I’m teaching this semester. three 3-credit courses, each with between 29 and 35 students or so. It’s the same course, so that’s a blessing. And I’ve taught it several times before. It’s called Educational Studies 401: Education, Schools and Social Institutions, and it’s one of many required courses for pre-service teacher candidates here at my university. I LOVE it. Well, the students, I love them. And mostly I like what we get to teach. A bit of theory, a bit of policy criticism, a bit of history, some sociology, a heap o’ feminism (in my case), and — increasingly — gender-critical feminist pedagogy. I don’t know if that’s really a thing, “gender-critical feminist pedagogy”, but it should be. Every damn year there has been more and more promotion of ‘trans-inclusion’, ‘support for trans and gender-variant kids’, ‘celebrating diversity’ and ‘queering the curriculum/language/inquiry/etc’.
One of the assignments for this course is a teacher biography. I could have decided to make quizzes or ask for one or two page reflections about something, or something that would be a bit more manageable to mark than 100 4-6 page papers. But I do so love to read their stories. And when they tell me what they know about where their people are from, and what events shaped them, who influenced them, and what they’re learning about where they live in the political social categories of class/race/sex–it is so profoundly moving and inspiring. I don’t always like everyone in my classes, but I can’t not love them.
A couple of years ago — three, I think, i compiled all their stories and wrote them a letter, which I read to them the day before they went off on their short practicum. I’ve only ever had one class before, so I could keep up better, and remember who was who faster. And putting their stories together helped me to know them better in class, too. Anyway, I think it helped to glue them together a bit. So I did that again last year. The year before that, 2014, I didn’t get it together to do that. I don’t know why, but anyway, that was the year my mom died, and i kinda lost the plot in the second half of the semester.
this year, I did it again. But I decided to write it the way I asked them to write their biographies, with references to the readings we’d done, and tying in the theory with what they told me about their experiences. For the first time, I added a couple of paragraphs about the danger to school children, and to females generally of the increasing and relentless promotion of transgenderism. Already, some of my students have told me, “no one is saying what you are saying about this, what if we think it’s good, will you fail us?” I won’t, but I urge them to come up with a compelling argument if they think it’s such a good idea, tell me why. But be sure to also discuss how this policy reproduces inequality and reinforces oppression. Because policy (written and unwritten) is meant to protect the interests of the powerful. I would like to be wrong about this, but I don’t think I am.
I read it to them. For each class, I made reference to some of their specific stories, but also said about the same thing in each of the letters about policy, education, reproduction of structures of domination. Every time, I cried a little bit in one or two spots. I am always moved by how much some of my students tell me, by their eloquence and intelligence. So I want them to know who each other is, somehow, who they are with in the room, and who’s going to be with them (metaphorically, anyway) in the institution of education.
This year, I’m way more “out” than I have been previously. I mean, I’m more open about my lesbianism, and about being gender-critical. I added that to the letters, as you can see below. After I read it the first time, to my evening class, some of them wrote me after to thank me–a few said they were grateful I’d opened a space to critique the trans stuff, because they’re of a similar mind set as I am, but there’s been nowhere for them to explore their dissenting opinions. A number of them were moved by the stories, too, and appreciated that I took the time to tell me about their classmates. They really are lovely. I’m honoured to be with them for part of their journey.
It was all a reminder of how important it is to get to know each other’s stories, and to say the things out loud that make your voice shake and your palms sweat. I know most people don’t agree with me, but that’s okay. The important thing is to have the conversation, because then we can find some way forward, out of this dystopia.
Anyway, I want to introduce you to some of the people who will be teaching in the next couple of years– so here’s some part of our stories woven together:
I want to tell you your story, who you all are in the world, and maybe a bit of how you fit together. Look around you, really see each other, because you are really beautiful to behold. You are from everywhere – from Tswaassen, Regina, Toronto and Victoria, and cities and villages in Texas and New England, Korea, England, Guatemala, Peru, Mexico, and China. Your family emigrated from the former Yugoslavia—Serbia, Croatia, or from Italy or Lebanon. Your people are from the Plains Cree, Blackfoot, and M’ikmaq Nations, the Punjab region of India, the Scottish Highlands, Portugal, Quebec, and Galicia tucked in between Poland and the Ukraine.
