Race

Wacky Wednesday: Denver Comic Con

Cosplay is Life.

That may be a stretch, but I went to Denver Comic Con this summer, and it is evident that a great many people take cosplay very very seriously. I would count myself among those people, but I didn’t finish my Mass Effect costume, and I lack the funds to be as hardcore as the more serious cosplayers. I spent money on comics and graphic novels for my classroom, instead.

A quick, shameless plug: I went to DCC with my friend Dextra, an indie artist. I have a few of her pieces, as well as a fantastic T-Rex dress with her artwork on it. Her Facebook page has links to her etsy and Redbubble shops.

Anyway.

DCC is a celebration of geekdom in all its glory. I registered for a half-credit educator’s track and sat in several amazing panels on diversity and representation in comics and pop culture. Pop Culture Classroom sponsors several conventions during the year, and Denver is one of them.

Highlights from the panels:

  • College students presenting their projects through an intersectional feminist lens
  • High school (!!!) students presenting their projects analyzing the representation of an identity politic (gender, religious identity, mental illness, LGBTQ, race) throughout the eras of comics
  • The “Indigenerds” discussions of stereotype and representation of Native American characters in popular culture
  • The two Star Wars panels: one on critical reading, and one on stories of resistance

I added several titles from Native Realities to my library. I bought several of Jeremy Whitley’s titles, too (including some My Little Pony single issues, duh). He signed them for me. He happens to be one of the kindest people ever, and made sure to show me the three-panel dialogue exchange with a female Deaf pirate in one of the books I bought!

One last thing, speaking of Deaf characters: two different panels mentioned the graphic autobiography El Deafo by Cece Bell, which several of my students have read (and loved). It’s about a deaf bunny. You should read it. I also found out about Matt Fraction’s run of Hawkeye; issue #19 is in ASL! So: even though the comics world still needs work in regards to representation of disability (a couple panels mentioned that weakness), it’s improving, bit by bit.

Curriculum Disputes, Reading Lists, and More Books by White Guys

Last Monday, a committee in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho recommended Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck be removed from the ninth grade general reading list to the small-group reading list.

The four committee members who feel the book should be removed from required reading shared their reasons with the Spokesman-Review:

  • Profanity: use of words like “bastard” and “God damn.” One committee member counted the profanities–102 profanities in its 110 pages.
  • Negativity and darkness: committee members found the story too “negative.” This next bit I’ll just quote directly from the article:

The book is of high literary quality, committee member Eugene Marano said, and he’s not so bothered by the coarse language. But the gloomy tone gives him pause, especially the bleak ending.

“I thought it was too dark for ninth-graders,” said Marano, a retired Kootenai County magistrate judge. “It needs to be in a small group to explain away the dark part of it.”

The Boise Weekly did a little digging and found the approved books for large and small group instruction for ninth grade in the Coeur d’Alene school district:

Current approved titles on the ninth grade whole group reading list are “Romeo & Juliet,” Animal Farm, Great Expectations and The House on Mango Street. Titles on the small group reading list include Go Ask Alice, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and The Odyssey.

Here’s what I have gleaned from this reporting, the above books that have not been challenged, and my knowledge of those texts: The Great Depression is too bleak, but teen suicide (as told by Shakespeare) and teen drug use and suicide (as told by an LDS Idaho writer in the form of a cautionary tale) are not. While small group novels have more challenging or intense content, the committee appears to be under the assumption that this pedagogical strategy is used to “explain away” the bleakness, negativity, or challenging nature of the text, rather than to dig into, discuss, analyze, synthesize, or reflect upon it. The ad hoc committee and school board need to have this point clarified. Immediately.

That covers my response to the coverage thus far. Now I get to the heart of the matter.

While I appreciate the articles by both the Spokesman-Review and the Boise-Weekly, I am not satisfied by the depth of their research. In thirty minutes of searching, I downloaded Coeur d’Alene School District’s Approved Novels list for grades 6 through 9. The district website says the document was last updated December 2014; the document itself states September 2013. I went through each title for each grade; as an educator, a member of the greater Idaho community, and a part of the growing consciousness of how a “safe” canon has diminished our ability to engage in critical thought, I am very troubled by what I find, both in terms of the content itself, and how our framing of it limits students.

Banning and challenging books is anachronistic and counter-productive. Last year, the Meridian, Idaho, school district banned the book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. The American Library Association named it the most-challenged book of 2014. The ALA “condemns censorship and works to ensure free access to information,” and “promotes the freedom to read.” Banning books does not protect students from ideas. Choosing to challenge a novel, when students have access to the the entire world of information in their pockets, demonstrates an archaic understanding of the purpose of education and the sharing of information. Finally, after the ban of the Alexie novel, interest in the book increased, and instead of it simply appearing on a supplemental reading list, every student was provided a copy of the novel. For free.

The committee does not understand ninth grade students. Fourteen-year-old students, even in conservative northern Idaho, have heard the words “bastard” and “damn.” They have heard the Lord’s name taken in vain. They have used those words, and worse. Reading them, in a piece of literature meant to reflect the experiences of migrant workers during the Great Depression, will not scandalize them. Furthermore, if eighth-grade students can handle the required text of The Diary of Anne Frank, which also has a bleak ending, they can handle Of Mice and Men, provided they have a competent teacher who guides them through the process–which they do. It was the Great Depression; it did not have a happy ending for the nation’s poor, and hiding that is insulting to the history and to the students. Committee: trust your teachers, trust your students.

In 2015, the book list is populated with predominantly white male authors. This begs the question: why are we arguing about a book written by a dead white guy? Of the approved titles on the Whole Group Reading List (and I am including the required titles and choice lists), almost 70% are written by white men. Several of them are repeats of the same author; there are two (TWO!) other novels by Steinbeck on the approved novels list. I’m going to break this down some more, because this is the most problematic piece of the issue.

  • In grade 9, a teacher may elect for the class to read The Miracle Worker, which is based on Helen Keller’s autobiography, but is not the autobiography itself. As an educator of the Deaf, I cannot tell you how many times I have encountered individuals whose entire concept of deafness is based not on Keller’s words, but on someone else’s adaptation of them. This is part of a pattern of books that address the topic of disability that are written by able-bodied authors: Freak the Mighty (grade 7), and two books from the grade 9 Small Group list, Stoner and Spaz, and Stuck in Neutral.
  • The Grade 11 list has left me irate. In the entire canon of American Literature, out of the 11 titles selected for the approved novel list, there is one novel written by a woman. ONE. Where are women like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Harriet Beacher Stowe, Willa Cather, or Louisa May Alcott?
  • Again, Grade 11: Eleven novels, two Authors of Color. Frederick Douglass’ autobiography is on the list, as well as Thousand Pieces of Gold, by Ruthanne Lum McCunn. The selection of two biographies on a list that also features classic works of fiction is an easy way to make sure the list pays lip service to diversity without tackling broader systems of inequality. This is unacceptable. On the entire 6th-12th grade list of 73 titles, there are only seven titles written by People of Color: 3 African-American, 1 African, 1 Latina, 1 Chinese-American, 1 Japanese-American. There are other novels that address topics of racism, segregation, and diversity, but these are written by white authors who do not represent the Black (or Latino, or Native) literary community. As I was working on this blog post, a video surfaced of the principal of TNT Academy in Georgia making racially charged remarks at graduation. A Twitter conversation turned toward colorblind pedagogy, and everything clicked about this entire book challenge (tweet embedded with permission):

This is what a legacy of systemic silencing and supremacy looks like. This is where it starts: narrowing our students’ access to books based on our archaic definitions of whether a novel is “a quality story [or] a page turner.” Arguing about the word “bastard” and whether the Great Depression is too depressing, instead of challenging our state’s entrenched biases. The person who successfully challenged Alexie’s novel last spring claimed a semi-autobiographical novel written by a Native American that described his experiences of racism when he left the reservation was, by definition, a racist novel. We are seeing the damage wrought by decades of failing to engage students with literary voices outside the approved canon.

