GUEST POST (Series 1, #3): Priyanka Jhalani on Consciousness and Allyship

How can we expect others to value our lived experiences and realities if we don’t also consider theirs?

A major point of social justice work is consciousness. The idea is to be conscious of how our actions affect others, conscious of historical context, and conscious of our own identity. It’s about understanding that our identities shape the way we experience the world–and our experiences in the world shape our identities. More than identifying other people’s biases, a goal of this work is confronting our own preconceived notions. Social justice is much more than being “politically correct.”

Allyship is about bridging the gap between those with privilege and those without it. A person doesn’t need to know everything about the group they’re supporting in order to be an ally. They just need to commit to standing up for others even if it costs them a few moments of social discomfort. Allyship is a healthy way to exercise and acknowledge the privileges we all have. Because whether we want privilege or not, we have it. Everyone does. Everyone has had some type of privilege. Everyone has also experienced their own form of struggle or oppression. That’s when they needed allies of their own to support them.

When we have privilege, we have a choice. We can ignore what is going on in the world that hurts others because it may not affect us, and therefore, may not cause us to stand up for what is right. When you say you’re an ally, it means you’re committed to standing up for other people’s rights. Being an ally means publicly proclaiming your support for a group of people. Allyship is going further than just being interested in diversity. It’s a commitment to educate yourself on issues that may not directly affect you.

Becoming an ally to a community does not mean, however, that you become the center of attention. As an ally, you’re still benefitting from privilege, while the community you’re supporting is not. Therefore, their voices need to come before yours. Since they’re experiencing the given oppression, they’ll have more insight into the matter than an ally. For example, an ally who identifies as a man, while he may support women, is still benefitting from male privilege. The best way to support said women would be for him to listen to their experiences and advocate for them when needed.

High school is an especially important time to let people know that you stand by them. At this age, many people are still exploring their identities and aren’t quite sure where they fit. Having even one person’s support can give someone the courage to be who they really are. No one should be punished for their differences. Instead, we should be celebrating our individuality. Diversity makes the world colorful and interesting.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” This statement couldn’t be more true than in the hallways of high school. We are all responsible for our action–even as teenagers. Despite what we may want to believe, being a bystander is just as bad as being the oppressor. If you read my earlier piece, Growing Up Bicultural, you’d know that I could have used some white allies in high school. Just one white student saying, “That’s not okay,” would have made all the difference.

Part of white allyship is understanding it’s not people of color’s job to educate you. If you happen to have friends or teachers in your life who are gracious enough to share their experiences and answer your questions, appreciate them! But, don’t assume this action is every person of color’s reality. White allies need to remember that these conversations often take a toll on people of color. Asking them to share their experience(s) of oppression is asking them to be vulnerable, especially since it often reopens wounds they’ve been trying to close. Additionally, there is a time and a place for these conversations. Putting a person of color on the spot isn’t being a good ally.

Luckily, information on race, ethnicity and oppression is fairly accessible. Anyone can find articles, YouTube videos, documentaries, books, and so on that discuss these topics in depth. While it may not always be okay to approach a person of color with invasive and extremely personal questions, it is always a good idea to use the resources readily available.

Allies–besides listening and working to understand a person of color’s experiences–we need you to speak up, too. When your families or friends decide to make racist jokes, we’re counting on you to tell them that their words are not okay. Often, especially if you’re white, people will assume you’re okay with these comments, which gives you the opportunity to intercept racist stigmas when people of color aren’t present.

Remember, as any type of ally, you will make mistakes and that’s okay as long as you learn from them and continue educating yourself. In my own high school career, I acted as an ally to the LGBTQIA+ community. This allyship can be challenging at times because I’m a loud personality who loves to talk and crack jokes. Sometimes I mess up and highjack the conversation, but nobody’s perfect. The important thing to remember is that I try to become more aware of when I do slip up. Or, if someone calls me out on it, I remember not to do the same thing next time. However, I don’t stop and make a show of myself or beg for forgiveness.

We need to begin creating cultural norms that foster allyship. Even though many of us want to stand up for others, it’s clear that often we’re not feeling empowered enough to do so. The good news is: there’s strength in numbers! When you start acting as an ally, you will be leading the way for others to do the same. Once enough people stop tolerating oppressive behavior, the oppressors will have to stop.