Your parents and/or grandparents were university professors, high-ranking military officers, teachers, farmers in India and Saskatchewan, nurses and plumbers. Most of you are from working-class people, like most people in the world. Not poor, though, unlike most people in the world. Some of you are from the elite or owning class, and your decision to become a teacher represents downward mobility to your family.
You were raised in poverty by hard working people, and you were raised in wealth by hard working people. Your parents were educated and middle class, but their home country was torn by war and genocide – they had to leave. So they decided to come to Canada to start over. There are some stories they hold that you have never heard. Your grandparents have degrees and your grandma bakes the best cinnamon buns in all of Saskatchewan (well, mine did). You went to Catholic schools where you learned to lie, cheat, steal and manipulate nuns for fun, and you went to private school where you learned English and piano and how to ‘fit in’ to the life that your parents planned for you. Your lives were disrupted when your father died when you were a teenager or when your parents got a divorce when your mom finally found the strength and economic independence to leave her abusive husband–your dad. Your life turned upside down when your sister got cancer, or when your mom’s drinking got out of hand. You got sober a while ago, and life went from pretty small and weird to a really big adventure (me too!). You live with your parents, and you moved out when you were young.
You were raised with a religious tradition, in a church or mosque or temple – and when it became clear you were gay, it was a painful time. How to reconcile your heart’s desire and the spiritual direction of your church and family? You found a way, and so did your parents. Now you’re here and you’re part of your family, too. So far as I know, I’m the only lesbian in this classroom, but it’s not too late! Often that decision comes later for women than it does for men.
You were racist in your youth and learned things about Aboriginal people that reinforced your position of dominance. You were victims of racism and felt the sting of your classmates’ thoughtless insults and assumptions about you.
Your father was a bit overprotective of you, because you were a girl – but his fear on your behalf dampened your confidence in yourself – Or your father pushed you in a direction you resisted, he wanted you to be a “man’s man”, or to take up the family business. Sometimes there was painful conflict between you. Your grandmother helped to raise you and your siblings, or your people lived far away, and others of you lived with your parents, aunts and uncles and cousins—you tumbled together like puppies.
You are proud of your family history, and the culture and language of your Italian/Korean/Serbian/Scottish grandparents, or you don’t know much about your history. You had dreams of joining the US Peace Corps, and worked overseas for a while, but what you learned of US foreign policy and military actions broke your heart and turned you away from that work, and the ideology of imperialism that underlies that work. You are here because you want to inspired children to learn, to think critically, and to act. You are here because you want children to grow in knowledge and confidence the way you saw your father grow when he went back to school as an adult. Or the way you blossomed when you found your passion.
Some of you enjoyed your k-12 education very much – you had many friends, your teachers inspired and encouraged you, and you had opportunities to study and participate in sports—you swam competitively and played soccer, well enough to get college scholarships! This was much more difficult for the females. Not because you were not capable, not at all. But because you were born to the sex-class female, and your opportunities were limited only because of that. Some of you played on boys teams because they got the resources, the time on the field or the rink, and decent uniforms. You could keep up with them, and sometimes outplay them, even when they grew bigger than you did – but at some point, you had to settle for the under-resourced, relatively neglected girls’ sports teams.
You loved music, and sang, and you were in theatre besides all your course work – with the encouragement of your family, and/or the families of your friends. Some of you had a hard time—you were always the new kid, or you couldn’t sit still, or you were bored, or you didn’t understand – or you were frightened because your classmates picked on you or threatened you or beat you up because you were the only brown kid in the school, shy, or effeminate, or not feminine enough, or socially awkward — not the ‘right kind’ of kid. Maybe you were the bully, (sometimes I was) but you didn’t tell me about that. None of this makes you any less human, or any less worthy of compassion and a place to belong. Your house was the neighbourhood hang-out, or you couldn’t invite anyone over because your family was so weird, or wrong, or unpredictable. You were a leader or you were a wallflower. You were the jock or the bookworm. You were the drama kids, the music or the science nerds. You had a lot of stuff, or you went to the food bank often or you had enough.
Some of you described your class background as “lower class” or “upper class” – though these words do describe your class position relative to other classes, I prefer the terms “working class”, “owning class” or “ruling class”. I’m kind of old-fashioned that way, and besides, ‘lower’ to me implies ‘less than’, and as Freire said, the oppressor is more dependent upon those he oppresses than she is upon him.
