Neighbors or Nothing (Pt. 1)

As an undergraduate, I interned with several youth groups in local churches. When I started my first internship after my freshman year of college, I was 19. On the first day, the youth minister overseeing me and the other intern informed us he took a job in another state. He’d be gone in a week.

Most 19-year-olds are not given the responsibility of 50 teenagers on summer break (and rightly so), but there I was, learning the ropes of youth ministry with the other intern who also had little experience with leading youth before this.

I look back on that summer and laugh often, how many mistakes I made, how much I got right by chance. I still call most of those teens (now adults) friends. I’m in graduate school with one. Another is my girlfriend’s best friend. One leads worship at the church I just started attending.

Lately, though, my mind wanders to one night that summer that could have gone wrong. Before the reader (aka my mom) worries, this story has nothing to do with the teens, and more with the aftermath of poor logistical planning on my end. Toy Story 3 released that summer, and many of the teens wanted to attend the midnight premiere. Most of their parents would not allow them to go to the movies that late without an adult, and somehow 19 years on earth qualified me for the role.

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Reading Reviews

I gave a LIFETalk at my school’s convocation about our responsibility to undo oppressive narratives about our kids. This is part 1 of 3 of the speech, edited and expanded to better fit a written format.

LIFETalkI love to see movies. Every week, I try to make it out to the movies at least once. People with children tell me this is a great source of jealousy for them, as the movie-going days end when the little ones take center stage. I will probably forgo having children for a long time.

Being a known moviegoer makes me the go-to guy amongst my friends for recommendations. I often attempt to convince people to see movies that are not in the never-ending Marvel universe. If I have negative feelings toward something, I will ask people general questions about their preferences before saying anything too specific. “Do you enjoy cliché romantic endings? Oh, you do? Then yeah, you’ll love it.” I’m very helpful and nonjudgmental in this way.

On one hand, I enjoy being a trusted source of movie recommendations for people. It’s a source of pride for me. It is also a source of tension, because I hate when people try to form my opinions for me, so I worry that I do the same to others when I talk a movie up or down.

Everyone wants to know what to see and what to avoid so they save themselves time, hassle, money, boredom. Put simply, we want somebody else to tell us what to love and what to hate. It is amazing when someone who has not seen a movie rattles off everything that is wrong with it because so-and-so who writes for so-and-so told him so. We let somebody else form our opinions about things we will never experience for ourselves.

And there is more hate in movie reviews than anything else. A recent review of Adam Sandler’s new movie Pixels said that a justifiable reason to see the movie would be “having a loved one held for ransom” or suffering “a serious blow to the head.”

A review of Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 said it offers “possible evidence of a civilization in decline.” Look, I’m not thrilled about Kevin James’s career choices either, but the most harm he is doing to anyone on that Segway is himself.

It’s easy to be negative; it can even be fun.

It’s also poisonous.

Our problem in education (and the world at large) is that we read the reviews about our children before we give them a chance. Inevitably, the beginning of the school year brings a lot of jitters and chatter about which unlucky teacher got ‘That Child’. We look over each other’s shoulders and groan in sympathy when a teacher has one of our former troublemakers on their roster. We begin to recount stories of disaster and mayhem that we ideally think will prepare that teacher for what misfortunes are about to befall them.

What we really do, however, is write that child off before that child gets to write themselves a new chapter. We deny that child’s right to be better than before. We silence the possibility that people can change. We oppress our students before they even enter the classroom.

When people hear that I teach in Oak Cliff, their eyes all but pop out of their heads. They make some comment along the lines of, “Wow, those kids must be so rough.”

Nine times out of ten these people have never been to Oak Cliff.

Ten times out of ten these people have never met the wonderful children I am lucky to have known for two years.

They have read the negative reviews and spat them back out as facts. They know all about a movie they haven’t seen.

Make no mistake: this review-reading and regurgitating is nothing short of oppression. When we make assumptions about people who are young, or black, or brown, or live in a certain neighborhood, or look a certain way, we willfully and actively push down a group of people we have not begun to try to understand. With the multitude of obstacles that children face in the 21st century, our ill-informed assumptions are just one more roadblock they will have to overcome on their journey in becoming. Turn the news on: some aren’t even getting the chance to prove they are more than these categorical reductions.

