Archive | April, 2013

Sometimes it helps to flip the script

11 Apr

In the spirit of my WPC workshop, for those of you who aren’t able to attend, remember this Romney moment from the 2012 presidential campaign?

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them (

The question for many of us then and now is: so what do you say back to that?

Go ahead. Take a moment. Address Mr. Romney.

If it helps, you might first:

  • Notice your gut response. Not just what it is, but what kind of response it is: emotional, intellectual, moral, action-oriented? Also, where that response comes from–what experiences or identities does it activate for you?
  • Reflect on why this comment wasn’t surprising. How it was, in fact, culturally and socially understandable. (I didn’t say correct, I said understandable.)
  • Take a moment to consider what this comment could be about/where it’s coming from. Please entertain at least 3 possibilities.
  • Discern what you have to say, and how it’s most effective to say it. (You may not know the latter until you try, or with practice. The point is simply to consider how to be effective, as opposed to just right.)
  • Now give it a try. Imagine or have someone play the role of Romney, or someone else you know who believes that 47% of people feel entitled. And say what you have to say. Aloud. So you can hear yourself.

And keep practicing. Because when you least expect it, you’re going to have a chance to respond live and in person. And not responding (because you’re unprepared or unwilling–it doesn’t matter which) is also a response.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record (or MP3): we all have a responsibility to stay “fit” and practice our skills for responding to these everyday 911 moments when equity, inclusion and justice are on the line. Thanks for practicing with me.

Talking back to entitlement

10 Apr

Today I take off for the White Privilege Conference in Seattle, where I will be facilitating workshops about Talking Back to White Entitlement. There are other identities of entitlement, of course. What’s more, those different identities intersect, overlap and sometimes conflict.

What I mean when I talk about entitlement begins with privilege.

Privilege refers to unearned rights, advantages and freedoms that I enjoy simply because I happened to be born into the norm, majority or preferred group. I didn’t earn my privilege. I just have it. It’s like being born right handed: almost everything in my daily life (including the English language, power tools, cars and your average available pair of scissors) is conveniently set up for me. Beyond the physical and practical, I’m immune to jokes or stigma about my particular handedness, and I can justify my unearned advantage with simple logic: there are more of us. So there.

You can see how whiteness, Christianity (cultural, if not religious) heterosexuality and other majority identities are “right handed,” and how one can be right handed in one aspect of identity and left handed in another. Also interesting to consider: a right handed child can be born to a left handed parent, much like a heterosexual child can be born to a gay parent, or a gay child to a heterosexual parent. More than just loving the child, the parent in both of these situations is tasked with helping the child to navigate through a world in which access, opportunity and status is fundamentally different simply because of who the parent and child were born as. (While this is true of any child and parent, there are many biological traits shared within families that create parallel or consonant experiences of privilege.)

So privilege is unearned advantage, including immunity from struggle or stigma. Entitlement is thinking that privilege is your right. And that’s what I’m going to help people think about and respond to for the next couple of days.

* My source on the literal and metaphoric way to think about privilege is my colleague Steven Jones and his thought paper “The Right Hand of Privilege”:

Remembering Oikos

8 Apr

A little over a year ago, on April 2, 2012, six people were killed at Oikos University in Oakland. The shooter One Goh was an Oikos student.

If you’ve never heard of Oikos before or even since the shooting, that’s not surprising. Writer Jay Kang, observes “just… how unremarkable [the school] was and just how forgettable it was” when he visited the campus (

The fact of Oikos’ unremarkability takes on greater significance when you acknowledge two other facts:

  • the school’s main student demographic is immigrants seeking an affordable nursing education, who rely more on referrals within their community than glossy admissions marketing to choose where they will go to school, and
  • the school has recently been “on probation by the state regulators for lackluster pass rates on California’s licensing exam.”

It’s as if education doesn’t really matter there because the students don’t.

Does that sound melodramatic?