Ah, speaking of pronouns, did you see what I did there, using the pronoun ‘he’ to name the oppressor, and ‘she’ to name the oppressed? That was a reference to Frye’s essay [Oppression in The Politics of Reality 1983]. Many of you mentioned that essay in your stories. I’m always happy that people find her work so provocative. Some of you hated it, and thought she was attacking men – but most of you thought, “hey! That makes sense to me – I can think of this and this and my mom and my grandma and – oh. Yea. Me too.”
Some of the women in this class told me about your relationships with abusive men, boyfriends or co-workers or bosses. You told me that when you were in your early twenties, you were reluctant to align yourself with feminism, because aren’t women equal now? And you didn’t want to be seen as a ‘man-hater’. But still, you notice that you’re quiet around your male colleagues, or you sometimes hesitate to walk alone at night, and you noticed at work that men would talk over you, or speak your ideas as if they thought of them, or ignore you. Some of the women here were acutely aware that the boys in your family got more attention, encouragement praise and stuff then the girls. Some of the men here noticed their relative freedom compared to their sisters and female colleagues, and you noticed that there were no women at all in your workplace. And some of you recognize that you’re at a loss now that you have to keep your own home, because growing up, the girls and the women in the house did all that stuff. This is an example of what Freire meant by the oppressor’s dependence on the oppressed.
I’m going to stick with sex for a minute here. As in the biological fact and the political category. You’ve heard me mention in class that ‘sex’ refers only to our reproductive organs. Humans, like all mammals, come in only two varieties: male and female. Males have a penis and testes, and females have ovaries and uteruses – and we have hormonal systems to go with these reproductive organs. That’s it. Gender, on the other hand, is a toxic, hierarchical structure that s imposed upon us at birth, and to which we are made to conform, based upon our sex, by a complex system of rewards and punishments.
Some of you described yourselves as “cis-gender”, and you will note when I finally get around to sending your paper back that I say, “cis” is an insult. We will talk about this in class, I promise. Well, now’s the time. Every year, since I started teaching in the teacher education program in 2011, someone has brought up the issue of transgender children. This has ramped up a lot since 2013 when the VSB passed the “Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity” policy. I know you don’t hear what I am about to say from very many people, and I know the Faculty of Education has promoted the ideology of trans inclusion as if it is a good thing, and moving us toward social justice and celebration of diversity – but hear me out, please, and think on what I’m going to say –
Diversity and Division have the same root. And it bears investigating what this whole celebration of diversity is in fact accomplishing. Especially the obsession with “Queer and Trans Identities”. This ideology is promoting the erasure of females. Much as the promotion of multiculturalism promotes the erasure of Aboriginal people, as Verna St. Denis (2011) warned. Men who claim to be women are most often taking up typically feminine ways of dressing and behaving. Women who claim to men are fleeing their womanhood, mostly because they both reject femininity and are attempting to protect themselves from male violence and other forms of sexism. This is how they are getting out of the birdcage. But such measures reinforce gender stereotypes and masculine domination. These measures, as well, divide women from each other, and atomize what could be fruitful alliances into a million different ‘identities’. The cage remains, and it’s getting crowded in there.
No one is “born in the wrong body”. No one. When adults say that boys who like dresses and dollies and princesses are girls, they are also saying that these traits are innate to only girls. Several of you said that when you were little girls, you were tomboys. And at least one of you recognized that you were blessed with parents who raised you as genderless as they could, encouraging you and your brother and sister to cook with Dad and make your bed and play soccer and roll in the dirt and wear dresses or pants as you pleased. When adults tell girls that passivity and cooking and pleasing boys and ineptitude with math and longing for pretty sparkly things are innately female—and these girls don’t like that stuff, nor do they like catcalls and sexual harassment – these girls may think that the only way to escape that fate is to become boys. You see? It’s not transforming anything. It’s abandoning children to deeply sexist and harmful stereotypes. Don’t buy it.
Okay. Back to you – most of you mentioned the class layer cake. And most of you recognized your discomfort as you took steps forward and backward. When you looked around, those of you in front told me you felt embarrassed, uncomfortable, or sad. Some of you were a bit defensive. “My family worked hard” you said, “they came from somewhere else, they had it hard, we are not oppressors.” But all of you made some links between what you experienced during that exercise, what we were reading early in the semester, and what you remember from your life. So by the time you were writing your biographies, you told me, you understood that what you have or what you do not have is much less about how you “identify” and fundamentally about where you are located in the layers of class, race and sex.
