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So today, I went shopping for my friend’s daughter’s birthday. 

I’m no stranger to Target’s girl-toy section, or as I like to call it “The Pink Ghetto.” I’ve had people disagree with this term. Some say that it trivializes or appropriates this term that has been used to describe the horrible conditions that are visited upon history’s most marginalized people, but I think it’s apt. A ghetto is a place that we as society, place those whom we care little for and would like to control. The Jewish people were placed in ghettos during the Holocaust. The Palestinian people are placed into ghettos as more and more of their property is seized and demolished. In the US, the poor are ushered into inner-city ghettos, where we forget about them until we need to make some kind of statement disparaging those in poverty, immigrants and/or people of color. Once we place a demographic into their assigned place, we tell them how they are supposed to act. We don’t do this through laws or legistlature, but through the prejudice of the media, societal expectations, available resources and behavior of authority figures. 

In the inner-city, we have music, movies, fast-food advertisement, lack of quality education, unfair treatment by authority all painting a picture of what people are supposed to be, dress like, value and behave… 

In the Pink Ghetto, we have the same. The boys’ section of the toy aisle, the world is open. Pirates, police, doctors, astronauts, architects, sports stars, boys are encouraged to strive to be any one of these things and more. The girls section has baby dolls and (YES THEY ACTUALLY DO) kitchen and cleaning supply toys. There are vacuums, ironing boards, brooms and dustpans, sinks and stoves, and pots and pans, all in sparkly pinks and purples and marketed directly towards our little girls. Now, don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with these toys, but the very fact that our girls are limited to dolls and kitchen-stuffs while our boys’ dreams are limitless… there’s something provacative about that. There’s something purposeful about training our girls from a young age that they have a singular purpose, and to want something more is unusual, remarkable, and outside the realm of the strictures of gender binary.

But this has been discussed before. 

We can go further.

My friend and her daughter are African American. I purchased a fashion doll for her birthday. I liked her a lot because she was an African American doll with ACTUAL African American features, instead of a European featured Barbie with dark skin. It got me thinking as I walked through the aisles: why, in this world of beautiful diversity and a rainbow of skin tones and hair textures, is finding a doll with tightly curled hair and African American features the EXCEPTION to the rule? Why is this so remarkable? Shouldn’t it be common to find dolls with a variety of features instead of one single black face in a sea of blonde Barbies? I buy my daughter dolls that represent many ethnicities. She has blonde dolls, but she also has Hispanic, Asian and African American dolls… I pick them out when I find them because I want her microsphere to represent her reality. However, my daughter is blonde-haired and blue-eyed. She fits the most readily represented and normative model of this manufactured binary. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be living as another race (and raising children) in a world in which we are considered “other.” If one side of this binary is blonde/blue, and so obviously favored… what must it be like to have to search hard for a doll that represented what my daughter looks like.

So we are told, as females, that our value lies in our prettiness, our ability to bear and nurture young, our ability to care for a home… anything apart from that is straying from normative behavior. Then we are told that we can’t quite reach success in these areas of normativity unless our skin is light and our hair soft and silky.

This year Lupita Nyong’o was celebrated as People Magazine’s Most Beautiful Person of 2014, which is a great start to recognizing the beauty that exists in dark skin. The world is finally stating not, “She’s beautiful for a black girl,” but “She’s beautiful!” When Nyong’o was a young girl, she never experienced a world that told her her skin was beautiful, her hair was beautiful, that the way she was born was beautiful without hair straighteners and skin lighteners. “I remember a time when I too felt unbeautiful,” she said. “I put on the TV and only saw pale skin, I got teased and taunted about my night-shaded skin and my one prayer to God the miracle worker is that I would wake up light skinned … I tried to negotiate with God, I told him I would stop stealing sugar cubes at night if he gave me what I wanted.”

I want to live in a world in which all of our beauty and worth is represented equally. I want our daughters to grow up knowing that our differences are to be celebrated, not placed one above the other or ignored. I want children to grow up knowing their worth and successes are not limited to a binary or *normativity. I want our girls to never hear, “You’re pretty for a black girl.” or “You’re smart/capable/strong/ingenuitive for a girl.” as if these things were an exception rather than the rule.

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People, in general, tend to make a lot of assumptions.

When I was homeless, I heard, “I just wouldn’t expect someone like you to be in this kind of situation.”

Someone like you. What exactly is that supposed to mean? Young? Blonde? Healthy? Female? What exact mold was I expected to fill? Old and burnt out? Was I supposed to be a person of color? Was I supposed to be crippled, unhealthy or drug addled?

I was homeless due to bad decisions and circumstances. I could also go on and on about society, extreme poverty and the state of affordable housing in this country… but I’ll save that for another time. Homelessness could happen to anybody and the assumption that to be homeless I needed to fit certain criteria is more than slightly disturbing. The question that needs to be asked is, if as a young, healthy white woman I am not expected to be found homeless… what does the assumption say about those who are not young, healthy or white? Are those the ones we expect to be homeless? And if society expects that of people who may fit those criteria… what may they expect for themselves? That’s quite the ominous cloud to live under.

