Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The educator hat

I, as regular readers of this blog know, am a golfer. And I found myself recently playing with 2 good friends and a 4th person who joined our group on the back 9 (he was a solo player and asked if he could join us rather than playing through).

This fourth add-on, "D," was in his late 60s, white, very physically fit (he qualified for the Boston Marathon recently) and was a nice enough guy--decent golfer. And according to golf etiquette, you make chit-chat as you play, so he talked with my friends "S" and "T" about what he does, about restaurants, his children and grand-children, and then he, in turn, asked us about our line of work (we're all professors) and when he got to me, I told him I was working on a book, and that led to him asking what about, and I said, "racial ambiguity" and then I braced myself.

Because the truth is, I didn't want to talk to him about my book. At least not on the golf course and not at that moment. Because I knew that I might have to make a choice--it's one that many of you may have had to face in certain situations--the moment when a stranger you are chatting with on an airplane, at a grocery store, in the subway makes a comment that you find offensive/invasive/inappropriate/distasteful/crass/ignorant/racist/sexist/bigoted/homophobic/out-of-line and you have to decide: is this a teachable moment and do I want to be that teacher.

I managed to steer the conversation to safe waters with "D" by talking about my last chapter, which is on Tiger Woods, and then focusing on Tiger's recent injury and his amazing win at Torrey Pines.

Why did I avoid talking to "D" about issues of race? Wouldn't this potentially be a prime moment for me to educate him? To talk about issues of diversity? To address any misperceptions (if he had any) about mixed-race Asian Americans or about race in general?

The truth is, I didn't have my educator's hat on, and I didn't want to put my educator's hat on. And it's something I struggle with when I find myself in public and debating: should I say something or should I let things go? And it's something I struggle with because my radar is tuned very high with respect to issues of race/gender/sexuality (I'd add class, but the truth is, that's a weak spot with me--I'm too comfortable in my middle-class privilege sometimes). Sometimes I just want to play golf with my friends. Because golf etiquette dictates that when someone asks if he can play with you (when he's a solo guy--and I'm using that gendered pronoun deliberately because I've never had a solo woman ask to play--I've probably seen a total of 3 women playing solo in my four-plus years of playing regular golf) that you say yes, there wasn't much I could do. And really, it's a good rule in golf. It teaches you to meet other people and to be civil, and that's the other golf etiquette rule--to try to be civil--you've got 9 holes to play together--thats about 2 hours on the course together. I didn't want to get weird and angry and righteous. I don't even know if "D" would have said anything to make me feel that way, I just know from previous experiences with people that talking about race and racial ambiguity with me often gives total strangers license to say things that I find offensive or at least mildly irritating and then I have to debate about putting my educator's hat on. And sometimes I don't want to educate. I just want to play golf.

Or make 5 photocopies. I was recently reminded of this because a post I wrote a year ago, "Do I need to travel to China," has recently been crossposted on Anti-Racist Parent, and there's a very interesting and lively discussion going on there based on the interaction I had with one older white male gentleman who thought I was "Hawaiian."

I am a teacher--it is in my blood--it is a calling. But it's exhausting to feel like you are always "on"--to have to make that choice right in the moment of whether you are going to put on your educator's hat.


I am feeling like this is a whiney way to end this post. I'm not trying to complain--certainly not about the fact that I avoided talking about race openly with a stranger on a golf course. That just sounds stupid. What I am saying is that I wish people would sometimes stop and think about what they are asking and to whom. Because I don't want to tell you where I'm from or have you tell me (as one woman did recently) that a black coach calling a kid "whitey" is the same as a white coach calling a kid "n****" and I don't want to explain to you that I'm not from Hawaii, even if you think I *look* Hawaiian. I just want to go about my life and play golf and buy groceries and make my photocopies like everyone else.

But if you really want to know what I think about race and racism and ways to have conversations about race, then by all means, find your way to this blog or enroll in one of my classes at Southern U. Then you will have my undivided attention and my educator's hat will be firmly in place. But on the golf course? I just want to worry about whether I should be using my nine iron or my pitching wedge to make it to the green.


Genepool said...

I think avoiding the topic of the book other than giving a general idea was probably the right thing to do. Its possible he wouldn't have got the idea and would have asked questions that would not only irritated and frustrated, but might also have thrown a slice into your swing. Heaven forbid! Also, even if you HAD decided to doff your "teachers hat" there was no guarantee he'd have been willing to put his "student hat" on.

Even if he had, would he have been the type of student you cared to educate? And would the education you would seek to provide clash with the education his many years have already afforded him? Or, would you be the sort of person that he cared to be educated BY?

Anyway! May your club bring you par or better!

Intercultural Affairs at Stonehill College said...

Hi! Followed over from ARP - love your post today. As a fellow college educator, I completely hear you with the "Educator Hat" mode... sometimes, I would much rather leave that hat at home. Looking forward to reading more on your blog!

Jennifer said...