So what do we do—as educators, as adults, as advocates for our kids—in order to unravel these oppressive threads and allow our children to write their own narratives?

The actress, writer, and producer Mindy Kaling tells a story in her book about Steve Carell, whom she worked with on The Office. It’s rumored that Steve Carell is the nicest guy in Hollywood, and Mindy’s evidence of this is that anytime the cast of The Office gossiped about someone, and asked Steve to weigh in, he would (at most) say, “Wow. If all they say about him is true, that is nuts.” He would then “politely excuse himself to go to his trailer.” She said it was infuriating. But you know what? The world needs more Steve Carells and less TMZs. The world needs more moviegoers and less movie reviewers.

We need to take it even farther than Steve Carell. There are so many negative narratives about our kids that it is becoming more and more urgent for us to push back on these narratives with better, truer stories.

When people make ignorant comments about my kids, I feel angry, awkward, and ill-equipped to respond. But I have slowly grown to counter these microaggressions with stories that I believe diffuse the moment’s tension without making a scene. One person went so far as to say that teaching in Oak Cliff must be “scary.” I lowered my voice as if I was about to share a spooky story by the campfire and replied, “Yeah, on my last birthday, my children threw me a surprise party. They planned it for weeks and had snacks, gifts, and hugs all around. Very scary.”

Let’s make a promise to each other: Let’s not read the reviews before we meet our children. Let’s not hear the story from someone else. Let’s not return to our classrooms and start gossiping about kids we haven’t met, or about kids who haven’t finished growing yet—which is all of them.

If you aren’t an educator, be careful how you speak about children you don’t know.

If you are an educator, be careful how you speak about children you do know.

Let’s recast ourselves not as critics ready to write scathing reviews of our kids, but as active participants in the movie of these children’s lives. Imagine that our names will appear in each child’s credits, and realize how important it is that every child gets to tell the story they set out to tell.

There is an incredibly inspiring, daring, challenging story inside each of us—we all deserve to tell it our way.

Chang, Justin. (2015, April 17). ‘Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2’ Review: Kevin James Heads to Vegas. Variety. Retrieved from http://variety.com/2015/film/reviews/paul-blart-mall-cop-2-review-kevin-james-1201474644/ 

Kaling, M. (2011). Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? And Other Concerns. New York, NY: Crown Archetype.

Mohan, Mark. (2015, July 22). ‘Pixels’ review: Adam Sandler battles video-game space invaders; why won’t someone say ‘Game Over’ to his career? The Oregonian/OregonLive. Retrieved from http://www.oregonlive.com/movies/2015/07/pixels_review_adam_sandler_bat.html

Be More for Baltimore: 5 Things You Can Do

Sometimes I feel like I should keep my political opinions to in-person discussions where my words are less likely to be misconstrued and more likely to actually be heard and discussed rather than ‘liked’ or trolled. With all that is going on in Baltimore right now, however, I do not feel as a writer or a white ally that I have the freedom to remain quiet at this time. As Ray Bradbury writes in Farenheit 451, “I did not speak and thus became guilty myself.” My two cents may not be worth much, but I cannot keep them in my pocket and pretend they don’t count for something.

There are a lot of opposing opinions being tossed around (or thrown) about the racial unrest in Baltimore. I want to steer clear of focusing on my opinion and instead offer five pieces of advice that I believe white allies, or people generally seeking to be more empathetic, should all be employing at this time. Please understand that these are tips I as a white person think other white people should be doing; I want to speak from my experiences and not others’.

  1. Be Your Own Devil’s Advocate

When my students need to talk to me about any problem, I do something very simple: I listen. As long as they are talking, I listen. When they are done talking, if there is something I want to understand better, I ask a question. Then, I continue to listen. I only share my opinions when the student explicitly asks me for one.

The problem with many white people right now is that we are not listening. Instead of hearing the other side of the issue and trying to understand the frustration and anger that people of color are experiencing, we are playing the devil’s advocate to an issue we have not tried playing the advocate to. The approach of the devil’s advocate is best used when you are on one side of the issue and want to see the other side. Instead, we see one side and then try even harder to support that side.

