I Pledge Allegiance?

For the last two weeks, my daughter has been making the same observation wherever we go:  “Look, Mommy; the American flag!…God Bless America!”  We don’t talk much about the flag in our house (or about blessing America), but today I found out why she had become such a vexillologist.*  When I dropped her off at pre-school this morning, her regular Tuesday music session was already in progress.  I helped K quickly wash her hands so that she could run off and join her classmates.  As I walked out of the room, I heard her music teacher say, “Okay, let’s stay standing, because I brought my flags with me today!”  I left the classroom, but stood outside the door to watch as the music teacher picked two children to hold two flags, and then led the group in a song that I couldn’t hear, but assume was patriotic.  Watching all of this, I was caught off guard.

My husband was raised in the black nationalist tradition, and I am first-generation—both of my parents are immigrants to the United States.  As a result, neither my husband nor I are strangers to alienation within the borders of one’s own country.  As far back as high school I stopped automatically pledging allegiance to the flag every morning.  Part of it was pure teenage rebellion; I was just daring somebody—anybody—to try and force me to recite the creed.  But part of it was also a political awakening.  It had started becoming obvious to me that, some 30 years after the civil rights movement, Blacks were still not necessarily embraced as rightful citizens of the United States.  The American flag, in all its starred and striped glory, still did not represent me, and so I did not have to pledge allegiance to it.  One need only look at the enduring birthism movement in the country, a full 3 years into Obama’s presidency, to find continuing evidence of the country’s ambivalence towards its minorities.

As an adult, I remain conflicted about my country of origin.  Our national conversation—or maybe lack thereof—regarding marginalization and subordination is discouraging.  A social and legal embrace of “colorblindness” have made impotent the words of the Fourteenth Amendment; instead of genuine respect and dignity for all citizens, we have mere formal equality, as if treating similarly people who are not similarly situated could ever result in justice.  The current discourse about reproductive rights has left me feeling attacked and hurt; the rhetoric makes clears that my capacity as a woman for thoughtful and rational decision-making is still questioned.  Buoyed three years ago by the election of our first Black president, I am now deflated by the racism and classism that still abounds; that is, indeed, on the rise, as indicated by presidential candidates who “don’t want to give their money to Blacks,” or who “are not concerned about the very poor.”  Although I never feel more American than when I am abroad, when in my own country, patriotic stirrings wax and wane.  I dismiss The Star Spangled Banner as war propaganda, but eagerly harmonize to “This Land is Your Land;” I roll my eyes at “America, The Beautiful,” yet, “If I Had a Hammer” never fails to bring me to tears.  I’m ultimately more patriotic to the idea of what American could be, but not what it presently is.

Which brings me back to my daughter.  What, exactly, do I want to teach her about allegiance to the flag?  She is, after all, a citizen of this country, and must learn that, if only to ensure that she exercises her rights.  Like me, however, I’d also like her to see the potential of the United States—which means teaching her to love this country, so that one day she might be motivated to improve this country.  And yet, as I walked away from her classroom today, I felt uneasy about having watched the classroom teacher help K place her tiny hand over her beating heart.  My reaction to such early political indoctrination regarding a country that has still not done right by all its citizens is mixed; much like my feelings about my country, I suppose.

*vexillology: the scholarly study of flags

Hair Therapy

When she was a young girl, Little M dreaded having her hair groomed.  Sure, disentangling and combing her kinky hair would require some uncomfortable pulling and tugging, but she feared something much worse than the rough feeling of her grandmother’s hands in her hair: the even rougher tone of her grandmother’s words in her ear.  Ordered to sit still on the floor while her grandmother unbraided, combed, and re-braided her hair, Little M endured a stream of insults and negative assessments.  Her grandmother stretched the hair-combing sessions out as long as possible, so that she could maximize the time spent telling her granddaughter about all the things that were wrong with her; all the inappropriate gestures and language she had used; all the problematic requests she had made.  With each charge of bad behavior, Little M’s grandmother painfully pinched her cheeks, or wrung her ears.  Grandmother’s hands left behind smears of hair oil on Little M’s face, like a scarlet letter broadcasting to the world just how inadequate she was.  As she walked away, finally dismissed from the session, she felt shame and inadequacy; she believed that she was worthless.

