My justice crush of the day

11 May

Yesterday, Loretta Lynch broke it down for the United States. By “it,” I mean HB2, the state’s Public Facilities Act (aka the Bathroom Bill). She called truth on the legislation’s impact, referring to the requirement that in public facilities, people must use the bathroom that corresponds with the gender they were assigned at birth (which for most of us on this planet, was assigned by someone whose intentions notwithstanding, were undoubtedly limited by incorrect and incomplete knowledge about what comprises gender identity, and just how fluid gender is in the structures of our very bodies and brains), by stating that the law itself and any enforcement of it is “impermissibly discriminatory.”

I love that language: impermissibly discriminatory. Because it illuminates a truth: any society is susceptible to discriminatory practices and systems because discrimination stems from bias, which is an innate human inclination to prefer some things, experiences and people over others. While we can’t help being biased, we can choose whether or not to discriminate, which is to act on our biases to advantage or disadvantage others. And herein lies a murky truth: communities and institutions, even the most social justice-oriented of them, tend to harbor, and even act on, permissible biases. That is to say that any group has biases and discrimination that it opposes; the twinned fact is that the same group probably has biases and discrimination that it permits, whether it’s discrimination against people who are perceived to be too old, too conservative politically, too black, too gender-nonconforming or too “other” in some other way that isn’t valued.

And sometimes discrimination isn’t just permissible; it’s bona fide. This is no doubt part of the logic behind HB2: it is legitimate to discriminate against transgender individuals in this case because restrooms are designed to separate two groups: biological men and biological women.

But this rationale is flawed, as Lynch points out. The point of separate restrooms for “women” and “men” has not been, to my knowledge, to discriminate against any group (unlike restrooms “For Whites Only”), but to provide facilities for all of us “to engage in the most private of functions in a place of safety and security, a right taken for granted by most of us.”

So the question is really: how do we provide safety and security for more of us, now that we know the current system, based on a false binary, only serves some of us? And not even all of us–“us” in this case being cisgender folks: teasing, harassment, bullying and violence is all too familiar already in the cisgendered bathrooms and locker rooms that HB2 strives to protect. (And here, a Megyn Kelly moment to debunk the presumed threat of transgender folks preying on cisgender children in public restrooms. This is Kelly interviewing NC Governor Pat McCrory: “[T]here is a misconception that transgendered are somehow molesters, and they’re not. That’s not true. Typically male molesters are heterosexual and if they want to sneak into a bathroom, they’ll do it. But in 90 percent of the cases, molestation happens with someone you know. So what is the fear about the transgender situation in bathrooms?”)

In naming that bathroom safety is “a right taken for granted by most of us,” while others have “suffered far more than [their] fair share,” Lynch gets to the heart of the issue with HB2: privilege. This is not about accommodating a minority, or violating the rights of the majority for the sake of a few: this is about deciding what rights and privileges we think people ought to enjoy, recognizing whom our current systems have served best and not so well, and discerning how to extend the reach of those privileges by rethinking our means with clarity about our ends.

Of course, it’s not just North Carolina that has its work cut out for it: schools, camps, churches, temples and other organizations that offer traditional gender-binary housing/overnight accommodations for students and adults as part of their programs (for a class trip to DC, camping trip in Yosemite, overnight retreat or boarding for the academic year). And then there are sports teams, sex ed classes (which are still sometimes conducted by gender-affinity of students), overall admissions (whether a co-ed institution is seeking to “balance” genders, or a single-gender organization uses gender identity as a criterion) and, yes, bathrooms. If the purpose of these programs is education in developmentally safe occasions, then we need to advance the current, dominant system of accommodation by request, which requires that an individual who identifies outside of our assumptions and norms have the self-awareness, sense of safety, tools and language and agency to self-advocate. We need to move towards Lynch’s vision of fair, shared responsibility for inclusion and equity, which means presuming diversity, instead of just reacting situationally to it.

It also means recognizing that however I identify my gender, HB2 is my issue. Because I can’t afford to just care about the issues that trigger systemic disadvantages for me, and turn a blinded-by-privilege eye away from those issues that facilitate systemic advantages that I enjoy. Why not? Because that’s the way we lose not just our social fabric, but the very intricately woven fabric of our selves.


For those days when

12 Mar

Today, just a poem I just discovered through my inspiring colleague Rosetta Lee:

Stubborn Ounces
(To the One Who Doubts the Worth of Doing Anything If You Can’t Do Everything)
by Bonaro W. Overstreet

You say the Little efforts that I make
will do no good: they never will prevail
to tip the hovering scale
where Justice hangs in balance.
I don’t think I ever thought they would.
But I am prejudiced beyond debate
in favor of my right to choose which side
shall feel the stubborn ounces of my weight.

This poem humbles me to recognize my own hubris at imagining that I could “do everything.” (Because isn’t that more about my own ego than social justice, which can only be a collective, collaborative justice?) And it beckons me past my excuses, my sometimes overwhelmed-ness and my worries that I’m not doing enough (or anything at all) to just throw my ounces in. Because they’re what I’ve got.

