Black Santa Matters

For the first time in its quarter of a century history, the Mall of America has a Black Santa Claus. This year’s Santa is Larry Jefferson, a retired army vet from Texas who’s been playing the big man in red since the tender age of 12. Landon Luther, owner of Santa Experience, was looking for “a Santa for everyone” and selected Jefferson at a Santa Convention where he was the only African-American out of 1,000 Kris Kringles. This. Is. Awesome.

What’s not so awesome? The racist trolls who made insulting remarks on a CBS Minnesota report on the story. Things got so bad that the comments function had to be turned off.  The Star Tribune turned theirs off before the article was even published, anticipating a racist backlash. Some white supremacists even called for a boycott on Mall of America. That’s fine. I don’t want them in the line to see Father Christmas with my daughter any more than I want those who hate transgender people in the bathroom with me at Target.

Some of the rhetoric is less blatantly hateful, but equally insidious. Take this argument: “I understand the need for inclusiveness, but in the story, Santa was white.” To be honest, tradition is a poor excuse for leaving people out. Especially when that tradition is factually inaccurate. Santa Claus is based on St. Nicholas, a Greek Christian bishop known for his generous giving to the poor. He was born in what is now Turkey and is usually depicted as having tan or olive skin. The “jolly old elf” who drives a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer (what we think of as the “traditional” story) was brought to us in 1823 by Clement C. Moore’s A Visit From St. Nicholas. We got our current (white) image of Santa Claus from Thomas Nast’s 1881 drawing, which was co-opted and popularized by…Coca-Cola.

Another problematic argument: “It shouldn’t matter what color Santa is.” That’s true – it shouldn’t matter. It’s the adults that are making it an issue. As Jefferson himself says, “It’s no big deal. I’m still Santa, I just happen to be a Santa of color.” The kids are fine with it.  Jefferson describes a time when a little boy pointed out that he was brown. He simply explained that Santas come in many colors. The kid replied “Oh!”, took his candy cane, and went on his merry way. For some children, however, having a Black Santa is a big deal, and for a very important reason. They finally have a Santa who looks like them.

This is a momentous occasion to be lauded. Frankly, it’s a long time coming. But still, the Mall of America is the largest mall in the nation. I realize Santas of color are nothing new, but it’s great to have one become mainstream. As my daughter gets older, she’ll have the opportunity to sit on the laps of many different Santa Clauses. If she asks me why they don’t all look the same, I’ll explain (as Jefferson does) that Santa is a reflection of all of us. What matters is the spirit of St. Nicholas in each of the Santas: the joy of selfless giving. My only requirement for Santa? Someone who radiates love. And Santa Larry does just that.

Dress Codes: A Study in Sexism

I remember vividly the time that, as a sophomore at a conservative Christian college, a friend of mine mentioned that I should consider changing how I dressed. He was concerned that my mid-thigh skirt and v-neck sweater might cause my male classmates to “stumble.” I was taken aback and then completely incensed. It was such a double standard! No one was worried about my spiritual path with the never-ending parade of college guys playing Frisbee golf with their shirts off.

Don’t think this was some isolated incident on a college campus 15 years ago. This attitude is prevalent throughout our society. You can see it in the Brock Turner rape case, the multiple sex assault coverups and scandals  at universities across the nation, and President-elect Donald Trump’s degrading comments about women, to name a few. You can also witness it in our schools, where it manifests itself every day via sexist dress codes.

Gendered dress code problems are abundant nationwide; I’ve chosen three examples here to highlight different aspects of the controversy. First, there’s Pinellas District in Florida, which banned cheerleaders from wearing their uniforms to class even though the uniforms were school-issued. Kenilworth Junior High School in California barred leggings for girls because the boys were getting “too distracted.” A student in Clay County School District had to wear a “dress code violation” outfit in order to avoid an in-school suspension. In case you thought you read any of those wrong, go ahead and give them a google. Sadly, you’ll find many related stories of girls being subjected to “inspections” and getting pulled out of class, suspended, and shamed. (While I’ll focus on gendered dress codes in this post, there is also a significant issue with schools banning hairstyles that are popular with Black students and religious headwear, particularly for Muslim students.)

Some people don’t see why it’s such a big deal, so let’s analyze why these dress codes are problematic. When a student is suspended or sent to detention, she is removed from her learning environment. Any time a student misses out on learning opportunities, we should be concerned, but especially when it’s for a minor infraction (which perhaps shouldn’t be considered an infraction at all). When a dress code requires that girls where one thing and boys another (as at prom or graduation), it forces students to conform to gender norms. This is inappropriate for all children, but makes things very difficult for transgender students if they are not allowed to dress according to their gender identity or if they identify as nonbinary. Some of the punishments, such as having to put on baggy pants or Bermuda shorts, are designed to be humiliating. This type of consequence is totally counterproductive to raising girls who are body positive (which is essential to their mental, emotional, and physical well-being). Finally, it sends a dangerous message. To girls, it says that they are nothing more than a distraction and that harassment is their fault, which is evocative of the ridiculous and harmful “she was asking for it” argument. To boys, it says that they are incapable of controlling themselves in the company of women, issuing them a “get out of jail free” card for bad behavior. Essentially, sexist dress codes perpetuate rape culture.

There are certainly arguments to be had for enforcing dress codes. In many ways, going to school is like training for life in the grown-up world. Lots of workplaces have dress codes in place. Some restaurants require certain attire. I understand that, and I support dress codes to the extent that they protect the safety of students. I also plan to teach my daughter about dressing appropriately for different environments, but that’s my job as a parent. We’re talking about public schools here. The issue is not the dress code per se; it’s the fact that it usually only pertains to girls. If the guidelines are only about midriffs, short shorts, bras, and spaghetti straps, that’s not right. If the dress code truly is for all students, then they should be disciplined in the same way. Boys tend to get a slap on the wrist, while girls receive much harsher consequences. When you label girls’ clothing a distraction to boys and remove her, you prioritize his education over hers… and that’s unacceptable.

It’s heartening to see young girls in this country fighting the good fight and pressuring schools to change their ways. Some girls are protesting by wearing the article of clothing in question or, as in Charleston County School of the Arts in South Carolina, t-shirts with scarlet letters. Others, like high schooler Lauren Wiggins of Canada, have written open letters to their administrators. Some, such as Sofia Pierson of Washington State, have even successfully petitioned their schools to change their dress code and been part of the committee leading that change. Many female students have taken to social media to increase awareness. They often post pictures of themselves in the “inappropriate” outfits, and leave many of us wondering how they could possibly have been deemed offensive.

If you want to change a sexist dress code at your local school, I’ve included some tips geared to your particular role:

Advice for students:  Know your rights. The First Amendment guarantees your right to freedom of expression. In the 1969 case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, the U.S. Supreme Court found that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” Research what other students have done (I think Pierson is a great example to follow). You can start a petition, stage a protest, or set up a meeting with the administration or school board. Don’t underestimate the power of social media to increase visibility. Many students have successfully used hashtags to like #IAmNotADistraction, #CropTopDay, and #FreeTheShoulder, to publicize their campaigns.

Special note for transgender students: If your school has a male and female-specific dress code, dressing in accordance with your gender identity is protected. I know this doesn’t help you if you’re nonbinary, but we hear you and will continue to push for gender-neutral policies.

Advice for parents: Know your rights. The Fourteenth Amendment guarantees your right to raise your children as you choose. Support your daughter’s efforts and encourage her to engage in respectful dialogue because that’s how you get things done, and to quote FLOTUS, “When they go low, we go high.” You can accompany her to meetings as long as you yourself can keep your cool. If you hit a wall, you can always contact your state’s ACLU. Last year, the ACLU of Idaho intervened when they were alerted to discriminatory dress code standards for graduation. They sent a letter to all Idaho school districts with the following reminder: “Requiring boys and girls to dress differently or according to government-imposed gender norms is unlawful gender discrimination under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.”

Advice for teachers, administrators, and other school staff: Now is a great time to analyze your current dress code. Perhaps the most important revision is to make your school’s policy gender neutral. Some districts have opted to make dress codes purposefully vague (nixing measurements and two-finger rules). Others have gone simple. Portland’s new dress code requires all students to wear a top, bottom, and shoes and to cover certain body parts. If you’re looking for a model, I highly recommend the Oregon NOW Model Student Dress Code. It emphasizes that students be given as much choice as possible in their expression as well as the importance of staff training in the spirit of the dress code, enforcement and consequences, as well as consent and sexual harassment.

I have a daughter now, and it’s my hope that we as a collective community of parents and educators, can give her, and all girls (and all children for that matter) an educational environment in which they can freely express themselves and feel comfortable in their own bodies. After all, that’s kind of a prerequisite for learning! I hope my precious girl will grow up into a woman who, if told that her clothing was causing men to falter, wouldn’t be cowed. No, she would know ignorance on sight, fight back, and go confidently in the direction of her dreams.

Teaching the Truth About Thanksgiving

I grew up on Peanuts, and I’ve always been especially partial to their holiday movies like It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, and A Charlie Brown Christmas. One of the bonus episodes is called The Mayflower Voyages. It tells the story of the hardships the Pilgrims faced on their way to the new world and how Squanto and Chief Massasoit helped them survive, naturally featuring Snoopy and the gang. I always thought it was cute and informational. As an adult, I look at it with different eyes. What was once a charming cartoon about the first Thanksgiving became yet another example of the whitewashing of American history.

I always loved Thanksgiving as a student. I remember wearing my buckled pilgrim hat to school for kindergarten and cutting up the fruit for the first grade feast. When I became a teacher, I continued to celebrate Thanksgiving at school, but I always focused on the gratitude aspect. Even though I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, there was always something prickly about the historical part. One year, my grade level put on a Thanksgiving play. I definitely balked at the romanticized version of the story and silently objected to the “Little Pilgrims and Indians” song, but I have to admit that I didn’t do anything about it.

When I began to work more in the areas of diversity and equity, I came to understand that the colonial-centric narrative has suppressed the native one. History favors the aggressors, and we have the post-WWI advent of textbooks to thank for a widely propagated story that is at best propaganda and at worst an outright lie.

You need look no further than the events at Standing Rock to understand that the oppression of Native Americans continues to this day. We owe it to our children to speak truth about the experience of the people indigenous to this land. We must also recognize and honor that fact that many of our Native students view Thanksgiving as a painful reminder of the genocide of millions of their people. An accurate portrayal of the first Thanksgiving is a good start.

It begins with dispelling the following myths. I know there are other misconceptions about topics like what was actually eaten (hint: not turkey) and that the holiday was celebrated by the Pilgrims and Native Americans every year afterward (it wasn’t). However, here I’ll focus on myths that are rooted in the oppression of native people.

Myth #1: The Pilgrims invited the Wampanoags to take part in a feast celebrating the first harvest in 1621.

The English crops that first year were meager at best. It was actually the Wampanoags who brought most of the food. The two groups never sat together at a table in the spirit of cross-cultural exchange and mutual respect. In fact, the Pilgrims only invited members of the tribe in order for them to sign a treaty that granted the Pilgrims the land at Plymouth.

Myth #2: The Wampanoags were just being friendly.

The Wampanoags had had encounters with Europeans before, largely in the form of slave traders who raided their homes and villages. They fed the Pilgrims through the harsh winter and taught them how to grow food despite their prior experiences. The generosity of the native people, viewed through this lens, takes on even greater significance.

Myth #3: Squanto learned English to help the settlers.