If so, consider how little the shooting has mattered in the national dialogue about gun control. Do Sandy Hook Elementary; Aurora, Colorado and Virginia Tech ring any bells? The shootings in those places certainly rang louder in the national ear.

As Kang reflects in an interview with NPR, “[F]or the most part, [poor immigrants are] just almost invisible, and so it makes sense that their tragedies would also be invisible.”

Sensible or not, the invisibility is still damaging. In the NY Times article “That Other School Shooting,” Kang writes, “It rakes at your guts, to watch your tragedies turn invisible. You know why it’s happening, but admitting it to yourself — that it has to do in some indivisible way with the value of immigrants’ lives — is something you’d rather not confront”  (

Of course, “you” don’t always have a choice about confronting what’s happening. In his exploration of the Oikos shooting, Kang describes learning about the incident from a Korean friend who wrote four words in an e-mail:

“We did it again.” I knew what he was talking about the moment I read it. “We,” indeed, had done “it” again, and “it” required no further explanation.

Does that sound paranoid? Like, come on… “we” could be anyone: men, people who own computers, human beings…

Well, as Kang writes, leaping from “we” to Korean-Americans “may sound cynical and callous, but it speaks to a truth shared among immigrants whose people have done terrible things.” I would take it further and say that any minority group who experiences tenuous tolerance by the majority can relate to this reflexive dread when anyone who can be identified with the group does something socially, morally or legally wrong. The flip side of being invisible in a community is that any attention can feel like scrutiny. And certainly, it is when one of yours has committed a mass murder.

Notably, the url for Kang’s NY Times piece (which, like other urls, offers an alternate title for the article it links to) includes this segment “should-it-matter-that-the-shooter-at-oikos-university-was-korean.”

Kang and Chung, both Korean-American, would say yes.

Kang writes about Goh and Chung both referring to their fathers as “typically Korean,” using that shorthand “knowing that [Kang] would understand instantly what they meant.” And he did. So, as a matter of fact, do I. Saying that you have a “typically Korean” father explains a lot about the emotional landscape in which you were raised and the interior terrain that you continue to navigate as an adult. Here, I’ll rely on Kang’s eloquent framing to elaborate:

[H]an and hwabyung, two Korean cultural concepts that have no equivalent in the English language [provide a lens into the psyche of Korean immigrants]. By Western standards, the two words are remarkably similar. Both describe a state of hopeless, crippling sadness combined with anger at an unjust world. And both suggest entrapment by suppressed emotions. Both words have been a part of the Korean lexicon for as long as anyone can remember, their roots in the country’s history of occupation, war and poverty. Perhaps the best way to distinguish between the two words would be to say that han is the existential condition of immutable sadness, whereas hwabyung is its physical manifestation. Those afflicted with hwabyung describe a dense helplessness and despair that always feels on the verge of erupting into acts of self-destruction.

According to Chung, the social ramifications of han and hwabyung are “denial and avoidance… Under all that suppression, emotional turmoil festers. When it’s not addressed, it can turn explosive. There’s this dark side that needs to be dealt with, but the Korean community as a whole will not acknowledge that something is up. Nobody will say anything about anything.”

There’s a very real reason that Koreans and Korean-Americans may be silent about han and hwabyung, the latter of which is now recognized in Korea as a treatable clinical disease: the fear of being profiled as dangerous and bad people. This is no trivial or silly concern in a world that struggles with xenophobia.

Yet, the acknowledgment of han and hwabyung is not about finding a cultural scapegoat for the Oikos shooting. Rather, it’s about having another lens, in addition or as alternative to the one we impose by default on the world around us. Because we’re always looking at others and our experiences through cultural constructs that shape our perceptions. (And more often than not, the lens we use to see the world says a lot more about us than it does about the world.) And when we can consider more than one perspective, then we can truly discover and learn about what we are regarding, as well as ourselves.

