Monday, August 14, 2017

Whose Children Are These?

Saturday and Sunday we were working our way back from Maine to Western PA (drive-- feed babies-- drive- curse Mass turnpike-- drive-- etc etc). That meant that unlike other folks who watched events in Charlottesville unspool in real time, we got them in every-many-hours blasts. It was heartbreaking and horrifying and completely predictable, yet far more awful in reality than in anticipation. There are lots of thins to be said about events (though I think we're also operating in Onionesque headline "White People Once Again Surprised To Discover That Racism Exists" territory), but I want to talk about what jumped out at me from the disjointed blasts of news.

Twenty years old.

The white supremacist who murdered one woman with his car (while trying to murder others)-- twenty years old. The torch guy who was later shocked that his picture, face pulled back in open raw hatred, was identified and shared far and wide-- twenty years old.

Twenty years old.

So these racists are not grown men, battered and beaten by the long, hard haul of trying to make a living, trying to raise and support a family, trying to make their way in a world that beat them up so badly that they have finally retreated in a huddled posture of hatred. These are not that particular caricature of a nazi, a white supremacist, a fascist racist.

These are boys. These are nearly children.

Their lives have not been long and difficult. They haven't lived long enough to lose big or lose hard. Their life experience is short. Their life experience is not years of rattling around in the big, wide world. We cannot blame the hard edges of the world for making them this way.

Their life experience is school.

They are barely high school graduates. They walked through some teachers' classrooms, across a stage, grabbed a diploma, strode into the heart of this evil movement.

And that means that those of us who teach in those classrooms cannot escape our responsibility in all this.

Teenage boys can be jerks. Some love Ayn Rand's call to selfishness, to abuse of the weak, because it fits so nicely with their inclinations. Some have been soaked in the stew of toxic manhood, told since infancy that the only manly feelings are anger and violence. And some like to say things like "Hitler was really a great guy" not because they have any coherent belief system, but because it shocks their elders in the same satisfying way that "F@#! the government-- I'm burning my draft card" once set aged hackles up.

And those of us who see them in our classrooms are often the last people to get a shot at getting them to understand you can't go moving through the world like that.

So as I face the return to school in a few weeks, I have to ask the question-- what can I do to change that trajectory? How do I convince students who are that way inclined that there are better ways to be in the world?

There are resources out there. Xian Franzinger Barret offers a good set of recommendations on Alternet. There are several good reading lists out there-- this is just one. And Audrey Watters echoes what I have always pursued in the classroom-- teach history. The white supremacist stance feeds on hate and anger, but its foundation is ignorance. And as authorities, knowledgeable in history, it's part of our job to say "This happened. That did not."

As an 11th grade English teacher, I teach a lot of history, and I teach to it overwhelmingly white classes. I suppose it's easy for us who teach in similar situations to focus on the "white" parts of our history because that's "our" culture. But the truth has always been that while the face of American history has often been presented as white, the blood and guts and heart has always been black and brown and red and every damn shade. White students need to learn slave narratives, because that is "our" history, too. They need to know it all. And in times like these, they need to know that just because they would never have walked with those racists in Charlottesville, never said the awful things they said there-- well, racism doesn't always have such an obvious face, no matter how comforting it is to think so.

But I digress, probably because I have no good, clear answer to this. I know we can't always make an impression on our students.I know that you don't make evil go away by refusing to let students say it out loud, and I know you can't deal with uncomfortable things if you aren't willing to have uncomfortable conversations, and that means somehow making a classroom a safe place for everyone, even as you put the pressure on to stand against evil. I know that any company suggesting that we might use a battery of standardized tests to both evaluate and address such issues is a ludicrous scam. I know this is not easily faced or changed.

But twenty years old.

Maybe a mere two years from graduation-- maybe less. Meaning that the only non-related adults who may have ever had a chance to push these children in a better direction were their school teachers. I know none of us want to hear about one more thing we're responsible for, a God knows we cannot work miracles on the hardened skulls of white teenaged boys. We are certainly not the last line or only line of defense.

But the truth is inescapable. There are more of these children out there, waiting to become  raging face of anger or even a murderer, and this fall, they are sitting in our classrooms, and we will have to deal with that mindfully and purposefully. And I also know that it needs most of all to come from grown-ass white men like me, that we are the ones best positioned to talk about the choices a grown-ass white man makes about how to be in the world as either a force for good or for evil. And I know most of all that in this time and place, we cannot be silent about it.