Half a century later, my mother combs my daughter’s hair everyday.  Together, they have a ritual.  Little K runs to retrieve her booster seat, places it on the table, and asks to be seated in it.  Ninnine unbraids my daughter’s hair, as my daughter begs her to comb it into her favorite style—an afro.  My mother tells her, “non, mon amour, Mommy does afros; Ninnine does cornrows.”  My mother starts the French DVRs that they watch during the sessions, and together they fall into the rhythm of the language lessons.  “Strawberries!,” my mother will say; “fraises!,” my daughter will respond.  “Bread!…du pain!”  “Cake!…gateau!”  “Oh, my little Kisou,” my mother ultimately says; “I love you all the time!”

When I come home from work, my daughter runs to the door to tell me about her day, and to show me her new hairstyle.  “You look beautiful, K,” I tell her, and she responds, as she does everyday, with “Ninnine combed my hair!”  I feel grateful that my mother manages my daughter’s kinks and coils in this way, and I admire the intricate rows and patterns of braids my mother has created with my toddler’s hair, like a crown.  Deeper than beauty or convenience, however, the hairstyle and accompanying ritual are symbols of the bond my mother and daughter are creating with each other.  I like to imagine that each cornrow represents a long line, stretching from my mother, the dispirited little girl, made captive to words that hurt and tore her down, to my daughter today, the spirited little girl who is repeatedly assured of her worth.  Along that line lays a path of healing.  My mother, no longer trapped between her grandmother’s legs on the floor, has released the pain and indignity of those hair sessions so long ago, knowing that her caregivers didn’t really know any better.  Our mothers and grandmothers don’t always realize that their good faith–but old-school–attempts to discipline us can inflict wounds that we are later compelled to re-inflict on the vulnerable in our own care, just as little children act out their abuse on their dolls in an attempt to make sense of it all.  Ninnine, however, has broken the cycle, using her power during hair sessions today to build Little K up, rather than break her down.  Each flick of my mother’s wrists weaves a new hairstyle and a new connection, conveying to Little K just how adequate, indeed just how inherently worthwhile and perfect, they both are.

Tell Me Lies

At a brunch to celebrate my graduation from law school, I opened gifts in front of my friends.  The ritual made me so uncomfortable, I gushed excessively over every gift, and closed the brunch with an overwrought thank-you speech in which I forgot to thank my then-future husband for organizing the event in my honor.  At my wedding shower a year later, the process again made me nervous, causing me to forget to hug one guest after opening her gift, despite having hugged all the other guests in thanks for their gifts.  Two years after that, I flat out refused to publicly open gifts at my baby shower; my husband did the honors instead, dutifully modeling board books and newborn clothing so attendants could “ooh” and “ahh.”  By the time my daughter’s first birthday rolled around, I wasn’t taking any chances; the invitations read, “please, no gifts.”

I recently thought about these experiences when reading about why children lie.  Apparently, we don’t properly teach them the value of truth-telling, insisting on punishing them when they are truthful about a misdeed, instead of being happy that they told the truth.  The second reason that kids lie, however, is because they see us lying. Even young children, not yet adept at effectively masking their disappointment, know from watching us that they should act happy when receiving a pitiful gift like a bar a soap.

My thoughts turn, then, to the value of social lies.  Even though we feel obligated to tell them, social lies don’t make us feel very good.  Those young children are unable to look researchers in the eye when asked why they like that bar of soap.  And my discomfort regarding the lies I feel obligated to tell when receiving gifts is what drives me to avoid the situations all together.  Although I may be grateful for a particular gift, it is often the case that the value of the gift pales in comparison to the value of the gift-giver herself.  Accordingly, I just don’t get very excited about it.  Opening gifts at parties just amplifies the lie.  For me, celebrations are about being witness to the moment of joy we can share right now through song, dance, and laughter; not about your gift.  Nevertheless, I stress out over my “thank-you performance,” often replaying the scene in my mind afterwards, fearful that I wasn’t “happy” enough.  I wish I could just say, “thanks for whatever it is you got me; now let’s go dance!” instead.