Thanks, Rosetta.

Don’t give me a “T”

9 Mar

The predominantly white high school basketball team chanted, “Trump! Trump! Trump!” and “Build a wall! Build a wall!” at their rivals, a predominantly Latino team.

That happened in Indiana last week.

And also Iowa.

Apparently, this is now a thing. Dan Good of the NY Daily News writes, “Donald Trump’s name is the new slur.”

That is actually incorrect. To clarify, a slur is a derogatory word or expression for someone. The white students were not calling the Latino athletes “Trumps”. The white students were using “Trump” as a threat: the threat of deportation, the threat of exclusion, the threat of xenophobia, the threat of racism and the threat of physical violence that hatred on the basis of identity justifies.

And that’s where we are in our current racial political discourse: “Trump” and even “USA” are being used as “code-phrase for derogatory, racist statements,” according to Joe Enriquez Henry, National Vice President of the Midwest Region for the League of United Latin American Citizens.

In swift response to the Indiana incident, the diocese that oversees both of the Catholic schools involved issued the following statement:

Any actions or words that can be perceived as racist or derogatory to others are antithetical to the Christian faith and will not be tolerated in any of our institutions. It was the furthest thing from anyone’s mind that such actions would be happening at a gathering of two of our Catholic high schools. This is not what we teach our students.

… which leaves me unsurprised, and angry.

Unsurprised: This is a boilerplate what-to-say-when-something-racist happens.


  1. Racism and Christianity are not mutually exclusive. We have to stop using identities like “Christian,” “ally” and “nice person” to deny the possibility that Christians, allies and nice people can say or do racist things. In fact, a lot of racist acts and speech are perpetrated by nice, good people. It’s a red herring to claim that racism is “antithetical” to the Christian faith. The more honest and more useful question is: how may Christianity, ally-ship and other constructs of aspirational identity elide over, resonate with or even cultivate racist attitudes–all while aspiring ?
  2. “It was the furthest thing from anyone’s mind that such actions would be happening.” Really? Athletics are steeped in a tradition of trash-talk that has long tolerated, if not encouraged, homophobic, misogynist, racist and other slurs. While I don’t know what this diocese has implemented in terms of training and rules around player, coach and fan conduct, it’s naïve and–more to the point–irresponsible to be shocked that name-calling and threats could possibly happen in the context of an athletic competition. I understand being surprised that a student would be wielding a giant Trump head on the sidelines. But it’s our professional responsibility as educators on and off the court, in and out of the classroom, to recognize normative cultural scripts that may be compelling to our students in their identity development. And to be prepared to respond.
  3. “This is not what we teach our students.” I believe this. My question is: what do you teach your students? Do you teach them how to talk about race? Do you teach them how to know and integrate their own racial identities? Do you teach them how to have difficult conversations about race? Do you teach them to recognize their own perspectives, biases, systemically-activated privileges and disadvantages? Do you teach them about the intersection of race, socioeconomics, gender, sexuality–and faith and politics? Because if you don’t, then you’re letting someone else teach them and acting surprised when the students don’t meet your expectations. And if you don’t, you’re still teaching your students something: that this is how adults handle race.

I hesitated over leaving the word “angry” in this post. I considered “frustrated” or even “frustrated but hopeful.” I am both frustrated and hopeful. But I’m leaving “angry” in because that’s how I feel whenever I think about a child or youth who is trying–trying in school, trying on the basketball court, trying in their free time to engage in the political process–and once again, they don’t get to be just a student, an athlete or a citizen: they have to be a skin color, or a sexual orientation, or a gender that is the object of a system of discrimination and oppression that everyone else gets to pretend is the exception, not the everyday rule. And after we gasp and shake our heads, we assure ourselves that the problem is not us, and we go back to, consciously or not, sowing the seeds for next time.

Just Mercy

5 Mar

Just a plug today. But a sincere one.

If you haven’t yet read Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, please check it out. I wasn’t looking to make it a competition when I read it last year, but it was simply, without trying my most important read of the year. Hands down. It took me back to my years teaching To Kill a Mockingbird (which was a must-read for many middle school curricula at the time, and may still be, although why and how it’s taught are fraught with issues), it took me back to the beginning of my career to remember what motivated me then… and to reflect on what motivates me now: why I do what I do, how it matters (or not) and what potential I may still have. And it brought me to a reckoning with institutionally perpetuated and even sanctioned racial and economic injustice in the US: not just in abstract terms, but measurable in lives, particularly of poor people of color. Injustice that may seem distant and far-removed from my work in the elite world of independent schools but is, I believe, diffused in the same air we all breathe.

#elflivesmatter is not a thing

4 Mar

Imagine a man attacking a car with a sword with all the fury of someone high on LSD. Actually, he is high on LSD. And dressed up like a fantasy character.

What do the police do when they arrive on the scene? The man is armed, has already punctured the sides and top of the car several times and is still on his rampage. What do the police do?

They “cite him for criminal mischief and take him to the hospital.”