Hair

The first time I had a panicked birthday was my 22nd. I was a senior in college, about six weeks away from graduating. I looked around at my friends and classmates, remembering how at 18 I had looked up at the seniors and seen them as a world beyond me. They were so adult, so learned, so together. I felt none of those things, and it terrified me. Also, 22 looked like a fat number. That second two looked a lot wider than 21.

I did not freak out at 25. I had just purchased a house and life was awesome. I did, however, freak out when my baby sister turned 25 two years later. But, for the most part, my family are not birthday freaker-outers. My mom did not flip at 40, 50, or 60. My grandmother is 93 and as far as I know she handles each milestone birthday with a positive attitude and a sizable helping of angel food cake.

I turn 30 in less than three weeks.

I am totally losing my shit.

I don’t think 30 is old. I am not grieving the end of my 20s, as far as I can tell. I just feel like I haven’t really made much progress on this whole “adult” thing since I turned 22. And I’m certainly not where I thought I’d be. I’m divorced, I have no children, and I’m broke. I haven’t had a raise, really, in seven years.

In the midst of my weekend freakout, a friend shared some encouragement with me: May you have at least as many lives and adventures as I have had….and am still having. May you be able to reinvent yourself as often as your cells regenerate. When I saw her later that evening, we had a conversation along that topic, regarding hair. If hair represents my regenerations, I am currently in my Tenth Doctor tousled phase. All I’m lacking is a personal hair tousler.

Dream Job: David Tennant's personal hair tousler

Dream Job: David Tennant’s personal hair tousler

That said, my hair has been fairly representative of my life since moving to Idaho, and I am grateful for the conversation this weekend. During most of my life, I kept my hair long  enough for a ponytail, even if it was a short “sumo” ponytail. I am perpetually low-maintenance. I haven’t even used shampoo in seven years, let alone any hair product. To say I have thick hair would be a gross understatement. My hair is grotesquely thick, monstrously thick, thick-beyond-words thick. Whenever I have started with a new stylist, their shock the first time they have hefted my vast coif is worth capturing on film. I have a lot of hair. My current stylist books an extra-long block for me now, simply because we spend so much time thinning, and that’s even after he buzzes out the bottom third of my hair.

Anyway, I put as little effort into managing this mane as possible, which for the vast majority of the first 24 years of my life meant ponytails. Then, I chopped off a ten-inch braid, and my hair has been getting progressively shorter ever since.

During the same time frame that my hair has become strikingly short, I’ve taken control of a lot of areas of my life. I started going to counseling again, I started a 12-step program, played roller derby, took control of my health (sorta), embraced my feminism, appeared in two challenging productions with provocative, award-winning scripts (How I Learned to Drive and The Vagina Monologues), and started graduate school.

Correlation is not causation, but the correlation between my ever-shortening hair and my bolder approach to life is no coincidence.

I am loud and awkward and passionate, and I spent a lot of time apologizing for my elbows and my voice and my opinions. My parents were always shushing me. I no longer apologize for taking up space. I used to try to blend in and shrink back and hide the parts of my body and my personality that were deemed unfit or flawed. I spent too many years hiding in ponytails, oversized jeans, and hoodies. Now I wear what I want and I embrace my hips and my breasts and my tears and my fists when I’m fighting for the underdog.

Every time I’ve cut my hair, I’ve shed a layer of myself. Like a sassy snake. My hair was ridiculously fluffy last Wednesday, and the sensory integration therapist met me in the hallway and said, Your hair is so… awesome today. I replied, genuinely, Thanks! I used to fight with my hair, but I always lost. Now I just let my hair do what it does. Who wants to start every morning losing? One of my students thought that was really funny, in part because she has a mane of curly hair that has at least an 80% correlation to her mood. She’s like Japanese animation. She retold that story three times on Wednesday. The next day, after a good-morning hug, she told me we both won with our hair that morning.

