Sunday, July 25, 2010

Ignoring Issues of Oppression

I only have one blog, so this post is dedicated to political issues that have absolutely nothing to do with Peru. I'd appreciate just as much feedback and especially criticism on this article as well as the others.

In her sharply intelligent and entertaining book, Female Chauvanist Pigs, columnist Ariel Levy examines what she calls ''raunch culture,'' which can loosely be defined as the increasing amount of flagrant displays and celebrations of female sexuality and objectification. Since I don't have the book here in Peru, I quote from the front flap of the book:

Meet the Female Chauvanist Pig -- the new brand of ''empowered'' woman who wears the playboy bunny as a talisman, bares all for Girls Gone Wild, pursues casual sex as if it were a sport, and embraces ''raunch culture'' wherever she finds it. If male chauvanist pigs of years past thought of women as peaces of meat, Female Chauvanist Pigs of today are doing them one better, making sex objects of other women -- and of themselves.
Levy captures what is a new form of sexism, one that is equally supported by men and women. It is a sexism that celebrates the objectification of women as ''liberation.'' To FCPs and their male counterparts, conforming to the sexual standards of porn stars and participating in classic misogyny is a way of asserting power and ignoring sexual subordination. But Levy argues strongly and convincingly that ''what has come to pass for liberating rebellion is actually a kind of limiting conformity.''

One of Levy's most salient points is that Female Chauvanist Pigs pride themselves on the fact that they ''get it.'' They can make sexist jokes and objectify other women and themselves with the same form of enjoyment. Exhibiting this role, Female Chauvanist Pigs enjoy special treatment from men, are more closely included, and are exempt from the condemnation of ''most women.'' What Levy illustrates here is an example of the fact that sometimes, people from oppressed groups can participate in their own group's oppression in order to gain access to status and power. Female Chauvanist Pigs are one thing; a similar character is the type of woman who is highly successful in the business world, exhibiting the same sort of aggressive, individidualist, cold-hearted and ultimately ''manly'' qualities of their counterparts in order to preserve their seat at the table of power.

In her NPR article entitled ''The New Republic: The Post-Gender Justice,'' author Naomi Schoenbaum features Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan for her silence on issues of gender and sexism. In contrast to Sonia Sotomayor, Schoenbaum contends, ''Elena Kagan might very well be the first female nominee to the supreme court who does not define her gender as salient to her public life.'' The article goes on to discuss Kagan's various successes, noting her complete lack of indication that she gives two shits about sexism. ''Of course, none of this is dispositive,'' Schoenbaum continues.
But Kagan's virtual silence on how gender issues have affected her career -- and her relative silence compared to her fellow nominees to the court -- is, at the least, very striking. Like President Obama, the man who nominated her, she has portrayed herself as a figure beyond identity politics.
And there it is. Elena Kagan is ''beyond'' identity politics, because these days, it's possible to believe one can in fact be ''beyond'' identity politics. In fact, we're led to believe that this is desireable. Who wants to keep hearing about discrimination, anyway? Don't people know by now that if you just work hard, you can get ahead? This flagrant blow to the fields of feminist theories, racial studies, and other studies of oppression, is an attitude that's all too common. It is usually held by those who are in privileged positions, because the privileged are most able to overlook or intentionally ignore institutional oppression. And as Levy shows, it's also held by people like Female Chauvanist Pigs, because in order to ''hang with the guys,'' for example, they have to do things like make fun of how ''women nag too much.'' The sad reality of our very NON post-gender, or post-racism, or post-identity politics world, is that members of oppressed groups generally have to keep their mouthes shut when it comes to issues of oppression. It's particularly saddening, however, when this same tendency is displayed by members of oppressed groups, even after they achieve the privilege of being able to speak up. There are countless examples of this, the most relevant of which would be Kagan's good friend, another lawyer out of Harvard, the President of the United States, ''the man who nominated her,'' Barack Obama.

