Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Conversations About Race and Gender

(This post is the back history I promised in my Poetry Friday post about Irene Latham's and Charles Waters' book, Can I Touch Your Hair? Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship.)

My Journey
Last summer, I received a review copy of Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness by Anastasia Higginbotham, so I checked out all of her books from the library. Her writing taught me so much about how to have honest conversations with children about tough topics.

Who knew how calm and straightforward I would manage to be when I overheard a student defending transgender people. I joined the conversation and affirmed that there was nothing "weird" about transgender people. When asked, "What is transgender anyway?" I was ready, thanks to Higginbotham, to talk about the genders we are assigned at birth -- the genders that others can see -- and the true gender we feel within us, and how transgender people experience themselves as a gender they weren't assigned at birth. Transgender people may or may not choose to change their appearance to match the gender they experience. The student who asked for more information said, "Oh. That's all it is? That's not weird." Success.

I listened to So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo.

Oluo taught me more about my whiteness and my place in our white supremacist society than anything I've previously read. 

She showed me how wrong I was a couple of years ago when I was so outraged that a parent thought I was racist. If that parent thought I was racist, I was. I cannot deny her lived experience with my behavior. If I could go back, I would approach that parent with honesty and humility to learn what I had done so I could change my behavior.  

The Journey in My Classroom
Our first read aloud, The Cardboard Kingdom, gave us characters who were gender fluid in their imaginary play, bullies with back stories, a diverse mix of races and cultures and families. I projected this graphic novel via Kindle on the Smartboard. Our conversations about each of the short stories and about the characters were rich.

Our next read aloud was 24 Hours in Nowhere by Dusti Bowling. This book opens with a racist bully pushing Gus' face into a cholla cactus. Rossi, a Tohono O’odham Nation girl, rescues him by giving her beloved dirt bike to the bully. From the Amazon blurb, "Conversations among the young teens reveal Gus’s burgeoning awareness of his white privilege as he listens to the experiences of his Latinx and Native American friends." We had amazing conversations about the stereotypes that were revealed and deconstructed over the course of this story. The only thing about this story that was perhaps lost on my urban/suburban students was the level of poverty of the characters. I don't think my students have ever seen, let alone been in, a trailer home!

When October 8 rolled around, we were in the perfect place in our study of the indigenous cultures of Latin America (and in our conversations with 24 Hours in Nowhere) to talk about why that day is simultaneously Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples Day. We could talk about perspective and about who gets to tell the dominant story of history. I hope my students began to learn that they need to seek out alternative perspectives on historical events and to always consider which voices are dominating the popular narrative and which voices are being left out or silenced. 

If you remember from my previous post about conversations around race, I have a unique place in my classroom. Along with myself, four of my twenty-six students are white. The rest of the class is Middle Eastern, Latinx, African, African American, or Chinese. When I speak to my class about race, I must always be aware that I'm speaking from behind white skin to mostly people of color. My skin represents the dominance and power in our society. There was an incident in class that might shed light on this dynamic, if I'm reading it correctly. I was pushing a heavy table and someone commented that I was Hulk. A child said I couldn't be Hulk because I wasn't green. Another child said I was the White Hulk, and this was met with, "Oooohhh!" That child had clearly stepped out of bounds by identifying me as white. I was puzzled. I said, "What's the big deal? I AM white!" I reminded them that one particular student was never afraid to identify himself as black and talk about his beautiful dark skin. Another talked about his African father. Why was it a big deal to talk about my whiteness? They got more and more uncomfortable, with several asking, "Can we please talk about something else?" This was an eye-opener. But instead of keeping me quiet on race, I was more determined than ever to have these conversations.

I read and re-read Not My Idea in preparation for reading it (and Can I Touch Your Hair) aloud to my students. Even though we had had what I thought were conversations about race, that surprising response to the direct naming of my whiteness made me nervous to read this book aloud. I focused on the ending, where Higginbotham reminds whites that we have a choice about the kind of white person we will be. Whites can sign on to historic whiteness that uses race to keep people of color down or whites can move forward with justice in our hearts and be the kind of white that works for equality and truth.

Hopefully, Not My Idea will help my white students start to understand and grapple with white privilege, while helping my students of color to realize that there are all different kinds of white people. And although the current narrative in our society presents white supremacy as the norm, we can ALL tell a new story about race, a story that begins in our classrooms with honest conversations, a willingness to make mistakes but then own them, and the desire to move forward to a truly inclusive society. 


  1. Mary Lee, thank you for your bravery and honesty and vulnerability in this post! I am learning so much. Off to find these books! xo

  2. Your openness is just what this world needs, ML.
    Thank you for it. And thank you for introducing me to these books. I, too, learned a lot from Oluo's book. xxxx

  3. Race is not an easy topic to unfold–but worth all the bumps that come with it. Thanks for sharing all these experiences and also all the books Mary Lee.


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