Squanto was himself captured and enslaved. Upon his arrival in Europe, he learned English in order to escape.  

Myth #4: The Pilgrims and Indians were fast friends.

Pilgrim leaders didn’t mince words when it came to the Native Americans; they considered them “ignorant, heathen savages.” In return for their help, the Wampanoag tribe was nearly wiped out within the span of 2 years. Most died from diseases the Europeans brought with them, but many others were victims of violence.

Myth #5: Massachusetts Governor William Bradford declared the holiday as a day of thanksgiving in 1637.

The first official Thanksgiving was held as a celebration to mark the end of a bloody crusade against the Pequot Nation. On May 26th, the Pilgrim militia raided a Pequot village and massacred everyone in it – 700 men, women, and children. Preacher Increase Mather praised the “victory” of sending so many “heathen souls to hell.” In essence, our beloved holiday has its origins in bigotry, self-righteousness, and ethnic cleansing. Since 1970, many Native Americans have chosen to mark the fourth Thursday in November as a Day of Mourning, in remembrance of all that was lost.

I’m not saying you have to give up Thanksgiving (although Columbus Day is another story). We have some wonderful traditions that are worth keeping: breaking bread together, spending time with loved ones, and reflecting on all that for which we are grateful. But we’d be remiss if we continued to trot out the false Thanksgiving story that has become part of American folklore. We must also use the day to remember how much an entire people suffered, and to work toward justice in the world so that this never happens again. Because it is happening now, to the water protectors in North Dakota.

We can’t afford to shield our children from what may be for us an uncomfortable truth. If we are to be socially responsible, then it’s our duty as parents and teachers to educate ourselves and our children. We must raise the next generation to be empathetic champions of social justice. If we can do that, we will truly have something to be thankful for.

 

Campaigning for Better Books

The current political climate is proof positive that we need diverse books. The connection between the election and the need for better representation of diverse perspectives in literature might not be readily apparent. Let me see if I can connect some of the dots…

Donald Trump’s rhetoric has stoked fear and hatred and emboldened the alt-right to demonize the social justice movement. Many Americans listened, convinced of the assault on their values and way of life. They felt that they had to “take their country back” and elected Trump to do the job.

The lack of empathy for people of color, LGBTQ folks, and the Muslim community by nearly half this country is frankly shocking. Americans in rural areas voted overwhelmingly for Trump. My guess is that many of those people aren’t exposed to much diversity in their everyday lives. (That’s not to say that people in rural areas are backwards or close-minded; it’s rather a gentle suggestion that everyone’s world is made bigger through reading.)

Enter books. I’m going to borrow here from the work of Dr. Gordon Allport. Dr. Allport’s intergroup contact theory states that direct contact reduces prejudice. The extended theory holds that knowing a person of one’s own group has a close relationship with a member of an outgroup can lead to more positive attitudes about the outgroup.  In the absence of opportunity for direct contact, text provides people with imaginary contact that has similar results. Books provide windows into the lives and experiences of people who are different and can help nurture empathy. This is important for adults, but even more so for children because (forgive the cliché) the future rests in their hands.

I’ve written before about Marley Dias and her #100BlackGirlBooks project. I’m delighted to report that she’s not alone. I’d like to highlight three amazing campaigns for better books:

1)Let Books Be Books: This campaign is out of the UK, but it’s absolutely relevant here, as you’ll see from the list of publishers who have responded. It comes from the people who brought you Let Toys Be Toys, an effort to end the labeling of toys as “for girls” or “for boys.” They extended this to books, seeking to stop the marketing of children’s books along gender lines. They argue that these books (pink, sparkly, princess themes for girls and blue, action/adventure, pirate stories for boys) send kids limiting messages about gender, prevent them from exploring wide interests, and “provide fertile ground for bullying.” So far, publishers like Usborne, Scholastic, and Doring Kindersley (to name a few) have agreed not to release any new titles marketed specifically to one gender. Check it out at http://www.lettoysbetoys.org.uk/letbooksbebooks/.

2)Step Up Scholastic: Organized by American Indians in Children’s Literature, the Ferguson Response Network, and Teaching for Change, Step Up Scholastic for ALL Children calls for “children, teachers, and parents, to write to Scholastic to demand they publish and distribute children’s books and catalogs that reflect and affirm the identity, history, and lives of ALL children in our schools.” Given that Scholastic has a major presence in elementary schools across the nation (who doesn’t remember bringing home Scholastic catalogs or attending one of their book fairs?), they have a real opportunity to be a leader here. And they are hearing us (and these kinds of grassroots efforts do work). Recently, they pulled the book A Birthday Cake for George Washington off the shelves because the public demanded its recall due to its irresponsible and dishonest depiction of slavery. To learn more, visit https://actionnetwork.org/letters/stepupscholastic-for-all-children.

3)We Need Diverse Books: WNDB started in response to an all-white, all-male panel of children’s book authors at a BookCon event in 2014. It’s “a grassroots organization of children’s book lovers that advocates essential changes in the publishing industry to produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people.” Their mission is to provide children with books featuring diverse characters so that all kids can see themselves reflected in the pages of a book. You can find more information at http://weneeddiversebooks.org/.

Please, if this resonates with you, do all you can to support these campaigns and those like them. Follow them. Like them on Facebook. Sign their petitions. Boycott publishers who market by gender. Critique your Scholastic catalog. Write a letter. Do whatever it takes to get diverse books into the hands of the people, especially the children. Never underestimate the power of a good book.

What I Learned in This Presidential Election

This isn't the post I thought I'd be writing today. I was ready and excited to compose a celebratory piece about the first woman president of the United States, the breaking of the ultimate glass ceiling. I couldn't wait to quote Michelle Obama in saying that, thanks to Hillary Clinton, my daughter would now take for granted that a woman could be president. Instead, I'm writing a much different essay about a much different America.

Yesterday, I learned the term "confirmation bias." It turns out that when you subscribe to Pantsuit Nation, unfollow your ultra conservative friends, and mute Tommy Lahren on Twitter, your country looks a lot more like the one you want it to be. I let myself become, if not cocky, at the least complacent. I lived in a bubble (what Michael Moore calls the liberal echo chamber), and I never saw this coming. Once the election had been called, Trump supporters came out of the woodwork all over my social media. And that's pretty much the story of this election.

A lot of people in this country are angry, and Donald Trump rode that wave of anger all the way to the White House. I understand that after eight years in one direction, the country often the swings the other way. I also get the desire to fight against elitism, the establishment, and the status quo. I can sympathize with people who feel disenfranchised by a system of two parties that left them behind. What I don't understand is supporting a candidate who spews racist, misogynistic, hateful rhetoric, mocks the disabled, war heroes, and Gold Star families, threatens to jail his opponent, and brags about sexual assault. Trump appeals to what is basest in human nature, and it grieves me to know that half this country either liked or looked past it.

I've learned a lot of important things about my country since Trump's victory was announced.

We do not live in a post-racial society. In case there was any lingering doubt, which there certainly wasn't for me. I knew systemic racism was endemic in the US, but Trump opened the door for the more blatant variety. Consider this: our president elect was endorsed by the KKK. He may have tried to distance himself from hate groups, but he's spouted the same garbage (birther movement, anyone?). The alt-right is convinced that "white identity" is somehow threatened by political correctness (actually, it's called respect) and the social justice movement, and they’ve been emboldened by Trump’s antics. We need to debunk the myth of reverse racism. It is the very essence of privilege to be able to cast your vote for a racist because you know he'll never come after you or your family.

Misogyny is alive and well. Hillary was held to a higher standard than Trump or any other male candidate for that matter. She was criticized for her hair, her clothes, her laugh, and her likeability. Hillary is flawed (who isn't?), but she is infinitely more qualified than Trump to hold the highest office in the land. White men showed up in droves for Trump, and their hatred for Hillary is visceral.  They claim to hate her for Benghazi and her email, but I can’t help thinking they just couldn't cope with the idea of a woman in the Oval Office. By choosing a man who has consistently objectified and denigrated women, they've given that behavior their tacit approval.

Rape culture is real. We just elected a man who boasted about grabbing women "by the pussy." It's disgusting and terrifying. Sexual assault victims are already reluctant to come forward for fear of retribution, not being believed, and lack of justice (look no further than Brock Turner). How will they feel now that the revelation of Trump's appalling behavior was utterly of no consequence in his quest for office? It sends a dangerous message to our young girls that their bodies are not their own, and to our boys that consent is optional.

I accept the results of this election, but I do not accept that this (hate, fear) is what the people want. This is not a mandate; this is a cry for help. You want change? Believe me, I hear you now. But your values aren’t under assault – I promise. Education is the order of the day. I think Van Jones got it absolutely right when he named this phenomenon "whitelash" against a black president and a society that is increasingly inclusive. People want to "take their country back," but what they don't realize is that ensuring equal rights for others doesn't take their own rights away.

My first reaction as I watched the swing states turn red was that I want nothing to do with this. I've since realized that I can't afford to do that. It's irresponsible. I owe it to my LGBTQ, Muslim, and Latinx friends, to the Black Lives Matter movement, and to the women and children of this country of whom my daughter is one, to keep on keeping on.

I held it together pretty well until my husband messaged me from Afghanistan to tell me he loved me and that it was going to be OK. Then I lost it. I have since picked myself up and dusted myself off. I'm here writing, and I will continue to write about diversity, equity, and the importance of ensuring the rights of the marginalized. I will work with educators on making our schools welcoming for all children. I will teach my daughter about consent. I am dismayed, shocked, and disappointed, but I'm not giving up. Buckle up, folks. We have a lot of work to do.

Volunteering in Latin America as a Person of Color

You look like Mulan.

Are you related to Jackie Chan?

Put your hair in a bun like they do in your country.

It never occurred to me that my race would come up as a volunteer at Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos Honduras. I’m mixed race (Asian and white), but it honestly hasn’t been much of an issue in the United States. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve experienced a slew of microaggressions (mostly of the Where are you from? No, where are you froooooom? variety). Most upsetting were the occasions when people wanted me to explain why I didn’t speak Vietnamese. Because apparently bringing up someone’s painful family history is an acceptable consequence of satisfying one’s own curiosity. But I won’t pretend to have it as bad as many people of color in this country do; no, if people make assumptions about me, they tend to be positive.

So imagine my surprise upon arriving at El Rancho Santa Fe and immediately being labeled “la china.” And yes, every one of the above statements is a direct quote from a pequeño. I remember one night early on in my volunteer year, all the kids gathered in talleres (workshops) to watch the latest Karate Kid movie and every time the little Asian girl appeared, I would hear shouts of my name. It was crazy. I don’t even think I look particularly Asian (I know that most people who ask about my heritage just want to know why I’m brown). It wasn’t just on the Ranch. Walking around the streets of Tegucigalpa, people would frequently point at me and refer to me as “la chinita.” I kind of get it. Honduras has a surprising number of Chinese restaurants run by immigrants. Latin Americans are used to gringos looking a certain way (blond, blue-eyed). I suppose they were trying to make me fit into their schema somehow.

I did my best to clarify. My dad is Vietnamese, a refugee of the war. My mom is white. Both are American, as am I. This sometimes backfired. One night, I was eating with the boys in the hogar Arca de Noe and my ethnic background came up. 12 year-old Carlos insisted I must be Chinese. I explained that I was half-Vietnamese and that Vietnam is a country to the south of China. “Ohhhhh,” he replied. “I know. You’re a geisha.” Another volunteer tried to delicately explain what a geisha was, which only resulted in him requesting that I paint my face and entertain him. Fail.