It is like looking at the optical illusion that shows a picture of a rabbit and a picture of a woman and refusing to see the woman. She is there, she can be perceived by many, but we are convinced the world can only be one (read: our) way.

If we are to truly be allies to our friends of color, we need to start playing the devil’s advocate to our own viewpoints and listen harder to the other side. Don’t play the other side of the argument unless you are asked to. It is—at best—disrespectful, and—at worst—very harmful. A little self-reflection could go a long way right now.

  1. Be Careful About Your Hashtags (And General Statements) 

Here is a hashtag that is doing more harm than good: #AllLivesMatter. A few months back I posted a blog about Kanye and racism at the Grammys and used the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. Some people told me to be careful about using hashtags that boost one group at the expense of others.

A large percentage of the minority population believes that their lives are not worth as much as white lives because people of color keep dying in situations where they should not. Now, think about the percentage of the majority population that believe their lives are not worth as much as black lives because they are excluded from a hashtag. Regardless of whether you think police brutality and systemic racism are a problem, a hashtag does not hold as much weight as a life. They are incomparable.

You don’t have to think that people of color are dying because of police brutality, but you do need to stop making general statements about who deserves what. I continue to see posts like “maybe if you weren’t doing anything wrong…” or “you are defending a man who did x, y, and z.” Here is the glaring problem with this argument: the white male who murdered people in a Colorado theater lived, the white male who openly carried an AK-47 around Ohio was not perceived as a threat to police, and the white male who murdered his entire family in Oregon not only lived, but James Franco just played him in a movie and he contributes to the New York Times from Death Row. He may be in prison for life until he is executed, but American society has deemed his voice still worthy of hearing.

This is not an argument about who deserves to die. If we deem that white people who do wrong deserve to live, we cannot excuse the death of black people who do not even make it to court to speak for themselves. Do not turn America into the Wild West and uphold your Constitutional right to bear arms but not someone else’s right to a fair trial. We are not cowboys on the Western frontier.

  1. Be Balanced

As an eighth grade English teacher, one of the state standards I am required to teach my students is to recognize and dissect bias in news articles. Every day when I visit Facebook or Twitter, I am reminded of why it is so important to teach children this seemingly simple concept. There are older adults who purport to be much wiser than me, and yet they believe they are right about issues simply because everything they read seems to tell them they are right. It is easy to be agreed with when you only seek out what agrees with you.

I do something in my class called a Socratic Seminar. Students read articles from opposing viewpoints and then dissect them by asking questions, debating the issue, and coming to new conclusions. If I notice that their conversation is starting to become an echo of each other, I stop them and say, “I didn’t ask you to sit here and pat each other on the back, saying, ‘Good opinion, bro.’ I asked you to debate an issue. Somebody disagree before I split the credit for one opinion amongst all of you.”

Too many of us have grown up to not recognize confirmation bias when we are playing right into it. We read the articles that confirm our opinions, watch the channels that affirm our ideas, and hang out with the people who allow us to continue believing what we already believed when we met them. It is a great way to maintain the status quo and never grow. In a satirical speech by Mark Twain, he tells children that if they try hard enough to build their character on the advice he has given (such as only lying if you’re good at it), they will “be surprised and gratified to see how nicely and sharply it resembles everybody else’s.” Stop trying to remain who you were when you got here, or like all your one-sided friends. Listen to a different opinion and refer to #1 before you disagree with it outright.

  1. Be an Activist, not a Slacktivist

Social media has power. If it weren’t for social media, our attention to these issues might have fizzled out a long time ago. Social media gives us a chance—if done right—to discuss the hard topics with people all over the globe.

That being said, it is just as easy to believe that sharing an article or opinion online is the same as doing something for the betterment of society. A voice is a powerful tool, but it needs hands and feet to do the work it preaches. I’ve a friend who has been at what seems like every protest since last summer. He goes to protest, but he does even more than that: he goes to be there for the people in need. This week alone he raised money to feed over 500 children in Baltimore.

In an age where we confuse liking a post with being an advocate for an idea, we need more people like him, the ones who will stand by cities amidst their turmoil. Whichever side of the issue you fall on, you can support the people in these cities who need you to do more than comment on their situations from afar. I am starting to wonder if we should have a rule in place that only allows you to state your opinion about an issue after you have done something beneficial for the people affected.