When the Tea Party was facing allegations of racism, Fox News made the timely move of unearthing a 24 year old video of former NAACP representative Shirley Sherrod's speech. Pulling a few remarks of her speech out of context, Fox News was able to create the now completely-nullified narrative that Shirley Sherrod herself was a racist, and when white people get the opportunity to call black people racist, they have a field day. I won't get into the horrendous problems that fueled this whole media-frenzy and why it's so appalling-yet-typical. That's been covered well by others. What I want to focus on is Obama's response. From ABC News:

[In firing Sherrod, Secretary Tom Vilsack] jumped the gun, partly because we now live in this media culture where somebody goes up on YouTube or a blog and everybody scrambles. [....] If there's a lesson to be drawn from this episode, it's to avoid jumping to conclusions and pointing fingers at each other.
You tell 'em, Obama. Those darn kids these days, with their YouTubez, and their blog 'o' spherez, and their Poke 'e' Monz, are just saying all kinds of things all kinds of quickly!! Way to get right down to what matters!

You'll have to excuse the sarcasm. I'm just starting to get infuriated with the fact that after Acorn, and after the ''beer summit,'' and after Sherrod's life got turned upside down to be the object of white-Americas self-indulgence, Obama has yet to say anything substantial about race. Yes, the mainstream media often jumps the gun and turns something petty into a controversy. But there's another, much more consequential reason that this 24 year old clip was so interesting to so many people. And that reason is the fact that since so many white people like to believe that they're ''beyond racism,'' because racism ''only exists in individuals who are lagging behind the pack,'' it's incredibly important to emphasize any instance of a nonwhite person saying something racist. Pointing out when nonwhites say racist things is probably the most effective tool in derailing conversations about white racism -- as proven by the fact that no one's talking about the Tea Party's racism or white privilege anymore.

I understand that some people would argue that Obama's raising his voice on the issue of race would not be a smart political decision. This argument is supported in a few different ways. One is that ''there are more important issues to focus on right now.'' Another is that ''everyone would just jump to the 'angry black man' stereotype, and it would become another media frenzy.'' Another is that ''after that, he wouldn't be able to get anything passed.'' I don't buy any of these arguments, no matter how well-intentioned they are. I'd like to draw a historical comparison here to make my point.

When the United States was at war in Vietnam, failing miserably and killing thousands of Vietnamese children, Martin Luther King Jr., a Nobel Peace Prize holder like Obama, decided to speak up. Long after the bus boycotts, after the sit-ins, after Albany, after Birmingham, after ''I have a Dream,'' MLK still had a strong following and was working on visiting Watts, L.A., in response to race riots, and working on ''The Poor People's Campaign,'' organizing against nation-wide poverty. The Vietnam War was a controversial issue, and relatively inconsequential to his main political goals, but MLK decided to speak up.

The time had come -- indeed, it was past due -- when I had to disavow and dissociate myself from those who in the name of peace burn, maim, and kill....I watched [this war] broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle plaything of a society gone mad on war. And I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as advertures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and attack it as such....A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spritual death....There is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precendence over the pursuit of war.
King struggled, at first, on whether or not he should bring Vietnam into his public politics. As a powerful public figure with a strong following, one that was united but easily divisible and still held many goals on its agenda, it was a risky move. MLK struggled with the fact that by voicing his concerns on this issue, he would be putting his movement, his popularity, and he and his movement's political effectiveness at risk. But as you can plainly see, when King spoke out, he didn't pull any punches. Sure enough, he was not let off the hook easily. He was criticized in almost every newspaper in the country, and they were joined by blacks and whites alike from within and outside of his organizations and movement. King described the response as resulting in a ''low point in his life.''