I’d like my daughter to learn to mark milestones through warm memories, but the truth is that people who love her will also mark her milestones through material things, and my responsibility is to teach her to receive such things graciously, even if she has no need or desire for it.  My responsibility will be to teach her to lie.  I’m not sure how to feel about the lies I will be encouraging by teaching her to “act happy enough” even if she doesn’t want, need, or like a gift.  Given my particular incompetence in this area, I’m not even sure I’ll do a good job.

Social lying seems to be part of what we are expected to teach our children to do.  Does it have to be this way?  What social lies do you encourage your children to tell?  And is it worth the mendacity the encouragement cultivates?

Power to the Bebow

My daughter has recently become obsessed with the Reading Rainbow Theme Song. Tweeners like me know the ditty by heart, but when my toddler sings it, it sounds something more like this:

BYE-BYES *indecipherable* SKYYYYY
*indecipherable* HIIIIIIIIII
*babble* OOK!
*babble* OOK!

Fittingly for a child singing about rainbows, she’s also started learning her colors:
“What color is the sky?,” I ask.
“What color is the grass?”
“What color is your skin?”
“Yes, Baby,” I respond; “Your skin is a beautiful, beautiful, brown.”

It frustrates me that I don’t have more names for the spectrum of colors in the brown category. When pointing out the skin color of white characters in her books, I can use words like white, cream, peach, pink, rose, and tan. When the characters are black, I’m stuck with brown; maybe mahogany or cinnamon if I’m feeling really creative.* My lack of words for brown says as much about our dismissal of all things (and people) black and brown, as much as my internalization of that dismissal.

Despite the hole in my vocabulary, however, I’m trucking along anyway, determined to continue talking about skin color with her because I know the best way to raise a racist child is to avoid talking about race. I also know that in failing to talk about skin color with children, we teach them that the subject is taboo, making it difficult for them to have productive conversations about race later in life. I am reminded of this when my students, six weeks into a course on race in the public education system, still clam up at the start of class, awkwardly stumbling into language about “blacks” and “the races” only after insistent prodding by me. I am reminded of this by the guilty silence of my colleagues in response to observations at a recent faculty meting that we haven’t had a scholar of color give a talk at the school in two years. I am reminded of this by the radio silence I encountered in response to my explanation to a white peer that I picked a particular pre-school for my child because there were black dolls in the classrooms.

I am determined to raise a child who is comfortable talking about race, skin color, and it significance in our society. Although it’s likely wishful thinking, maybe her generation will revolutionize the discourse on race in our country, finally acknowledging worth and beauty in the rainbow of skin color among human beings. In the spirit of such a revolution, I say Power to the Bebow!

*The author welcomes suggestions!

Doll Tests

Dolls have a particular significance in the lives of children. My daughter is just now beginning to form an attachment to her little brown doll, named, rather appropriately by her, “Baby.” She’s started moving Baby’s hand in a “bye-bye” motion, and now insists on putting Baby to sleep at night before going down for sleep herself.

I thought of my daughter and her Baby this week as I showed my students film of what dolls can say about childrens’ perceptions of themselves. The famous doll tests, used by social scientists in Brown v. Board of Education to prove that racial segregation caused self-hate and feelings of inferiority among children of color, have since been replicated. More than 50 years after the case, the results are the same: white children characterize black dolls and black images as bad, mean, and ugly; black children do the same.

And so, it was with intense concern that I scanned the toy boxes and book collections of two pre-schools I visited this week, in anticipation of enrolling my daughter in a morning program. My husband and I have managed without daycare for this long, believing we were the only caregivers certain to value her brown skin, kinky hair, and big brown eyes. But at twenty months old, it is now time for her to socialize more regularly with other children, and to form trusting relationships with other adults.

I searched the toys and books because I knew I could not count on finding other black children at the schools. Although the director of the first school I visited tried to pretend that she really had to think about the answer when I asked “Are there any black children enrolled here?,” she ultimately had to tell me what I already knew from visiting the classrooms: “No, there are no other African-American children enrolled at this time.” The response of the director at the second school was the same, although I did encounter one thing that I did not encounter at the first school: a black baby doll. In fact, it was a white child playing with a black baby doll. And, as I scanned the room further, I noticed pictures of children of color on the walls, and books featuring children of color on the shelves. A close look at the school calendar revealed a Black History Month event scheduled for next week. Noticing my attention to these details, the director of the second school said to me, “It’s important to us that we have more children of color here; in the past, we have gone to black churches in the area and made an enrollment push. We remain committed.”