Last semester in Feminist Theory, we regularly returned to the theme the personal is political. Hair is one of those personal-political feminist issues. Any time a Hollywood actress shaves her head for a role, she gets major headlines. When Jennifer Lawrence cut her hair in a pixie style (was that in 2013?) just because she damn well wanted to cut it that way, I’m pretty sure the internet broke. The fact that cutting one’s hair is considered so newsworthy makes it pretty clear how much a woman’s hair means in our culture. And when we add race to the equation–because I love me some intersectional feminism–the implications and consequences of short hair are magnified. In 2012, Rhonda Lee, a small-market meteorologist in Louisiana, was fired after defending (in a Facebook comment) her choice to keep her black, ethnic hair short and natural. It seems to me, at least in certain contexts, short hair is where the personal becomes political.

Women with short hair get noticed. I am okay with that now; I don’t have to hide. I may not be where I thought I’d be, but I am certainly not where I was.

Danielle, 2009. The long hair, past the shoulders, not quite to the elbows. About 10 minutes later, I chopped off a 10-inch braid and never looked back.

Danielle, 2009. The long hair, past the shoulders, not quite to the elbows. About 10 minutes later, I chopped off a 10-inch braid and never looked back.

Danielle, 2015. The hair is short, sassy, and in your face. I get shit done.

Danielle, 2015. The hair is short, sassy, and in your face. The underside is totally buzzed. I get shit done.

American Snippet

Content warning: contains racist slurs, swears, and expressions of hate

American Sniper is a movie based on a book that includes proven lies. Under typical circumstances, I would not waste my breath, my keystrokes, or my brain cells on it.

These are not typical circumstances.

In the last six weeks, I have been unfriended by no fewer than a dozen people on Facebook for engaging in “anti-military rhetoric” on my timeline. Whoop-de-doo. I lose friends all the time, usually acquaintances who are shocked when I speak up about something with which they disagree. While it’s no secret to most of my friends that I am non-violent and regularly engage in conversation regarding alternatives to war and violence, I guess people were surprised that I was vocal about my disgust with the hero worship of Chris Kyle and his self-aggrandizing book-turned-movie. And I was surprised that my criticism for a movie garnered sexist, racist vitriol, militaristic one-liners, misunderstandings of the word slander, and suggestions to stand in front of a spray of bullets.

Actually, I wasn’t surprised.

Last things first: I don’t generally use the word pacifist because most people misinterpret it as a passive choice. I am a non-violent activist. It may become my job to stand in the way of violence, between the oppressor and the oppressed. So when someone says, If you don’t stand behind the military, feel free to stand in front of them, chances are there may be a time I may be faced with such an option (I mean, this is one of my favorite books…). Saying this to me doesn’t make me rethink my position, but it makes the person saying it look simplistic and cruel.

I focus a lot of my blog posts on intersectional feminism in K-12 education. That’s the setting in which I work. It’s the focus of my masters program. It’s where I see myself working for the foreseeable future. So how does American Sniper fit in? It fits because of Benvolio.

Benvolio is not Benvolio’s real name. But there is a student whose family moved here from Iraq in 2008, and he is my Benvolio in Romeo & Juliet this year. He is, quite possibly, the brightest student I have ever had the pleasure to teach. He is the main reason I wish we were not using an adapted script: he came to our first rehearsal with his entire part memorized. So we gave him an additional part. He comes to me each week with ideas for his character, for staging, for mood. His instincts are good, which is notable because he can’t see the entire stage. He wears argyle sweater vests. He’s a pretty typical high school kid, he just happens to have a cane and read Braille.

He is also Muslim.

During my undergrad coursework, I heard over and over again that school needs to be a safe, inclusive, accessible environment for every student. Many of my professors iterated the guideline that celebrating holidays in school marginalizes students of diverse religious and cultural backgrounds and students who live in poverty. I have an ongoing dilemma trying to reconcile that with the Deaf school norm of celebrating every mainstream holiday because for some students, it is the only access to the background and explanations they have.

