racially diverse community, and I do see kids, even young kids, subconsciously?? dividing by race on the playground. Now, I have never seen kids group up and say "White kids over here! No black kids allowed" or vice versa as I have seen it done with boys and girls. But let me say--I can imagine it.

Cap said...

Brilliant post, as usual. It is a very interesting question and I enjoyed the way you worked through it. As the first comment alludes to, one component that I think deserves further consideration is the degree to which children and others in society DO intentionally divide themselves by race, in ways that are not generally considered racist. Most ethnic celebrations and clubs include, to some degree, a sense of pride associated with race. But even outside of organized groups, kids purposefully identify with certain in-groups (e.g. by dress, speech, music, hangout locations) that, although they may or may not be exclusive to one race, can certainly look from the outside like kids shouting "[this race]" and "[that race]" across the school yard.

Kendra said...

This is an interesting post, and I recognize that you are being brave by even broaching this subject. I have a few thoughts about this.

- I wonder what you would have done if you had kids on the playground who are confused or uncomfortable about their own sex or gender.I've worked with a couple of kids who struggled with their gender identity in preschool. I used to pick one of them up at Kindergarten and she ALWAYS had to pee really badly when I arrived. I gave her a hard time, one day, asked "Why couldn't you go to the bathroom before the end of the school day, before I get here?" She told me conspiratorially that she waited so she didn't have to use the school bathroom because kids who didn't know her always said "You're in the girls' room!" or "There's a BOY in the GIRLS' room!" so she waited until she could go at my place. When she was 3 she said things like "I hate princesses, that's why I'm a boy." She's a really awesome almost teenage girl now, but when she was in preschool, this game would have tied her stomach in knots to watch. For kids like her, and others I've known just watching others asserting gender that way can be painful because it asks her to step on a line publicly and be judged by her peers, EVEN if she stays out of the game. I don't bring this up because I think that this instance of this game was problematic for your group, I bring it up to counter your idea that the game was "ok" simply because the difference was gender.

- I think that non-rj kids often exclude on the basis of race. At my center, we serve a very international community, so we have many skin tones in our classrooms. Children have been known to force one another into roles in princess games because of their skin tones. "There's no one in Cinderella with tan skin, so you can be the table... or the dog I guess." This is exclusion based on race, and it's not angry or mean or racist, but it is connected to our dominant culture and the stories we tell about people and our skin tones. I agree with you, of course, that race is a construct, but I can absolutely imagine kids on the playground yelling "Brown" and "White" or "Brown" and "Pink" in a similar way. I can also see how it may be outside of your context because of the make-up of your community.

I don't like to have a post that says "Yeah, but..." and that's all, but I'm afraid it's all I can contribute at the moment.

Dave said...

I think we don't worry about gender grouping as much as race grouping among kids because 1) gender groupings are nearly guaranteed to be equal in size and 2) gender at that age is defined by changeable characteristics (clothes and hair to some extent, but mostly who the kid chooses to identify with) while race is nearly always based on unchangeable skin color

So, gender groupings gravitate towards being balanced, and kids can effectively switch sides in the name of supporting friends and exploring both sides.

Racial groupings are more likely to be unbalanced in numbers, and kids can't switch sides as easily as putting on dress up clothes or announcing their change. We don't like the idea that some kids will probably get stuck on a (numerically) weaker side without as much chance to change it.

Sarah said...

I read your blog to reaffirm my beliefs. After living in Seattle for years, I moved to the south. I am constantly having my personal beliefs about children and how they learn tested. So much of what you write about is relevant to my elementary aged students.

Our neighborhood in Seattle was diverse in every sense: Christian, Jewish, African-American, Asian, Latino, Russian, and same sex couple. When my daughters transferred to their school in Atlanta they were the only Caucasian student in their classes (K & 2nd). Everyday, I waited for them to come home and say, "Mom, the kids at school don't look like me." It NEVER happened. They never noticed. It wasn't until the next school year that an adult family member brought up the difference in Seattle & Atlanta. My oldest replied, "I noticed, I just didn't know it was important."

My colleagues sometimes misunderstand my willingness to let my students work things out without my intervention and/or guidance. I personally feel that they deserve my trust. I know that they can talk about things in a kind, caring way. This year, my third graders have discussed why some students have two moms (whether through divorce or same sex partnership), slavery and the implications, the protection our Founding Fathers gave to white men and how others helped to expand those freedoms. Most of their conversations were with each other. I hung around the periphery of the conversations "just in case". They never needed me, they figured it out, together!

Cave Momma said...

Gender is easy to understand and concrete (for the most part). And it's interesting to each side at those ages. My kids are mixed. I am white, my husband is black. We have had many conversations over the last couple of years (they are 4 and 5 years old, a boy and girl) of the differences in people. When they brought up difference in skin color, it was as simple as difference in hair or eyes or any other physical characteristic. They got it, they understood it. Sometimes they point out differences they have never encountered before but it's never bad or "weird", just different.

There are so many variables in appearance that it's hard to group oneself in just one or another and I think all kids inherently know that. There is lots of boy vs girl stuff around the parks and in our home. We homeschool so maybe it would be different in a public school but I agree that unless the parents make it a big deal, it wouldn't be to kids. We are all interconnected and that is easy to see as a child.