Many provocative questions/points raised. And I'm going to be nit-picky about words (because I'm an English professor, so of course I'm going to be nit-picky). I was careful in talking about my "educator's" hat vs. being a "teacher" because I don't think that aside from the people who enroll in my classes, no one else qualifies as a "student" of mine.

In other words, I agree--this man "D" was not a student of mine so could never put on his "student" hat--and I wasn't his teacher.

I do think, however, that all of us have the capacity to educate one another. So we all have educator's hats we can put on. Some of us, those of us who do this for a living perhaps, think about our hats more than non-professional educators. But I also think that education goes on in all sorts of ways, regardless of who is doing the educating. What does that make the person "receiving" this education? I'm not sure...but I wouldn't say student, necessarily, because I would say there is a distinct power relationship between teacher & student that goes on that doesn't happen with random people in public.

I know in the U.S. we are more reluctant to make waves in public--to be confrontational when we think someone is behaving badly. But I think that there are moments when taking a stand or trying to "educate" someone on their bad behavior can be worth the effort and the exhaustion/tension/stress that comes out of this.

For example, I recall once, when I was in college, a white woman was speaking very loudly and heatedly, seemingly to herself or to those unfortunate enough to be in hearing distance, that she was disturbed that the two cashiers at the store we were at were speaking Spanish to one another and that only English should be required in this store. She turned to me, as if for confirmation, and I said "Maam, I don't appreciate your racist sentiments and don't agree with you at all" and the woman huffed and puffed and walked away and the cashier and I smiled at one another and I always felt like that was the right thing to do, even though it made me feel uncomfortable to confront that woman (I think that may have been my first real public confrontation of racism--the next level of my social justice development).

I just think that race is a tricky subject--one that we should try to talk more about--and really, had I been in a different frame of mind, I probably would have engaged him, on or off the golf course. But at that particular moment, I just didn't want to. I wanted to simply play golf, and that's always the dilemma--deciding whether I should be "on" and engage with issues of race--to potentially "educate" others, or not.

Although I think you raise a good, albeit implied point--which is, who died and made me "Educator supreme"--is it my job to "educate" the masses or the average citizen about issues of race?

Finally, Intercultural affairs at Stonehill college, thanks for finding your way to this blog through ARP--I checked out your own anti-racist blog and think we share many perspectives so I look forward to reading more your blog too and hope you will be back to comment on this one as well!

Genepool said...

Despite the fact that I have been actively trying to educate myself about race, I still find way too much wiggle room in the subject to see any possible "correct" conclusion. Even if I did draw conclusions I felt were relevant there is always this feeling that any language I used would, if unpopular with any non-white groups, (organized or not) I would simply be shut down. After all, what does a white guy know about race or racism except how to perpetuate it? But now I'm just droning.

What I originally wanted to say in this post was that I was not trying to say "who died and made me "Educator supreme" (honestly)

I was merely trying to point out that not everyone wants to learn. That lady in the store, do you think that she took anything positive away from that encounter? Did it broaden her narrow view? I doubt it. And I don't say this to be discouraging. As you know by now I am a bit of a cynic, and think in most cases my time would be better spent spitting into the wind than to try and change the average Americans point of view on much of anything.

I love this blog, (and many of the other blogs you have linked) it has shown me a whole new way to think about things, but I LIKE to learn and consider new ideas, even if don't ultimately agree with all of them. (or understand them for that matter =/)

Its awesome that you fight the good fight and try to correct people when they are obviously wrong. My own methods of expression is this regard is sadly limited to the car horn and a middle finger. It'll likely be the end of me some day.

Its late, I'm tired and I have two little ones to battle in the morning. Maybe, if we're really lucky, I'll be able to teach THEM something positive. But thats a whole 'nother hat altogether.

Jennifer said...

I am SO GLAD you are a regular reader/commenter, and because I know you, I, of course, know that you have a very open perspective, even if ultimately you don't agree with someone's perspective.

And I think this whole exchange is a great example of the problem you raised--or to put a better spin on it, the difficulty of talking about race (particularly on the internet and in blogs). Which has to do with perception. For example, thanks for saying you weren't trying to call me on my righteousness (although, again, as someone who knows me, you are probably more than qualified to do so and have numerous examples). But I think, what I read into your comment was a question of how appropriate it is to be educating a total stranger, while what you were trying to say is, is this really a "teachable" moment and a person ready to be challenged?

Great points/questions by the way.

To handle the first point I raised--my own misperception, there is a lot of that around issues of race because it IS such a heightened and sensitive topic and especially so for some people, white and non-white alike.

I know there are some blogs out there that would tell you that because you are a white man (and straight at that) because, in other words, you have access to white privilege, that you cannot be an anti-racist ally. You will never "get" race/racism.

There are other sites, however, that would disagree with that pov--and there are commenters who run the gamut (you've probably seen them on Racialicious--esp. the whole thread that questioned Jay Smooth's ability to talk about confronting racists when he *looked* white).

