Archive | October, 2015

Of course, the necessary Halloween costume post

31 Oct

Here’s the headline from SF Gate earlier this week: “Walmart is under fire for selling an ‘Israeli soldier’ costume to kids” (

The controversy around this costume is much like the controversy that this holiday seems to stir up year after year, whether the particular costume in question is an Israeli soldier, Ebola Containment Suit, Osama bin Laden or sexy [insert noun]. And the course of events is also familiar: Walmart advertised the costume, consumers objected, and Walmart removed the costume from its website. And so I wonder: could we be having more effective conversations about these costumes? Conversations that may not absolutely banish offense from Halloweens henceforth, but that may help us individually and collectively grow in our discernment and ability to engage each other from a more compassionate and communal place (because, after all, isn’t trick-or-treating, all about community?)

So much of our dialogue about Halloween costumes is about right or wrong: whether they’re offensive or innocent, insensitive or funny (you just don’t get it). But what if they’re both? What if the Israeli soldier costume is both offensive and innocent? And I say this as someone whose instinct is not to laugh at this particular costume. But that’s the point. The costume doesn’t exist in a world of just me. And when I shift from knowing it’s wrong to recognizing that it’s wrong to me and maybe funny or innocent or [insert what I hadn’t even considered] to someone else, then the nature of my engagement shifts. I can move from “What is WRONG with you?” (which more often than not, triggers a defensive, entrenched posture) to:

  • What’s your intention? Walmart: What are you trying to convey to consumers about the Walmart brand through your selection of costumes and other products? Child/parent/guardian: What impression are you trying to make? How do you hope others will react to you/your child in costume? I may learn that the child has a relative who is an Israeli soldier, to whom they’re paying respect through this costume. But how would I know if I didn’t ask?
  • Despite your intention, what are reasonable, anticipatable reactions and outcomes to this particular costume? This isn’t about the right or the only reaction. This is about the possibilities: recognizing different perspectives, and realizing that none of us is universally right.
  • Given that people might laugh, be concerned, be offended, be inspired, think you’re insensitive, think you look adorable, want to avoid you, want to ask you what’s up with your costume, be personally triggered, think you’re ignorant, think you’re making a political statement… What do you want to do? As opposed to prescribing any supposed right or safe answer, I would hope that Walmart or the child/parent/guardian could come to discerning action: a choice about what’s right for them, according to their values and intention, given the inherently social context of this holiday. The truth is, some people do want to provoke with their costumes, others want to scare, while some want to seduce, and still others want to amuse.

The annual Halloween tradition of social debate over costumes may never go away, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing. In a way, Halloween gives us opportunities to talk about identity, values, diversity and inclusion that the other 364 days of the year don’t. Progress, then, is not so much sending one particular costume back to the warehouse (and being relieved that next year is some other group’s turn to be offended), but a shift in what we talk about and how we talk about it when we talk about what costumes represent with each other.

What we need to do even when the kids are getting along

28 Oct

In their coverage responding to the video of an arrest in a South Carolina high school classroom, in which a white male police officer flips a black female high school student and her desk over (,

The incident, which the Justice Department said Tuesday that it would investigate, follows national studies showing that black students were far more likely than whites to be disciplined in public schools, even for comparable offenses.

That issue was receiving intense scrutiny here long before the videos of Monday’s incident were released, prompting the district to form a task force last year to examine its practices.

Last year, the racial divide in the Richland School District Two, encompassing parts of this city and its suburbs, led to the formation of the Black Parents Association, and contributed to a bitter campaign for control of the district’s board.

Yet this community fits no neat stereotype of racial tension. It has at times been seen as a model of amicable integration, where students of divergent backgrounds socialize together [emphasis added](

I found the last paragraph of this excerpt to be problematic. And yet not surprising. “Students of divergent backgrounds socializing together” constitutes “a model of amicable integration”?

Let’s break this down:

Integration is a systemic process within an institution, organization or community that provides the framework (intentional policy, structures, programs and scaffolding like community education) for individuals–children, youth and adults alike–to act for equity and inclusion. Integration is not just kids hanging out together. I say that not to diminish that aspect of the Richland School District community, but to recognize it for what it is: kids doing what they can do (or maybe just what they consider doing), while adults and the educational system–not to mention the legal system, local community, government and other agencies–are still wondering whether overwhelming racial trends in education (of over-representation of black and brown boys in disciplinary situations and their underrepresentation in advanced and gifted programs, as well as STEM) merit a concerted response–even as those trends are backlit by study after study demonstrating racial bias against black versus white drivers (, black versus white job applicants with equivalent credentials (, and even black versus white pedestrians ( What integration will require in the Richland School District includes:

  • an articulated vision of what inclusive, equitable education in the district means and looks like (and why it matters, not just to currently disenfrancished students and families, but to all of us);
  • a thorough examination of what currently constitutes “good teaching” and what groups that teaching tends to benefit most;
  • a rigorous analysis of data including student thriving and outcomes in the district;
  • education about unconscious bias;
  • recognition of systemic unearned privileges and disadvantages;
  • education and accountability for culturally competent educational practices;
  • systems for the district to periodically check itself–for example: clear goals, a diversity and inclusion dashboard to assess progress and proactive feedback structures that everyone can access;
  • cultural competency education of community partners (like law enforcement, child and family services, parent/guardian volunteers, etc.) …

We’re talking about a district-wide, all-inclusive effort. Not just an elective for those who have to or happen to care. And this work must address how race matters, how other identities matter (because, for starters, gender, socioeconomics and sexuality also correlate with educational and/or disciplinary inequities), as well as how race matters intersectionally with these and other identities. And yes, it would help if the kids keep hanging out with each other, within and across identity groups.

