Being the Change: A Cautionary Tale

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One of the challenges of writing a book (and teaching) about difficult topics like social comprehension is the content you need to use to demonstrate your ideas. Presumably, you want to include a breadth of examples so that a wide array of readers (learners) will connect with the ideas presented. I would argue that using a variety of examples provides us with the opportunity to illustrate varying ways of talking about the issues. This just makes sense. And there is no shortage of marginalized groups to access. Some of the more prominent groups include people from the following communities: LGBTQ, same-sex family, #metoo, Muslim, refugee, immigrant, People of Colour, working poor, and Indigenous peoples.

And yet, two of the 10 lessons in Being the Change are focused on Indigenous peoples. More importantly, not one other group is singled out in another lesson that demonstrates the negative way it’s treated in society.

Sure, Ahmed talks through her own lens (Muslim) when addressing students. In “Refusing to Let Others’ Biases Define Us”, Ahmed creates an ‘I am’ statement about being the daughter of Indian Muslim immigrants and she tells the students, “This one is not always easy for me to say because it is connected to negative stereotypes about Muslims, but I wanted to share one I feel proud of even though it is hard to share with total confidence” (63).  This makes sense, too. Because I am a white woman, I talk through my experiences fighting for equality. We do need to draw on who we are and what our experiences are to show our personal connection and commitment to the work of social comprehension.

Ahmed also includes student responses to the tough conversations that are the bedrock of social comprehension. “Listening with Love” opens with the story of Christine who painfully recalls ‘some of the labels she’s heard applied to herself and to her Mexican-American family: taco eaters, lazy spics, wet-backs, illegals’ (30). And in the forward, we see how student thinking has changed around the question “What makes a family?” to include same-sex families. Ahmed even includes an anecdote by someone beyond her classroom about a refugee family that depicts the ongoing work of social comprehension to open chapter 5 “Finding Humanity in Ourselves and n Others”.  Again, I think including these anecdotes and responses is appropriate. Ahmed needs to build in these stories to illustrate her ideas. We want to know how her students react to the lessons in the book. What does it really look like?

But no other group is made the centre of a lesson. Why not?

Let’s consider the two lessons in question. In “Understanding Microaggressions”, the content for the lesson is the poem “Sure You Can Ask Me A Personal Question” by Diane Burns.

Sure You Can Ask Me A Personal Question
How do you do?
No, I am not Chinese.
No, not Spanish.
No, I am American Indian, Native American.

No, not from India.
No, not Apache
No, not Navajo.
No, not Sioux.
No, we are not extinct.
Yes, Indian.

Oh?
So that’s where you got those high cheekbones.
Your great grandmother, huh?
An Indian Princess, huh?
Hair down to there?
Let me guess. Cherokee?

Oh, so you’ve had an Indian friend?
That close?

Oh, so you’ve had an Indian lover?
That tight?

Oh, so you’ve had an Indian servant?
That much?

Yeah, it was awful what you guys did to us.
It’s real decent of you to apologize.
No, I don’t know where you can get peyote.
No, I don’t know where you can get Navajo rugs real cheap.
No, I didn’t make this. I bought it at Bloomingdales.

Thank you. I like your hair too.
I don’t know if anyone knows whether or not Cher
is really Indian.
No, I didn’t make it rain tonight.

Yeah. Uh-huh. Spirituality.
Uh-huh. Yeah. Spirituality. Uh-huh. Mother
Earth. Yeah. Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Spirituality.

No, I didn’t major in archery.
Yeah, a lot of us drink too much.
Some of us can’t drink enough.

This ain’t no stoic look.
This is my face.

I love the lesson. In my initial reading of this chapter, I didn’t question the content choice. Indigenous peoples are often still marginalized in our societies (yours and mine). They are on the receiving end of microaggressions (as well as explicit racism), and Burns captures many of them in her poem. I wouldn’t use this poem to introduce the concept of microaggression to my First Nations students, but I would use the poem later in the lesson as a way for them to personally reflect on their own experiences with similar microaggressions. Frankly, my students are likely to find much humour in this poem.

In “Understanding Others’ Perspectives”, Ahmed chose again to focus the lesson on Indigenous content: the Chief Wahoo logo of the Cleveland Indians. And again I have no issue with the activities of the lesson, although I wouldn’t use that content to teach the “Intent vs Impact” lesson. I typically use a PSA like the one below with similar activities that Ahmed describes in this chapter because we are after all attempting to understand others’ perspectives.

So what’s the problem?

When we design lessons that centre on one group and the challenges it faces in the world, we may be contributing to the creation of a single story about that group because we, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her famous TedTalk “The Danger of a Single Story” says, ‘show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become’.

What about Indigenous identities do students learn from these two lessons?

The problem is that Ahmed has provided her reader’s with two lessons that add to the story of Indigenous peoples as marginalized, misunderstood, and invisible. It’s the emphasis that troubles me. I wished she could have used a variety of communities to illustrate how we can learn about the identities of others so that our social comprehension (how we make meaning from and mediate our relationship with the world) could expand and in doing so, demonstrate to us the breadth and depth of the work of decentering “the dominant normative narratives in society” (xxix).