Though you still talked about your identities, many of you have were struck by the way the layer cake exercise illustrated your positions within a class structure. How you personally identify may be related to what you understand of your social class, but does not have much to do with how people treat you, or behaviours and values you have learned through your relations with others of your class (sex-class, racial-class, socio/economic-class). Like the old saying goes: “Class consciousness is knowing what side of the fence you’re on. Class analysis is figuring out who’s there with you”.
You can move ‘up’ in the class ladder, sometimes you can ‘pass’ for another race or sex, but you you can’t change where you come from. You can’t escape that fundamental training. Maybe you don’t want to. There are some of you from working class families who went to private schools with members of the elite classes. You experienced a kind of culture shock. Just as it will be when you’re in front of your class, and you will see the working class or poor kid who is trying to fit in with the rich kids, or the working class or poor kid who is responding to the inequality by disengaging. Watch the quiet ones, if you can. Try to get beside them, or get them in the middle of the class—give the quiet ones or the obstreperous ones an important job to do, and the resources with which to do it. Watch what happens.
You are all excited about what you will accomplish as teachers. You are nervous about the responsibility (that’s understandable), and you are determined to take it up. Remember. Remember how you felt when an adult you admired saw you, and recognized your abilities and gave you the attention and tools so that you could achieve something. All of you had someone who gave you that. Every one of you. Might’ve been your mom or your dad, your grandmother who was an inspiring teacher all her life, your friend Dian, your friend Sharde, your coach or your high school math teacher. You are capable and worthy, and you don’t have to be alone. Indeed, we’re pack animals, we can’t thrive if we live only in solitude. You can be that inspiration for some of the people in your schoolrooms, too.
You are part of each other’s lives now, and together you have so much to offer one another. You are together humanity. You are together divine. You are together the best teacher EVER. Don’t forget your story; tell it and other stories often, and listen close for the stories of your colleagues and your students. Everyone can learn, everyone can teach, and we are all capable of making an essential contribution. We need each other.
Freire, P. (1970/1990): Chapter 1 in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, trans. Myra Bergman Ramos, revised 20th Anniversary Edition. Continuum Press, New York (pp. 25-51).
Frye, M. (1983), Oppression. In The Politics of Reality. Crossing Press, A Division of Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, CA. pdf.
Denis, V. (2011). Silencing Aboriginal curricular content and perspectives through multiculturalism: “There are other children here”. Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies, 33(4), 306-317.
Sex: a binary that refers to which reproductive organs you have (males have sperm, females have eggs)
Race: a system that organizes people based on melanin levels in the skin and place of origin (labeling varies, but physical differences exist between races)
These two are physical realities, in which people of some categories face oppression because of their presence in those categories. The term “black woman” says nothing about her beyond a basic physical appearance.
– – –
Gender: a collection of stereotypes placed upon individuals based on their sex (i.e., girls like pink and shopping, boys like blue and sports)
Transgender: the belief that one “feels” like the opposite sex
This is fundamentally impossible without the assumption that male and female minds are biologically wired to conform to gender (aka stereotypes) which is demonstrably untrue and incredibly sexist
Transracial: the belief that one “feels” like a different race
This is fundamentally impossible without the assumption that the minds of different races are biologically wired to conform to certain stereotypes, which is demonstrably untrue and incredibly racist
– – –
You cannot wear the identity of a marginalized person like a costume. Males are not female, white people are not black, and heterosexuals are not gay. All of these are obvious facts, and yet only the first seems to be considered radical.
“Identity has become the axis of so much university activism because, for all the radical posturing associated with it, identity politics does not threaten the established order of society. It promotes a moralistic and self-indulgent anti-politics, where a person’s use of language and the purity of their thinking matters more than confronting collectively the material conditions and social relations under which they are forced to live. It creates a simulation of political struggle – one that doesn’t merely fail to challenge the material inequality and unfreedom of late capitalism, but fundamentally aligns with the dynamics and interests of its atomised, spectacle-driven society. It is a perfect mirror of consumerism, playing-upon the individual’s desires for real freedom, only to perpetuate and prettify the conditions of their alienation.”
Accessed October 22, 2016. Again, see Appendix 1, or link to http://waragainstintelligence.tumblr.com/post/149879735380/identity-has-become-the-axis-of-so-much-university accessed October 23, 2016.