Just a few minutes ago, I received an email from the 2nd director, notifying me that we had made it off of the waiting list, and were being offered a spot for my daughter in the fall. In the spirit of Brown, she will be a black child attending school with white children. Contrary to the spirit of Brown, she’ll be the only one. And yet, like the social scientists in the landmark case, I’m relying on the significance of that black baby doll and a child’s reaction to it, hoping that this time the doll says something more positive–more hopeful, even–about what the racial climate will be for my little girl at this school.

What She Sees

When my daughter was born, complications at the hospital made it so that we were discharged before we established breastfeeding.  I was desperate to nurse her, believing that it was the healthiest start for her, and I was already wary from pumping around the clock.  Our pediatrician advised me to go to a particular lactation center near my home. “Don’t worry,” he assured me; “They’ll get you on track.”  And he was right: Magalee* had me breastfeeding during my very first visit to the center.  It took over 2 months for breastfeeding to become comfortable for me, and I returned to her on an almost weekly basis.  Some of the visits were comic:

Me: It still hurts when she latches on!
Magalee: Okay, put her on the breast….
Magalee: What the heck is that?  That’s not what I taught you!
Me: Well, the book said—
Magalee:  What did I tell you about those books???

Over the next year, even after breastfeeding was firmly established, Magalee continued to be a guide for me as I learned to take care of my baby.  I called her with whatever questions or concerns I had, and she always responded with the same patient and encouraging attitude she had during my first visit with her.  Her belief that I could take good care of my child eventually encouraged me to develop confidence in my own parenting abilities.  As months went by, I learned more about her.  I had always detected a Haitian accent, but she had blonde hair, white skin, and green eyes. I eventually learned that although her ancestry was Syrian, she had been raised in Haiti.  I learned that she dreamed of opening her own restaurant.   “Your leaving this center will be such a loss,” I said to her; her skills, and the success of the center, were legend around the city.  “But you have to follow your dreams.  I’ll come to your restaurant!,” I told her.

As the baby grew older, I spoke to her less and less, although I recently ran into her at our pediatrician’s office for my daughter’s 18-month check-up.  It turns out she has been taking her own son to the same doctor since he was a child, and he was now in for a check-up, even though he was almost 18.  “Magalee!,” I exclaimed when I entered the waiting room.  I was so excited to show off my baby–now a walking, talking, fantastically engaging toddler–to her: “Can you believe this is the newborn you first helped me nurse?,” I asked.

As I waited to be seen by the doctor, we got to talking about Haiti, and why her parents eventually left the country.  She told me the disturbing story of how her parents were robbed at gunpoint in their home, but miraculously escaped alive.  I shook my head and said, “It’s so sad; the country is in such ruins, and just thinking about the work it will take to rebuild it is overwhelming.”  She responded with:

“Please; Haitians don’t even like their country; they destroy it.  They’re hostile to us, calling us white cockroaches.  They don’t see that we’re helping advance the country.  We’re starting business, and employing them.”

When discussing developing countries, people often fail to take note of the history behind the country’s economic state. As has been addressed by scholars, Haiti’s suffering can be traced directly to the isolation and economic rejection the country faced at its inception, as punishment for being the first black country in the Caribbean to successfully fight for its independence. Haiti’s suffering can also be traced to meddling in its domestic affairs by more powerful countries like the United States. Haiti’s suffering can, for sure, be tied to ruthless autocrats and dictators that have taken advantage of the country’s resources for personal gain. Haiti is not, however, suffering merely because its inhabitants “don’t like their country.”