On the inauthenticity of authenticity

5 Apr

One last note on Wednesday’s post: That last line from Susan Patton (“Yes, I went there”) really grates on me.

Patton relies on authenticity to sell her message: she’s not just saying, “I went to Princeton, so I know.” She’s saying, “I can speak for you.” She presumes the authority to tell young women whom she has never met who they are, what they want and how their lives will be. So listen up.

I understand this notion of the authentic voice. It’s persuasive, but flawed logic.

Yes, individuals who share identities often share culture, frames of reference and even experiences. But they are not identical. And even as Patton is speaking to women who attend(ed) Princeton, she is addressing women of a different generation, and within that group, women who identify differently in terms of their sexuality, race, socioeconomic status, social class, physical ability, religion, political beliefs, gender and ethnicity. Let alone their beliefs about marriage.

For Patton to presume her particular experience is the template for The Princeton Female Undergraduate Life Experience is a gross and astoundingly oblivious obliteration of the very group she purports to assist. In four short words (“Yes, I went there”), she assimilates the entire female student body of Princeton (present and future) to her own narrative and remakes each and every one of them in her own image.

Which brings me to Piaget’s developmental theory. According to Piaget, the pre-operational stage of child development spans 2 to 7 years of age, and is marked by egocentrism, aka the belief that one’s point of view is everyone’s point of view. While this seems a reasonable presumption for a child to make, it is harder to accept from a full grown (Princeton educated) woman. (Ironically, Piaget’s own theorizing reflects this pre-operational perspective: from observations of his own children, he extrapolated the developmental arc of all children. While models are useful as a reference, their implied universality and authority do concern me.)

Nonetheless, Piaget’s work provides an interesting lens for considering Patton’s egocentrism. It makes sense that there would be a somewhat enduring, pre-operational stage of identity development, in which we can fail to perceive the fact of diversity and thus presume homogeneity in the world around us. And knowing this, perhaps we can bring more self-awareness to our engagement with the world and recognize that we may have a tendency not to see the person in front of us, but rather to project a familiar narrative on them for our own sense of comfort.

To (All) The Students Who Believe They Are Entitled To An Acceptance Letter

4 Apr

Here’s the open letter high school senior Suzy Lee Weiss wrote to “To (All) the Colleges That Rejected Me,” as reproduced in the Wall Street Journal on 4/29/13 and subtitled: “If only I had a tiger mom or started a fake charity”  (

Like me, millions of high-school seniors with sour grapes are asking themselves this week how they failed to get into the colleges of their dreams. It’s simple: For years, they—we—were lied to.

Colleges tell you, “Just be yourself.” That is great advice, as long as yourself has nine extracurriculars, six leadership positions, three varsity sports, killer SAT scores and two moms. Then by all means, be yourself! If you work at a local pizza shop and are the slowest person on the cross-country team, consider taking your business elsewhere.

What could I have done differently over the past years?

For starters, had I known two years ago what I know now, I would have gladly worn a headdress to school. Show me to any closet, and I would’ve happily come out of it. “Diversity!” I offer about as much diversity as a saltine cracker. If it were up to me, I would’ve been any of the diversities: Navajo, Pacific Islander, anything. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, I salute you and your 1/32 Cherokee heritage.

I also probably should have started a fake charity. Providing veterinary services for homeless people’s pets. Collecting donations for the underprivileged chimpanzees of the Congo. Raising awareness for Chapped-Lips-in-the-Winter Syndrome. Fun-runs, dance-a-thons, bake sales—as long as you’re using someone else’s misfortunes to try to propel yourself into the Ivy League, you’re golden.

Having a tiger mom helps, too. As the youngest of four daughters, I noticed long ago that my parents gave up on parenting me. It has been great in certain ways: Instead of “Be home by 11,” it’s “Don’t wake us up when you come through the door, we’re trying to sleep.” But my parents also left me with a dearth of hobbies that make admissions committees salivate. I’ve never sat down at a piano, never plucked a violin. Karate lasted about a week and the swim team didn’t last past the first lap. Why couldn’t Amy Chua have adopted me as one of her cubs?