  1. Be Aware of and Uproot Racism 

The argument that we are a post-racial society is (and has always been) a myth. It is ignorant to deny it at this point. It is also ignorant to pretend to be an ally by acting like you are above racism. Statements like “I’m not a racist,” “I have black friends,” “I don’t see color,” may be well-intentioned, but are ideas that only seek to protect yourself from guilt or self-reflection.

We have all been raised to hold prejudices, whether we learned them from our families, our environments, or mass media. Let’s drop the holier-than-thou act and stop acting like we have somehow personally conquered something as massive and complicated as racism. Our society is not above or beyond racism. We are in the thick of it. What we need is not people who proclaim to have overcome racism, but ones who recognize their prejudices, address them, and actively seek to be more anti-racist every day. It is better to acknowledge our racism and work against it than to uphold our racism without challenging it.

Celebrating the black mother who scolded her son for being at the protests can be perceived as agreeing with a person of color because they are using physical aggression toward another person of color, the very thing we swear the police are not doing. Criticizing people of color for violent riots and ignoring the Bloods and Crips who called a truce in order to maintain peace in Baltimore is an awfully unfair way to uphold stereotypes.

If I could offer a sixth piece of advice, I think that we should strive to be more for Baltimore, for Ferguson, for Chicago, for Freddie Gray and Jason Harrison and Terrance Kellum and Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice and Michael Brown and Walter Scott and everyone else who is taken from this world too soon. Be more empathetic, be more loving, be more supportive, be more aware of what you are saying and how much you are listening. We owe that much to these and countless others. We owe it to our future.

The Grammys, Kanye, Racism, and Us

On Sunday I gathered with a small number of friends to watch my second favorite awards show of the year (the Oscars take first prize). As one of said friends described, the Grammys are the equivalent—in fact, superior—to most national holidays for me.

Although ratings dropped significantly and a lot of viewers felt little more than boredom, I thought this year’s show was actually indicative of the state of more than music in America—an important step for a show that is typically just another way for celebrities to celebrate themselves.

Despite groaning that Pharrell was going to perform “Happy” two years too late, I was taken aback by his approach to the song. His dancers donned hoodies and—during a piano interlude in the middle of the song—raised their hands to indicate the now-iconic “hands up, don’t shoot” protest signal. Drawing to mind both Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, Pharrell used his platform to nod to the African-Americans that never get the chance to succeed like him.

President Barack Obama made a surprise video appearance to speak out against domestic violence, along with a spoken word performance from activist Brooke Axtell and Katy Perry’s moving rendition of “By the Grace of God”. In the week leading up to the film release of the disgusting glorification of domestic violence (otherwise known as Fifty Shades of Gray), the three messages were bold, timely, and necessary.

Throughout the three-hour show, social messages like these were more than sprinkled throughout the broadcast. Country artist Eric Church sang “Give Me Back My Hometown” with news footage ranging from #BlackLivesMatter protests to the Je Suis Charlie demonstrations. Beyoncé’s choir also made use of the “hands up, don’t shoot” signal, Prince made reference to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and John Legend and Common performed their beautiful Selma-inspired “Glory” to close out the show.

Art has always been meant for addressing societal ills in attempts to move people to action. In fact, part of Obama’s speech noted artists’ “unique power to change minds and attitudes and get us thinking and talking about what matters.”

This year’s Grammys seemed to center on that notion, as artists who were being recognized for their work were pointing to what really matters right now.

I couldn’t wait to discuss this with people the following day.

After logging onto Facebook, however, I found that the entire conversation around the Grammys had turned to Kanye’s speech about Beyoncé deserving the Album of the Year win over Beck. “Go away, Kanye. Just go away,” one post read. “Kanye proves to be an idiot again,” another said. Shirley Manson, lead singer of Garbage, wrote an open letter to Kanye, telling him to stop throwing his toys. These and other vulgar words and phrases were used to chastise the artist.

Let me begin by saying that Kanye’s comment about respecting “true artistry” was insulting—intentionally or not—to Beck. It was inexcusable to even accidentally imply that Beck is not a real artist (even though he later clarified that he loves Beck, the initial wording had already done its damage).