Uninformed by historical context, it is easy to blame the inhabitants of disenfranchised communities for their poor attitudes or mental outlook; for failing to “appreciate” what they have, even if what they have is barely anything, and even if the critics themselves are so accustomed to having plenty, that it’s unlikely they would be “grateful” to share the fate of less well-off peoples. I recently read an article about George Washington, who believed that slavery was a fair deal. In his mind, slaves should have been happy to work to the best of their ability in exchange for food, clothing, and shelter.  It never seemed to occur to him that his slaves would not think it such an equitable arrangement.  Suggestions that Haitians are irrationally resentful of the wealthy foreigners who make money using Haitian labor echo Washington’s sentiments. While nobody deserves to be called a “cockroach” just for making a living, surely one can understand how frustrating it is to know that in your homeland, Syrians have likely been given advantages you will never be given to get ahead.  That knowledge is not any less painful just because those Syrians have now thrown you a few bones.

The comment didn’t surprise me–I’ve heard such unsubstantiated critiques of people of color before–the source did. As soon as the words left her mouth, I realized that Magalee didn’t really consider herself to be Haitian at all. Rather, she was a Syrian living in Haiti, blaming the people of color around her for many circumstances beyond their control; mistaking pain and frustration for apathy and laziness. She wasn’t at all who I thought she was.

Although I thought her comment reductive and ahistorical at best, racist at worst, I didn’t say anything in response.  I was standing in front of an examination room, my child—stripped down to just her diaper—on my hip, as we waited to be seen.  Babies and parents were all around us, and nurses were scurrying to and ‘fro.  It just didn’t seem like the time or place to get into a debate about the state of race relations, politics, and economic disenfranchisement in Haiti.  And even if it were, I wouldn’t have known where to start.  Instead, I furrowed my brow and nodded, indicating to her that I was listening.  As I sit here now, reflecting on the encounter, however, I feel sad.  It hurts to think that this woman who I respect so much, and who was such a source of support for me, has racist and uninformed ideas about Haitian people; about my people.  I had thought Haiti was something she and I had in common, but now I see that we see Haiti from two different vantage points; and that I don’t like what she sees.  I’m disappointed that I failed to offer up a snappy-yet-elucidating response.  So what if the timing was poor?; sometimes, people need to be checked, right? Finally, I wonder whether, if I had said something, I could have even changed her mind at all.

*Not her real name. Continue reading “What She Sees”

The Lottery

In the era of education standards and accountability, the debate regarding the potential of charter schools to reform American public education, particularly for children of color, has heated up. Against this backdrop, several films have recently been released about charter schools. In anticipation of a classroom discussion I intend to conduct about one of them, I recently watched the “documentary” The Lottery. In this case, the quotation marks are intentional, because boy, was this one shoddy piece of documentary work.

My critiques of The Lottery are numerous, but I’ll start with data, or the lack thereof. Sackler, the film’s director, did not attempt to provide viewers with any data about charter school performance compared to traditional public schools. But then again, I don’t blame her. If she had, she would have had to admit that the most comprehensive study of charter schools to date found that fewer than 20% of the schools provided its students with better educations than public schools, almost half offered comparable educations, and more than a third offered their students inferior educations. Talk about your inconvenient truths.

But the absence of useful data was just one of many failures in the film, with unfair portrayals of the major players in education reform being the next problem. The Lottery shamelessly demonized teacher’s unions without bothering to interview even one union rep or pro-union advocate in defense of the organizations. This, despite the director’s decision to interview, almost exclusively, pro-charter advocates, some of whom likened unions to thugs and mafiosos. Now, I understand that there are plenty of villains to cast in the education reform debate. Even if, however, the unions are every bit as obstructionist as the movie suggests they are, and are dumping bodies in the river to boot, it is only fair to give them the opportunity to voice their perspective. If the director’s intent was to pin blame for public school failure on teachers, that’s fine, but she then shouldn’t have called her film a documentary. She should have called it propaganda, because that’s what it was.