As expected, King's opposition to the Vietnam War was a bad ''political'' decision, as there were ''other more important things to talk about'' and ''he might not have been able to get anything done.'' But he did it anyway. As far as he could tell, the issue was in dire need of attention. And he was risking something which practically defined his career and his identity. After bombings of his house, waves of serious death threats at a time when the murder of blacks was at a high point, and recommendations from his own family and friends not to attend certain events, he would risk and eventually give his life to go. This was a movement that enjoyed far more commitment from MLK than Obama has given any issue, and it was a movement in which he might have lost his place for the sake of supporting a just cause. Staying silent on the Vietnam War would have been incompatible with his beliefs. I believe that one of the main reasons that Martin Luther King, Jr. is so widely celebrated is that he was willing to take personal risks and make enormous sacrifices time and time again in the name of fighting oppression. Whether it was popular or politic, few doubt that MLK made every decision he could in the service of justice and peace.

President Obama is obviously in a far different position. But nonetheless, when it comes to the issue of race, he faces a similar predicament. So far, he has remained silent on the issue of racism, just as Kagan remains silent on issues of sexism. The two of them demonstrate well that sometimes, people in power sacrifice very important issues for the sake of politics, because no one in power wants to hear about them, and their popularity might plummet if they do. Obama did mention Rosa Parks and other civil rights activists during his campaign to jerk a tear or two during his speeches. He effectively convinced a lot of people that he was a ''different kind of Presidential Candidate,'' one that fostered ''Hope'' and ''Change.'' What kind of President is he now? If we continue to be afraid of bringing up controversial issues, we will never overcome oppression. If we continue to be afraid of the next ''media frenzy,'' we will never introduce substance into our media's dialogue -- white racism will continue to be far too taboo to get any meaningful attention. And above all, if we continue to be afraid of what might not be ''politic,'' then once we become powerful politicians, we will betray the kinds of things we said in our campaigns and turn our backs on so many of the issues and people which supported us.

Maybe if Obama never says anything about white racism, or about institutional and societal racism in general, he will get reelected, and he will enjoy 8 full years as the first African American President of the United States. But I'd rather see him get thrown out of office for sincerely trying to make a difference than to keep his mouth shut for 6 more years. Avoiding the topic of racism like the plague might make Obama a strategic politician. But it will also make him a coward.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Symbolic Realm of Oppression

In her awesome article, ''Toward a New Vision: Race, Class, and Gender as Categories of Analysis and Connection,'' Patricia Hill Collins contends that,


In order to move toward new visions of what oppression is, I think that we need to ask new questions. How are relationships of domination and subordination structured and maintained in the American political economy? How do race, class, and gender function as parallel and interlocking systems that shape this basic relationship of domination and subordination? Questions such as these promise to move us away from futile theoretical struggles concerned with ranking oppressions and toward analyses that assume race, class, and gender are all present in any given setting, even if one appears more visible and salient than others.
Although a nuanced focus on intersectionality is nothing new, I open with this passage because Collins captures the idea extremely well, and my views rest on this sort of outlook. Depending on the case, oppression and privilege can be simultaneously hypervisible and invisible, simple and multifaceted, insightful and obtuse. Such a complicated social phenomena, with its many complications, contradictions, and subtleties must be treated with care.

So I found it particularly useful when Collins drew from the application of Sandra Harding's 3-category analysis of gender oppression -- which, of course, overlap just as well. Harding separates gender oppression into three overarching dimensions: the institutional, the symbolic, and the individual. Collins extends this method of analyzing oppression by applying it to other intersections like race and class.