I was still trying to process the details (he was dressed as a “high elf”? the owner of the car thought a pirate was attaching her car–because that is somehow more believable in Portland??) when I scrolled to the comment at the end of the article.

This was the first post:

High elf comment

And a few lights went on:

First, I had filled in “white guy” in my mind without thinking about it, for a few reasons, including that if he weren’t white, I would expect the coverage to note his non-whiteness, and also because the stereotype in my mind of fantasy role-playing, Tolkien-loving people are male and white.

Because I colored him white in my mind, while I was surprised that that kind of violence and property damage would only warrant a citation, it didn’t shock me.

What would have shocked me? If a drug-addled, armed and violent black man had done this and gotten away with a citation. Unarmed black men, a black boy who “appeared to be pulling a gun in and out of his pants,” black men with knives who may or may not have been threatening the police–sober, drunk or high–get shot.

But the raging white man with the sword gets a citation.

I’m not saying I wish he had been shot. Absolutely not. I am entirely grateful that he wasn’t. I am also deeply moved by what I can only interpret to be the responding police officers’ commitment to his safety and their active protection of him, despite his own efforts (or negligence) in creating a mutually dangerous situation.

I just wish that kind of protection was something we could all count on, regardless of our skin color, size, gender or state of mind.

And to the folks who wonder why we’re not rallying behind #alllivesmatter, it’s because while they do, that’s not what we as a society seem to believe.

Hate speech, free speech

29 Feb

When I read the article “Anti-gay ID badges at California school spark anger,” my first reaction was: maybe I don’t understand hate speech.

Here’s a quick summary of the controversy:

A handful of students wearing anti-gay symbols on their school ID badges at Shadow Hills High School in Indio have sparked anger and worry among students and staff on campus, but administrators said they cannot ask the students to remove the symbols in the interest of protecting freedom of speech rights.

Hate speech is broadly understood to comprise any verbal, written, pictorial or gestured communication that “may incite violence or prejudicial action against or by a protected individual or group, or because it disparages or intimidates a protected individual or group.”

Legally, hate speech has to clear a few more hurdles. According to past Supreme Court rulings on the hate speech exception to protected free speech:

There are certain well-defined and limited classes of speech, the prevention and punishment of which have never been thought to raise a Constitutional problem. These include the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous and the insulting or ‘fighting’ words – those which by their very utterances inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace (Justice Frank Murphy, 1942).

The reason why fighting words are categorically excluded from the protection of the First Amendment is not that their content communicates any particular idea, but that their content embodies a particularly intolerable (and socially unnecessary) mode of expressing whatever idea the speaker wishes to convey (Justice Antonin Scalia, 1992).

So while I no longer think the issue is my understanding of hate speech, I remain confused. Here are the badges some Shadow Hills students have begun wearing:

Anti-gay symbol

And I ask: how is this not hate speech, by both lay and legal definitions? What better “fighting” word than the no symbol, which at its most basic means: you are not permitted, and can also mean: I am against you. Whether the statement is that gay sexuality and people do not exist, or that gay people and sexuality are wrong, these badges “by their very utterances inflict injury” in the form of dismissal and condemnation of fellow human beings, on the basis of identity.

A simple thought exercise might help illuminate the issue: what if the badges disallowed or disavowed whiteness? women? physical disability? heterosexuality? Christianity? Old people? What does it mean to say “no” to or “I am anti” a group of people? It means ceasing to see them as people, and objectifying them as a problem or issue to be corrected or erased. And historically, we know where that has led.

Chris Rock nailed it… and missed

28 Feb

Chris Rock just delivered a great opening monologue at the Oscars. He spoke truth and named the issue at the heart of the Oscars controversy: it’s not that black people didn’t get nominated in any of the acting categories. It’s not even that this is actually not unusual. It’s not that the Academy should just nominate black people “for” diversity. It’s that black people don’t have equal or equitable opportunities to get nominated. You can see his whole performance here.

I do take issue with Rock’s suggestion that black people protesting the Oscars this year is evidence that black people don’t have “real things to protest” right now (like slavery and lynching) as they have in the past. I would argue that the epidemic of black men being shot by the police is inarguably “real” and that we don’t have to choose issues. While the threat of being shot by the police because you’re black is not equivalent to missing out on Oscar nominations because you’re black, these concurrent realities are both rooted in unconscious racial bias, negative racial stereotypes and institutionalized racial privileges and disadvantages that impact people’s quality and length of life.

That said, thanks to Chris for his brilliant, painfully funny monologue with a final note of regret: this is and isn’t just an issue about black people not having fair access to opportunity. It’s about pretty much everyone who isn’t white, heterosexual (yes, still), not just physically able but physically aesthetically pleasing, and cisgender (conforming to the Academy’s traditional categories for “male” and “female” actors) not having equitable opportunities. The longer we fight for specific identity rights at the intentional or unintentional expense of equity for all identities, the longer real, inclusive justice is going to take. Because equity is all or none, not just for some and a couple others.