A girl came in to the tattoo parlor I was getting work done at. She obviously knew the artist, as she came right back and began talking to him. They joked and bantered with each other for quite a while, and I noticed she spoke quickly with a “valley girl” type accent. I however, as people who personally know me are already aware of, speak using vernacular (slang) and swear a lot.. like a whole lot. The tattoo artist joked to her, “Girl, you black, but you talk like you’re white. This girl right here whiter than hell, but she’s blacker than you!” They both laughed, but I got to thinking. What exactly does that mean?

If I think like a man, talk like I’m black, spend like I’m rich, live like I’m old, dress like I’m young…. where do I fit if I’m none of those things? Do I not have an identity? How exactly am I supposed to act, dress and speak like? What assumptions are made about me because of who people think I am?

It’s extremely limiting to think of yourself or of other people in that manner. When we assume, we are almost invariably inaccurate. When we try to squeeze ourselves into an assumed image, we spend valuable energy on something that doesn’t matter one iota. Furthermore, we limit ourselves to a sphere of expectation that wasn’t made for us.

Every man, woman and child that exists is unique. Not one is like another. Therefore, any assumptions a person may make based on the way another person looks, speaks, dresses or acts like are without merit. In fact, these things are harmful.

How many girls have never tried hard at mathematics because “girls aren’t good at math”? How many poor kids have not succeeded in school because “kids from that neighborhood never do well”? How many victims of abuse have perpetuated the cycle because it’s readily accepted that they will? How many people have given up because not much was expected from someone “like that”?

Assumptions are unreliable and harmful to so many. Those of us who are purported to be of open mind make a concerted effort to not judge other people in that we do not know what a person has been through in their life. To assume that we know who another person is is just as big a folly.

 

“Equality is not the empirical claim that all groups of humans are interchangeable; it is the moral principle that individuals should not be judged or constrained by the average properties of their group.”
Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature

I’ve never wanted to be a teacher.

I don’t particularly like kids. I don’t like people, and kids are simply uncensored versions of us. All our ugliness, selfishness, meanness and obstinance with no filter, no politeness, no propriety. All those things that make it possible for us to be around each other without killing everyone outright.

I’m currently attending school to become a librarian. (I know, right?) My plans included getting my teaching credentials and teaching my way through grad school. Teaching was simply a way to lighten the financial load while I was pursuing my doctorate.

As some of you may know, I switched schools this semester. I moved from a suburban to an urban setting and my current school, as well as the subjects I am taking, touches on certain subjects having to do with urban issues. These issues include but are not limited to race and ethnicity, economic inequality, reduced opportunities and undereducation present in certain urban areas. These are subjects I was not entirely unfamiliar with, but nothing that I have ever experienced, having grown up in a predominantly upper-middle class white area.

I have also made a lot of friends at my new school. Some of my friends have come from very limited opportunity as well as many roadblocks, yet have preservered despite numerous points of opposition. I have repeatedly been impressed by the intelligence, hard work, ambition and talent among populations that have endured and continue to endure neglect, under-funding and blatant oppressive action perpetrated by both government and society.

Yet a question… The Question lingers in my mind.

This Question nags and pricks me as my friends go along their every day lives, working and studying and caring for their families. They are not impressed by themselves the way that I am. They carry an attitude of, “Of course I did… what was my other option? I didn’t want the alternative for myself. I’ve seen the consequences of inaction… and so I acted.” However, I have seen the other side. I have seen those with every opportunity at their disposal, throw away those opportunities. I have been one of those.

That Question needs answered, The Question that remains at the forefront of my mind.

How incredible the achievements if my friends had received an equal education? If the roadblocks had been lessened or removed? If their success had been considered by society the norm rather than the exception? How much could they have accomplished had they not had to battle everyday to simply stay afloat?

And how many amazing minds and glaring potential has been drowned in this fretful sea? How many have been caught in the crossfire?

Have we lost the next Einstein? Did we miss out on another Tesla, another Margret Thatcher, or another Louis Pasteur only because that person grew up in Watts, Compton or East LA, and the pressure was too much to bear? The schools they attended were underfunded, the neighborhood too dangerous to venture out into, and not much was expected of them anyway. We will never see what those minds were capable of had they been nurtured and allowed to grow, that wealth is lost to the world forever. Those for whom this is a factor will live very different lives than if they had been guided down a path of education, and the lives of their children and their children’s children are also deeply affected. By not offering everyone equal opportunities to learn and progress, we are taking part in shaping yet another generation shrouded in untapped potential.

I am currently being offered a spot in the comprehensive Urban Teacher Fellowship Program here in Los Angeles. I had never had any aspirations of becoming a teacher, although I already had plans of attaining my credentials. I am going to participate in the program, regardless of the career path I ultimately choose.

But I know myself. I know that the more I learn about these subjects, the more I am obligated within myself to work with those who struggle to resolve the issues standing in the way of people and progress. It is fair and right.

Sometimes I wonder why my life has taken certain paths. Why, with a silver spoon in my mouth, I chose instead to take a path down homelessness, drug abuse, domestic violence and poverty? And if I believe in any destiny at all, I have to believe I experienced those things so that I could use my talents to help others find the strength to escape those harsh realities.

I will not be able to achieve that in the dusty corners of a research library, no matter how much beautiful information lies within those hallowed walls.

I can only achieve this within the classroom.

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