But why was that the story that media focused on the next day? You currently cannot Google the word “Grammys” by itself without Kanye’s speech popping up at the top of news stories. Is it that Kanye’s speech was the most “exciting” part of the Grammys—even if it came in the E! post-show? Is it that Kanye was dead wrong or right, depending on who you asked?

I think the real answer is that both media and now social media have trained us to care about the wrong things. In a year where we could have opened up some great and needed conversations about racial issues and domestic violence, media outlets have focused our attention to what is being described as another Kanye “rant,” “outburst,” or “tantrum.”

As I write this, I know some of you will read that last paragraph and think, “Way to go, Kanye. You ruined it.” But Kanye, though not totally innocent, was not the one who turned your focus to him. When you watched or read about the Grammys, you chose what to talk about. You chose what to digest. You chose what to post about.

What many of us do not understand about Kanye’s speech is that his opinion—though not totally clear in this speech—was rooted in very real and valid feelings about the troubling history of Grammy awards. “They need to stop playing with us” is another way of saying, “The Grammys need to stop pretending to honor black artists.” (Kanye has spoken about this before, in clearer terms.)

When LL Cool J introduced Kanye for his performance of “Only One,” he mentioned that Kanye has won 21 Grammys. What he didn’t mention was that Kanye has only won these awards in the Rap and R&B categories, which historically mostly feature only black artists. Though a relatively young genre, hip-hop albums by black artists have only been nominated for the coveted Album of the Year category eight times. Only Lauryn Hill and Outkast have gone on to win. Music legends Tupac, Notorious B.I.G., and Jay Z have never been nominated. Compare these numbers (or lack thereof) to Eminem’s four nominations, more than any other rap artist and a third of the total number.

It is easy to dismiss the Grammys as an irrelevant award show. But the reality is that, regardless of how much we vocally dismiss it, we pay attention to it. And when black artists are told they are honored by the show, but see that they are usually only honored when pitted against each other (and not when Eminem is nominated), this promise feels hollow. Yes, Pharrell and Beyoncé won against white artists for “Happy” and “Drunk In Love,” respectively. But the exceptions are never the rules.

A reality of white privilege is that we get to attribute Beck’s win over Beyoncé to musical ability and ignore any potential racial implications. People of color cannot help but be hyper-aware of racial implications, whether real or perceived. This is the reality that Kanye lives in daily, the one where he points out privilege that we are either afraid to admit or unable to even see.

I am speaking from a place of white privilege myself, but I have observed the way my students view different situations in their lives, constantly questioning whether a teacher’s reprimand or a waiter’s rudeness was racially-charged. Before teaching, I never considered that people might be treating me in a certain way based on my race. That is part of what privilege is: being able to exist without awareness of why people treat you in a certain way. The world that people of color exist in does not allow them such a carefree, inattentive attitude.

When my African-American students view the media, I want them to see a narrative that says they are valued, that the outcry of #BlackLivesMatter is not just a dream deferred, something paid homage to only by artists who already look like them. I want them to see African-American success stories without asterisks, without footnotes.

I want them to Google “Grammys” and see celebrations of Beyoncé rather than dismissive reductions of her life’s work. I want them to see people talking about Kanye’s moving tribute to his mother and daughter rather than calling him a baby for expressing real fears of prejudiced voting systems. I want them to see WHITE people fighting for African-Americans, rather than just African-Americans.

If you want to stop being part of the racist media, stop insulting Kanye on your newsfeed. Post something positive about him, or another African-American artist. Question the way media portrays him and other black artists. Start a conversation about whose voices are heard on the Grammys and whose are not. Support the #ItsOnUs campaign to help victims of domestic abuse, an issue affecting all races.

If you feel you cannot do any of these things—or don’t want to—don’t post another word about the Grammys. Don’t call Kanye a child for feeling something you have never had to feel yourself. Don’t reduce people for the sake of it, or at all. The media has already done enough damage without your cutting sword.

Let’s talk about what our world really needs right now. Because black lives really do matter. And domestic abuse is on all of us to stop. And social ills need more than artists paying tribute to them in order to be cured. You are more capable than you realize, and certainly more responsible.