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Five Years In Ten Minutes | 2010 | Carpe Noctem

04.01.10 9:58 a.m.

Embrace your uniqueness. Time is much too short to be living someone else's life.  

-Kobi Yamada


Transcending Stereotypes

I hate that the Advanced Placement classes where I substitute teach are disproportionately peopled by Caucasian children. I hate much more that I notice. (If it helps any, I am apparently sexist as well, because girls outnumber boys two to one in any advanced classes and I am quick to trot out the factoid that they mature faster.) And I hate most that, in researching this, I realize how common this complaint is, how honors classes have been accused of being a front for resegregation for exactly this observation.

I don't want race to matter so much (though I could do without Williams Syndrome, which deletes a few genes to prevent children from caring about race but adds in cardiovascular and developmental problems). It shouldn't. Aside from a few genetic maladies (sickle cell anemia) or assets (Japanese people can digest seaweed), there are very few physiological differences between people based on their ancestral origin and almost none related to cognitive ability. (As point of fact, Jared Diamond argues in Guns, Germs, and Steel that aboriginal people still living primitively should be more intelligent because they still have the evolutionary strain of survival thinning out the dullards.) The human race is so related (thanks probably to the Toba Blast, which reduced the breeding population of humans to a few thousand) that incest is still a necessary taboo, something that plagues few other species that aren't selectively bred by us. You are likely more related to your neighbor, no matter whether they are ecru or charcoal, than your mutt is to his mutt. As such, there is no reason you should assume said neighbor is a so very different from you in the ways that matter. Most importantly, there is no reason the neighbor should believe in his racial own supremacy or inferiority.

This reduces the differences to cultural and societal, students who are told that they are the wrong color and thereby can't learn. Once they have internalized this lesson, they will seek to make school hell for anyone around them, because it is better to be seen as bad than stupid. Learning isn't something they feel allowed to do, unless it is what mass media saturates their mind to believe; that they should know how to break into a car, the street value of ten variants of narcotics, and where to buy a gun with no questions asked. Of course, the students aren't thugs, however much they treat prison as their destiny in the way they ought to regard college, but they proselytize inadequacy endlessly. Anyone with a matching skin tone who tries to academically succeed is, according to them, abandoning the very essence of what it is to be of African or Hispanic descent (and the young Hispanic women are expected to bear children before junior year or they are frigid - I have heard this used as an insult). Yes, members of other races are occasionally welcome under their umbrella, but they are always seen as suspect because they can doff the costume and resume a place in their race's culture (whether they feel their race has a culture or not). I get students asking me whether it frightens me to be around "so many black people" (their words) and I just have to shrug and ask why it should. They never have good answers.

There is nothing inherently wrong with identification with a grouping over which one has no say (though I refuse to be pigeonholed because my forbearers were from wintry climes). The trouble comes when this where identification stops, when students wish to be little more than the worst stereotypes of that grouping because it requires less effort. (It takes a lot of work to be who you truly are each day.) Not coincidentally, I note a direct correlation between the students who use racial slurs and those who fail classes through a complete lack of effort. If you regard yourself and your peers as nothing more than a slur, what point is there in trying to figure out the preterit tense or the Pythagorean Theorem? Being a slur does not encompass caring about geology or art.

I love my students in principle, if not always separately, and know well how they cut their throats by obstinately refusing to achieve. I know how painful it is to try one's best and fail anyway, how tempting the low road must look to those conditioned to disbelieve in their aptitude. I say this not out of some White Man's Burden (or White Man's Guilt, I hope) to tame the savages. I've yet to meet a savage student, though I concede they are out there (and with no uniform level of melanin). I say this because I see how many young lives are already wasted by ingrained belief in this racist mythology of dominance and submission. There are still bigoted bastards out there who are perpetuating the system, but giving into them is beyond counter-productive. In this, as in most situations, a well-lived life is the best revenge. "The Man" hates nothing more than people transcending clichés of what they can be.

I know this reads as a dictate to act as an exemplar of one's grouping, and I can't deny that this plays some part in it for me. During interfaith functions in college, I did my best to present myself as sensible and composed to make up for the girl to my right, who wore a hubcap pentacle, cat ears, and persisted in meowing during other groups' prayers while representing the Pagan Student Union. I felt it my duty as a member of a minority group to act as the best face I could, because I might be the first or last Pagan someone met. I might become the schema for what a Pagan is and would be loath to have them regard a group into which I placed myself as lazy, sex-obsessed, intolerant, gluttonous, deviant, or evil. I couldn't ally myself with the unspoken assumption and admit embarrassment that many around me did, bowing and shuffling as was expected of them.

I try not to concede too much of my soul to primordial identities, the poker hand of genes slid my way before I was more than a tadpole. Perhaps I am ungenerous for applying this same standard to others without their consent - that is where these issues began in the first place, with adults deciding what children ought to be - but it is only because I hate the disappointment of others more than most anything. I imagine these students seconds from death, realizing what they squandered by never letting themselves be more than a stereotype predicated by a Hollywood hack, and I feel sick. (Of course, I don't react so negatively when students seek to embody positive racial stereotypes - Asians striving for A-pluses in math, Africans practicing steps until they move like poetry - so I may myself be a hypocrite in all of this.)

I used to say, in application essays and cover letters, that I understood that I could not save all my students from the limitations of their circumstances, but that it was enough that I had saved a few. It isn't enough. I still am not deluded enough to believe I can save them all, but I am far more frustrated by all those who refuse to be saved and will go out of their way to stop others from rescue. Saving one or two lives is significant to the saved, but the true solution is holistic and continuous. Every live saved, every child who realizes that they are an individual capable of success rather than someone bearing the Mark of Cain who will never come to anything, ripples exponential out and counters the systematic oppressors. They become the role models, those shaping the cultural discourse, those allowed an informed perspective as to what "someone like them" can be.

Soon in Xenology: Maybe a job, trans-girl mosh pits, goats.

last watched: Glee
reading: Shantaram
listening: Dresden Dolls

Five Years In Ten Minutes | 2010 | Carpe Noctem

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.

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