Institutional oppression is a category of popular interest these days -- oppression is widely recognized as something that transcends individual acts, and fierce debates center on institutional issues like affirmative action and, most recently, unemployment. But what broke my writer's block -- among the encouragement of readers, thank you for your support -- was reflecting on what, in Peru, I serve to symbolize, and how that's different from what I symbolize in my home city of Chicago. The symbolic dimension of oppression, as used by Collins, is comprised of the ''widespread, societally sanctioned ideologies used to justify relations of domination and subordination.'' The easiest example of this to identify, in my opinion, is our lovely mainstream media's reinforcement of derogatory stereotypes. ''Modern Family,'' a new sitcom that quickly exploded into huge success, pinpoints such stereotypes as the fiery-tempered Latina woman, the sports watching dad who's reluctant to do housework, the meticulously clean and ''femine'' white gay man, along with his snack-sneaking, clumsy and sloppy overweight partner. Our mainstream news, with its militant focus on black violence and ignorance of white violence, or its swift efforts to emphasize the possibility of black racism in order to divert conversations away from white racism, among countless other examples of the mainstream news' biases towards the privileged, successfully reinforce the negative stereotypes of African-Americans. And it's extremely uncommon to see popular fiction exhibiting intelligent, self-empowered female characters. These examples illustrate how symbolic categories of oppression are reinforced by mainstream media -- just one area among others that provides a wealth of examples. The symbolism attached to privileged people is empowering, while the negative symbolism attached to the underprivileged can result in horrible consequences. When institutional oppression is understood in combination with our commonly problematic symbolism, the two compose an undeniably powerful pillar of oppression. As Collins writes,


Each of us lives with an allotted portion of institutional privilege and penalty, and with varying levels of rejection and seduction inherent in the symbolic images applied to us. This is the context in which we make our choices. Taken together, the institutional and symbolic dimensions of oppression create a structural backdrop against which all of us live our lives.
So what is my place in the symbolic realm while I am in Peru? In contrast to what I might symbolize as a known interlocutor, like while I am teaching, what sort of symbolism is attached to me when I am simply observed, or approaching an interaction? As I've walked the streets of Lima, Trujillo, and Cuzco, taller than almost everyone here, with my pale skin and blonde hair, I've symbolized the ''tourist.'' Symbolism doesn't include the actual reasons I'm here, how little I've participated in ''tourism'' and what sort of community-oriented work I'm doing. Rather, at face value, I am a walking symbol of power, money, and privilege, a specimen of the developed world that's been dropped into the country for a specific period of time, safeguarded by countless privileges. If I get my host mom to ask prices first while I stay behind, I can usually get much lower prices from street vendors and at the markets. I'm often asked about the United States as if it is a place full of nothing but extravagant wealth. I'm frequently addressed formally by women who are decades older than me and probably know a lot more about life, and especially oppression, than I do. And as I've addressed before, I am sometimes considered universally competent at a given task. Living and working amongst native Peruvians with these things in mind, I've reflected on the fact that American tourism projects an image of the privileged rather than our diverse and problematic character. More than likely, if a Peruvian meets an American here in Peru, it's going to be a white American, and almost certainly it will be an upper-class white American. Upper-class white Americans share cultural traits, the same cultural traits that dominate the American media that reaches Peruvians, thus communicating the dominant demographic's existence, to the exclusion of other demographics, to their Peruvian hosts.

Another obvious symbol I inhabit is that of a man. Peruvian culture at large typically reinforces sexual symbolism and discrimination even more strongly than in the United States, and even less women hold positions of power. One example of this is the predominance of Roman-Catholicism and its cultural residue. This institution denies women positions of leadership and control over their bodies without exception. The federal government reinforces the latter by having criminalized abortion. I'm not sure what sort of power I symbolize by being a man who is an outsider here, but despite the differences, I am not exempt from the political category of maleness.

When I attempt to compare my symbolic significance in Peru to my symbolic significance in Chicago, I find myself running into more similarities than differences. Though I take public transportation into Bronzeville on a frequent basis among a diverse crowd, I am wearing (at least apparently) clean and well-kept clothes, headphones and mp3 player in use, most frequently reading and writing in a book or two (illustrating that I own the books). Other times I ride my bike, complete with a conveniently designed messenger bag, helmet, lock, and lights. Though I was gifted the frame and built it up in as inexpensive a manner as possible, obtaining the finished product with safety accessories ran me at least $300, and since I don't know anything about bike mechanics, the repairs it warrants are often a pretty penny as well. Just like other major American cities, Chicago is highly racially segregated and suffers from countless examples of institutional racism (where the CTA invests its money is a good example, in fact). Though sexism exists differently and sometimes more subtly, my cis-gendered-male appearance is still a mark of power/neutrality. Thus, I am still the obvious beneficiary of racial, sexual, class-related and gender-related privileges. If anything, in Chicago, unlike in Peru, I am the beneficiary of the fact that each privileged position (all of which I inhabit) is rewarded the mark of 'neutrality.'