Despite incidents like these, I did have my share of success. I worked in the hogar for the oldest girls, Hijas de Pilar. I developed incredibly close-knit relationships with my girls. Through those connections, I was able to share my background with an audience that cared about me and wanted to understand who I was. It was incredible to watch the girls jump to my defense. When a young boy asked me to say something in Chinese, María explained, “She’s from the States. She speaks English.” Sometimes they were a little too forceful. Upon hearing me called “chinita”, Sara exclaimed, “She’s Vietnamese, you moron!”

As a volunteer of color, you have to walk a fine line. You want to be respected and have your identity honored, but you have to remember you are in a foreign country with its own cultural norms. In Honduras, it’s quite common to use nicknames based on appearance. One of my girls was “Pecas” (“Freckles”) and a dark-skinned boy in the baby house was referred to as “Frijolito.” This might be considered offensive in the U.S., but we have to be careful that we’re not trying to bestow wisdom on the ignorant natives (hello, Savior Complex). I also recognize that it’s problematic to ask people of color to constantly educate. It’s never bothered me personally, but I think it’s inappropriate to make assumptions about whose job it is. I’m okay with taking on that role, especially with kids, because I know their questions come from a place of curiosity rather than malice.

Being a volunteer of color was definitely an interesting experience, but it didn’t define my year. What defined it was relationships. Relationships like the one I had and continue to have with Carlos. He still calls me Geisha, but it’s now a tongue-in-cheek term of endearment. He recently drew this picture of me as a new mother. He sees my race, but he sees me too. And that’s what’s important.

This testimonial was originally written for Nuestros Pequenos Hermanos USA as part of my work with their Diversity Task Force.

 

 

Source: http://nphusa.blogspot.com/2016/10/diversi...

Promoting Equality with Stonewall Democrats of Central Texas

A few weeks ago, I was invited to speak at the Stonewall Democrats of Central Texas Pride event in downtown Belton. Here is the full text of my speech:

I’m so excited to be here today among people who are so passionate about protecting equality. We have made great strides in this effort this year, but we have a long way to go. This election season, we will make decisions as a country that will decide whether those protections will be maintained and extended or repealed. As a teacher and mother, I always look at new policies through the lens of how they will affect our nation’s children. Unfortunately, our schools have become battlegrounds in the fight for equal rights. Our children deserve better. They deserve schools in which they are free from bullying, feel a sense of belonging, and have their many identities recognized and honored. We know that when students feel safe and nurtured at school, they improve not just their academic achievement but their confidence in themselves and their ability to work toward justice in the world.

I became a teacher because I loved school as a little girl. The classroom was a magical place for me, but I was well aware that this wasn’t the case for many students. In part, I became a teacher because I wanted all students to have the kind of experience that I did. As a teacher, I worked hard to develop a positive and loving classroom community and to be especially attentive to the needs of minority students. Diversity and equity have always been at the center of my professional work. When I was introduced to the Welcoming Schools approach in 2013, I found a new calling.

Welcoming Schools is a project of the Human Rights Campaign, and it’s a comprehensive approach to creating respectful and supportive schools. Welcoming Schools provides professional development and resources around 5 strands of emphasis: embracing family diversity, creating LGBTQ inclusive schools, preventing bias-based bullying, creating gender expansive schools, and supporting transgender and non-binary students. Welcoming Schools is designed for use in elementary schools because we know that primary prevention efforts must begin early on in order eliminate bias before it manifests in aggressive behaviors. We know this work is essential because students who experience acceptance in school are more highly motivated, engaged in learning, and committed to school. But it’s not just academics: we are protecting the emotional and physical well-being of our children when we make schools places of inclusivity.

I became a facilitator for Welcoming Schools because I’ve seen firsthand how it works. As a teacher, I was always wary of yet another anti-bullying program. As far as I was concerned, no good curriculum came from a box. That’s why I liked this approach. It was about building classroom community, making structural changes, and using interpersonal relationships to educate…in addition to outright lessons. Let me give you an example. As a novice teacher, I would come unglued at the use of the word “gay” as a slur and immediately discipline the child. It wasn’t until years later that I realized I was missing an opportunity to educate. My last year in the classroom, a child said “that’s so gay” on the first day of school. I pulled her aside and asked her if she knew what “gay” meant. She said, “When a man and a man or a woman and a woman love each other.” “That’s right,” I replied. “Being gay is part of someone’s identity, and we don’t use that as an insult.” It was so much more effective. Through interactions like that throughout the year, along with read-alouds that built empathy, lessons that taught ally-behavior, and tiny shifts in my conduct as a teacher, my classroom became a place where a girl who had a toileting accident (the week her mom was diagnosed with breast cancer)was met with care and concern by her classmates instead of ridicule.

It’s not always easy to get this kind of work into schools. We made major headway earlier this year when the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education jointly released guidance and best practices that ensure the civil rights of transgender students in schools. Unfortunately, the Attorney General of this state has led an effort to undo this historic advancement. Texas, along with twelve other states, filed a motion in federal court to block enforcement of the federal guidelines, and sadly, a Wichita Falls court issued a temporary injunction. Fortunately, the ACLU of Texas has followed up with districts in this state to clarify what the order does and does not mean. In their letter, they explain that the order temporarily prevents the Obama administration from acting on the guidance. It does NOT mean that districts may discriminate against transgender students with impunity. In fact, under Title IX, districts that do so may face legal liability. Furthermore, nothing in the order prevents schools from embracing inclusiveness and implementing policies that support transgender students.

And it doesn’t prevent YOU either. As a parent, grandparent, concerned citizen, LGBTQ equality advocate, or ally, there are many steps you can take to ensure the best for our children. Encourage your local library to stock books that are LGBTQ inclusive. Make sure your school’s PTA is welcoming to all families. See to it that sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression are specifically enumerated in harassment and bullying policies. Get a GSA started at your child’s school. Let’s work together to form a PFLAG chapter in Belton or Temple. Petition your child’s individual school or the district at large via the school board to provide much needed professional development to teachers.

Schools play an incredibly important role in the work we are all doing to protect equality. In many ways, schools are on the front lines. But our children deserve to be so much more than pawns in a political game. They need schools that are safe, nurturing places in which they are free to be their authentic selves...and together we can make that happen. Thank you.

 

Boys Don't Cry (But They Should)

You’ve probably seen the viral video - the one with the little boy who is crying and his inspirational karate teacher? (Check it out: https://youtu.be/uBDAPJpwILw). In the clip, student Bruce is trying to break a block with his hand. In his frustration, he begins to cry. His instructor, Jason Wilson, explains to him that crying is nothing to be ashamed of. “We cry as men,” he tells him. “I don’t mind if you cry. I cry too.” He lets Bruce know that it’s okay to express his emotions, and that’s exactly what Bruce needs to hear. Is it any coincidence that Bruce is then able to break the block successfully? I don’t think so.

This video gets so much right. We live in a society that values toughness in men. There’s nothing wrong with a little grit (far from it), but we do our boys a disservice when we promote hyper-masculinity as the norm. Stifling emotions can lead to anger and result in destructive behavior (there’s a reason boys are at a higher risk for suicide as well as more likely to be victims and perpetrators of violence). Research shows that boys who don’t learn to deal with their feelings are at risk of falling behind in school. It’s not only academics; if they don’t learn to be emotionally honest, they won’t be effective communicators, which can hamper their ability to succeed societally as young men. When we limit what it means to be a boy (you know, that rough and tumble, snakes and snails mentality), we limit the unique potential of individual children.

So what’s to be done? Here are some strategies for your consideration:

1)Encourage a growth mindset.

This is a good strategy for all children, but I’ll focus on boys here. Many boys are conditioned to fear failure and are shunned if they express disappointment in an emotional way. That’s why some are prone to angry outbursts. A growth mindset helps children view failure as part of the learning process, making them more resilient in the future. For more information about Carol Dweck’s pioneering work, visit www.mindsetonline.com.

2)Help boys cultivate a full repertoire of emotions.

If we want boys to develop an extensive emotional vocabulary, we have to talk about it. It’s important to label feelings (their own as well as those of characters in books and on tv). Make sure home and school are places where they feel safe to explore their emotions. Give them permission to cry. In initiating conversations about feelings, use movies like Inside Out or pretty much any superhero flick (think about it: most of them are as vulnerable as they are invincible) as an entry point.

3)Provide comfort when needed.

I understand that inclination to tell kids to “suck it up.” When my daughter falls down, I encourage her to “throw some dirt on it” and get back up. But when I see that she’s really upset, I pick her up. We need to do the same for boys. If they’re hurt or frustrated, console them, give them hugs, and reassure them that it is healthy and even brave to express one’s emotions.

4)Let boys play with a variety of toys.

First of all, props to Target and other retailers who have done away with categorizing toys by gender. I really don’t understand the big deal with letting boys play with dolls. Are we so afraid they’ll become (gasp) great fathers?? Playing with toy mops and brooms and kid kitchens will prepare them for taking care of a household and being a good partner. While over-exposure to princess culture can have a negative impact on girls, it can help boys become more well-rounded (just make sure they see more than the “damsel in distress” narrative to combat stereotypes about women as well). Dress up should be free of restrictions around gender. In a recent episode of Sesame Street, the characters learn that boys can play tea party and ballet and girls can be dentists and drummers. If Elmo knows it, it should be just as easy for the rest of us to wrap our heads around.

5)Introduce activities like art, music, and drama.

Boys who participate in these types of extracurricular activities tend to do better in school. However, many are reluctant to try them for fear of teasing. Boys who participate in the arts run the risk of being labeled “gay” or “sissies.” In fact, children fear anti-gay teasing more than any other kind. We need to take away the stigma around fine arts (as well as educate our kids about what gay means and why it’s offensive to use the word as an insult). Through examples, inclusive environments, and intolerance of bullying, we can help erase the ignorant notion that somehow these activities aren’t masculine.

6)Read books that challenge gender norms.

There’s so much good stuff out there! In The Bat Boy and His Violin by Gavin Curtis, young Reginald finds a way to share his love of music in the dugout. Sandra Bradley’s Henry Holton Takes the Ice features a boy from a hockey-obsessed family who discovers he loves ice dancing. Jacob’s New Dress, by Sandra and Ian Hoffman, is about a little boy who loves to play dress up. Perhaps my favorite is the old classic The Story of Ferdinand (also a cartoon), which is about a young bull who refuses to fight the matador because he’d rather sit under his favorite acorn tree and smell the flowers. All of these are excellent examples of going against the grain.

7)Watch your language.

If you haven’t already done so, watch this video of 48 Things Men Hear In a Lifetime (That Are Bad for Everyone): https://youtu.be/jk8YmtEJvDc. If you’ve ever uttered any of these phrases, stop now. Constant messages of shame for showing emotion can do significant psychological damage. When you hear this kind of talk, especially around young boys, call it out. Follow up with the child and reinforce that there are many ways of being a man. All being a “real man” should mean is that you identify as such.

By raising our girls to be gutsy and our boys to be sensitive, we help all children develop a broader definition of gender. It’s powerful for every child, but especially those who are gender creative or gender expansive. When kids have a bigger picture of gender and aren’t constrained by (let’s be honest) arbitrary norms, they are free to embrace and express exactly who they are…and they’re more likely to be accepting and loving of others who do the same.

