Note: I’m changing it up a little bit, and writing about some non-sciencey stuff: race and tokenism in America. I was inspired by a marvelous piece I read recently about astrophysicist Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson. It made me think about my own experiences as a minority in science and engineering, the obligation I feel to my culture and the internal conflicts it can engender, and how I’ve learned to switch seamlessly in and out of those worlds. So without further intro, the essay is below. -L
THE CURIOUS CONUNDRUM OF THE CODE-SWITCHING TOKENIZED TEACHER
A student raises her hand in a political science lecture, and confidently proclaims: “If people are to be treated equally under the law, then policies that single out minorities for special advantages are not only unfair and unnecessary, but are unconstitutional. President Obama is evidence that class is what determines your success in America, not race.”
People of color who have attended elite academic institutions might be able to identify with the following, oft reflexed, 3-step stream of consciousness:
Step 1: Jaw drops reactively in forming of the classic “WTF?” face.
Step 2: Calm down. Quickly straighten out the “WTF?” face, and try to appear nonplussed.
Step 3: Decision point:
a) Sit quietly and allow this person—and whomever in this room of 150 students agrees with her—to graduate from here actually believing this, be elected into Congress (because at this school, it really is a possibility), and then pass laws that curtail civil rights legislation, all while disappointing my ancestors who would have given anything for such a teaching moment on inequality and social justice, or
b) Take on the responsibility yet again, as the lone voice of color, to explain the “minority perspective,” subject myself to repeated Q&A, speak on behalf of every Black, Hispanic, and Native American kid who knows for certain that this country is in no way post-racial, deal with the fallout of receiving emails from classmates wanting to discuss it further a.k.a. try to prove me wrong and deny my experience, and risk now being forever marginalized at the resident thought leader on the Black experience even though my field of study is Science and Technology Policy.
No, this is not an exaggeration. And as you can probably imagine, this thought process – although it occurs in the mere blink of an eye – is mentally, emotionally, and spiritually exhausting. And it seems that the more I find myself within elite academic, business, and social arenas where minority perspectives are vastly underrepresented, the more I find myself facing the Curious Conundrum of the Code-Switching Token Teacher.
Allow me to unpack that a little bit.
Go. Read this article. Right now.
I know at my mom’s school, teachers worked with parents to make sure children had food, clothes, school supplies, medical care. Kids who didn’t have running water in their homes (no, I’m not kidding) were given access to the showers in the gym and teachers would do their laundry. Teachers drove families who didn’t have cars to their doctor and dentist appointments, allowed kids in extracurriculars who needed to be at school early to go to band contests or football and baseball games to stay at their house overnight so they could drive the kids in early the next day. At Christmas, teachers pooled resources to help parents get together Christmas presents and dinners, so kids could have Christmas meals. My mom, an elementary school principal, drove her former students in high school to distant colleges so they could see campuses they couldn’t visit otherwise and helped them with college and financial aid applications. My parents gave families, free of charge, a car, a washer and dryer, musical instruments my brother and I no longer used, and they weren’t the only teachers or other parents in the community who did the same for kids and families in need.
I know there are bad teachers, but my experience being raised by an educator and being surrounded by teachers was that teachers love their students and want what is best for their students. They will do whatever they can for kids and their families if they think it will help the kids succeed. The teachers in my life were overwhelmingly examples of dogged, selfless dedication. I know so many teachers now who have worked well past when they could retire because they still love teaching, because they love the kids, because they want to make the world a better place.
Teachers are amazing people, and instead of discrediting them, blaming them for all the problems with our education system, and replacing them with less expensive and less qualified people who will be in and out of the profession in a couple of years, we should be doing our best to seek out and support the people who have this kind of passion and commitment to the hard work of educating children.
What this should also tell us is just how many kids are going hungry right now, and how vitally important it is that we continue to invest in children. SNAP benefits, Medicaid, subsidized housing…all of these things are vitally important to school success. A child can’t do well in school if they are hungry, sick, and homeless or worried about becoming homeless, and you’d be hard pressed to find teachers who have never encountered students who have dealt with one or all of these challenges, except maybe in the wealthiest school districts. Taking care of kids should be one of our biggest priorities, and sadly, it’s turned into some sort of political game to see who can be the most committed to poverty shaming and anti-government, no matter who is hurt in the process. It’s sickening.
Education is important. Children are everything. We need to invest more into both. Now I’ll get off my soap box.
Do you ever think about the fact that the US has created and legitimized a system of institutionalized inequality by funding schools through property taxes? That basically a child’s education is only as good as the value of the property in their neighborhood. Funny how education is so often viewed as an equalizing factor when there is nothing equal about it.