Then there was summer camp. I should’ve done what I knew was best—go to Africa, scoop up some suffering child, take a few pictures, and write my essays about how spending that afternoon with Kinto changed my life. Because everyone knows that if you don’t have anything difficult going on in your own life, you should just hop on a plane so you’re able to talk about what other people have to deal with.

Or at least hop to an internship. Get a precocious-sounding title to put on your resume. “Assistant Director of Mail Services.” “Chairwoman of Coffee Logistics.” I could have been a gopher in the office of someone I was related to. Work experience!

To those kids who by age 14 got their doctorate, cured a disease, or discovered a guilt-free brownie recipe: My parents make me watch your “60 Minutes” segments, and they’ve clipped your newspaper articles for me to read before bed. You make us mere mortals look bad. (Also, I am desperately jealous and willing to pay a lot to learn your secrets.)

To those claiming that I am bitter—you bet I am! An underachieving selfish teenager making excuses for her own failures? That too! To those of you disgusted by this, shocked that I take for granted the wonderful gifts I have been afforded, I say shhhh—”The Real Housewives” is on.

OK. Then. Let’s talk, shall we?

Here, I will address “student” instead of Suzy because I believe (as Suzy does) that she is the voice of many others.

  • Student, you claim that “we [students applying to college]—were lied to.” I would love to know what you were told. Were you promised that college admissions and life in general is a formula, like 2 + 2 = 4? If so, then yes, you were lied to. Let me tell you the truth: in life, there are no guarantees. People are not fair, life is not fair. That’s why you get to be published in The WSJ and hordes of other people don’t. Because the idea that anyone can have their letter printed is… a lie. The truth is that there are all sorts of factors that influence access to resources and opportunities, including those you didn’t earn.
  • Are you seriously equating having two moms with nine extracurriculars? Do you hear yourself? Are you suggesting that people like yourself are at a disadvantage because you don’t have two moms? This is entirely possible, depending on the two moms you’re talking about. But as a general statement, your assertion conveniently overlooks the micro and macro prejudice and discrimination that lesbians and their children face on a daily basis.
  • “I would have gladly worn a headdress to school.” Way to cheapen other people’s actual clothing and culture. It’s not all costumes, student. Or, rather, everything is a costume… to someone else. Perhaps if you did wear a headdress, you could relate to the billions of us who dress up every day to participate in mainstream society. Every day, I wear my version of a headdress (see: Eileen Fisher top and Ann Taylor slacks), eat my version of ethnic food (see: salads and sandwiches) and observe other people’s holidays (see: Christmas, when the whole nation shuts down). I’ve walked a mile in your flats.
  • “I offer about as much diversity as a saltine cracker.” Student, there is no diversity without a majority. Let me be clear: “diversity” does not mean “minority.” “Diversity” refers to the differences within a group–including majority and normative identities and cultures–that matter because they impact the social experiences, status, access to resources and opportunities of entire groups of people.
  • “I would’ve been any of the diversities.” See previous bullet. And, if by this you mean that the sum total of “being” a minority is checking a box on a form, you clearly aren’t paying attention, not just in school, but on this planet. Being a minority is rich and complex (just like being a majority is). It is by no means all perks or all disadvantages. So when you flippantly suggest that you’d just sign up for the experience, I shudder. Not just at the hatred you might have to experience, but at the learning everything all over from scratch it will require, and for the you you’ll have to give up. Because being (as you put it) “any of the diversities” isn’t just checking a box. It’s creating a whole new self, whole new pathways in the world and whole new understandings about your experiences and the world. And actually, as I write this, it doesn’t sound that bad. I would be excited for you in your willingness to be “a diversity,” but it’s unfathomable to me that  you would suggest that racism, homophobia and sexism are no biggies: you’d love to give them a whirl. I would never wish even a brief experience of these hateful humiliations, indignities and inhumanities on anyone. Trust me, you don’t want to go there.
  • News flash, student: identity has always mattered in college admissions. Consider when girls weren’t allowed to apply. Consider when people of color weren’t. Consider how many schools want to “balance” the numbers of boys and girls. Consider how legacy, siblings and wealth have always greased the wheels of admissions. Consider how access to the technology to submit an application thins the pool of applicants. By no means is or has any selection process been fair in the history of humankind. However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to make them more equitable. Now, the way to do that is not to suggest that people with two moms or dark skin have all the advantages. The way to do that is to put all the unearned advantages on the table, along with all the earned advantages (most of which are related in some way to a privilege we didn’t earn: take three varsity sports as an example. Perhaps I train and play hard, but I didn’t earn the body I was born into). When we acknowledge all the biases that inform our choices in a selection process, then we can discern which are bona fide and which aren’t, and we can move towards criteria that reflect values we can stand by. At least for now. (Because equity isn’t a destination; it’s a continuous quest.)
  • “I also probably should have started a fake charity… as long as you’re using someone else’s misfortunes to try to propel yourself into the Ivy League, you’re golden.” You do give me pause, here, student. I agree that there’s an inherently self-serving aspect to the entire movement of “service learning” (which is, by definition about students learning, and so there is a vested interest in what the students get out of service, all too frequently and unnecessarily at the expense of those who are supposedly served). Yet it’s hard to take you seriously when you’re lashing out with such gross generalizations. Your stereotype of any attempt to provide a service or even strive for social justice is depressing and hard for me to sympathize with because your self-interest is as blatant as the one you critique.
  • “Having a tiger mom helps, too.” Please don’t throw around cheap jargon like this, student. Do more than read the headlines to understand the language you’re using.
  • “To those claiming that I am bitter—you bet I am!” Actually, student, I think you are entitled. And I wonder if the entitlement that you’ve written so openly into this letter had leaked out in your college essays and interviews. Perhaps a whiff of your bitter righteousness and homophobic, racist worldview contributed to your rejection letters? I must say that the permission you give yourself to “other” people you’ve never met didn’t do much to convince me that the schools should reconsider you.