At heart, what I take issue with is adults riding on the coattails of children and youth who are “advancing the conversation” about identity and diversity. All too often, I hear adults remark with appreciation about the kids are “ahead of the adults” in the community when it comes to cultural competency awareness and skills. Or schools proudly point to their student-founded and student-run identity groups (like the Black Student Union, the multicultural club or the Gay-Straight Alliance/Gender Spectrum Alliance) as examples of the school “doing the work.” Of course, the school should recognize what the students are doing. And, I feel, they should ask: how are we helping them? How are we benefiting them, as we benefit from them? Even when children and youth lead us, we should still be helping them to grow.

Schools should also recognize that it’s not true that the kids are ahead of the adults–at least not all of the kids, nor all of the adults. Typically, it’s some of the kids–the kids who identify or get identified as minorities, outliers, or as members of historically disadvantaged and under-represented groups; the kids with tremendous empathy or social justice orientation; the kids who sometimes choose to speak up and sometimes don’t have a choice about having to speak up–who are leading the conversations. And typically, some of the adults are trying, too. It’s just that we’re not listening to them. It seems to be easier to hear and applaud a student’s voice, perhaps because we can (dis)regard theirs as a  nice “youth” perspective, whereas when a colleague or parent/guardian raises the same observation or issue, we question their motives, their evidence and their agitation of the status quo.

I was recently at a conference of educators in attendance from several states. A student of color who was also at the conference got up to make a comment and ask a question of the speaker (M.K. Asante, author of Buck). She told him, told all of us, that she was tired. Tired of having to be the one to educate her peers, to speak up on social justice issues, to have to provide another (read: black) perspective. She asked what she could do. In short,M.K. told her she needed to keep on. I believe that’s true: each of us needs to keep speaking truth to power. And in the moment after he ended his response, I wanted to ask the crowded gymnasium: Is it enough for this one student, and others like her, to keep on? What’s the responsibility of each and every adult in this room? What do we need to do and to build? What do schools needs to change while she keeps on doing her part?

Talking to kids about hair-touching

20 Oct

A colleague just requested resources to talk to children about hair-touching. More specifically, to address the subject of touching hair, when not all hair is equal. In independent schools where the majority of students are not black, touching, wanting to touch and asking about touching Afro-textured hair (as opposed to Caucasian and Asian-textured hair, for example) is epidemic. The touching is sometime accompanied by commentary:

  • “Ooh, your hair is so poofy!”
  • “What do you use to comb it?”
  • “How do you wash it?”
While curiosity is a value and habit of mind that schools tend to want to cultivate,  curiosity is not always neutrally experienced. The message to children with Afro-textured hair who field constant questions about and requests to touch their hair is that their hair is “different,” “weird” and even “exotic” (and while “exotic” may have positive connotations, it also connotes strangeness). This message that Afro-textured hair is weird is compounded by a broader dominant culture in the US that reifies blond Caucasian-textured hair as the pinnacle of beauty. And then, if students find that people with hair like theirs are in the extreme minority in their schools, having “different” hair may be even more challenging (by reinforcing ideas of who–and whose hair–is normal).
So how do we invite curiosity and stand up for equity (recognizing that being singled out for different hair can threaten a child’s sense of belonging)?
Here’s one way I do:
I start with this quick video from the “You Can Touch My Hair” interactive exhibition ( and ask a few questions:
  • Why might people want to touch other people’s hair?
  • Why would the women in this video (need to) tell people it’s ok to touch their hair?
  • Is it OK to touch someone’s hair (or other body parts) if they don’t give you permission?

And thread in some conversation about:

  • How not all hair is equal: Is it different when the bald man invites people to touch his hair?
  • Reciprocal touching: Why do the women sometimes touch back (i.e. touch the hair of the people who touch theirs? This is a great opportunity to recognize that we’re all “different” to other people, and I only think you’re different because I think I’m normal.)
While the film features adults, I find it can still be a useful tool with kids because you can have a discussion with a little distance: starting with the (weird) things adults do, and tying it back to us here in this group.
The point is not that hair-touching is right or wrong. The point is that hair-touching isn’t an equal opportunity experience: it’s both an act of curiosity and a way that ideas about who is normal, right and good (and who isn’t) get reinforced. That is, when we let it happen without discussion, discernment and recognition of diversity (and how seemingly superficial differences can shape one’s sense of self and experience of belonging–not just for individuals, but for whole groups of people within a community). And talking to kids–and adults–about hair-touching is an everyday responsibility and an opportunity to cultivate equity and inclusion as individual and community practice.
**For the complete film and more about Un’ruly, the group behind the project, please go to: