I hear this phrase at least ten times a day. Well, that’s probably a slight exaggeration but a rough estimate, notwithstanding data recordings, puts it at around twice a week. That’s problematic but not for the reasons you think because nearly 99% of the time my ninth and tenth graders are using the phrase incorrectly. In addition to the fact that our children can’t read or write or do basic math, they also don’t know the difference between racism and sexism. And let me tell you, there’s no greater way to drive me up the walls than to get something like racism so fundamentally wrong.
Take for instance the recent coverage in the news on whether Mitt Romney would have signed the Lilly Ledbetter Act into legislation if were the President. Most of my students were outraged to learn that gender inequalities in the workplace still exist in 2012. Guess they thought we’d overcome all that systematic oppression back in 1920 with women’s suffrage. So I thought back to when I was their age and probably first became aware of gender discrimination. I drew a long blank. Turns out I’d always known and missed out on the momentous epiphany. I’ve always known what the world thinks of Black people, what the world thinks of women and what it means to walk through life with both identities.
Still, a smile swept across my face as I could see the wheels turning in their minds trying to wrap their heads around how in the most free society in the world we have a situation where women previously had no recourse to right economic wrongs. in typical adolescent fashion, most of my students come off as insensitive and uncaring so any time they express compassion or concern for others makes me want to snapshot that moment in time. After reading a slew of history papers agreeing with the U.S. decision to drop the Atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki despite knowing the consequences for the innocent civilians, I felt like World History 2011-2012 had been a loss. But when one of my students said my position that innocent babies were killed or maimed was irrelevant because Japanese babies aren’t American babies, I felt like all hope had been lost. My heart broke in spaces that I didn’t know existed. I went home that night and looked up the prerequisite classes I’d need for veterinary school, confident that I’d have better luck with animals than I do with young people.
So I was feeling pretty good about them and my future in education when they expressed interest in bridging the economic gap between men and women. I felt like a proud mama bear who’d spent all winter — fall and spring — preparing her cubs with history lessons and writing exercises and could finally see the fruits of incredibly hard labor.
That is, until someone said, “That’s racist.”
And then, I felt like repeatedly slamming my head against one of those metal lockers so they could have a permanent memory of just how crazy they make me feel. It’s not racist! It’s sexist. Yes, there are similarities but the biggest difference is that one involve race and the other involves sex. And if that’s still too confusing, think about it in terms of skin color and how one does #1. As you can tell, these days, I’m so tired and ready for a new group of students that I don’t care to correct such egregious errors because it throws the conversation completely off topic and prevents me from finishing the real lesson. Until one day it dawned on me that these are the real lessons.
I’ve grown tired of defending why one needs to learn basic multiplication and the argument that they won’t always have a calculator has become moot since everyone has a smartphone or even a dumbphone. I’m the only person I know old enough to tie their shoelaces who doesn’t have a cell phone. I’d like to think my math skills have remained as sharp as they have because I don’t have a calculator to depend on hanging out in my back pocket. But I’d like to think there are some things students can learn inside the classroom that Siri, Google, or Wikipedia can’t teach them. Like why one can’t use LOL in an academic paper unless they’re describing the effects of the Internet age on modern English. Or how to recognize systems of oppression and identify oneself as a perpetrator of bias and prejudice. Or how to think critically about what the history and science books are trying to teach them. I’d like to teach them to articulate a point with confidence and evidence, to be able to differentiate between sexism and racism and classism and ageism even when the biases are subtle and easily swept under the rug as just the way things are. I hope they find the wherewithal to live a life in accordance with their values and ideals. That if today they detest the archaic notion that women deserve to be paid less than a man in the same position, that when they’re a business owner or hiring manager or in any position to do the right thing, they do it regardless of what it costs. I hope they recognize the people in the history books who denied the right to vote women or Blacks or immigrants or men who didn’t own property are the people who put different restrictions on what rights people have today. I hope their eyes have opened up enough to see that because racism and sexism looks differently today than it did 40 years ago, doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
Seventy seven cents on the dollar says women aren’t as valuable as men. It says a woman’s performance can’t match a man’s performance. It says his intellect is superior to hers. And the difference of twenty-three cents amounts to thousands of dollars over the course of a woman’s life, but it really is about more than the hefty sum it amounts to after a lifetime of employment. It’s stolen money; money that is owed and deserved to support women and their families. Anything less than that should cause everyone to be outraged. My student was right. It’s not fair.