And if I may now turn my attention to myself, I have to say that reading the self-justified racism and homophobia in this letter caused me panic. Suzy made me wonder, as I have before, how, as a former teacher, I have been complicit in other students building their own fortresses of defensible racism and heterosexism. How I may have failed to intervene when, during the overwhelming and definitely unfair process of college applications, their understandable frustration might easily have tipped over into conveniently racist, homophobic finger pointing and self-victimization. And I mean that regarding my white students, my students of color, my multiheritage students, my gay students, my questioning students and my heterosexual students. The idea that admissions is tipped in favor of minorities (with no consideration for the systemic hurdles that still actively and subtly but stunningly work against us) hurts all students.

So I ask you: if Suzy’s letter scares, angers or outrages you, what are you doing to help the Suzys around you deal with their anxieties in a way that cultivates self-awareness and holds them accountable for the things they claim to believe in: diversity, equity, inclusion? Because this is when it matters. Not after they get the fat envelope.

* Thanks to my colleague JE for the link.

I had no idea when I went to Yale

3 Apr

Here are the headlines:

Each refers to the same letter, written by Princeton alumna Susan Patton and published in the university’s daily paper on 3/29/13. (By the way, as of 4/1/13 the Daily Princetonian website appears to have crashed. They got quite a lot of hits off this particular issue.) As you may have guessed by now, the letter offers some advice to Princeton’s female undergrads. Specifically:

For most of you, the cornerstone of your future and happiness will be inextricably linked to the man you marry, and you will never again have this concentration of men who are worthy of you. Here’s what nobody is telling you: Find a husband on campus before you graduate. Yes, I went there.