  1. From here it looks to me like youngsters being radicalized, the way ISIS recruits and radicalizes Western teens and young adults - only it's their families, their communities, even their churches - their CHURCHES! - behind them, either deliberately or through inaction and closing their eyes to the promulgation of racist propaganda in those communities.

    I had no idea before this weekend just how many chapter of the KKK there are, nor how many hateful far-tight-wing hate-spewing publications are circulating (although it seems to be at least one less as it struggles to find a platform willing to host it).

    The thought that it's AMERICANS radicalizing these kids makes me ill to think about it. :'(

  2. You are correct. I grew up with a racist father and a non racist mother (think Archie and Edith Bunker) and I could have gone either way. Fortunately, I chose to condemn hate and bigotry. I have raised my children to be "color blind" hoping that social studies and history class would provide the information needed so that they wouldn't be "tone deaf" to their friends of different skin color and ethnicity. Unfortunately, that hasn't happened because social studies/history have been down graded in the education world because it's not a tested subject. We live in a very diverse area and it is so alarming to watch these wealthy, white kids spew their hate on social media. I'm shocked! And then I have been told (by white neo liberals) that I have done wrong by raising my children to be "color blind"? Sorry, but I'm not going to admit failure....I'll just have to provide my own history/social studies lessons while my children continue to have their diverse friendships.

    1. I wouldn't say you've "failed, but I do think you're doing your kids a disservice pretending that we can be color blind. Race matters and young children know it. You think they don't see, for instance, that the people working the counter at McDonald's are all black and that the people in the nice shirts managing it are all white (assuming you live in an urban environment)? You think they don't see the differences between how blacks and whites are portrayed in the media, especially the news? These are the kinds of things we need to be talking to our kids about, not pretending it's not like that, we're just all one jolly, happy, equal family.

      Black and brown kids don't have the luxury of pretending to be color blind - they experience their color every day. As a result, they learn to navigate it and talk about it. Raising white kids to be "color blind" puts them at a disadvantage because then they can't navigate race and talk about it. They don't have the experience or the vocabulary. They don't even know what's wrong about saying "All lives matter".


    I think many of these men are searching for meaning and purpose in the wrong ways. If you are reading this blog, consider getting involved in the lives of young people, even if you are not a teacher. Be a mentor or take someone under your wing and guide them in the right direction. Angry young people are easy prey for nefarious groups of all kinds. Loved, happy, and secure children are rarely caught.

    1. While I agree that this is a place to start, I was extremely disheartened this past year to see some of my popular, well-liked, socially competent students indulge in the rhetoric of Trumpism and racism. It is a seductive philosophy to all, not just those who don't fit in.

  4. I feel about this a lot like I feel about bullying, and I think that's because they're coming from the same place in people's hearts (and there is a significant overlap in bullies and racists). It all just makes me so determined to do better, but also so helpless. When I'm teaching my subjects, I have confidence that I can get virtually any kid to learn the thing I want them to learn as long as I give it time-- I know where to find good resources, I know basic philosophies and methods that work most of the time. However, I honestly don't know where to begin with bullying and racism. I have never seen any resource that worked on these kids beyond getting them to bottle it up during my class time. I know so many good people are studying methods and ideas, but I feel like every time I read the research or program or resource, it's the same old stuff.

    Where can we turn? How can we combat this, as a society?

    1. I showed my students a documentary called "Bully". I thought it was important, and at the end of the year, I was desperate to find things the students would be interested in. It's a good place to start a conversation. Why do people bully? Who gets targeted? How can you make people feel included? Then I had the students write compliment cards to one another, and they enjoyed it, even if some of them didn't get very sentimental. There are a lot of resources out there and you can tie it to a book like Night or Of Mice and Men (I teach English).

  5. This afternoon, there were news reports that indicated the driver of the car, James Alex Fields, Jr., had recently beaten his mother, who uses a wheelchair, and that she had called the police. I also read that family members noted that in 2010 (he would have been 13), police were also called when he became violent because he had stopped taken medication. It seems that perhaps there were mental health issues at play here, and racism became the outlet for his problems.

    These other guys - I got nothing.