I have seen awful posts on Facebook about American Sniper. I have seen disgusting tweets. In short, the film offers a simplistic view of a war that is all grey, and does not inspire the best responses in much of the target audience. It is this response I will address, just to keep my notes as brief as possible.

This is the kind of thing Benvolio can read online. It’s also the kind of thing his friends and classmates can read online. With the number of students in our schools who are Muslim, or who come from predominantly Muslim countries, or who just happen to be brown and encounter people who don’t know anything about world religions and/or geography, American Sniper inspires a hatred and a brand of fevered nationalism that is dangerous to their emotional well-being, their concept of self, and their safety in school.

I’m posting a few examples; the rest can be found from even a cursory search or from this Storify.

Usually I stay out of Facebook comment conversations, especially those that are political. My acquaintances save me the trouble of unfriending them by deleting me first, but I wish they would view the world through a different lens. A lens that sees the damage this film can inflict, the hatred spewed by its most ardent of fans, and the attitudes expressed by even some of the more reasonable of fans. It’s a problem for students like Benvolio, for his family, for his community. When we paint the world as black-and-white, the white people generally write the narrative. And it isn’t the kind of narrative in which the hero thinks critically about his actions, sees the Other as a whole human person, or considers the nuance of the story into which he’s written. And when we consume the narrative as uncritically as it was written, we legitimize it.

MDA Lock-Up and the Cult of Compliance

I took yesterday off from the social medias. It was a holiday and I was sad and tired.

On Facebook this morning, I read about the Muscular Dystrophy Association’s current fundraising effort.

MDA Lock-Up

MDA Lock-Up

I personally know a few people who are participating in the local version of this event. It is my intent to think critically about the power and language behind the Muscular Dystrophy Association using prison-culture imagery for their fundraising efforts, the kind of privilege inherent in that kind of decision, and how that plays into the Cult of Compliance.

This is not the first time a national organization dedicated to serving a population of people with disabilities has used police imagery in their fundraising campaigns. Last year, Special Olympics Washington organized a number of Run From the Cops events. Such an event is inherently privileged. It completely ignores the context of deadly encounters between the police and people with disabilities.

The troublesome imagery in the MDA fundraiser goes further than the encounters with police. People with disabilities have fraught and often dangerous experiences in the prison system. The Rikers Island abuse cases focused heavily on inmates with mental illnesses. Neli Latson, a young black man with autism, spent the better part of a year in solitary confinement. His initial arrest stemmed from a loitering complaint and the police officer that didn’t understand his autism. In January, Georgia executed Warren Hill, a man with an intellectual disability whose execution had been stayed several times before. Many of the articles covering the execution wrote that Hill “claimed” disability; a clearer example of ableist privilege I cannot find right now.

In the world of disability advocacy, police violence against people with disabilities is a significant issue. We live in a culture that has made immediate and total compliance to directives from police and other authority figures absolutely mandatory. Failure to comply has tragic results. Inability to comply is never considered. The intersection of disability and race–in the cases of Neli Latson and Warren Hill–is an especially dangerous place into which to be squeezed.

It is in this context that I find myself fielding requests to donate to the MDA fundraiser to help my friends “make bail.”

People with disabilities don’t get the chance to crowdsource their bail. Men of color with intellectual disabilities don’t have flashy web campaigns and cute kids to tug at the heartstrings and open the pursestrings.

The -ism that isn’t

In addition to teaching, I work at a radio station. It stands to reason I listen to a lot of radio. I do, but I only listen to the station that employs me in the morning, during the time I work (which is 6 a.m. to 9 a.m.). The rest of the time, I listen to NPR. There are two NPR signals I can get in Twin Falls, and when I go to Boise I switch over to the Boise signal. There is a stretch of no-mans-land between Twin and Boise where I get no signals–not for NPR, not for my phone, not for the station where I work. I drive in the silence with my thoughts. Sometimes I like the radio better than my thoughts.

I’ve been driving quite a bit lately. I have my weekend graduate courses in Boise, which means 260 miles of driving over the weekend. This Saturday’s post-class NPR playlist  included the end of Invisibilia, a break for food, The Splendid Table, and then a phone call with my mother.