Moreover, I have to defend the unions a little bit on this one. Anyone with an understanding of labor struggles in this country has to acknowledge that unions can and do play a vital role in protecting workers’ rights. Although it is true that union contracts have often enshrined due process procedures that result in the retention of many sub par teachers, it is not true that due process in itself is inherently problematic. Nor do I buy the argument that because these sorts of procedures are “never tolerated in the private sector,” they should not be tolerated in the public. To the contrary, due process is the name of the game in the public sector, and for good reason. Teaching at a public school is a public job, funded by public dollars, meaning that all qualified citizen are entitled to the job. And if, after having given the job to a citizen the government wants to take that job away, there are procedures that must be followed, for the government does not have the right to arbitrarily take away from citizens that which has been provided for only by citizens’ grace. I agree that some of these procedures have gotten out of hand, and that if we are to take the teaching profession seriously, it has to become easier to dismiss underperforming teachers while rewarding effective ones. But we cannot, and should not, get rid of due process. You want the freedom to engage in both justified and arbitrary firings? Go to the private sector.

While conveniently avoiding relevant data and scapegoating teachers and the unions that protect them, the movie lacks any substantive discussion about the real problems with American public education: segregation; funding disparities; poverty; inadequate health care and food insecurity among students. Instead, the film misleadingly suggests that reform is synonymous with charters. And it does so while exploiting black people to make the point. Prominently featured in the film is the contentious battle between a Harlem charter school that petitions to be housed in a soon-to-be-closed-down failing public school, and the black and brown parents who protest the charter school’s petition. Between participant interviews and clips from the heated public hearings on the issue, you walk away with the impression that parents of color are ignorantly opposing the very movement that is going to save their children. Missing from the film is any legitimate analysis of why these parents are so oppositional or what it feels like for a community to have their neighborhood school closed without education alternatives for their kids; most of these parents, after all, will not be able to obtain a spot for their sons and daughters in the new charter school. She never considers what it does to a community when a center in that community–a public school–is shut down. Needless to say, I didn’t appreciate the way in which Sackler’s portrayal legitimated the cultural deficit model that is regularly foisted on black people in this country.

And as if that weren’t enough, I was disgusted by the film’s presentation of the actual lottery. As has become all the rage, many oversubscribed charter schools hold public lotteries, at which anxious parents and their children gather in an auditorium to learn whether their child has won a coveted spot at the school. The parents of students’ whose names are called jump up triumphantly, running to the front of the auditorium, ushering their children towards clapping teachers and administrators who welcome the child to the school. The parents of students’ whose names are not called sit in the chairs despondently, ultimately heading home, clearly defeated by their bad luck. It is heartbreaking to see the looks on parents faces who had pinned their hopes on wining a spot, and the sad faces of their children who realize that their parents’ devastation has something to do with their limited opportunities. These schools say that they hold these lotteries to illustrate demand in poor communities for their services. I say they are exploiting the hopes and dreams of these families, and their beautiful black and brown babies, for a cheap publicity stunt, and that The Lottery was complicit in that exploitation. Not surprisingly, only 1 of the 4 families portrayed in the film won admission to the featured charter school.

In defense of the movie, some say that it at least “started a conversation,” but I don’t think the movie did anything positive to further an honest and realistic dialogue about public school reform in our country. Most people who saw the film are not like me or the other writers on this blog who are knowledgeable about public school education. Most viewers don’t realize that crucial data is missing. They don’t understand why parents in the film opposed the arrival of one small charter school in exchange for the closing of their neighborhood school. Most people sat down with a box of popcorn, were entertained by the drama which unfolded on the screen, and walked away with a skewed understanding of charters as the answer, unions as the devil, and black people as backwards for fighting the closing of their neighborhood school.

When discussing the film with one friend who happens to be an educator, she used the theory of “structural functionalism” to discuss what is happening with public education: poverty and marginalization of many exists to ensure wealth and access for the few. As a person with a B.A. in sociology, I agree that the theory is relevant here. And yet, social science terms can problematically make societal issues seem academic, objective and neutral, numbing us to the real injustice that is operating in the background. I’ve got a better way to sum up what was going on in that “documentary,” the charter school movement, and in American public education in general: this is some racist and classist $hit.

BP and Me

I cried when I read the NY Times account of the last hours of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Rig. I cried out of frustration regarding BP and Transocean’s seeming disregard for safety procedures and maintenance of the oil rig, even though it put lives in danger.  I cried as I remembered the pictures I saw of dead turtles washing up on the shores of the Gulf; of beautiful birds covered in oil that would ultimately kill them.  I cried for the human lives lost in the terror of the explosions on that rig and for the survivors who will always be emotionally haunted by memories of leaving loved ones behind, even as they desperately clung to hopes of survival for themselves.