 

Raising Gutsy Girls

Last month, I took my daughter to the The Thinkery, Austin’s amazing children’s museum. She was toddling around in the area for kids under 3 and scaling a mountain of giant beanbags when she knocked over a younger child. I apologized profusely, but the child’s mom set him on his feet and announced, “It’s okay. He’s a boy.” I was taken aback. Why should the child’s gender have anything to do with how quickly he recovered from a fall? Would it be different if it had been my little girl who took the tumble? Would other parents look at me askance if I didn’t immediately scoop her up and comfort her? As a mother to a young daughter and a lifelong feminist, the interaction really got me thinking about societal expectations for how we raise girls and the implications that has for their lives.

Anecdotes like this one aren’t the only evidence. A study out of the University of Iowa found that parents were four times more likely to tell girls than boys to be more careful. The problem with that is it discourages girls from engaging in physical challenges that will help them develop important new skills. It also sends them the message that they are more fragile than boys, resulting in the risk-averse trait we so often see in young girls. When they become young women, this behavior can manifest itself in demurring from leadership positions and submissiveness in relationships. I find these outcomes unacceptable. Here are some strategies for raising “gutsy” girls:

1)Encourage risk-taking: Embolden young girls to take on sports, outdoor adventures, and other physical activities often relegated to the dominion of boys. Teach them how to light a fire, climb a tree, or use a pocketknife…all of which will build confidence and responsibility. It always drove me nuts that the Boy Scouts were learning super cool survival skills while we Girl Scouts were stuck making gingerbread houses and slinging cookies. Of course, I’m promoting adventurousness as opposed recklessness (after all, there’s a reason it’s so expensive to insure teenage boy drivers). Plenty of supervision and specific instructions are the order of the day. That being said…

2)Let them fail: If you haven’t read Carol Dweck’s Mindset, you’re going to want to check it out. In her research, she determined that there are two ways in which individuals view intelligence. Those with a fixed mindset see it as an inborn trait, while those with a growth mindset believe it can be developed over time. Children who develop a growth mindset work hard, value effort, bounce back from setbacks, and tackle challenges with aplomb. They recognize that failure is part of learning. While this is important for all children, it is especially vital for girls who have been conditioned to fear to develop resilience. For my one year-old daughter, this means that I let her climb on play structures for older kids, figure out how to navigate through small spaces on her own, and fall…a lot (of course I pick her up if she’s really hurt, but she gets big kudos for picking herself up and dusting herself off.)

3)Model: Young girls need to see the important women in their lives acting boldly and living fearlessly (I’m looking at you moms, caregivers, and teachers). I’m working hard myself to walk the talk. I used to be quite squeamish around all things creepy-crawly. I wanted to show my students that there’s nothing cute about squealing over a bug, so I took a life science class for educators one summer. I cared for a crayfish who would become a class pet, dissected a clam, and held a moon snail at the beach. Squeamishness: cured. When I had my students dissect a squid that year, I took a cue from a wonderful teacher friend of mine and instructed them to say “interesting” any time they felt tempted to say “gross.” In the adventure department…well, I’ve always been more of an “indoorsy” person. As a volunteer in Honduras, I challenged myself by hiking under a waterfall, jumping out of a tree into a cove, and taking care of a tarantula when a visitor saw it and exclaimed, “We need a man!” I even hiked Ramsey Canyon with my daughter in a Baby Bjorn. I’ve promised myself to immerse myself yet again in my sport of choice, which requires great strength, flexibility, and feats of derring-do (and if you want to talk about pole dance and feminism, I’d love to bend your ear for a tic.)

4)Books: Caroline Paul, original Gutsy Girl and inspiration/namesake for this post, was one of the first female firefighters on the San Francisco force. She’s authored an amazing book entitled The Gutsy Girl: Escapades for Your Life of Epic Adventure. It’s part memoir of her own escapades from climbing Denali to thermal flying and part instruction book, peppered with delightful illustrations identifying animal tracks and teaching knot-tying to name a few. I highly recommend it for tweens. (Christmas present for nieces? Check.) For younger readers, I like Allie’s Basketball Dream by Barbara E. Barber, Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman, JoJo’s Flying Sidekick by Brian Pinkney, and Rad American Women A-Z: Rebels, Trailblazers, and Visionaries Who Shaped Our History…and Our Future! by Kate Schatz.

5)Role models: Lately I’ve been binging The History Channel’s Vikings on Hulu, and my favorite character is Lagertha. She’s a badass shield maiden who does what she wants…and she’s based on a real person! I’m not suggesting that you sit your child down for a viewing of gratuitous violence and sex scenes; I merely want to point out that models of heroic women are present in history and popular culture if we know where to look. Need a refresher? Follow Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls and A Mighty Girl on Facebook. They’ve recently highlighted figures in women’s history like Jane Goodall and Bessie Coleman, as well as modern-day heroes like National Park Service Ranger Betty Reid Soskin, Japanese mountain climber Junko Tabei and young inventor Olivia Hallsey. In the fictional realm, we have characters like Katniss, Hermione, and my favorite…Buffy!

6)Language: We need to be careful not to overuse the language of fear with our girls. Do you say “that’s too scary for you” or “aren’t you afraid?” That kind of talk promotes an expectation of fear. Do you use “like a girl” to mean something derogatory (or do you let it slide when you hear other children say it)? For a new take on that phrase, take a look at this powerful ad from Always: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XjJQBjWYDTs. I think it’s especially important in classrooms and in homes where girls have brothers that adults are careful to speak to children the same way regardless of gender. Think about it: do you ever hear someone tell a girl, “You’re the woman of the house now. Take care of your mother”? At the tumbling gym, a little boy told me that he would be my daughter’s protector. While I thought it was a sweet gesture, I’m trying to be very intentional in the language I use with her so she knows that being a girl doesn’t equate to needing protection. I’ve had to catch myself from saying “that’s not for little girls” when my daughter goes after something she can’t have. If I say it to her in Spanish, it’s the difference of one letter to say “children” instead. A small change with potentially great benefits.

I’ll never forget the day in my twenties when I discovered that my mother had a paralyzing fear of escalators. Every time she stepped on one when my sister and I were young, she swallowed that fear in the hopes of not passing it on to us. It’s in that spirit that I write this. Even if we were fearful, timid, and risk averse as young girls, it doesn’t mean our daughters, granddaughters, and nieces have to be. So I’d like to propose a toast to Generation Gutsy Girl: may your fires burn brightly, may your pocketknives be sharp, and may your dreams be limitless.

 

Prayer in Schools: Rights, Restrictions, and Me on the Radio

Whenever I listen to the radio, I usually turn it off or change the station when anyone starts talking (I just want to enjoy the music). However, last week, I heard an interesting story. A mom called in because her son’s coach (who is an atheist) wouldn’t let him and his teammates pray before and after their football games. Now this is Texas, so football and religion freedom are a big deal. The deejays invited listeners to call in, and as an agnostic* former public school teacher, I couldn’t resist an opportunity to educate on civil liberties (and if you know me, you know I do so love to chime in). You can hear my thoughts at 1:51 via this link: http://www.mix947.com/media/audio.

The conversation quickly devolves into typical morning show fodder, but it’s such an important topic that I wanted to participate. I was surprised that the deejays and some of the other callers really didn’t seem to know the laws governing prayer in schools, and I tried to address that in a short amount of time. Reflecting later, I realized that if those individuals are representative of the population as a whole, then that calls for the dissemination of information. So that’s what I’ll try to do here.

What follows is my understanding of the law regarding prayer in schools. If you’d like more information about religion in public education (or you just want to fact-check me), visit https://www.aclu.org/issues/religious-liberty/religion-and-public-schools.

Rights:

·         Religious liberty protects the rights of students to pray at school individually or in groups.

·         Additionally, students have the right to express religious viewpoints, form religious clubs, and read religious literature in school.

Restrictions:

·         Schools are to be religiously neutral environments, so school-sponsored prayer (at award ceremonies, sporting events, graduations, etc.) is prohibited.

·         School officials (teachers, administrators, coaches, etc.) are not allowed to lead prayer.

·         Students may pray so long as it does not cause a distraction or interfere with the education of others.

·         Minority-faith students and non-believers shall not be subjected to pressure to conform to the majority’s religious beliefs.

Prayer in schools is such a hot button issue, but I think it’s due to misinformation. If you look at the protections and prohibitions, they’re actually quite reasonable and respectful. It makes sense. We send our children to school to be educated not indoctrinated. It’s my right as a parent to determine if and how I want religion (as well as which religion that is) to be a part of my daughter’s upbringing. The government (via public schools) doesn’t get to make that decision for me.

So there you have it: children can pray in schools. The Bill of Rights guarantees that. Just remember that the right to believe or not applies to every individual in these United States. Your beliefs and your right to them do not usurp those of others. That’s why the separation of church and state is so foundational to this country. We cannot hope to protect the religious freedom of all if our government promotes only one.

 

*I identified as atheist on air because I didn’t want to spend my precious seconds explaining the difference, but I will here. In a nutshell, atheists do not believe that God exists. Agnostics, on the other hand, believe that the existence of God is unknowable.

 

Bully-Proof

It’s not what you think. I’m in no way suggesting that we need to somehow “toughen up” kids who are targets of bullying. In fact, I think that’s a terrible practice. Children shouldn’t have to defend themselves at school. That’s not their job. It’s their job to learn. Our job is to create and maintain school and classroom environments in which all children are safe and can thrive academically, socially, and emotionally.

So no, we don’t need to bully-proof the victims. We need to bully-proof our schools. This is a two-fold effort. First, we must ensure an inclusive environment that not only is intolerant of bullying but one that is not conducive to the development of those behaviors. Second, we need to train all our children to move from being passive bystanders to allies. We have to start this education young, and that means elementary school. Our efforts will be much more effective if we focus on eliminating bias early on - before it manifests itself as aggressive behavior.

Many of the strategies which I’ll describe below come from Welcoming Schools. I’ve included links wherever possible. If you’re interested in bringing this training to your school, please let me know via my contact page.

School Environment:

Bullying and Harassment Policy: Make sure your anti-bullying policy specifically lists groups that have historically experienced more bullying. If they aren’t already in there, add sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression. Espelage (2014) found that schools that do not tolerate sexual or gendered harassment have significantly less bullying.

Lunchtime: Many schools have a common area for eating lunch, and it’s an atmosphere prone to exclusion. Hold events like Mix It Up at Lunch (http://www.tolerance.org/mix-it-up/what-is-mix) to help children break down barriers and get to know one another. Older students can use an app like “Sit With Us,” developed by a California teen, which allows students to designate themselves as ambassadors and post “open lunch” events (www.sitwithus.io). Students who might otherwise eat alone have a safe, welcoming place to have lunch without fear of rejection.

Recess: Recess is a lonely time for some children. Playing alone can make them more susceptible to bullying. Some schools have found a solution in the Buddy Bench (www.buddybench.org). If a child sits on the bench, another child will come and ask that child to play or talk. It’s a good idea to have some structured or adult-directed play in order to include more students. Encourage students to engage in cooperative play. Consider developing a rule of “You can’t say you can’t play.”

Supervision: Wherever possible, schools should increase supervision in areas where bullying is more likely to occur, such as the restroom, lunchroom, and playground. Adults must be present in order to monitor behavior, interrupt hurtful teasing, and stop bullying in its tracks.

Classroom Environment:

Teacher Intervention: Teachers need to act immediately when they witness name-calling and/or bullying. The worst thing they can do is ignore it. They must be tuned in to what’s going on in their classroom and listen for stereotypes. Teacher intervention should center around educating the students who are doing the bullying as well as engaging the bystanders. Teachers need professional development and practice in responding to students. An excellent resource for stoppinganti-LGBTQ comments can be found at http://www.welcomingschools.org/pages/stop-thats-so-gay-anti-lgbtq-comments/.

Read Alouds: Reading picture books to students is a great way to create empathy. I have two favorites. In The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig, Brian, a quiet child, never gets noticed and appears as a mere outline in the illustrations until new kid Justin showsup. With Justin’s friendship, Brian gradually becomes colored in, a beautiful representation of how small acts of kindness can allow a child to flourish. I love Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson because it doesn’t have a happy ending. The teacher explains to her class that kindness has a ripple effect, but main character Chloe learns it is too late to start treating her classmate differently. For more books to prevent bias-based bullying, visit http://www.welcomingschools.org/pages/books-to-engage-students-on-bullying/.

Inclusion: When your language, curriculum, rules, routines, books, and lessons are inclusive and reflect the diversity of your students, you send the message that you value differences. It’s natural for kids to notice differences (nobody is colorblind and pretending you are means you are denying part of someone’s identity), and it should be used as an opportunity for learning. When we teach empathy, respect, and appreciation of differences, we may very well be able to stop bullying before it starts.

Creating Allies:

Lessons: Children can be taught to support students who are targets of bullying by spending time with them, seeking help from an adult, helping remove the student from the situation, making a distraction, and learning about differences. For bullying lesson plans, see http://www.welcomingschools.org/resources/lesson-plans/bullying/bullying-other-lesson-plans/. I particularly like “Making Decisions: Ally or Bystander” because it requires that children analyze their responses to bullying situations and explore and practice possible interventions.               

Books: Again, students can learn to be upstanders through the example of characters in books. In Teammates by Peter Golenbrock, player PeeWee Reese takes a stand and supports his teammate Jackie Robinson, who of course was the first Black player on a major league baseball team. Check out this list of books about sticking up for each other: http://www.welcomingschools.org/pages/sticking-up-for-each-other-the-power-of-allies/.

Model: Students need to see adults at school intervene in bullying situations (see Teacher Intervention above) because it can actually foster ally behavior. Research by Aboud and Joong (2008) shows that students who perceive that others would jump in to stop bullying are more likely to do so themselves.

We know bullying is a problem in our schools, and we were reminded of its tragic consequences last week when 9 year-old Jackson Grubb committed suicide. I cannot fathom how terrible the torment must have been that this BABY felt that the only way to escape it was to take his own life. Jackson is the inspiration for this post, and I hope you will join me in a commitment to end bullying. Tomorrow, we begin National Bullying Prevention Month. Talk to your children. Start a committee. Use some of the lessons here in your classroom. Put pressure on your child’s school to offer anti-bullying professional development for its teachers.  We cannot let this happen again. Not one more.

 

Addressing Ignorance in the Face of Police Brutality and Protests

It’s happening again, and I just CAN’T. In the past week, three Black men, Tyre King, Terence Crutcher, and Keith Lamont Scott, were shot and killed by police officers in Columbus, Tulsa, and Charlotte, respectively. They were sons, brothers, and fathers, and they were stolen from their families. I am beyond heartbroken…and I am angry. We must demand criminal justice reform, and we must address the root cause of police brutality: racism. We are also called to speak up and to defend the rights of individuals to protest. If you are initiating or perpetuating ignorant arguments about these topics, you are part of the problem. So today, I’m using this forum to counter those arguments (all of which I have seen on social media) and to educate.

Argument #1: If you point a gun at the police and get shot, you’re not the victim of anything but your own stupidity. Let me begin by saying that this statement is disgusting and wildly insensitive given current events. It’s also not applicable. Tyre King was carrying a BB gun and running away from police, Terrance Crutcher was unarmed, and Philando Castille was entirely compliant…all were fatally shot. Furthermore, most law enforcement agencies have a use-of-force continuum which instructs officers to respond with a level of force appropriate to the situation, with lethal force as a last resort. This is similar to the rules of engagement (ROE) for the military. The ROE may, among other things, require a collateral damage assessment, positive identification, and use of force proportional to the threat at hand. If soldiers in theater of war can use the minimum force necessary, surely police officers on the streets of America can do the same.

Argument #2: If you are pro-Black Lives Matter, you are anti-police. This is absolutely untrue. I have the utmost respect for those who choose to protect and serve, but I also want those who abuse their positions to be held accountable. I think we are best served by a “both/and” mentality as opposed to “either/or.” Jon Stewart said it best: “You can truly grieve for every officer who’s been lost in the line of duty in this country and still be troubled by cases of police overreach. Those two ideas are not mutually exclusive. You can have great regard for law enforcement and still want them to be held to high standards.”

Argument #3: The real problem is black-on-black crime. This is simply an attempt to distract from incidences of police misconduct. Rudy Giuliani famously cited the statistic that 93% of Black Americans are killed by other Black Americans. Well, the fact is, most white victims are killed by white perpetrators. So almost all murders are committed intra-racially in this country, but have you ever heard the term “white on white crime”? No, because the term “black on black crime” is itself racist by insinuating that violence is somehow just a problem among Black people. Don’t pretend (and don’t let Fox News tell you) that Black Americans don’t care about crime in their communities and don’t use it as an excuse to ignore extrajudicial killings by law enforcement.

Argument #4: Students today don’t understand war or trauma. A librarian friend of mine heard a professor say this to pre-service teachers. Unbelievable. She spoke up, saying, “Those students are experiencing racial trauma and daily news items that are affecting them in ways that we can’t begin to understand. We need to makes sure we are giving children time to process and express and reflect.” She’s absolutely right. Don’t tell me that the violence against Black people is going unnoticed by Black children. To quote Kelly Wickham Hurst, founder of Being Black at School, “From the foul responses to Colin Kaepernick’s silent protest of the National Anthem to the most recent killings of unarmed Black people, the trauma being brought into school systems today is real.” It’s irresponsible to dismiss the very real fears of our students of color. If you’re a teacher, please read this article “10 Things Schools Can Do Today for Black Students”: https://medium.com/being-black-at-school/10-things-schools-can-do-today-for-black-students-40839a839b7a#.shhx42ojn.

Argument #5: It is unlawful to fail to stand with one’s hand over one’s heart during the national anthem in protest. Proponents of this faulty argument refer to the Flag Code as found in Title 36 of the United States Code, which was approved by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1942. It states, “During a rendition of the national anthem, when the flag is displayed, all present except those in uniform should stand at attention facing the flag with their right hand over their heart.” First, I have a hard time believing that all those up in arms about NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick (who has been kneeling to protest the oppression of people of color in this country) are standing up in their homes during the “Star-Spangled Banner” (hello, hypocrisy). Second, the Flag Code is a guide “to be followed on a voluntary basis.” Don’t believe me? Check out this congressional report: www.senate.gov/reference/resources/pdf/RL30243.pdf. You’d better be glad it’s a guide too unless you want to be prosecuted for that U.S. flag shirt you have on because the same code you cite addresses the impropriety of using the flag on items of clothing. Finally, in 1943, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette that government officials cannot force anyone to participate in patriotic rituals, and I quote, “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or at their faith therein.” And thank goodness, because doing so sounds a lot like Hitler’s Germany.

Argument #6: It is disrespectful to veterans, service members, and military families to kneel during the national anthem. Kaepernick has actually received a great deal of support from U.S. military veterans using the hashtag #VeteransforKaepernick. They took to Twitter with comments such as, “I didn’t volunteer to defend a country where police brutality is swept under the rug” and “I’d never try to shame someone with ‘patriotism’ in order to silence their First Amendment Rights.” It’s been suggested that Kaepernick’s behavior is somehow reprehensible to military families. Well, I’m the granddaughter and sister to veterans and the spouse of a deployed solider…and I’m not offended. If NFL players or Megan Rapinoe or a group of students want to kneel or raise a fist to protest injustice, it is their Constitutional right to do so. I don’t pretend for a second that my husband’s service and the sacrifices my family makes somehow trump that right. In fact, that’s why people serve…to protect the freedoms we enjoy.

I’ve seen plenty of memes about how we liberals are far too easily offended. Apparently, I should just read this stuff and move on…you know, be a grown up! But I’m not mad because you posted a swear word or disagreed with my views on cosleeping. I’m angry because your rhetoric is not just misguided…it’s hateful. Institutional racism is a major problem in this country, and it has manifested itself in these tragedies involving police and the Black community. Individuals are rightly protesting to draw attention to these terrible injustices. I believe that, as Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Consider this my protest. It’s not the first, and it won’t be the last.

 

Promoting Cross-Racial Friendships Among Children

Encouraging our children to initiate and maintain cross-racial friendships benefits not only the individuals involved, but society as a whole. According to a study by Hallinan and William (1990), greater interracial friendliness is associated with higher educational aspirations and outcomes. Benefits extend beyond the sphere of academics to social domains. Hunter and Elias (1999) found that high proportions of cross-race friendships lead to greater social competence and increased minority acceptance. (Yes, we’ve known this for a looooong time.)

Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as making our classrooms diverse (although we have to do that too - see #2) and letting friendships happen. Researchers at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development recently looked at data from the Early Adolescent Development Study and found that over the course of one school year, cross-race friendships diminish while same-race friendships increase. There are things, however, that we as caring adults (parents, teachers, support staff, and administrators) can do to keep cross-racial friendships going. I’ve included several ideas from the study, as well as some of my own.

1)Warm, friendly teacher and classroom environment: Good news! All the work you’ve done to make your classroom a welcoming place for all has the added benefit of helping students maintain cross-racial friendships. For real! The NYU study found that classrooms characterized by an atmosphere of trust and respect, along with positive perceptions about the teacher’s level of warmth and responsiveness, had lower increases in same-race friendships. Collaborative, as opposed to competitive, learning activities promote supportive interactions among students and allow them to get to know each other across differences. You make a difference in how students make and keep friends by how you run your classroom and even by your very affect, so keep on keeping on!

2)End de facto segregation: This is a structural shift, so we need the support of administration (but don’t underestimate the power of vocal parents and teachers). In our secondary schools, this means putting a stop to tracking. Some Seattle high schools are trying “honors-for-all” English and social studies classes in an attempt to tackle what’s known as the opportunity gap. To address racial separation, Washington Middle School has decided to mix its Spectrum program for the gifted (almost entirely white and Asian) with mainstream classes (mostly children of color). Research indicates improved academic achievement for all in this type of model. In the elementary environment, we need to look at special programs. Consider what Leschi Elementary in Seattle has done. Leschi, a historically Black school, has decided to alter the Montessori program that drew many white families. Parents and teachers worried about the racial imbalance and worked to develop blended Montessori and contemporary classrooms throughout the school.

3)Read-alouds: My go-to strategy! There are dozens of books that model cross-racial friendships for children. Reading books that feature friendships across differences shows that you as the teacher or parent value them, and that’s important. It’s supported by research, too!  Inclusion of cross-group images has been found to encourage cross-group play. Here are a few of my favorites:

·         The Sandwich Swap by Kelly DiPucchio and Her Majesty Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan: Salma and Lily are best friends. They do everything together, including eat lunch. One day, Lily, enjoying her peanut butter and jelly, tells Salma her hummus sandwich looks yucky and a full on food fight breaks out. In the end, Salma and Lily put their differences aside, try each other’s food, and learn important lessons about friendship and tolerance.