I want to like Invisibilia, in the same part of me that wants to like This American Life. I like the idea of both shows. I generally like the style of the shows, and the content always seems promising. But, as I wrote last month, This American Life has a bad history of handling disability content. It leaves me to wonder if the episodes I really enjoyed were as problematic as the episodes with ableist language, but I didn’t notice because it wasn’t my realm of experience or expertise.

Batman,” the TAL episode featuring a blind man who uses echolocation as an orientation strategy, was rife with abelist language. Invisibilia hosts Lulu Miller and Alix Spiegel did all the leg work on that episode, so I went into this episode of Invisibilia with trepidation. I find it unfortunate yet unsurprising to say that Spiegel and Miller got another -ism wrong: racism.

In the second segment of this weekend’s episode titled “The Power of Categories,” Spiegel and Miller shared the story of Iggy, an Indian immigrant who built a retirement community in Florida called ShantiNiketan, a gated community for other aging Indians like him. Despite launching his project at the beginning of the housing crisis in 2008, he quickly sold all of the units. He attributed his success to the innate human desire to be around one’s own kind. The residents of the community echoed these sentiments, saying it felt comfortable to be in a place that felt like their former home.

I followed so far. Marginalized groups often carve out safe spaces as a refuge from the challenges of a non-inclusive society. It’s a relief to be in a place where you are not seen as the Other. What I didn’t follow were the next mental leaps the program asked me to make: First, the comparison between Iggy Ignatius’ ShantiNiketan community and the Augusta National Golf Club. Then, three consecutive uses of the words racism or racist that stood unquestioned.

The program was addressing how we place ourselves into categories. I get that. Drawing a comparison between a retirement community of minority senior citizens and a golf club of affluent white men who banned people of color and women (until very recently!) is quite a leap. And Iggy told them such a comparison was unfair. But airing a five-word rebuttal from Iggy did not undo the fact that Invisibilia had just lent NPR-credibility to the non-concept of reverse-racism. 

Let me provide a quick summary of terminology and directionality: an individual may have bias based on race (or sex, gender identity, disability, etc.). An individual may stereotype based on race. An individual may even discriminate based on race. And bias, stereotype, and discrimination can be omni-directional. But racism and other forms of oppression are different. Racism is systemic. It perpetuates hierarchy, disempowering those at the bottom to ensure the continued dominance of those at the top. It is impossible for reverse racism to exist, as it is impossible for the oppressed to oppress the oppressor. 

The ShantiNiketan retirement community attracts its residents because it is a safe space, a refuge from a society in which Indians are seen as the Other. It does so by replicating the familiar environment of home. The Augusta National Golf Club was (is?) a racist organization because its white membership had official policies that barred specific types of marginalized groups from joining. That is a pretty big difference. And not only did Miller and Spiegel neglect to clarify or retract the comparison, they doubled-down and cheerily invoked the concept of racism two more times before the end of the segment.

And when the psychologist chimed in, explaining how as we near death, we desire to be around people like us, he affirmed* that it might be a little racist. But it isn’t. That’s not what racism is. But listening to NPR this weekend, you wouldn’t have known that, as the newest NPR program/podcast subtly perpetuated this fundamental misunderstanding of marginalization and oppression.

We still have a long way to go.

*This affirmation of sorts appeared in the episode of Invisibilia as it aired on Saturday, but not in the All Things Considered text linked above.

Conversations, plural

Most of my best teaching happens through conversation. Conversations. Plural. My students and I had conversations about race and melanin and segregation for a couple weeks around Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, which fit into our yearlong conversation about identity and community. That yearlong conversation involves a lot of shorter conversations about what it means to be Deaf or deaf, how to advocate for accommodations, and their right to choose a preferred modality for communication.

The topics we covered this week during calendar time, transition times, and during some of those happy teachable moments were funny, surprising, important, and mundane. It was a very ordinary week, really. Our conversations are often this way. My students know that if they ask me a question I will always answer it, and I will do my best to answer it honestly. They know I will try to tell a story to help them remember the answer and the information. They know I do not know everything, and that they will be included in the search for the answer.

