processing

Yesterday was a rough day. It was emotionally draining as all around me people were processing the results of the presidential election. I’m still processing it, trying to figure out what this means really.

There’s a lot of shock, disbelief, and outrage. And I’m somewhat shocked, but mostly sad and disappointed. Several colleagues and friends have expressed extreme sadness about the message that this election sends minorities of all kinds (Black, Latinx, Asian, LGBTQ, Muslim, undocumented). The message that “you are not welcome here.” And I’m sad about it too, but not surprised. Maybe it’s because I’m a second-generation Asian immigrant, and on some level have always felt like an “other” in the United States. Even though I live in a diverse and progressive city, I’ve been called a chink (not often, thankfully!), and more times than I can count, I’ve been asked “where are you from?” and been told “oh, your English is really good!” So it doesn’t really surprise me that America doesn’t want non-White people. Even well-meaning White people sometimes send the message “you don’t really belong here”.

So now what? There’s a lot to be afraid of. Somewhat for myself, although I am thankful that I don’t actually feel a lot of personal fear right now. (This, too, is privilege-  primarily due to the particular type of minority that I am.) But I’m afraid for the country in general- what happens to the environment, healthcare, undocumented peoples, religious freedom, indigenous peoples and their land, LGBTQ people, minorities in general. And I’ve afraid for the many of my students who fall into these categories (sometimes multiple), although I have students who have supported Trump vocally as well (and probably students who supported Trump quietly, because let’s be honest- our liberal school is not a place where conservatives feel comfortable sharing their views).

I was so encouraged by my students yesterday. We had a test review day, and I had prepped extra material because I anticipated that many would have already done the review packet and be bored. But we were all distracted. I told them that if they wanted to talk about the election, they could, but they needed to be respectful. And they were. They were respectful, reasonable. They were afraid, and some of them showed it, but they were also thinking about how to look ahead to the future, how to galvanize change. And in my class with the vocal Trump supporters, I asked them to listen to each other and stay respectful, and they did.

Listening is the hard part. I’m seeing a lot on social media today about how social media may have changed the election, because we were all in an echo chamber of our own views. As Joanna Weiss wrote,

But the real problem with the race wasn’t the media’s behavior so much as its structure. If you hated Hillary, you tuned into outlets that confirmed your worst paranoia. If you hated Trump, you had parallel places to go for horrified screeds. No avalanche of fact-checking would mean a thing to people who didn’t trust the source. And no amount of gorgeously crafted echo-chamber lamentations would make a difference to people who wouldn’t read them.

Of course we didn’t understand each other. We weren’t even trying to listen.

Weiss encourages us to listen to each other, and I hope we do. I hope for empathy on both sides, to lead to change. But at the same time, I hope that we don’t allow racist, xenophobic, homophobic, misogynistic language and actions to become allowable in this country. It’s easy to label people as “other” when you don’t know them. A friend pointed out the rural/urban divide on the map this election – red in the rural areas, interspersed by dots of blue in the urban areas. And it makes me wonder if it’s because rural areas tend to be isolated and they don’t know the kinds of people that Trump was denigrating. So let’s get to know one another. I hear a lot of language about fighting, and I agree that we have to keep fighting for social justice, but even the language of “fighting” makes it hard. It’s hard to understand and feel empathy for your enemy. It’s hard to even want to get to know the other side when they keep talking about fighting with you. So how to we move forward? Am I just being naive? I don’t actually know.

I feel a burden as a teacher of urban students. I’m a science teacher, and I tend to stick to the facts. But the facts aren’t color-blind, as much as I want to think they are. I want to be a social justice educator. I want to show my students the resilience and courage that they showed me yesterday. And I’m going to be honest, it’s not natural for me. I have spent most of my life being silent, being compliant. I’m not sure how to bring social justice into my classroom- where is the social justice component of electron configuration? But I’m going to try, because my students need to know that they matter. And they need to know that others who do not look like them matter. This country is big enough for all of us.