I often wonder, when hearing figures of how many barrels of oil ultimately escaped, or reading about how disastrously safety procedures failed, whether anyone—anyone—in the long chain of command responsible for monitoring the well stopped for a minute and said, “guys, this is not a good idea; something bad might happen if we don’t do what it is that we’re supposed to do.”  Judging from the size of the catastrophe in the gulf, and the emerging evidence of appalling quality and safety control failures on the part of everyone from the Obama administration to BP management, apparently not.  But, how could this be?  How could so many people be so disconnected from nature, from life, and from the fragility of the awe-inspiring ecosystem that sustains our planet, that they systematically subordinated any concerns about the environment and the creatures living in it, to the pursuit of profit?

I want to raise a child who is more comfortable with the outdoors than I am.  Even though I was raised in a suburb, Long Island is not the countryside.  I’m essentially a city girl, preferring asphalt to azanias, sidewalks to grass, and air conditioning to fresh air.  I want to want to take my shoes off and feel the soil between my toes; sit underneath a tree without scanning furiously for ants and spiders; enjoy the feeling of rain on my skin.  But all that wanting has not made me more comfortable outside.  And as I read the newspaper account of the oil-rig collapse, I knew I wasn’t the only one.

Instead of trying to co-exist with nature, we try to control it.  In our efforts, we ignore the lasting, irreversible impact we have on our environment, and the other animals we share it with.  In our hubris, we forget that Mother Nature is more powerful than us all; oil wells cannot always be contained, and if we are not careful, it spells disaster when she unleashes her full force.  If more of us could remember, however, that we are just one species among millions, sharing God’s green earth, subject to natural forces that are ultimately out of our control, maybe catastrophes like this would stop happening.  And perhaps it starts at home.  If I raise my own daughter to revel in the natural world, then maybe she will one day be the employee who says, “hey, guys, this is not a good idea.”

When I take her outside for her daily walk, my daughter crashes into bushes, completely oblivious to the sharp branches sticking her face.  She brings me leaves and sticks to examine, without any concern about the dirt on her hands, or the little critters that accompany her discoveries.  When she runs toward me with a smooth rock she’s picked up, her hands muddy, but her eyes bright and inquisitive, I do my best to hide my discomfort.  My dreams of digging my toes into the soil in delight will probably never be realized, but like so many mothers, I push my dreams off on my kid.  I pray that she’ll learn to love and protect her world better than my generation, and the generations before me, have.

On Breast Ironing, Date Rape, and other Global Phenomena

I recently read an article about breast ironing, a practice that is increasingly common in Cameroon.  Mothers there, concerned about the early sexual maturity of their daughters, use hot stones to compress the developing breast tissue of their daughters, hoping to curb breast growth and, thereby, the attractiveness of their young girls to men who might impregnate them.  Video accompanying the article featured a girl crying and running away from her mother, who had ironed her breasts before.   At best, the practice physically violates.  At worst, it results in serious mental and physical damage, ranging from permanent physical deformities and burns to negative body image and unhealthy attitudes about sex and sexuality.   Breast ironing, and other practices like it, doesn’t teach girls agency, failing as it does to acknowledge that girls should be taught to make their own decisions about their bodies and exercise choice over whether to engage in sexual activity.  Moreover, breast ironing shames and blames girls for their sexuality, even as it fails to hold men and boys responsible for their role in premature sex and teenage pregnancy.

It’s easy to dismiss the practice as the product of a culturally backward society; not the type of thing that would be done in a “civilized” Western society.  And yet, the themes that underlie the practice in Cameroon are alive and well in American culture.  What else but a refusal to recognize female agency in sexual encounters informs the myopic “no sex before marriage” ethos in the United States, which, when applied under a double-standard—as is often the case, to the disadvantage of young girls—is not only ineffective (thank you, Bristol Palin) but also fails to teach girls how to either make well-informed decisions about their bodies or regulate the physical interactions that can lead to sex?