Priyanka Jhalani is a first generation Indian woman who graduated from high school last year. She is passionate about social justice work. Since her sophomore year in high school, she has been heavily involved in diversity and inclusivity initiatives, including facilitating numerous discussions and giving several speeches at her school. When she has the time, Priyanka loves to write, read, run, and dance.

Editor’s Note: This article is the final of three in Teaching Social Justice’s first series. If you haven’t done so already, please read Priyanka’s previous writings that came out in May and June.

GUEST POST (Series 1, #2): Priyanka Jhalani on the Effects of Colorism

From the light skin-dark skin rivalry in the Black community to the central question of Snow White–“Who’s the fairest of them all?”–colorism is everywhere. Colorism is systematic discrimination based on skin color. It insinuates that dark-skinned people are inferior to light-skinned people. Colorist ideals often manifest themselves in our society. For example, there is a clear preference towards light-skinned people in the media. The ABC series How to Get Away With Murder challenges colorist standards by starring a Black, dark-skinned woman.

While it does affect men, colorism is usually directed more towards women. Color becomes part of a never-ending, unattainable beauty checklist. But the root of the issue with beauty standards isn’t just about their unattainability. It’s the messages they send. Focusing so much on a woman’s color and other physical attributes implies that her appearance is the only thing that matters. This implication doesn’t do either of these genders justice. Women are much more than their appearance and men are more than capable of recognizing that.

Colorism is especially prevalent in India where skin color is often viewed as a sign of caste. Darker skin indicates a lower caste, while lighter skin is considered characteristic of higher castes. These assumptions generally come from the fact that people in lower castes had to do manual labor. So, they had darker skin while wealthy people from high castes could afford to stay out of the sun. However, this color bias is deeply rooted in Indian culture for many more reasons than caste. It was also reaffirmed when the British colonized us.

Lighter skin equated to better treatment in many racial hierarchies. This point was true in regards to slavery in both India and America. In the U.S., having lighter skin made integrating into White society much easier. If your skin was light enough to pass as White, you got to enjoy the privileges that came along with it. The motives for wanting light skin are complex results of long-standing hierarchies.

Unfortunately, doing whatever it takes to get lighter skin in India is normal. According to Didier Villanueva, the country manager for L’Oréal India, skin lightening creams account for half of the skin care market. One of India’s first lightening creams was “Fair and Lovely,” owned by Unilever (the same company that owns Dove). It started in 1978 and has expanded to lip balms, sunscreens and other products since then. This is not to say that colorism itself was created by these industries, but it is certainly perpetuated and exploited by them.

The skin lightening industry looks to Bollywood actors and actresses for its promotion. Their endorsement drives pop culture and deepens a color bias. This support, in turn, creates more demand for the product. For example, Emami’s line of skin lightening cream for men, “Fair and Handsome,” dominated the market after Bollywood actor Shahrukh Khan promoted it.

Additionally, Aishwarya Rai, a woman many consider the face of India, is extremely fair. Although she often defends Indian culture, much of her success is a result of colorism. Rai perpetuates this bias herself. Most actresses in Bollywood are exceptionally fair and many have even undergone skin lightening treatments. There’s nothing wrong with being fair, but there is an issue when beautiful, successful women are only portrayed as fair, eliminating the representation of darker-skinned women in the media. Not to mention: the majority of India is dark-skinned.

Colorism teaches people that color is more important than intellect, personality, and ambition. It convinces people that their worth is somehow reflected by the color—or shade—of their skin.

Indians were finally outraged when advertisement companies implied that bleaching private parts would lead to a more fulfilling sex life. In response, the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) set strict guidelines for the industry. Now, companies cannot advertise lightening products by showing dark-skinned people as inferior. This includes implying that dark-skinned people are less attractive, successful, or capable.

The Dark is Beautiful campaign started by Women of Worth has also taken a stand against colorism. Thankfully, Bollywood actress Nandita Das has agreed to be the face of this fight. Yet, even in an article denouncing colorism, editors lightened Das’s picture. Of course, she instructed them to repost the original. However, this wasn’t Das’s first encounter with “helpful” corrections. When playing intelligent, successful women, she’s often told to use lightening creams.