I started this site, in part, as a way to have those difficult conversations about race--to have this be a space where I didn't just jump down someone's throat and really tried to listen and to politely as possible say that I agree to disagree. Which, I admit, has been difficult at time because even saying that I agree to disagree with some commenters has led to people telling me that I'm not doing what my site says I want to do--have conversations with people where it's not just "preaching to the choir"--but the thing is, I also don't want to just be doing a back and forth that goes no where (hence why I banned the Japanese American internment comments that devolved into people telling me off and spouting stats and citations from spurious scholarship--not helpful dialogue).

I don't think that there is a "correct" solution to race or racism. Depending on the crowd, there is language that is more popular--on this site I'm very fond of talking about anti-racism and allies and social justice and working to end oppression. Another site my equally want to use phrases to talk about race that has to do with color blind society and equal opportunity and reverse racism and quotas as racist.

It's so huge, the topic of race--hard to get a handle on. So this is just my own small stab in the dark, imperfect as it is. And because you read and comment, I'd like to think you are part of this community too--and a very welcome member, so I know it's easy because we know each other for you to feel comfortable here (at least I hope you do) but I hope that even as you lurk on other sites and keep an open mind that you are also welcome on those sites as well (well, some of them--don't really want to speak for other bloggers).

As for the second part--the part of whether this woman who got all bitchy about the two cashiers speaking Spanish--did she get it? Did I teach her anything? Well, maybe in a small way, she learned that she shouldn't be making loud racist comments in public like that--that not everyone agrees with her or supports her pov. And if she stopped doing that--making people feel bad, then I think that's a good thing. Would it be even better if I, or someone else, could have sat down and really had a talk with her about her anxiety regarding people speaking a different language, specifically being in CA and having two Latina, probably Chicana women speaking Spanish? Sure, but that wasn't going to happen, so the next best option seems to be stopping the hurt. Because it was painful listening to this woman--for everyone--certainly for these cashiers, but also for ME and everyone else because it was so hateful. And while I would, in an ideal world, like to address the heart and kernel of her pain, in the moment the best thing to do is to staunch the wound--which means stopping this woman's hate speech.

Jason Clinkscales said...

So I'm obviously not coming from an educator's point of view, but I struggle with racial discussions every day.

I'm probably the only black person I know outside of family who doesn't want to discuss it very often unless the situation calls for it.

I say this because though we clamor for national dialogue about race and racial relations, it seems as if the conversation has always been going on around me because of where I've been, who I'm around and what I've done/do. Seemingly, when race comes up in conversation, people expect my opinion because I'm black (and this happens more often with other blacks than anyone else). Sometimes, the people around me play the race card to death, yet no one cares to admit it. For myself, the fact that every fifth word is racial for them can render 'the card' uneffective. It's as if they are reaching to make the slightest word into a racial discussion, even though more often than not, skin color has little to do with the topic.

Considering my work in advertising, it comes up as we try to give our targets a profile for clients to latch onto. There is a purpose to how we do it (to encourage more multicultural spending by our clients), so even when I disagree sometimes, I don't mind the discussions because we are applying our thoughts with some real-life context (trying to increase business).

The same occurs in my sportswriting, though at times, I do believe that some media folks are serving more as baiters than they are as encouraging readers, viewers and listeners to think.

Where was I going with all of this? Well, over the past few years, I found that I limit my racial discussions to certain people: my family, my mentor (a red-haired Italian/Jew from Boston and Long Island) and a handful of colleagues. This is mostly because while I appreciate opinions, I value experience even more. Those who have gone through some trials in the past or have been enlightened or enraged along the way tend to listen to my thoughts more and visa versa than my peers who tend to bait, speculate and frustrate. I feel that those who been through the trenches in various stages educate me in the manner than you would hope to teach others.

I know that even in my given professions that I have some duty to open up dialogue (sports media) or to increase awareness for 'untapped markets' (advertising), and I embrace that responsibility. Yet, sometimes, I just want to watch the game or movie or eat at this restaurant without having to 'get racial'... or anything else for that matter.

What I do appreciate about MRA is that we all have our varying experiences, thoughts and questions. This is the lone place (though it is rather public) that I feel that depite the fact that good chunk of my opinions differ from many (regardless of ethnicity, politics, etc.), our honesty is respected.

And so on that note, I expect someone to fire at will.

Jennifer said...

Hi Jason,
I'd say that I'm going to take the first "shot" except that I don't feel like I'm shooting at you--because I respect your opinion and appreciate (as usual) your thoughtful comments and observations!

And I really can relate as well--because although I sometimes scold myself because I DO THIS FOR A LIVING and therefore why am I complaining about whether I should "educate" since I keep saying it's a calling.

But the thing is, as you put it so well--sometimes you just want to watch the game or enjoy the movie or eat your meal at the restaurant and not have to ponder the subtext of it all.

Anyway, thanks for leaving a comment--and thanks for the props on this blog--it means a lot!