OK, take a moment. Let it all out.

I’ll be here when you’re ready.


I’m not going to bother with a line by line analysis of what’s horrifying about this excerpted wisdom. Beyond the blatant sexism and heterosexism of Patton’s assertion, I want to focus on the unabashed classism of her advice, as captured in her warning: “You will never again have this concentration of men who are worthy of you.”


It seems all well and good that Patton is telling Princeton’s female students that they are worth something. But what exactly defines someone’s worth, and worthiness of another?

It sounds like access to elite institutions, including by nepotism, legacy or unearned wealth constitutes “worth.” Because that’s what the “concentration” of individuals–men and women–at an institution like Princeton have in common: access, whether by merit, favor, accident or (quite frankly) cheating. (Note: I didn’t go to Princeton. But I went to Yale and Harvard so I’m going to extrapolate from my experience at those similarly ivied institutions.)

The notion that people at Princeton are “worthy” suggests that a flawed, biased and even actively discriminatory system (how else would you describe a process that favors applicants just because they’re related to someone who went to the school?) is a reliable filter for character and potential. When, in fact, all that you can really say about the people who make it to Princeton is that they were able to work the system.

This is the ultimate demonstration of classism: not just sticking your nose up at people you think are better than, but using an unlevel playing field to justify everyone sticking their noses up at those people. Patton’s logic quietly and firmly suggests that people who have not attended Princeton must be deficient, and implicitly endorses the institution’s elitism as fair and just by suggesting that, after all, the worthy will rise. And so classism trundles on, smug in its self-justification.

And to drill down on the implications of Patton’s classism, her criterion for dating and marrying is a tragic disservice to Princeton undergrads and all others who will stick their noses up at others who lack pedigree (which is, again, merely access, by whatever means necessary) and dismiss a world of generous, brilliant, benevolent, creative people who are spiritually, socially, emotionally and yes, even financially rich. Worthy people. Who, for one reason or another, didn’t go to Princeton.

Have a nice day at the bureaucractic administrative machine factory!

1 Apr

“Education on ‘the cloud'” is a brilliant TED Talk, critically rethinking education, that starts with an exploration of why schools teach they way they do ( The answer is stunning and obvious when you think about it: imperialism.

According to Sugata Mitra, in order to oil the “bureaucratic administrative machine” that an empire necessitates, you need the kind of educational system that Paolo Freire refers to as a “banking” system, in which teachers disseminate pre-identified knowledge to students, in order to prepare them for the machinations of the empire. It’s a maintenance system, in which the teachers and prefab understandings hold the power. It’s a way of seeing the world that presumes the answers have already been discovered and perfected, and all “those people” (i.e. students) need is to learn our answers. Then, they will see the light and prosper.

I encourage you to check out Mitra’s talk for all the insights he offers, and will just frame my critical takeaway: his analysis of our educational system is a vibrant example of what social justice action entails. Yes, it is vital that we recognize and respond to blatant inequity in the world. And we need to critically rethink how we do what we do everyday, including those situations, systems and practices that we think have nothing in particular to do with justice, as well as those that we think are already serving our goals for equity and inclusion.

Case in point: public education is supposed to inherently be about and serve social justice, right? And yet, all systems are biased. That’s a fact. So we need to continuously question, challenge, identify strengths and recalibrate (or entirely redesign) how we educate, from what we define as “core” to how we engage students in informal learning moments to why we have classrooms in isolated buildings that we designate as “schools” (rather than educational workshop spaces throughout our communities, for instance), and so on.

And when we as a culture shift our social justice lens to one that considers everything–from the most mundane habit to the most outrageous offense–as an opportunity and responsibility for greater equity and inclusion, then we can really impact the surface social issues (drop out rates in schools, graduates who are unprepared for the workforce) where it matters: at the roots, in the soil.