·         The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson: Clover, an African American girl, lives beside a fence that segregates her town. One day, she notices a lonely-looking white girl on the other side. Since neither is allowed to cross the fence, they decide to sit on it together, a powerful example of how children can overcome the prejudices of adults.

·         Chicken Sunday by Patricia Polacco: This is a story about a Russian American girl and her friends, two African American brothers. To thank the boys’ grandma for her wonderful chicken dinners, the children decide to work together to buy her a beautiful Easter hat. When the friends are mistaken for vandals by the milliner Mr. Kodinsky, they seek to prove their innocence and present him with hand-dyed eggs in the Russian tradition. They win him over with this remembrance of his homeland. It’s a beautiful story about the bonds of friendship and family awash in gorgeous images and details from the characters’ cultural traditions.

4)Model: You knew this was coming, didn’t you? We can’t expect our children to make and keep cross-racial friendships if we’re not doing so ourselves. I recently watched an interview on C-SPAN in which a white, self-proclaimed “prejudiced” man called in to ask Black activist Heather McGhee how to stop being racist. It’s beautiful to watch his honesty and desire to be a “better American” and her respectful, gracious response. Her advice? Get to know Black families. Turn off the news at night. Join a church that is interracial. Foster relationships. She says, “We as Americans are always surprised when we build relationships across race.” It’s good advice for all of us. And it’s good for our kids.

This is the right thing to do. By promoting cross-racial friendships, we prepare children to live and work in the real world and also make headway in ensuring that that world is a better place for everyone.

 

 

How (Some) Children's Programming is Winning at LGBTQ Inclusiveness

It bothers me that, in this day and age, we have to normalize something that is completely normal (being LGBTQ), but I recognize the need for it. Children who come from LGBTQ families or who identify that way themselves need to see themselves positively represented. All children need to stop seeing LGBTQ people as being on the periphery of society. When second grade teacher Michael Patrick came out to his students, he explained, “I came out because my LGBT students deserve to know that someone else like them is out there. I came out because I could no longer let gay people be people who exist in parallel lives to our students.”

I have been pleasantly surprised of late to see children’s programming helping to do just that: increase LGBT visibility to promote respect and understanding. It’s by no means widespread, but I think the creators and producers of such children’s media deserve our kudos. It takes some bravery when you’re coming up against criticism and accusations of promoting the “gay agenda.” (There is one, by the way. It’s just that the agenda is love, family, and respect.) Here are a few shows I’d like to highlight:

1)The Loud House: This summer Nickelodeon debuted a new cartoon series with character Clyde McBride and his “two imperfectly perfect gay dads.” Not only are Harold and Howard a gay couple, they’re also interracial! There’s not a lot of hubbub about the sexuality of the dads. Instead, the show focuses on their overprotective nature in a very funny way. What’s important is that they are caring parents; their sexual orientation is a nonissue. This is the first time a children’s network has featured a same-sex married couple on a show…and it’s awesome! It’s doing well too, beating SpongeBob with kids ages 2-11.

2)Finding Dory: Twitter did a double-take when the trailer for this much anticipated sequel came out and apparently showed a lesbian couple. In the “blink and you’ll miss it” scene, a toddler is knocked over by a stroller. Two women who appear to be her moms pick up her dropped sippy cup and are much taken aback to discover a swaddled octopus in the stroller! Many people were excited to see a hint of what might be Disney-Pixar’s first same-sex couple but were subsequently disappointed when filmmakers refused to confirm or deny it. That’s unfortunate, but I still think it’s a move in the right direction. I kind of like that they are just there without any further explanation. Rather than pointing a metaphorical finger at them, kids get to see gay parents as part of the landscape of everyday life.

3)Sesame Street: This show has long been a pioneer in children’s television with its diverse cast and positive messages about differences. (I think I plug it every chance I get!) So it’s not really a surprise to see the show tackling gender expression. In an episode titled “Dress Me Up Club,” Abby Cadabby and friends learn that they can dress up any way they want. At first, Abby’s friends discourage her from being a superhero because girls have to be princesses. Elmo explains that girls can be heroes too and that boys can play tea party and ballet. I love this message of inclusivity that allows for an expansive view of gender!

I know there are more than three examples, but you have to dig pretty deep to find them. I think we’re ready for more. There’s currently a #GiveElsaAGirlfriend campaign that’s urging Disney to make Elsa its first lesbian princess. It may be a long shot, but there is reason to hope. Disney has a history of making changes to reflect societal norms, featuring princesses of color and upending the damsel and distress narrative. Zootopia’s antelopes Bucky and Pronk share the same last name (Oryx-Antlerson), the hyphenated name suggesting they are a married couple. Also, on the Disney Channel’s “Good Luck Charlie,” one of Charlie’s friends has two moms. If a giant like Disney can take that next step by explicitly including an LGBT character, we’ll be well on our way.  

I hope this post is a first installment of many in which I can continue to share with you excellent programming containing family and gender diversity as well as LGBT people. Seeing LGBT characters in popular entertainment is beneficial to all children. One way we can defeat prejudice is by exposing children to people who are different, and children’s programming is a vehicle for that. If a show keeps even one kid from engaging in bias-based bullying or helps one child feel better about themselves, it will have been worth it. Children can only benefit when we, to quote Patrick, “prepare them to develop and maintain relationships with people who look different, sound different, love different, eat different, or have any difference within the gamut of human experience.”

 

 

 

Back to School Basics for Inclusive Classrooms

For some reason, Labor Day Weekend always says “Back to School” to me. It’s probably because during the 13 years of my teaching career, I always spent that holiday weekend getting my classroom ready. It’s strange to me because here in Texas, school has been in session for a few weeks already. This post is designed for those teachers starting class in the next few days. But whether you teach in Washington or Texas or another part of the country, it’s never too late to take steps toward making your classroom a more welcoming place for all students.

Some of this is new and some of it I’ve said before, but I think it bears repeating. Plus, I thought you might like it all in one place. So here goes:

1)Nix the phrase “boys and girls” and “ladies and gentleman”: There’s no better time than the start of a new year to practice new habits. When calling your class to attention, refer to them as “students,” “scholars,” or “friends.” Call them by their room number or grade level or school or class mascot. It may seem like a small thing but it’s an intentional behavior that honors the gender diversity of your students. While you’re at it, avoid grouping students in a way that forces them to make gendered choices (e.g. “Boys line up here and girls line up here.”). You can just as easily group alphabetically or by number or birth month.

2)Say their names right: As you prepare nametags and folders and the dozens of items with students’ names on them, take a walk down to the prior year’s teachers’ rooms to find out what students go by. If your attendance database has a space for a nickname, make sure you check it out. If you don’t know how to pronounce a name, ask right away. For transgender students, it’s essential that you honor the student’s preferred name and correct pronouns. For more on the important of names, check out the My Name, My Identity campaign (https://www.mynamemyidentity.org/). Take the pledge to respect students’ names!

3)Reconsider your classroom décor: I understand all too well the allure of Pinterest, but recent studies indicate that it might not be a bad idea to scale it back a bit. Research shows that in a highly decorated classroom, children are more likely to be distracted by the visual environment. The teacher store is a magical place - yes – but students aren’t likely to use commercially produced materials when they have no connection to them. You’re busy getting the classroom ready, so why not kill two birds with one stone and celebrate diversity by replacing your pre-made or handmade bulletin boards with student-produced artwork that honors their identities? Here are two projects to try:

Self-Portraits: http://www.kimmiefinkconsulting.com/blog/2016/2/19/lessons-that-honor-identity-self-portraits

Coat of Arms: http://www.kimmiefinkconsulting.com/blog/2016/3/4/lessons-that-honor-identity-coat-of-arms

4)Revamp your classroom library: Fall is a great time to get some new books. Make sure your classroom selection features diverse authors and diverse perspectives. Students should have access to books that provide both windows and mirrors. This goes for your read-alouds as well. Your choices send a strong message to students about what’s valued in your classroom. For ideas on great books, check out this hub from Welcoming Schools: http://www.welcomingschools.org/resources/books/. From here, you can link to more specific book lists on topics such as family diversity, bullying, and gender.

5)Make sure all families feel welcome: Family structure is a sometimes overlooked area of diversity. If we want families to be involved, they need to feel welcomed. As they walk into your classroom for the first time, do they see themselves represented? Let’s refer back the last two bullet points. We want to be very selective about what we put on our walls so as not to overwhelm; therefore, any posters we do choose should reflect diverse family structure as well as cultural diversity. Ideally, families should also see themselves represented in the classroom library. Be inclusive in your language. Not every child is raised by a parent, so direct your home communications to families. Have families fill out a student profile so you can get more information and be sensitive to adoption, foster care, and other situations. As you plan for the rest of the year, think about ditching Muffins with Mom and Donuts with Dad for Fritters with Families. Speaking of welcoming all families…

6)Reach out specifically to non- English speaking families: Due to cultural differences and the language barrier, teachers sometimes underestimate the ability of immigrant families to contribute to their children’s school success. However, research shows that parental involvement has a positive impact on student learning. So how can we bridge the gap? Have interpreters available at school functions, especially those first Open House or Meet the Teacher nights. Putting together packets for the first day? Translate those materials for families. Most districts have common documents translated and available on their websites and some even have an option to see the entire website in another language. Put your family communications through Google translate. It’s not perfect (my former school, Pope, is translated as Holy Father Elementary!), but you can generally get the message across. Coordinate with the foreign language teachers at your local high school and see if they’ll offer extra credit to advanced students for translation (I did this as a senior!). Not only will you engage families, you will also set a tone of respect for language diversity.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. There are hundreds of ways we can make our classrooms more inclusive at the start of school. What’s important is that we keep in mind throughout the year how we can make schools more welcoming places. My colleague Gerald Denman describes it this way: If you’ve ever played high school sports, you know what it’s like to play a home game. There’s the band, the dance team, the fans, the mascot, students, parents, and teachers decked out in the school colors and cheering for you. But an away game…it’s just you, the team, the coaches, and maybe the cheerleader who drew the short stick. Well, some students come to school every day feeling like it’s an away game. I’ve given you some ways to start the year off in an inclusive way. Now what will you do to make sure every kid arrives at school the first day (and every day) feeling like they’re playing a home game?

 

The Problem with Princesses

Don’t get me wrong. I love princesses. In fact, I have a deep and abiding love for all things Disney (although sometimes they make it hard…I’m looking at you, Pocahontas). I grew up in the heyday of Disney movies like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King. As young women, my sister and I dreamed about having daughters who we could take for glittery princess makeovers at Disneyland. Well, now I have a daughter, but my recent work and reading around gender has me looking closer at the princess phenomenon.

In a recent study out of Brigham Young University, researchers found that higher levels of engagement with Disney princesses (through television, movies, toys and other products) were associated with more female gender-stereotypical behavior. I was always fine with the princess stuff as long as the child was choosing it, but now it appears that the princess culture itself is changing behavior in potentially problematic ways. What’s the problem with gender-stereotypical behavior? Are quiet play and risk aversion really detrimental? Maybe not in and of themselves, but our culture already emphasizes what a girl looks like over what’s in her head and heart. When girls are exposed to hyper-feminine models, they get a limited picture of gender. When those models become expectations, they, in turn, limit children. (Interestingly, the study also found an increase in female gender-stereotypical behavior in boys immersed in princess culture, but suggested that it may be beneficial to them. While it may cause girls to go to an extreme of femininity, it can actually make boys more well-rounded.)