 

(semi) current events and current questions

There’s been a lot going on in the media around race lately. And I’m still trying to process what it means for me personally and what it means for me as an educator of urban students. This post might seem a little belated, but better late than never, right? Last fall, I started thinking more deeply about race, gender, and education, particularly as I am an Asian-American female science teacher. I found it interesting that this past year, none of my students brought up Laquon McDonald, the Pulse Nightclub shootings, or any of the other incidents that were in the media in my classes (or at least, in my hearing). I wonder if any of them would have talked about Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, the Dallas shooting, or the Baton Rouge shooting. I wonder how to better create a space where students can both do science and talk about how they’re being affected by current events. I wonder how to help students see that science and current events are not mutually exclusive, that science and their identities are not mutually exclusive. I wonder how to acknowledge the ways that, historically, their identities might have been devalued in science classrooms and science as a field of study.

How do I talk about any of these all-too-common current events in my classroom when we’re usually just focused on particle pictures and stoichiometric calculations? How do I get myself out of the mindset of “but there’s so much stuff we have to cover!”? I feel like silence is consent, and I do not consent to a world where the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter is necessary, where there has to be constant explanation for why it’s #BlackLivesMatter and not #AllLivesMatter. I do not consent to a world where recent violence events are not only possible but happen regularly. But I also don’t know how to speak out in an authentic way and I am so used to being silent.

How can I be respectful of my students and their identities (which run the entire gamut in terms of race, sexuality, socioeconomic status, and political views- and not necessarily in the intersections you might expect)? I find this even more challenging because of my own identity as an Asian American who is only just learning about the racial history of Asians in America, who is only just learning about the nuances of the relationships between Asians, Black, and White (and I don’t quite know where to start with the relationships between Asian and Latin@). I found the paper by Claire Jean Kim on “The Racial Triangulation of Asian Americans” to be particularly helpful in aligning my personal experience within the broader context of the racial history of Asians in America, but I still don’t know how to talk about it with others, let alone with high school students who are also still figuring themselves out. I struggle with getting past the “don’t rock the boat” mentality that my parents implicitly passed down to me. I struggle with articulating where Asians fit into the American context without trivializing my experience or the experiences of other peoples of color. I struggle with contextualizing my experiences compared to other Asian American groups or sub-groups, because just because we’re all Asian Americans does not mean we have had similar experiences.

How do I help students see past the stereotypes of each other and also of me? I recognize that as an Asian person teaching chemistry and physics, I may be implicitly reinforcing “model minority” stereotypes. In a diverse classroom full of students labeled “high achieving”, it is so much easier to “just focus on the content”, but a part of me feels like this is a cop-out. Even saying “I don’t know what to do” feels like a cop-out. But really- where do I start?

The question that I seem to keep coming back to is this: Just because things are mostly ok for me, does that mean that the status quo is acceptable? And I’m not saying that I’ve never experienced racism- if I think about it deeply, I can identify instances of subtle racism specific to Asian Americans (“Where are you from? No really, where are you from?”) But I’m starting to recognize how silence is complicity with broader racist structures, even if I myself do not want to be considered a racist. How do I push back against the status quo- in my life, in my classroom?

I’m doing a lot of reading this summer. A friend pointed me toward a crowd-sourced Google Doc on Resources for non-Black Asians on Anti-Blackness and I’ve only dented the surface of those links (the paper by Kim I linked above is from this resource doc). I’m reading Christopher Emdin’s book For White Folk Who Teach in the Hood. I’m listening to (reading? following?) #educolor posts on Facebook and Twitter to learn from those who are doing good work with actual students. And I’m spending a lot of time just thinking, processing. Trying to find ways to authentically acknowledge students in my classroom, not just copy-paste someone else’s methods. And, in the fall, I hope to listen to my students as well. I hope to make it clear to them that I’m still learning, but that I want to learn from them and with them.

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.