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Who are you?
In my eight years living in 24 countries, there is one question I found people in every country and village, each religion and ethnic group, are faced with today. Every parent will contend with this question for their children until those children are old enough to bear the burden of contending for themselves with this question of identity: Who am I?
The mosaic of our social identities and group membership – based on our race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, age, and ability, among others – shapes our social interactions with one another. Based on this membership we are prescribed roles by an inequitable social system and predisposed to unequal roles in a dynamic system of oppression.
In Evanston, where we live, the faith-based institution we frequent, the persons with whom we socialize, and for many, even where we will be buried, are each based on our ethnicity/race and to a degree, our class. In Evanston, where our children go to school, if they are bused to school or not, whom they play with, whom they have lunch with, what summer activities they participate in, and which side of the achievement gap they are on largely are determined by their race, class, and to a degree, gender.
As a former classroom teacher in District 65, District 202 and the Chicago Public School system, and as a Fifth Ward resident and father to two sons, I see these difficult and challenging realities play themselves out on a daily basis here in Evanston – ward to ward, home to home, classroom to classroom, and on the playground. An upper-class white girl who walks to school every day with her friends who are also her neighbors will have a different experience at home, school, and in the community, than will an African American boy who is bused to and from school and qualifies for free or reduced-fee lunch.
It was an honor and privilege to serve as a consultant for the Evanston/Skokie PTA Council and facilitate two workshops in a series titled “Navigating Real Life Diversity with our Kids.” Nearly 200 parents, educators, and community members filled the gym in Family Focus as we worked to bridge differences through dialogue and action.
In these sessions we examined some of the cross-cultural challenges and posed some questions for each of the participants to consider. These included:
Multiple intersecting Identities: Our identities create different life experiences and learning conditions that colors the lenses through which adults/children view and experience the world and one another.
• Invisibility of Culture: Our culture shapes our identity, but much of our culture and our identity cannot be visibly seen by others. And yet we stereotype and prejudge one another based what we label others to be. This creates challenges that often we, and especially our children, cannot see and do not understand.
• Cycle of Socialization: We all go through a process of socialization that develops pictures in our head (stereotypes) of “others.” We form attitudes, beliefs, judgments, and opinions (prejudice) about “others” – particularly those with whom we do not interact with in any meaningful way – which we act out on (discrimination) both consciously and unconsciously.
• Injustice: Inequality and inequity play themselves out in our relationships, within our schools, and within our community. This too may be conscious and unconscious.
• Either/Or Binary: This is an oppositional framework woven into American culture through which we are conditioned to view one another as “us or them,” part of the problem or part of the solution, right or wrong, etc.
• Fear, ignorance, obliviousness, and confusion: Whether we are members of privileged or targeted groups, these elements prevent us from learning, growing, and working for change.
Questions to Consider
Instead of focusing on “others,” the focal point should be on ourselves. This is where the core of the problems and the solutions lie. Here are some questions to consider:
• Are you aware of the stereotypes and prejudice you need to work on?
• Do you seek out opportunities to learn about other cultures?
• Are you aware of the unearned privileges you may have as a member of the dominant group?
• Are you aware of the ways you may contribute to your own oppression as a member of a targeted group?
• Do you confront discriminatory language?
• Are you willing to give up any privileges or comforts for the benefit of others?
• Do you confront oppression when people subject to the oppression are not present?
• Do you use everyday occurrences as teachable moments for your children?
The ongoing examination of who we are creates both challenges and opportunities to build cross-cultural relationships and alliances in Evanston. The goal is progress, not perfection. The key is to take the next step and continue to grow. Be forgiving of the mistakes of others, as well as of your own. The choice is ours. We are responsible for our community, our schools, ourselves, and our children.
Dr. Logan serves as adjunct faculty member of diversity and social justice at Northeastern Illinois University and Harper College.