I didn't write this expecting to make a focused argument or draw a specific conclusion. Social symbolism, where it is, how it is manifested, and what its effects are compose some seriously murky territory. Perhaps it's simply a public exercise in examining my position. But it's clear that just my appearance and typical behavior can be clearly associated with dimensions of oppression. The way my privilege is symbolized, it seems, is probably just as apparent to Chicagoans as it is to Peruvians. And that symbolism, far from just being appearance, changes the way that people interact with me, I interact with other people, my understanding of the world, and my identity.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Fotos de Ollantay

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On the road on the way to Ollantay from Cuzco.


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Ollantay as seen from one of the mountains that surround the town. You can see my house!


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Some of the freely accessible Incan ruins.


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A view of Ollantay from the other side.


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Me.


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A fútbol tournament at a local colegio.


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A sign that a few volunteers and I made to teach a short class at the community center on violence.


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Nelson, my two year old Peruvian brother.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Computación y Privilegio

To my partial dismay, there were too many volunteers at the health clinic to match the amount of work to be done. So instead, I found an opportunity to teach adults computing classes. Tuesday was the first day of class. Unfortunately, rather than a 'class,' only two young women showed up, and it wasn't very clear that they were there to learn from me. But nevertheless, I started by teaching them what they wanted to know: how to get email and facebook accounts.

Yesterday, in response to their requests, I showed my two students how to make a blog, which I later found out was what they thought they could use to advertise themselves for jobs. Thus, it was somewhat of a disappointment to realize that we had spent so much time setting them up with ''Blogger'' accounts. It was watching one of them type a want-ad for a job, however, that made me realize that I need to start getting serious about leading this class in what I consider to be a more productive direction.

My two students barely understand how to use computers. They use the address bar of their browser incorrectly. They can barely type, and when they do, it's not only at an incredibly slow rate, but what they type also lacks punctuation and capitalization. They're so incredibly far behind the skill level of my peers and I with regard to computers that it almost made me feel guilty. With the computer skills that I've been improving since a very young age, I am able to effectively search for information, jobs, people, etc., and I can construct useful tools like a resume. Being able to use computers and the internet gives me access to many of the mechanisms of power. What I was face-to-face with by watching my students use computers is the fact that the internet only ''puts the world at your fingertips'' if you're lucky enough to know how to use it.

I can't go back in time to when they were in third grade and teach them to type using the ''home row'' keys, like they do at my elementary school. I can't turn them into web-savy computer experts that can figure out just as much as I, or any other privileged American, can on their own. But rather than just going with the flow and taking requests of what to teach, I realized, I need to leave them with some sort of tangible rewards from this class. I need to make use of the fact that as ''teacher,'' I am entitled to a say in our ''curriculum.'' Thus, I'm going to start teaching them how to type using free typing programs online and help them build their own resumes.

As a feminist, it's somewhat ironic to hope that learning these two skills might help my students get a jobs as, for example, secretaries. But these days, basic computer skills are practically on the level of necessity. Envisioning my students getting jobs as secretaries may not be a picture of the just society progressives hope for, but without basic computer skills, even that wouldn't be a possibility. A simple desk job could spell class mobility, and I'm told in theory that class mobility is one path towards the empowerment and liberation of women (and people in general). Hopefully my new curriculum plans will help, in some small way, to put that into practice.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

New Place, New Work

Despite the name of this blog, I have drastically changed locations and environments. I am now in Ollantaytamba, a small town in the mountains of southern Peru, between Macchu Picchu and Cuzco. Still unable to confirm that I would have much to do in Trujillo unless I continued at the school, and finding out that the host family I had lined up there was no longer able to host me, I really needed to find something to do. In one of my many searches on Idealist.org, I found Awamaki, a non-profit that works with Quechua women weavers to promote economic development while preserving an important cultural tradition and promoting sustainable tourism. Since Ollantay (for short) is located between such huge tourist attractions and has ruins of its own to see, there is a constant flow of tourists that stop for a night or two in the town. Awamaki works directly with the weavers, works in health clinics, runs a fair-trade shop to sell the weaves, and teaches both children and adults in different learning environments.