While this Indian stigma is horrible, it’s not the only one of its kind. In the Western world, the craze for skin lightening mirrors the fight for anti-aging and tanning obsessions. In the U.S., being pale is unattractive, so women spend hours in salons trying to get a golden brown glow. Despite this desire to be darker, the ideal skin color here is still light. People continue to be wary of getting “too dark.” However, colorism creates the notion that someone can be “too dark.”

Colorism is just one aspect of the many impossible beauty standards we often judge ourselves and others by. We should be learning to focus on the beauty that does exist within people. Why should we buy into an image of beauty that’s promoted by industries who want us to fall short?

Priyanka Jhalani is a high school senior who is passionate about social justice work. Since her sophomore year, she has been heavily involved in diversity and inclusivity initiatives. She’s facilitated numerous discussions and given several speeches at her school. She’s a first generation Indian woman and lived in France during her junior year of school. When she has the time, Priyanka loves to write, read, run, and dance.

Editor’s Note: This article is the second of three in Teaching Social Justice’s first series. If you haven’t done so already, please read Priyanka’s first piece that came out in May on growing up bicultural. The final article in the series will be posted within the coming weeks.

 

 

GUEST POST (Series 1, #1): Priyanka Jhalani on Growing Up Bicultural

Since seventh grade, Hercules has been one of my favorite movies, which is strange considering the first time I watched it, my eyes were filled with tears. As a twelve-year-old, I was fascinated by the “Gods” on my television screen, and proudly proclaimed, “I’m going to be Hera!” to which a well-intentioned classmate remarked, “but you’re brown.” Hera was, of course, pink. Now, almost five years later as a senior about to graduate high school, I still remember this moment clearly, but not for the reasons one might think.

Immediately following my peer’s acknowledgement of my skin color, I cried. My teacher, to her credit, made my classmate apologize, yet this moment remains a powerful memory because it reflects that I, at twelve years old, had already internalized the idea that being brown was something to be ashamed of.

I grew up attending a predominantly white, affluent, private school in Orange County, and needless to say, between me and the other Indian girl in my class, there wasn’t exactly an accurate representation of Indians.

For my classmates, there was little-to-no cultural context for understanding the Indian American experience. Race and ethnicity were seldom discussed, and when they were, teachers only addressed issues that were black and white. When the word “Indian” did come up it was, inaccurately, used to describe Indigenous American peoples. I thought maybe we’d be acknowledged when people referred to Asians, but quickly learned that this term was reserved strictly for descendants of the East side of the continent.

I came to find that while much of my culture was left uncovered within the classroom, it was an entirely different story outside of it. Indian accents were widely promoted through pop culture as hilarious—and images of us as cab drivers or covered in henna tattoos and colored powder were of no shortage. Whenever Indians were mentioned, it was through stereotypes about how “exotic” we were, nods to our intelligence, and other overgeneralizations. I struggled to find myself in the misguided images provided by the media and was getting mixed signals on when it was “okay” to be Indian.

Saris, bindis, and henna tattoos were cool—and everybody loved Indian food—but as soon as Slumdog Millionaire came out, I became the Indian ambassador—everyone expected me to have all the answers related to Indian culture and be accountable for 1.3 billion people’s actions. I was learning very harshly that American pop culture picked, rather selectively, what it was going to accept and what it was going to reject from any given culture.

Pop culture made festivals such as Holi—the celebration of color in which we throw colored powders at one another—yoga, and meditation all seem like fads. I would see images of non-Indians dressed in saris, throwing colors at each other and think to myself, they’re enjoying Indian culture now, but at the end of the day they don’t have to deal with being brown. They have the privilege of celebrating our holidays and taking “trendy” pictures, but then turning right back around and mocking our accents or telling us we smell like curry.

The most daunting question of all was the dreaded, “Can you do your Indian accent for me?” which wide-eyed classmates lined up to hear, ready to imitate and mock my heritage in the most excruciating manner. I felt like a puppet, like a circus act, and horribly used when people asked me this question. My classmates, who were mostly white and weren’t struggling with the identity crisis I was, couldn’t understand why this question was so hurtful.