Here is a rundown of the things we learned during informal teaching time this week (not counting the actual structured reading, writing, math, and social studies time):

  • The stuff in our noses is snot. If you plug your nose when you sneeze, it can pop your ears. They won’t explode out your head (thanks for asking, Taz), but it will hurt. Possibly a lot. (“I have very snot my nose! Sneeze ears BOOOOOM!!” –Taz)
  • Even though Immodium makes you feel better and stop pooping, it doesn’t mean you are instantly healthy. Your body still needs to rest.
  • Faces have left and right sides, not east and west, but if they did, the west side of my face was twitching.
  • Sometimes teachers get sick, too.
  • I will never leave school early without first saying good-bye and telling the kids where I am going and when I will be back.
  • The preschool teacher makes a lot of exciting noise when one of her students uses the bathroom because it was the first time that student showed communicative intent. Yes, he is three years old. Yes, most three-year-olds are talking and using the bathroom pretty well. But just like TLK was nervous to talk in front of people in first grade and is now a confident tri-lingual third-grader (after a lot of practice in a safe environment), the preschool kids need a lot of practice to catch up. That’s why we get excited; we love watching our kids learn something new.

I had two conversations about gender expression with one of my students this week. We have a small school–84 students in PreK through the Super-Seniors. My students know almost everyone, so when we get a new student, they notice. Usually they follow standard conversational norms: What is your name? Are you deaf? Where do you live? On Tuesday in the library, a new high school student was working on the computer when one of my students walked up and tapped her on the shoulder.

Are you a boy or a girl? 
I’m a girl.
Why do you have boy hair?
I like it short.
Why do you have boy clothes?

I intervened. We’ve spent a lot of time breaking the pinkgirls/blueboys habit (because colors are for everyone). But I also know that kids using all the colors is a far cry from kids breaking free from gender stereotypes and gender roles. My students have a friend in the department who is a non-conformist, as far as gender is concerned. They are used to that. They accept her and love her for who she is. But a new person coming into their world who doesn’t fit their idea of “boy” and “girl” proved to be a little jarring. The high school student was pleasant and friendly, and she didn’t seem to mind the questions, but it’s not her job to educate my students about gender expression. She should not have to defend her choice of clothing, hairstyle, or footwear to anyone. She should just get to be.

So I intervened.

Hey, Elsa. Did you ask her name?
Um…No.
Do you know where she lives? Or how old she is?
Nooo…?
What do yo
u think would be a polite way to start a conversation?
Oooopssss.
It’s alright. Why don’t you introduce yourself?
(she does)
And hair is hair, kiddo. My hair is really short, but it’s not boy hair or girl hair. It’s my hair. New Student’s hair is her hair. Hair isn’t boy or girl. It’s just hair.
Oh, ok! I like it!
And clothes are just clothes. This is my favorite sweater, and I got it from the men’s department at Kohl’s. That doesn’t make it boy sweater. I just like how it fits better.
(Elsa looked at me, looked at the new student, nodded, and said) Nice to meet you!

The next morning, the first thing Elsa asked me was Why do girls like boy clothes?? It was clear she’d been thinking about it. I asked her to explain; I wanted to know if her thinking had progressed, or evolved, or otherwise changed. She referred to the high school student, and then asked about her friend in the elementary department. She made the connection between the two. So we sat down and had a little chat, no pressure, no lecture, just a chat: Stores divide clothes into boy and girl sections, but clothes are clothes. I bought this cardigan from the men’s department because it’s not too tight and it has real pockets and real buttons. Women’s cardigans usually don’t have pockets, and I like to carry sticky notes and paperclips. But these pants are from the women’s department because I have hips. Clothes are clothes and people like what they like.

She seemed content. We’ll keep having conversations. I have some revisions to what I might say next time, but it’ll ultimately depend on what my kids ask. Because it’s not always about what I know, but it’s always about what they ask.