So what’s the solution? I think one thing we can do is avoid over-saturation. We don’t have to eliminate exposure to princesses, but we do have to temper it. For example, my daughter got a princess castle play tent for her birthday, but she also has toy dinosaurs, cars, and building blocks. (And you can bet if I have a little boy, he’ll play in that tent too.) I’m personally for limiting screen time as much as possible, but I know that it’s a part of this generation’s lives. So let’s take a break from Sofia the First and watch Sesame Street (which has a diverse cast and GREAT messages of inclusivity) or Daniel Tiger. You don’t have to throw out Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty, but maybe put some of the great, non-fairytale Pixar movies in the mix. I also try to avoid books that are specifically marketed to one gender (I’ll take Harry Potter or Matilda over any of that Girls’ Book of Whatever garbage, thank you very much).

Another way to combat negative effects of “all things princess” is to change the princess narrative. There are Disney movies that do this. Protagonists Mulan and Merida challenge gender roles. In Frozen, it is the sister relationship rather than the love story that drives the film. There are lots of options outside of Disney. I love Jeremy Whitley’s comic Princeless, which centers around Adrienne, a Black princess who upends the traditional narrative, saving herself and her sisters and challenging gender stereotypes as a warrior in armor. You can also try Don’t Kiss the Frog: Princess Stories with Attitude by Fiona Waters, a collection of stories with a modern slant. Perhaps my favorite is an oldie but goodie: Robert Munsch’s The Paper Bag Princess. I read it to my class every year and have already read it to my baby. It’s the story of plucky Princess Elizabeth. When her castle is burned down, she must don a paper bag and outwit a dragon in order to save the prince. In the end (spoiler alert), she figures out the prince is kind of a jerk and doesn’t marry him after all. And she lives happily ever after.

I know a lot of little girls who want to do the whole princess thing, and that’s fine. I’m simply suggesting that we try to give them some balance. As for me, I expect I’ll still take my little one to Disneyland when she’s older. If she wants to be a princess, that’s great. But she can also be a pirate, Peter Pan, Cruella de Vil, or whatever her little heart desires. Because that's what I want for her in life: to be her authentic self, the person she innately knows herself to be…princess or otherwise.

 

 

Coverage of the Rio Olympics: A Study in Sexism

As Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszu finished the 400-meter individual medley, clinching gold and shattering the world record, the camera panned to her husband, who NBC commentator Dan Hicks blithely described as “the guy responsible.” Um…excuse me? Because I’m pretty sure I just watched a badass woman accomplish something incredible: winning Olympic gold a full 5 seconds ahead of her nearest competition. I’m all about recognizing the people who support athletes (parents, partners, coaches, etc.), but there was only one person in the pool who touched that wall first…and it wasn’t Shane Tusup.

So sexism is alive and well at the Rio Games. It’s not exactly new for coverage of the Olympics to be sexist, but in 2016, it’s incredibly frustrating. We should be celebrating that 45% of the athletes this year are female, but instead we are chronicling the many instances of casual sexism in sports. The advent of social media has given such commentary greater visibility, which is actually a good thing (we have to call it what it is before we can demand change). Lest you think sexism at the Olympics is merely anecdotal, a recent Cambridge University study found that male athletes are two to three times more likely to be mentioned in a sporting context than their female counterparts. The only time women are mentioned more is when overt gender marking is used to label their sport as “other.” Women athletes are more likely than men to be described in terms age, appearance, and relationship status. Let’s take a look at each of those more closely:

Age: Is it just me, or do sports commentators seem obsessed with infantilizing grown women? I am so tired of hearing female gymnasts, cyclists, golfers, swimmers, volleyball and soccer players, and others referred to as “girls” when their counterparts are rarely referred to as “boys.” It seems to me that people feel the need to use the term in order to make dominant female athletes more palatable to male viewers who may find them threatening. The media also seems hell-bent on highlighting the “girlishness” of female competitors, particularly gymnasts. Simone Biles’s backstory focuses on her love of nail polish and shopping rather than her athletic prowess. As the “Final Five” huddled together during the team event in which they obliterated the competition, a commentator remarked, “They might as well be standing in the middle of the mall.” When gold medalist Sanne Wevers of the Netherlands wrote in a notebook after what would be her winning balance beam routine, the NBC reporter said he could only assume it was a diary. Former Olympian Nastia Liukin corrected him: Wevers was calculating her potential score. Look, I know Biles loves Zac Efron, but I think we can do better than reducing incredible athletes to teenage behaviors.

Appearance: When it comes to coverage of women’s sports, aesthetics wins over athletics. The UK’s Daily Mail ran an article about the best and worst leotards at the Rio Olympics. Seriously. Fox News’s Mark Simone and Bo Dietl debated the merits of female athletes wearing makeup, with Dietl remarking, “When you see an athlete, why should you have to look at some chick’s zits?” Wow. And that’s just the mainstream media. People have taken to Twitter to body shame Mexican gymnast Alexa Moreno and criticize Gabby Douglas…for her hair. And apparently objectification of athletes isn’t just for women anymore. The shirtless Tongan flag bearer (Pita Aufatofua…he has a name, people!) gained notoriety during the opening ceremonies. And then he was oiled up on live TV by some female Today Show hosts. So apparently we are more equal opportunity when it comes to sexualizing our athletes. Yay?

Relationship Status - Marriage: So we have Hosszu whose accomplishment was credited to her husband, but we also have American trap shooter and three-time Olympian Corey Cogdell-Unrein whose bronze medal was outshone by her role as…wife. The Chicago Tribune ran a headline that read, “Wife of a Bears’ linemen wins a bronze medal today in Rio Olympics.” Some claimed that newspaper was simply providing local context, but if that was true, they simply could have said she was from Chicago. And, I don’t know, named her directly. When Chinese diver He Zi received a proposal on the podium from her boyfriend, some anchors suggested it was even better than a medal. I’m all for celebrating an engagement, but not when it’s used to diminish an achievement like a silver medal. Unfortunately, being defined by one’s husband is fairly ubiquitous in this country. Amal Alamuddin is an accomplished lawyer and activist and an advisor to United Nationals Secretary-General Kofi Annan, but we know her as Mrs. George Clooney. When Hillary Clinton broke the glass ceiling as the first woman nominated for the presidency by a major political party, newspapers around the country ran pictures of her husband. It just goes to show that, no matter how high you go, you’re only as good as the man closest to you.

Relationship Status – Motherhood: If you are a mom and an Olympic athlete, we’ll be hearing about it. Any story about Kerri Walsh-Jennings or Dana Vollmer centers around their role as mothers. I get it – I’m a mom and it’s a big part of my identity. But these women are also world class athletes. The media seems especially fixated on the fact that Vollmer gave birth a year ago and is competing at the Olympic level again. They marvel that she “hasn’t lost her edge,” as if motherhood is some kind of debilitating condition. I wouldn’t have as much of a problem with the focus on parenthood if it was applied equally to male athletes. We have seen a good deal of little Boomer Phelps, but his dad Michael is defined by his dominance in pool rather than his role as dad.

The media also seems unable to describe the athletic feats of women without comparing them to men. Katie Ledecky’s male teammates have been quoted as saying she “swims like a man” and news outlets have frequently referred to her as the “female Michael Phelps.” When Biles dismounted from the uneven bars, a commentator said, “I think she might even go higher than some of the men.” It’s as if the anchors think we can’t possibly grasp the remarkableness of what female athletes are doing without using men as a reference. Why can’t we just recognize how awesome these women are in their own right? Biles had an excellent response to such comparisons: “I’m not the next Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps…I’m the first Simone Biles.”

There’s a discrepancy between the quantity and quality of coverage of male and female athletes as well. Phelps’s tie for silver in the 100-meter butterfly was deemed more important than Ledecky crushing her own world record in the 800-meter freestyle. Ledecky was so far ahead of her competition that she was swimming in the opposite direction at a certain point, but the Associated Press gave Phelps top billing. Consider the difference when the story is negative. Gabby Douglas was utterly vilified for failing to put her hand over her heart during the medal ceremony for the team final. Ryan Lochte and company, however, were given a pass when they concocted a story to cover up a night of drunken debauchery. Lochte and the other swimmers lied about being robbed at gunpoint on national television and may have filed a false police report, but Rio Olympics spokesman Mario Andrada encouraged the public to “give these kids a break.” Lochte is 32. If you take issue with both Douglas’s and Lochte’s behavior…fine. But it’s pretty clear who is getting the benefit of the doubt in the court of public opinion, and that person is white and male. And that’s called privilege, folks.

Things have to change. In another four years, I don’t want to hear a women’s judo final referred to as a “catfight” or a beach volleyball match between Germany and Egypt dubbed “Bikini vs. Burka.” Let’s use social media in a positive way by calling attention to what’s become every day sexism. Outcry does work. The Chicago Tribune issued an apology. Offensive tweets were deleted. Broadcaster Rowdy Gaines asserted, “A lot of people say she swims like a man. She swims like Katy Ledecky, for crying out loud!” We also need to change the culture so offensive comments aren’t made in the first place. Let’s pressure major news outlets to represent women equally and dump commentators who can’t get with the program. NBC’s chief marketing officer John Miller thinks women aren’t real sports fans and that we’re less interested in results (yeah, that’s why you ran all the commercials…because we like reality tv packaging). Why don’t we see how he likes it when we don’t watch at all? We can also act by knowing the names of and celebrating our female champions in the way they deserve.

While watching the Olympics with my family, my husband leaned down to our 15 month-old daughter and said, “You could be an Olympian someday.” That would be amazing. But I worry about her and other young girls who aspire to greatness. According to a study by Dove, 6 in 10 girls will stop doing what they love because they feel badly about their looks. Olympic sexism tells these young women that they’ll be subjected to incredible scrutiny and that their achievements may very well be credited to or diminished by men. I’m so glad there are role models like Biles and Ledecky to inspire and pave the way for the next generation of amazing women athletes. With their efforts, and the support of a public that condemns sexism, maybe the paths of future female superstars will be just a little bit easier.

 

The Meaning of Latinx

I try to be very intentional about using inclusive language. You may have noticed that I’ve replaced my Pacific Northwest “you guys” with the southern “y’all.” And if you know me, you know that when I learn something new, I’m always eager to share. So let’s talk about a term you may have been seeing: Latinx.

Latinx (pronounced la-TEEN-ex) is a gender-inclusive term referring to people of Latin American descent. It gained strength first on social media but has recently become more mainstream. The history of how the term developed is quite interesting. As you may know, Spanish is a gendered language (check out my blog post on this very topic: http://www.kimmiefinkconsulting.com/blog/2016/5/13/the-gendering-of-everything-language). What you basically need to know is that in Spanish, masculine nouns usually end in “o” and feminine nouns in “a.” The masculine is the default for gender-neutral. That didn’t sit well with a lot of people who felt that this reinforced patriarchal norms, so members of the Latin American community started using the term Latin@ to include both male and female genders.

Why not just use Hispanic, you ask? Let me take a minute to explain the difference between the terms, since they are confusing for many people and often mistakenly used interchangeably. Hispanic refers to language, whereas Latin@ refers to geography. If you speak Spanish, you are Hispanic. If you are from Latin America (anywhere south of the US, including the Caribbean), you are Latin@. So a Spaniard is Hispanic but not Latin@, and a Brazilian is Latin@ but not Hispanic. Clear as mud? For a primer, check out this great comic: http://www.vox.com/2015/8/19/9173457/hispanic-latino-comic.