I didn’t want people to just see me as that Indian girl or talk to me about their fascination with Indians as if I was some type of “exotic” fetish.

Problems occurred when my two worlds collided and someone decided to bring up stereotypes about Indians or talk about how cool it would be to have Holi at school. I loved my Indian culture, but in typical middle school fashion, I was embarrassed by the thing that made me different. Every time it came up, I felt singled out. Part of this was because I’d internalized the American concept that race isn’t an appropriate conversation topic, but the other part was because of the valid reality of racism in the United States.

I was far from understanding the complex racial dynamics of America in middle school and even further from being able to explain them. As a result, I hid my heritage but owned my skin color. Basically, I understood that the color of my skin was brown and I couldn’t hide from that, but since Indian culture wasn’t highly publicized and I clearly wasn’t white, peers tended to lump me into the black category. Of course, their classification relied exclusively on stereotypes, like being able to dance and my “sassy” nature.

The funny thing is, I didn’t mind. Like I said, at this point I had no concept of race in America. I grew up with the same ideals as every other American kid: we are all equal and race doesn’t matter. So, I went on being called black because, in this context, it was cool; of course, I was doing the same thing non-Indians were doing when they celebrated Holi on their own. I was taking what I liked from black culture (the accepted part of it) and using it to my advantage.

What finally put an end to this identity crisis was getting into social justice work. My sophomore year of high school, I got the opportunity to attend the Student Diversity Leadership Conference—better known as SDLC.

This conference was for students from independent schools around the country who wanted to learn more about identity. During one of the sessions, we were all instructed to go to our cultural affinity groups. In reality, this was the same as me going to a family party to see my Indian friends for a night, but at that point I couldn’t understand why we needed to do this.

However, when I joined the circle of over a hundred other Indian American youth, I knew I was right where I belonged. We talked about our favorite Bollywood movies, how annoying it was to be asked to do our accents, and how often people mispronounced our names. I could relate to everything that was said! For the first time in a setting outside of my home, I felt my Indian identity affirmed.

I returned to Orange County with a newfound confidence and clarity regarding my Indian identity. I began to correct people when they tried to lump me into a black, or otherwise nonwhite, category and I was proud of my heritage once again. I combatted harmful stereotypes and let others know when their questions or comments about my culture made me uncomfortable.

Today, I’m proud to say that both of the cultures I’ve grown up in, Indian and American alike, exist within me harmoniously. I’m able to embrace one identity as much as the other. Now I know growing up bicultural is a blessing not a burden.

For my graduation next month I’ve decided I want to wear a sari because it’s the outfit that makes me feel the most beautiful and reflects an important part of my culture. The road to self-acceptance, especially in categories as historically and politically charged as race and ethnicity, can be tricky sometimes and it’s okay to stumble and fall—I certainly did.

Priyanka Jhalani is a high school senior who is passionate about social justice work. Since her sophomore year, she has been heavily involved in diversity and inclusivity initiatives. She’s facilitated numerous discussions and given several speeches at her school. She’s a first generation Indian woman and lived in France during her junior year of school. When she has the time, Priyanka loves to write, read, run, and dance.

Editor’s Note: This article is the first of three in Teaching Social Justice’s first series. I am honored that Priyanka chose TSJ as her outlet to publish this work as part of a senior project. Stay tuned for her next article on colorism in the coming weeks.

Struggling: When the Need for Social Justice Never Sleeps

Have you ever found yourself struggling–emotionally, physically, spiritually? By the book, you’ve had the hours of sleep you need. You are happy with yourself and your life. You know what drives you, what your values are, and fight for your beliefs. Your boxes are checked, but you see something, hear something, think something, and there you are: struggling.

I am struggling today.

I haven’t written in a while. I’d blame it on lack of time, but we’re all busy. It is easy to hide behind guest posts and occasional blurbs, but there are words to be said and I’ve sat silent. Behind silence is privilege and cowardice. A colleague and mentor, Bettina Love, often writes: “White silence is violence.” I am beginning to understand the gravity of those words today, especially since I began this post four weeks ago, and here I am, finally posting.