What else but a cultural exemption for men from sexual responsibility could be informing the lectures given to female college freshmen about how to prevent sexual assault: (1) never leave your drink unattended; (2) do not drink excessively in the company of men; (3) always go out in groups with other females, etc.  Where, in all of this, is the list for young college men?: (1) do not put something in somebody else’s drink, ever; (2) do not mix sexual encounters with alcohol; (3) if there is any confusion at all as to consent, cease all sexual activity immediately.  Lest we be fooled into thinking that men already know this, the evening news regularly reminds us that even grown-ass American males do not understand that coercive circumstances should never serve as the backdrop for sexual engagement (thank you, Ben Roethlisberger).

In the end, it is women and girls who are left suffering the consequences of cultural norms that frame sex as not only strictly for male pleasure, but also exclusively initiated at the behest of men, while placing responsibility for the sometimes negative consequences of sex strictly with females.  Unfortunately, the effects of these norms go beyond mere unplanned pregnancy, extending into abused and shattered female minds and bodies, at home and all around the world.

Learned Incompetence

“You don’t think any of it is genetic?  None of it has to do with inherent gender differences?  The ability to multi-task, even?”  This was the question I asked a colleague as we discussed an article that concluded, yet again, that women do more than their fair share of parenting, regardless of whether or not they work outside of the home.  This colleague is the only woman I know who seems to have gotten pretty close to a 50-50 parenting split with her husband.  Among other things, not only has she changed very few diapers, but she has also never given her 19-month old son a bath.  Never.  “Please,” she said.  “That very question—why men do less—is asked through a cultural lens.  It’s all learned incompetence.”

“Be careful about the patterns you set early in her life; they’ll be hard to undo later.”  Those words were spoken to me by another female colleague, warning me that my job flexibility would lend itself to a division of parenting between my husband and me that would tip in his favor.  One year into parenting, it turned out she was right; the scale did, indeed, favor him.  She’s wrong, however, that the pattern began early in my daughter’s life; rather, these are patterns that have been setting long before my daughter’s birth. There may, indeed, be a genetic basis for different brain wiring that make women better at multi-tasking, coordinating, or scheduling.  But the parenting imbalance we witness today in so many marriages is more nurture than nature.  It’s learned; learned incompetence on Dad’s part, and learned competence on Mom’s.

And so it is that my learned competence began 30 years ago, having witnessed my mother run our household without my father’s help.  She’s a consummate scheduler and meticulous planner.  She did all the food shopping, and coordinated all of our meals.  She did all of the school shopping, from new clothes to classroom supplies.  She signed all permission slips, orchestrated all doctor and dentist check-ups, shuttled us to all sporting events, signed us up for extra-curricular activities, and nurtured any new interests we had.  She kept track of our family life, our social life, and our academic life.  Although formally married for all of my childhood, functionally she was a single-parent from the start.  And she was damned good at it.

After having my own baby, I picked up where she left off.  My husband is not my father, and is eager to do his share, especially if I ask.  Nevertheless, I insisted on becoming the expert in baths and hair washings, mealtime and sleep time.  I made the toy and clothing purchases; I scheduled the doctor’s appointments and play dates.  Because my work schedule is fluid, I picked up the care-giving slack, pushing my work off to late nights and weekends.  And at the end of my daughter’s first year of life, I was out of balance because of it: tired, out of shape, and often resentful of my husband.

“I have to take responsibility for what I let happen in my relationship,” my mother says of her marriage.  I used to think it absurd that my colleague had never given her child a bath, but today I applaud her for refusing to become the expert in all matters of child-rearing.  I now recognize the brilliance of learned incompetence on Mom’s part.  My colleague was right: the patterns that I set, patterns that I began learning a long time ago, are indeed hard to break.  But my mother is also right; achieving balance in my parenting life is partly my responsibility.

The other part of the responsibility belongs to my husband, and despite the difficulty of breaking old habits, my partner and I are setting new patterns.  On most days, he takes care of our daughter for half of her waking hours all on his own, and in recent months he has given me a few tips about mealtime.  My learned incompetence has resulted in a better balance, and my well-being, as well as that of my family, has improved because of it.