The other problem is with the lack of Indigenous texts offered in Being the Change. In the “Suggested Resource Stacks”, Ahmed offers up potential titles to support teachers in their work in teaching social comprehension. Only one title listed is written by a self-identified Indigenous author:  Thunder Boy Jr. by Sherman Alexie. But it’s not just the lack of titles offered that’s disappointing; it’s also that this author and this title are particularly problematic.

Because Indigenous peoples have for so long been misrepresented in literature, and because as educators we don’t want to perpetuate the misrepresentation (microaggressions), it behooves us to ensure that the texts we choose to use in our teaching are free of any misrepresentations. An excellent source to learn about potential Indigenous titles is American Indians in Children’s Literature created by Debbie Reese. “Established in 2006, American Indians in Children’s Literature (AICL) provides critical perspectives and analysis of indigenous peoples in children’s and young adult books, the school curriculum, popular culture, and society.”

Reese reviewed Thunder Boy Jr. when it was first published in 2016. Overall, she gave it a mixed review because the book, in its own way, contributes to the single story. The review is worth a read because her analysis is rich (you’ll learn a lot from her), but here is one of her key points:

By not being tribally specific, [Alexie’s] story obscures the diversity that Native writers, scholars, activists, parents, teachers, librarians, lawyers… have been bringing forth forever. We aren’t monolithic. We’re very different in our histories, religions, material cultures, and yes, the ways that we give names. Moving into that name play collapses significant distinctions across our nations.

Maybe the book is fine to use as an introduction to a unit on Indigenous peoples because it’s not specific and could lead the class into a discussion about the diversity of Indigenous peoples. But when we are actually teaching for diversity, away from the single story, towards the messiness of social comprehension, Thunder Boy Jr. might not be such a good choice.

A second reason that this book is not a good choice centres on ethical decision-making. Reese re-visited this book, and all of Sherman Alexie’s work, in February 2018 after news broke about the sexual harassment allegations made against Alexie. In an “Open Letter about Sherman Alexie” on February 25, 2018, Reese wrote:

Based on private conversations I have had, I can no longer let [Sherman Alexie’s] work sit on AICL without noting that he has hurt other Native writers in overt and subtle ways, including abuse, threats, and humiliation.

This then is the cautionary tale.

Let us work really hard to ensure that we are not promoting a single story –for anyone. Diversify your lessons to include lots of voices and identities.

And let us work really hard to ensure that the texts we use with students are the best that there are. Don’t take shortcuts. Investigate.

Finally, I would like to introduce you to a few Anishinabe people from Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory whose stories will help layer at least one Indigenous story. They are artists, designers, activists, researchers, and knowledge keepers.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Being the Change: A Cautionary Tale

  1. I agree with several points you make. We definitely have to choose resources that make sense in our class. Many of my students are First Nations children so we already concentrate on related issues. We also have Indian students in our school. But we don’t have any children who are Latinx, so I likely wouldn’t spend a lot of time on that group of people (I teach grade 2….I might do something different if my students were older.)

    Autumn Peltier is one of my heroes! When we were learning about Malala while during the month when we learned about the Grandfather Teaching of ——respect I think—-I introduced the class to Autumn and her work. She’s a real hero! Thanks for including the others, who are new to me.
    Have you read Sherman Alexie’s Autobiography? If I were going to us his books, I’d use parts of that to help tell his story.

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    • I haven’t read Alexie’s biography and I am unlikely to now. I am compelled by the position that Reese and others within the Indigenous literary community have taken and will follow their lead. There are so many other Indigenous authors who can fill my shelves.
      Before I decided to focus this post on the need to represent diverse identities and to choose texts with care, I was going to write about obligation. Alicia Elliot wrote a powerful essay about the emotional cost of marginalized writers to share their work publicly. You can read it here:
      http://open-book.ca/Columnists/On-Literary-Festivals-and-Crossed-Boundaries

      The connection is that Elliott as an Indigenous writer — not a novice, but newly recognized having just won the RBC Taylor Emerging Writing Award–reminds us of our obligation (follow the rules and keep your privilege in check) to those that create for us. So too do creators have an obligation to their communities. Of course, people like Alexie (and Boyden) can fail in their obligation, but it will come at a cost.

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  2. Just did some reading, and I have heard of Creator’s Garden too! What important work this is.

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  3. maryleehahn

    Wow. Thanks for alerting us to this blind spot in the text and giving us resources to learn more.

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  4. Julieanne Harmatz

    I appreciate your critique of the intent vs impact. I agree with the need to find many stories that highlight the diversity of humanity and be cognizant of what pictures of that group we are putting forth. That said, I believe we need to acknowledge ( and teach) every story is one point of view. And as readers we need to avoid pigeonholing groups of people based on limited exposures. Teaching intent vs. impact is an essential lesson and I love the photo you shared. It certainly makes a point. I believe we all need to be on the look out for examples that clearly communicate this lesson’s intent making sure we are sensitive to how the groups story is portrayed. Kind of ironic how the intent of this lesson had the wrong impact.

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