I have so many incomplete posts that will live forever in the purgatory of “unpublished drafts.” Yeah–it is easy to get lost in life; lost in the day-to-day, but despite being busy, I can still find time every Sunday to watch yet another Black man die on The Walking Dead so, in short, let’s talk about our world in and outside the classroom (and everywhere in between). I am not necessarily going to start with Ferguson and end with what is going on today, but I’ll start with my class and we’ll go from there. Please join me in this dialogue.

I was reading an article about the school-to-prison pipeline with my seventh grade ELA students a little while ago. As you’ll see (if you click the link), I added annotations to encourage active reading. Here is a link to the original piece. Previously, my kids and I were knocked around for poor grades on benchmark tests addressing nonfiction texts, so we read, analyzed, and responded to articles discussing this topic, income inequality (there are fewer annotations here because they were instructed to come up with questions and answers of their own), the American dream (or, mostly, lack thereof), and more.

Needless to say, their test scores did not improve much, but the way they read and responded to texts did, so I call that a win. Since then, I have had more students willing to speak out and about “controversial topics,” including race relations, gender issues, income inequality, the disillusionment of the American dream, and more. I have seen and heard them relate “single stories” to their own experiences. I am amazed by these kiddos every day. They are brave and tenacious.

If you’re reading this piece and thinking I underestimate(d) my kids, you’re probably right. This year is my first working in a middle school (and eighth year teaching). For some reason, before I began, I pictured my students as much younger than they actually are. I am surprised often by how little I know and how little I’ve experienced in comparison to them.

This year is also my first time teaching in a rural school district. I assumed these topics–ones of race, class, gender, sexuality, etc.–would be difficult to address in my classes. They aren’t easy, of course, but my students are extremely receptive to discussing various ideas, despite where their opinions land on the spectrum of possibility.

Most of these surprises are positive ones. My students are critical thinkers who are eager to learn–that discovery is both inspiring and uplifting to me as an educator. However, despite how great things may be going, there is always something on the horizon that stops me in my tracks–and then I struggle.

Today I learned that three White men, allegedly White supremacists, shot and injured five people in Minneapolis who were participating in a peaceful #BlackLivesMatter protest. Here is the story. These people were protesting the murder of Jamar Clark. According to NPR, “Police say they shot Jamar Clark in the head because he interfered with paramedics who were treating his girlfriend. Demonstrators say this is yet another case of police using excessive force.”

I was in Minneapolis this past week/end for the National Council of Teachers of English Annual Convention. At the convention, I joined others from the CEE Commission on Social Justice in Teacher Education in a protest against Pearson’s unethical, profit-hungry policies that hurt our students, teachers, and the educational system as a whole. While I still believe this protest was a necessary act and raised awareness (that even caught Pearson’s attention, since they took down much of the footage online), little did I know something else–something bigger–was happening on the other side of town.

In other news, I also learned earlier this year about a young woman who was assaulted in her own school, own classroom, and own desk by a school police officer:

In international news, we have seen Paris’s struggle. Not only was the attack on Paris horrific and unbelievable, but I am also ashamed at the media’s coverage thereafter. We have reentered the arena where Syrians and Muslims are terrorists, look a certain, stereotypical way, and are unworthy of our help and refuge. Even more? The media has all but ignored the attacks in Beirut and Kenya, where other brutal attacks occurred around the same time as the ones that hit Paris.

Many, many more social justice issues and events have happened recently, but despite what has happened, how do you talk about these things with middle schoolers (or any students for that matter)? It has been fairly easy to discuss general social justice issues–race, class, gender, religious differences, etc. However, as I enter discussions about specific events, I struggle–and my students struggle.

How do you explain a broken world, but encourage hope and action in your students without merely bursting their dreams before they’re even formed? How do you put a face on injustice–and why am I being forced to do so over and over again? To clarify, I am not arguing against social justice pedagogy, and I am especially not arguing against teaching for social justice. On the contrary, I am struggling today because I’m looking for a light in this world, but we keep entering a further state of darkness.

I’m struggling because I’m angry.

I’m struggling because my students are angry.