So I applied to volunteer Wednesday night, talked to one of the volunteer coordinators Thursday, bought my plane tickets Thursday night, and on Friday morning, flew from Trujillo to Lima and Lima to Cuzco, to then take an hour and a half long cab ride through mountainous landscapes to Ollantay. Talking to the cab driver made me feel like I was fluent in Spanish (I'm definitely not), so despite doubts, I know that I'm improving. My last night in Trujillo is worth mentioning. I went to a bar called ''Tributo,'' a bar in which mostly cover and tribute bands play, with a few of my friends and two women from Trujillo. One of the women happened to know the band, and after talking to the singer, arranged that I could play a song with them on the drums. She told me to think of three songs that they might know. I thought hard to figure out songs of which I could remember most of the structure, of songs that a relatively typical cover band would know. Finally, I came up with three -- Smells like teen spirit by Nirvana, Roxanne by the Police, and something else I can't remember. Between songs a little bit later, the singer came up to our table and asked, ''What's going on, is he playing?'' I got up to tell him which songs I had come up with, but before I could even start, he asked, ''Do you know the song cocaine?'' ''Um....by who?'' ''I don't know, I think it's Eric Clapton or something.'' ''Ohh, yeah, I think I know that song.'' ''Okay, come on!'' He went back to the front of the bar, expecting me to follow him. I turned to my friend Connor who had been helping me think of songs, and asked if he knew it. He said, ''Oh yeah, duh-duh-duh-duh, dudududu dunnnn...'' singing the initial melody. Suddenly I remembered the song, so I went up to the front and sat at the drums. The singer announced that they were having a special guest play drums for a song and summoned a round of applause. Then almost as quickly as I had gone up there, I was playing the song with them. All of my friends got up from their table and danced while I played, and though being completely out of practice, I played fine and had fun. Afterwards, I thanked everyone in the band, who was incredibly nice to have let me done that. I got enthusiastic applause from the packed bar and compliments from my friends. I thanked everyone in the band, who was incredibly nice to have let me done that. It was a great way to say goodbye to Trujillo.

I am living with a host family with several kids above their family-run locutorio (internet cafe). One of my host brothers enjoys practicing his English while I practice my Spanish, so it's great to hang out with him and learn from each other that way. The younger boy, too, is happy to hang out with me, and today invited me to go play soccer with him and his friends. Unlike my somewhat upper-class house environment in Trujillo, I don't have hot water here and have to go outside to get to the bathroom. There also aren't toilet seats, which is something to get used to since it gets very cold here at night.

Ollantay couldn't be much more different from Trujillo. Whereas Trujillo is a giant city of some 800,000 people, Ollantay has something like 2,000 people. It's such a small place that there aren't taxis, combis, and collectivos flying through the streets and honking at you, because you can pretty much walk anywhere. There's one tiny gym, one discoteca, one bar, and many places to buy touristy things. It's surrounded by beautiful mountains and ruins, some of which are accessible for free after a difficult but beautiful hike, and some of which are expensive to access. During the day, it's so sunny that if I don't have sunscreen, I can feel myself burning the second I go outside. At night it gets considerably cold, to the point which the hoodie and light raincoat I brought aren't enough to keep me warm. The night sky is breathtaking, something I've been wanting to see since coming to Peru, but unable to since I was in fog-covered cities. As soon as darkness falls, the sky is awash with stars. My host mother's sisters run almost every business on my street and around the corner, and a lot of people are familiar with Awamaki and happy to chat with their volunteers, so it's a very welcoming feeling.

