On Race, Gender, Education

This post has been a long time coming. And what’s finally prompting me to hit the “publish” button is the recent events in Chicago around the release of the Laquan McDonald dash cam video. I don’t quite know how to fully articulate my thoughts, because this is the result from many months (perhaps even years) of thinking about race, gender, and my role as an educator, but this is my attempt to make some sense of all of these things. There are lots of links to many articles that have pushed my thinking on these topics.

On race:

An article that surfaced on my Facebook feed earlier this year was “The Harsh Truth about Progressive Cities” (from Madison 365). And reading about how most progressive US cities are some of the worst when it comes to racial segregation and racial disparities reminded me of “I, Racist” (from Huffington Post) that I also came across. It’s not easy to talk about race when the listener assumes that you are calling them racist because we live in a racist system. I find it very strange to talk about race and racial disparities as an Asian American who grew up with all the benefits of the mostly positive stereotypes. I fit right into the positive stereotypes, for the most part- quiet and compliant with most authority figures, hard worker, good at math and science. My family was able to fulfill the American Dream- my parents came to the US with a few suitcases and little else, and now they own their own home, are retired after two successful careers, and have 3 kids who are by most measures, quite successful. My parents, as they will sometimes remind me, still faced racial discrimination (although honestly, as a child/young adult and sometimes even now, I was/am often woefully oblivious to instances of racism against my family). My dad’s approach was to teach us to work twice as hard to prove that we were just as good, which strikes me as an untenable solution. And until recently, I was really unaware of the story of Asians in American and how the narrative has changed so drastically in such as short time (from the New Yorker).

I am hesitant to step into or start conversations around race because I fear that people will tell me that I don’t know what I’m talking about because I haven’t experienced the same level of racism. Something that I have noted is that many conversations around race seem to focus on the White/Black divide. I still remember the blowup over the use of the phrase “a chink in the armor” in an ESPN article about Jeremy Lin in 2012 (was it really that long ago?) and how angry my Asian friends were about how so many people defended the phrase, its use, and were upset that Asians were upset by the phrase (but I can’t remember the race of those that defended this phrase). What’s the big deal, aren’t Asians a “model minority”? Asian stereotyping doesn’t really exist, right? But did you know? Asian Americans went from being seen as poor, dirty, uneducated laborers to upstanding middle class citizens in less than a century. (I didn’t know this until a few years ago. Probably because I wanted to believe the stereotype, because it’s a nice one as stereotypes go.) Stereotypes, even “good” ones, prevent us from seeing each other as we are: people, and not that different from one another. And, as one of my professors at UIC said, is it ok that Asians benefit at the expense of other minorities in this “model minority” narrative? Consider that the “model minority” myth was a deliberate change in the narrative to counter the civil rights movement.

On gender:

I read “Still Failing at Fairness” with KSTF a few summers ago. Gender is something that has been on my radar far more than race, simply because it’s been more unavoidable for me as a woman who was always interested in science. I majored in chemical engineering at a school that was all male until 1995. Nevertheless, my undergraduate chemical engineering classes were about 50/50 male/female (my friends’ computer engineering classes, on the other hand, had maybe one female student in a class of 30). I then went to graduate school to get a PhD in chemical engineering so I could teach at the college level. In my entering class of about 15 students, there were 4 women. At least two of us never finished our PhDs. Among the faculty, there was only one woman at the time (they hired a second woman while I was there), and there was always conversations at the “Women in Engineering” things about “work-life balance”. A part of my severe disappointment in quitting my PhD program with “just a master’s” was tied to the feeling that I had somehow let down my gender by leaving the research world, even though I hated most of the time I had spent doing research.

In October, I came across this NY Times piece about “What Really Keeps Women out of Tech”. I found this particularly fascinating as a female science teacher- science is, still, a very male-dominated field (where issues like Geoff Marcy’s continued, persistent sexual harassment of female students went unchecked for years before blowing up this fall); however, teaching is very female-dominated. Pollack’s NY Times article suggests that women stay or drop out of tech because the fields just don’t seem to be welcoming to them. I found this statement particularly intriguing: “young men tend not to major in English for the same reasons women don’t pick computer science: They compare their notions of who they are to their stereotypes of English majors and decide they won’t fit in.” But did you know that women pioneered computer programming? I kind of did, but was fuzzy on the details, until “A Mighty Girl” posted an NPR story about “The Forgotten Female Programmers who Created Modern Tech.” Women created computer programming because men didn’t think it was important enough. (I feel like this exemplifies how the female gender is viewed: women do things that men don’t think are important enough, until they do think it’s important and then take over.)

My friend sent me an essay by Claire Vaye Watkins called “On Pandering”. Watkin’s experience with an experienced male writer made her see that this man didn’t see her as a writer, but just a girl (specifically, a drunk girl). Even though English majors are mostly women, then, “real” writers appear to be mostly men.

On education:

I teach in a Chicago Public School. Earlier this week, our principal sent out all-staff emails about the upcoming release of the Laquan McDonald dash cam video. I had to look up what happened to him, because I had never heard his name before this week. And what happened is heartbreaking, particularly with the narrative around his story, recasting him as a thief and a druggie instead of just stating that a police officer shot the boy 16 times. I’ve been sent the official statements from the district, and told explicitly not to show the video in my classroom, as “the students will have ample opportunity… to see the video through the media”. And it makes me wonder- how many other black youth are being killed without my knowledge? It brought home to me how different my life is compared to some of my students- I can ignore or brush aside a news story about a police shooting. For others, this is their life.

So how do I, as an Asian American woman, understand and work with other groups to combat racism, to promote social justice? How do I have conversations around race and social justice in a science classroom when I am not really sure of the history around race and social justice in America (despite covering the civil rights movement in my AP US History course, sorry, Mr. Huff), when my lived experiences are often so different from both White and Black/Brown experiences? And when my lived experiences are so different, even, from other Asian Americans? How do I have conversations around what it means to be a woman in science when I chose not to stay in a hard science and instead teach science? (The phrase “those who can’t do, teach” comes to mind…) I read this Washington Post piece about how a white teacher responded to her students of color who told her that she couldn’t understand because she was a white lady. But I don’t even know how to start bringing issues of race, gender, social justice into my chemistry classroom.

Issues of social justice are an inherent part of education in general. Not acknowledging these issues inadvertently perpetuates the problems, because the status quo does not promote social justice. My curriculum is pretty sanitized and I honestly have no idea how to talk about social justice because I’ve never really had to think about social justice in a chemistry classroom, so I wonder- how can I be thoughtful?  How can I listen to my students and take the opportunities when I see them? Surely there is a place to talk about the Laquan McDonald shooting and subsequent video release. But where does it come in when we’re talking about periodic trends and electron configuration?

I got a pretty big compliment from my students on Tuesday. They were talking about another teacher (who is no longer at our school), calling her “crazy”. My response was “well, I’m crazy too” because not 5 minutes earlier, they were gripping about how I was making them do work the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. And they told me, “no, you’re not crazy, you actually care about us learning chemistry. It’s not all about discipline.” So then, while I was so happy to hear that my care for them learning chemistry has come through, I wonder- how do I go even further and let my students see that I care about social justice? How do I let them see that while I care, I’m still figuring it out and I certainly don’t have all (or really, any of) the answers?

I don’t know what it will be like in my classes on Monday, if my students will even be talking about what happened to Laquan McDonald. Some of them come from very privileged backgrounds, and the ones who don’t aren’t always comfortable bringing things like this up. And my chemistry class is not really a place where we talk about current events. But I want to be open. I want to not be desensitized to these kinds of events. And I want to learn how to respond.