Ok, so we will just use Latin@, right? Not so fast. In time, the term Latin@ started to show its limitations. You see, Latin@ doesn’t include the identities our non-binary friends. For people who identify as something other than male or female (whether that be agender, gender non-conforming, genderqueer, genderfluid, or something else), the term Latin@  doesn’t reflect their lived experiences. Hence Latinx. Perhaps the best thing about the word Latinx is how it highlights intersectionality. In fact, I first heard the term in reference to the victims of the Pulse shooting, a perfect example of the vulnerabilities of people who identify with multiple groups that have a history of oppression (in this case Latinx and LGBTQ).  

So if we’re going to be inclusive, help dismantle the outdated gender binary, and acknowledge people for who they are (all their identities, not just one), Latinx is a term that should be in our vocabulary. The complaint I hear most often is that we’re being too politically correct. I would argue that use of inclusive language has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with respect. And it’s pretty hard to argue with that.

 

TXTNS: Advocates, Allies, and Agents of Change

Last weekend, I attended the 8th Annual Texas Transgender Nondiscrimination Summit at Texas A&M University Central Texas right here in Killeen! With 130 participants, it was the largest summit they’ve ever had. TXTNS was even featured on the front page (above the fold!) of the Killeen Daily Herald (http://kdhnews.com/news/local/transgender-summit-sets-new-record-of-attendance-at-opening-ceremony/article_42b67d98-5617-11e6-a2a0-3ff0c6ffd754.html#.V5zPDnQFVCo.facebook).

A few months ago, my colleague and author Paige Schildt (www.queerrocklove.com) encouraged me to submit a proposal, so I did. It was accepted, and I presented the Welcoming Schools module on gender, which was very well received. I met some great people (TXTNS Executive Director Josephine Tittsworth is pretty much my new favorite person) and learned about some wonderful organizations that support transgender people in the state of Texas. Here are the highlights:

1)ACLU of Texas: Those of us concerned with civil rights already know about the American Civil Liberties Union. The first session I attended was on LGBT Expression in Public Schools with Victor Cornell, Statewide Advocacy Manager for ACLU Texas (www.aclutx.org). He was very helpful in clarifying students’ rights, and I want to share a few things I learned:

·         The legal definition of disruptive does not include discomfort.

·         If the any clubs are permitted, then all clubs are permitted (e.g. a school can’t prohibit a Gay-Straight Alliance, or GSA, if it has other clubs like Honor Society or FFA).

·         Although dress codes are at the discretion of school administration, if any writing is allowed, then all writing as allowed (e.g. a student cannot be asked to remove a “Gay Pride” t-shirt if the school permits clothing with writing).

·         Some schools still have male and female specific dress codes. In this case, trans students who dress in accordance with their gender identity are protected.

·         Harassment and bullying must be addressed equally (e.g. if a school disciplines for a racial slur, they must also do so for an anti-gay comment).

Sensing the theme here? If any, then all.

2)Gender Portraits: Drew Riley is a transgender artist who uses art as a tool for empathy and visibility. Drew’s Gender Portraits (www.genderportraits.com) series “explores our societal views of gender by focusing on the lives and struggles of gender outliers with visible, empowering paintings and written word.” Drew was also promoting Gender Unbound (www.genderunbound.org), an art show by gender diverse artists in Austin. I’m planning to go if you’d like to join me on Saturday, September 24th at Soma Vida, 2324 East Cesar Chavez Street.

3)Transgender Education Network of Texas: I met the fantastic Brandon Beck, Chair of TENT (www.transtexas.org). TENT is dedicated to furthering gender diverse equity in Texas through education, advocacy, and empowerment. I attended Brandon’s excellent session on how story-telling can be an educational tool for others as well as a way to support transgender students.

4)Equality Texas: This is another wonderful organization working toward full equality for LGBT Texans and their families (www.equalitytexas.org). Their focus is four-fold: ending discrimination, building strong families, protecting youth, and preventing violence.

5)Organización Latina de Trans de Texas: One of the highlights of the conference for me was meeting three of the women of OLTT (www.latinatranstexas.org), including the Executive Director, Ana. They attended my session, and I was so excited to be able to do some translation as well as conduct breakout conversations in Spanish. I hope to collaborate with this group more and support them in the work they want to initiate to gain the support of families in the Latino community in Houston.

6)Esperanza Peace and Justice Center: Esperanza (www.esperanzacenter.org) advocates for all marginalized people, including women, people of color, the LGBT community, and the poor. They are hosting an event called “Son Tus Niñ@s También: Trans Kids Back to School” (Thanks for this info, Lauryn Farris!).  If I wasn’t going to be in Washington, I would absolutely attend. I invite you to check it out on Saturday, August 13th from 6:00-9:00 p.m. at the Esperanza Center in San Antonio (922 San Pedro Avenue). This will be great information for parents of trans children as well as teachers and administrators.

7)Phyllis Randolph Frye: This woman, frequently referred to as the Grandmother of Transgender Law, gets her own bullet point. In 2010, Phyllis gained national recognition as the first out transgender judge in the country as a City of Houston Associate Municipal Judge. She is a senior partner at her LGBTI-and-straight-allies law firm (www.liberatinglaw.com). She gave her keynote address not as a judge, but as an individual. She had some excellent ideas for combating the fear-mongering about bathroom use by transgender people:

·         Most cities have ordinances that prevent people of the opposite sex from entering the bathroom of the other sex. It’s already prohibited. By adding the words “in a manner calculated to cause a disturbance” (as in the Houston version), we can assuage the fears of those who worry that new policies will allow men to enter the women’s room to do harm.

·         Remind people who are worried about the safety of women and children that not only can individuals who break the above policies be removed, they can be arrested for any of the behaviors that are so often cited by opponents. Public indecency, public lewdness, and voyeurism (not to mention assault) are already crimes. Anyone breaking these laws can be prosecuted and jailed.

So there you have it – a busy two days, as you can see. Please check out these resources! And if you love what you see, please join me at Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches next year (June 9th-10th) for the 9th Annual Texas Transgender Nondiscrimination Summit.

 

Conversations About Race: Why and How to Talk to Kids

My mom tells a story about my sister, a precociously verbal 3 year-old, sitting on a bus with her and gazing at a Black man in an adjacent seat. She piped up, “Hey Mom! What color do you think his [insert body part you least want your child to mention in public] is?” Although my mom was mortified, she managed to calmly reply, “The same color as the rest of him.” The man, who overheard, kindly told my mom, “It’s okay, lady. I’ve got kids, too.”

Let’s be real. Most of us would be hard-pressed to muster my mother’s composure in that situation, but it’s certainly something we should strive for. Many people, White folks in particular, are reluctant to talk about race. We’re afraid of saying the wrong thing or offending someone, so we say nothing at all. Well-meaning parents avoid the topic of race in an attempt to harness the natural “color-blindness” of their children. We know that racism is learned, so many parents assume that if they just don’t talk about it, their kids won’t develop racist attitudes. Unfortunately, the opposite is often true.

Dr. Brigitte Vittrup of Texas Woman’s University has done a great deal of research that led her to the idea that “silence breeds prejudice.” When we shush children who bring up race (like my sister did), we send them the message that discussing race is taboo. While parents’ intent is to treat the topic with sensitivity, children are likely to interpret the silence to mean something is wrong with “these people.” Vittrup found that “children’s attitudes matched their perceptions of the parents’ attitudes” rather than actual attitudes of their parents regarding race. The result is children who are more biased than their parents.

In the absence of conversations about race, children are left to their own devices. A growing body of research shows that even very young children demonstrate what is known as “in-group” bias. In other words, they show preference for people of the groups to which they belong. Combine this with exposure to media that perpetuates racial stereotypes, and you have a recipe for racism. As kids get older, they also start to pick up on the inherent privileges of being White in this country and develop “high-status bias.” They infer that privilege is a result of a particular race being better than another, and thus show preference for that group. Perhaps the most well-known study documenting this phenomenon is the “Doll Test,” which in its many incarnations since the landmark 1947 Clark study, has consistently shown that White and Black children are biased toward lighter skin tones.

Clearly, remaining silent on the issue of race is counterproductive, but the same can be said for conversations about racism. In a series of tweets, radio host Alex Haynes described his interaction with a White family at a local restaurant. Watching news coverage of Philando Castile, a boy asked his parents why police kept killing Blacks. The parents were visibly uncomfortable and told him to keep quiet. Haynes approached the family and used it as an opportunity to educate them on the dangers of silence: “The more you keep quiet, the more it continues.”

Adults (particularly teachers and parents) are on the front lines. Let’s be proactive and make sure the children in our care receive positive messages about race from us before the negative ones seep in. Here are some tips for how to do that:

1)Read picture books: This is my go-to for difficult topics. Quality children’s literature is a great age-appropriate way to initiate conversations about race (you don’t have to wait for kids to bring it up!). Some examples are Shades of People, All The Colors We Are: The Story of How We Get Our Skin Color, The Colors of Us, and The Skin You Live In. It’s a good thing to get kids talking about different skin tones. It helps them develop the language to name and appreciate differences, which is foundational to developing positive racial associations for themselves and others.

2)Understand where questions and comments come from: When a child brings up race (possibly in a way that’s uncomfortable for you), it’s important to remember that it’s developmentally appropriate. Children start categorizing people by race at a very young age. I remember a second grader who told her Black friend she was “just like [her] favorite chocolate bar.” She wasn’t being racist. Many times, children are simply curious and trying to make sense of their world. Other times, they’re simply repeating something they’ve heard and maybe even testing the waters to see how you react. Find out where they’re coming from, and then…

3)Respond matter-of-factly: Simple, to-the-point responses work best with children. If a child remarks that someone’s dark skin is dirty, simply explain that it’s just as clean as theirs; it’s just a different color. If they question an interracial couple, say that color doesn’t matter when you love someone. My little brother came home from kindergarten one day devastated because another child told him he couldn’t marry his best friend because she was Black. Mom invoked our neighbors, an interracial couple: “Honey, you know that isn’t true. Al and Ursula are married.” Just in case you weren’t sure that racism is learned, my brother responded, “Al’s Black?” Look at situations like these as teachable moments, opportunities to engage children in positive conversations about race.

4)Keep your emotions in check: Questions and comments like the examples above, especially when they happen in public, can be embarrassing. However, children are especially attuned to the emotions of their caregivers. Remember that if you react by shushing them, giggling uncomfortably, or responding angrily, you’re communicating to the child that there is something wrong with talking about race and eventhat there is something wrong with people of different races. Do your best to remain cool and collected. Practicing what you might say in different situations is a great way to prepare.

5)Don’t shy away from difficult conversations: We often want to protect children from all the bad things that are happening in the world. While we can certainly spare them the details, we cannot (nor should we) shelter them from everything. In a media-rich society, children are inevitably going to hear about racially-motivated violence. If we are going to raise a generation that stands up to discrimination and prejudice, we must be the voices that name these wrongs. Even very small children understand the concept of “unfairness.” They should hear you say that what happened was unjust and that you treat all people with respect, dignity, and love…and then see you live it.

I’m not saying these conversations are easy – far from it. But then I think about the discussions Black parents have to have with their children. I’ll never have to counsel my child about how to avoid being shot by a police officer or help her to hang her license and registration in the windshield. It’s the least I can do to talk to her about race. It’s the least all of us can do.