October 25, 2011
As a first year teacher in 2009, I’d tried to discuss themes of oppression and internalized oppression through short stories about teenagers in inner-city Manhattan and Brooklyn. My students’ discomfort was palpable and, at times, explicit. What I was doing, unintentionally, was setting them up to either defend or attack the issues in their own communities. While I wanted desperately to put aside my whiteness, it was my whiteness that made working meaningfully through the political implications of these texts impossibly uncomfortable for my students. I took a break from these issues for a year. In that time, I attended an “Undoing Racism” workshop and engaging in dialogue with several different groups of anti-racist educators. I also realized might just have to pick a different text.
Last month, my classes read “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian,” a graphic novel by Sherman Alexie mostly based on his own experience growing up on the impoverished Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington State. I chose the book because I hoped it would prompt discussions of racial issues that drew on my students’ cultural backgrounds without having to focus on those backgrounds in a negative light. Moreover, I love the sophisticated issues the book subtly brings to light — not just racism, but racism in its most insidious form: internalized racism, and the low expectations that youth set for themselves when they are too young to “undo” it.
The author, like his protagonist, left at an early age because he recognized the low likelihood of receiving quality education and support for professional goals if he stayed on “the rez.” His autobiographical character pays for his aspirations by being teased heartily by his fellow Spokanes, particularly being called an “apple” — red on the outside, white on the inside. There are similar words, Alexie points out, in other cultures: the oreo, the banana. It’s considered “white,” these taunts suggest, to be smart. To be successful. To have ambitions. Alexie makes this comparison in an interview we watched while prparing to read the book. Students laughed at Alexie’s likeness to the dude from “Everybody Loves Raymond,” but the Oreo reference resonated. I know, from the chuckling in the room, that students knew the sneering sentiment of that term. I also knew better, in my third year of teaching, than to inquire about it. To do so would be to force them to unair something unsavory about their own culture, and they needed to do that if and when they were ready to trust me.
The first few pages of Alexie’s novel boast a comic strip of what the protagonist feels is parents would have looked like had someone “listened to their dreams.” He draws his mother as a well-dressed professor and his father as a cool musician. My student Sera, upon reading through these descriptions, commented, “They don’t look successful, they just look white.” Immediately, she put her hand over her mouth. “Oh,” she said, “I just said something wrong.”
“No,” I insisted. “That’s exactly right. That’s a really good point. What about them makes them look white?”
“Their hair,” she said. “The fact that they’re well-dressed. The fact that they are professional and successful.”
“And what did Sherman Alexie say people called him for wanting to be successful and smart?”
“An apple,” chimed in the reticent student next to her. “Red on the outside, white on the inside.”
“So when people use those terms,” I prompted Sera, “they’re saying being white means being …”
“Successful,” she finished.
“But that’s a stereotype!” Sera’s best friend Shaina chimed in. “That’s like saying all white people are the same. There are poor white people too!”
“That’s right,” I said. “We’ve come to equate whiteness with success, even though all of us know they are not the same thing: You can be successful and non-white, and you can be white and not succeed.”
Sera chuckled. “Look at us, talking about white people like it’s no big thing.”
That comment, I chose to let hang in the air. “Top of page 10,” I said, and I picked up where we’d left off.
I was on cloud nine the rest of the day. I have no idea how many other students appreciated what transpired among me, Sera, and Shaina in that moment, or whether, for any of them, this was less of an “aha” moment than a “no duh” moment. For me, the difference between whiteness and success was not a newsflash either. I don’t even love that it took me — a white teacher — to spur these conversations among my students. But I love that they trusted me enough to expose their true opinions, to be affirmed and challenged, and to feel safe discussing whiteness in the presence of a white teacher. Never has it been so clear to me how far I have come since my first day on the job.