I'm going to be working in a health clinic in the mornings and doing some adult education in the afternoons. Volunteers in the health clinics do everything from checking vitals, to mending wounds, to prescribing antibiotics, to giving shots, to assisting with births. They also make home visits in the mountainous regions. There is a community center in town that teaches adults English, among other things, in which I will probably be able to teach. The details are unclear on this thus far, though, since there are only a few people teaching through Awamaki and things need to be set up. There is a strong desire within Awamaki to teach public health, since there is a considerable lack of education here in basic health and especially sexual health. Though birth control is free, many people don't know about it or know whether it's safe to use. The ability to have safe sex and control the size of families is absolutely essential for any regions economic development -- just achieving that goal can have so many secondary positive effects on communities.

So, tomorrow I'm starting work. I'll try to keep my eye open for interesting social conundrums and microcosms of things like oppression, privilege, paternalism, and activism and try to continue write about them. And when I get access to a computer that can do it, I'll upload some beautiful mountain photos.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Privilege of Organization and Human Resources

On Monday night, I wrote a quiz on the English words and phrases that I've been teaching my class and printed out several worksheets and notes to teach afterwards. I felt well prepared to lead a two hour class (the duration of all of my classes) without any awkward pauses or downtime. Surely, this class would pass by without any bumps in the road.

Unfortunately, Tuesday's class ended up being probably the most difficult class yet. The atmosphere of taking a quiz at my school, I quickly learned, is far different from what I'm used to. In the pictures I posted, you might have seen that in my class, the students sit at small tables in groups. This makes it very easy for students to talk to each other and look at each other's papers without it being too noticeable. But my class wasn't too concerned with whether they were being noticed; they simply talked to each other almost constantly. When I demanded silence, specifically instructed them not to talk to their neighbors, and reminded them that we were taking a quiz, they would quiet down for just a few moments and then continue speaking. What made this particularly difficult to manage is that, as all three of us volunteers have noticed, most of the students read outloud to themselves whenever they read. I'm not sure if this is common for most fifth graders, but for kids of various age groups at our school, it is. Thus, it was difficult to keep my eyes on who was exchanging answers and who was just doing their best to read what was on their paper.

When one of the students notified me that our class clown/trouble maker, Luis, was copying his answers from his English notebook, I took away his notebook and test. It would have been a lot easier had I never known, since this gave him nothing to do and invited him to agitate the class. I sat him in the corner of the room, but he continued to whisper across the room with other students, and when I was wasn't looking, peer at other students' quizzes and tell them answers. I did my best to stop him from doing this while also trying to maintain some sort of general quiz-taking environment. Unfortunately, it was never completely quiet, and there probably wasn't a single student in the class that actually completed their quiz without help.

After the quiz, the lack of control and formality of quiz time spilled into class time with full force. Luis continued to cause trouble and distraction, now reinforced by the rest of the boys. As I tried to lead lessons and activities, most of the boys didn't pay attention or purposefully disrupted, while half of the girls payed attention and half didn't. Rather than a useful class, it was more of an exercise for me in trying to control a completely hectic and disorganized clasroom. When I did successfully encourage the class to repeat phrases several times and copy them into their notebooks, I was disappointed by their inability to reproduce even the simplest phrases on command. After making it clear several times what a question meant and putting a variety of possible answers on the board, having them repeat them several times with the equivilents in Spanish, the kids still rarely understood how to respond. Considering that when I started 6th grade Spanish, I found it incredibly easy, it seemed to me like my students are well behind their potential ability to read and comprehend new words and phrases.

As draining as this experience was, in many ways it was also depressing. The chaotic classroom is taxing for me, but more importantly, it significantly hinders these students' ability to learn. The more I've worked in this school, the more I am reminded that organization and consistency can be powerful privileges. Calling to mind Peggy McIntosh's famous essay, Unpacking the Knapsack, in which McIntosh creates a giant list of the privileges she is awarded due to being white, I started to think of some of the many ways that my elementary school (as well as my middle school and high school, all public, like the elementary school in which I work), and other elementary schools in well-funded areas, enjoy the privileges of rigid organization aided by plentiful human resources and bureaucracy. As much as I hated these things as an angsty, rebellious kid, and even with the many problems that plague all rigidly organized schools, it's now clear as day how much those privileges aided my learning. What follows is just a few of the ways that my elementary school, and other elementary schools like it, benefit from these organizational and human resources. Everything mentioned on this list is something that is not present at my school.

  • Behavioral conduct for taking quizzes and tests were taught at a very young age and reinforced in consistent manners as children grew up. These standards of behavior were enforced with increasing strictness and more serious consequences as children got older. Because of this, it was less likely and more difficult for students to help each other during quizzes and tests and more likely to think for themselves and evaluate their grasp on a given subject.
  • Worksheets were frequently distributed for both in and out of class purposes. This is easy at schools that have a printer in every classroom and at least one giant printer/photocopying machine. With worksheets, students are offered straightforward ways to practice what they are learning in class, where teachers can help them, and at home. Grading each and every students' homework was a surmountable task, since all of the worksheets were the same. With the aid of worksheets, children were able to clearly understand how well they are performing in a given subject area. Teachers saved time by being able to reuse previously created worksheets and download and print worksheets from the internet and by more quickly and accurately assessing student performance.
  • Poorly-behaved children (like I was) were able to be dealt with through several channels. One was being sent to a principle or vice principle who would determine punishment. Punishment could be given with different levels of severity, all of which are understood by the student, and all of which can result in further punishment if they are repeat offenses. Detention was an option, since there were school employees available to supervise that time period. Recess privileges could be taken away and replaced with boring, sitting time, since employees were available to supervise that as well.
  • Recess and lunch time were supervised by school employees rather than teachers. This allowed for a relatively safe recess time, since these employees' sole responsibility was to maintain a safe recess environment. Teachers were able to take a reasonable break from their loaded schedules and meet with other teachers to coordinate and organize comprehensive curricula and activities. Surely, the ability of the teachers to have time at work away from students (including class periods in which they did not teach) allowed for better course planning.
These are just a few ways that my school was organized in ways that fostered my learning. My school was far from perfect, but I'm sure that if I wanted to, I could come up with a much longer and comprehensive list of privileges that I enjoyed in that school. In contrast, the school in which I work here has significantly less resources and is organized much differently. If a child is encroaching on a class's abillity to function, they cannot be sent away or subjected to well-established disciplinary action, since there's nowhere for that child to go and no bureaucratic disciplinary systems to throw at them. Class materials are usually hand made by teachers, if used at all, and usually don't have much to take home other than their notebook. As I've described, these notebooks are often full of incomplete notes about information which may or may not be understood by them. There is no after school homework help or resources for aiding study, and there is no time during the day in which teachers are free to grade and plan independently of students.

Of course, many schools in the states suffer from similar problems, as well as completely different problems that just as severely hinder learning. I'm aware that my elementary school is a privileged one, and that even with the privileges that the school provided, many children were less successful than I was due to countless factors. And none of this is to say that the kids don't learn or the school doesn't function, and my understanding of how the school does function is still limited.

Instead, I consider these observations illustrations of how powerful privilege is and how deeply it permeates our identities and lives. Childhood is an integral stage in a person's development; it is the best time to absorb information and develop a firm grasp on fundamental skills. The further behind a child is on her fundamentals in elementary school, the further behind she will be as she ages, and the less likely it will be for her to break out of the debilitating conditions of poverty and oppression. Rather than being far behind us, the amount of privilege or oppression we experienced in various facets of our lives as children are almost-essential components of our personalities. Privilege, or lack of privilege, shapes us from the moment we set foot in our first institution.





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