I am struggling because the world is angry, and sad, and hurting, and when people stand up for what they believe in, they’re deemed as: whiners, radicals, crazies, extremists, wrong–and some are even shot or murdered for their beliefs. How do I inspire these kids to stand up for their own values if others are being physically and emotionally harmed for demonstrating theirs peacefully?

This post is not a resolution. It is not meant to be a radical rant. It is simply a post from a struggling teacher living in a struggling world. Any suggestions?

JJW

GUEST POST: Sofie Wolthers, the International Panel on Social Progress: Let Injustice Drive Your Passion

Let Injustice Drive Your Passion

Whether you’re passionate about racial issues, gender equality, poverty, or working conditions, the fight for social justice always comes with moments of discouragement. Something as simple as watching the news after an already exhausting work day can make you feel empty, draining the motivation out of you  I have experienced this discouragement, and continue to regularly. This feeling remains part of the battle we fight as social activists. Not only are we fighting a battle for equality and justice within the world, but we are working to find inspiration around us and within ourselves that gives us the desire to pursue change.

Who am I? I am a young adult living in New York City. I was born in Brazil and am the youngest of four. When I was three, my parents moved my family to the United States with hopes to raise their children in a safer environment than our community in Brazil offered us. One afternoon, burglars broke into our home and robbed us of our valuables. I was too young to remember the incident but I know that the thieves stole more than just our things–they disrupted our peace of mind.

Brazil hasn’t changed much since we left. The gap between the rich and poor remains remarkably grand. Instead of changing public policies and creating programs to better life for the Brazilian people, the government, saturated with corruption, continues to enrich themselves.

Living in Plantation, Florida, I grew up going to school in a uniform. My parents no longer worried whether my siblings and I would get mugged on our way home from school. Sadly, in other area’s around the U.S., this fear is a reality.  

During holiday seasons, we would return to Brazil. My parents constantly reminded my older brothers to keep an eye on my sister and I when walking in the streets, and to never let us wander alone. The encounter I am about to describe has happened on multiple occasions and continues to happen every time I return to Brazil, but this particular instance remains with me.

I must have been about eight years old. At this point, I had been living in the U.S. for over half my life. I was with my aunt and little cousin in the car. I don’t remember where we were going, but I remember the heat and humidity that day was unbearable. The AC was blasting in the car. We came to a stop at a red light, and a group of three kids ran in front of our car. They were dressed in old, tattered circus costumes. I supposed they wanted to look like clowns, but the scene wasn’t comical at all.

One of the boys didn’t have shoes on. The eldest looked to be about 13, and the youngest was around five. In the minute and a half that my aunt, my cousin, and I waited for the light to change, these three children performed a perfectly choreographed routine. They were dancing and juggling pins with smiles on their faces. I was the same age as the boy in the middle. We made eye contact. I thought to myself, “My parents never let me play in the streets in Brazil.”

After the routine, they split up and walked around cars asking for some sort of donation. My aunt said she wished she had a spare sandwich or some crackers to give them (she often brings snacks around with her for situations like this). I asked her why she doesn’t give them some change, maybe just enough for the little boy without shoes to buy a cheap pair of flipflops. She explained that only a small portion of the money they collect is theirs to keep and that close by their “boss” is watching.

We were all around the same age, but the circumstances we were born into differentiated us. These little boys worked in order to survive. They wore clownish outfits and practiced under-appreciated routines instead of learning to read and write. They were exploited. This is the reality of children all over the world.

Every child deserves their innocence. Education, healthcare, clean drinking water–these are all human rights. Here are some facts provided by UNICEF: more than 85 million children are subjected to physical labor exploitation and trafficking, 57 million children are out of school worldwide, and the commercial sex trade exploits two million children worldwide.

So, why care about social justice? Why do we try to make a difference in the lives of others if we are not personally responsible for their fate? Because the responsibility is a moral obligation. By remaining ignorant to the realities of others, we sustain the problem.

I work for the International Panel on Social Progress, a recently-developed panel that seeks to solve societal issues using the research of sociologists, anthropologists, philosophers, and social activists from around the globe.

In a recent interview with an IPSP panel author, philosopher, and Columbia University Professor, Akeel Bilgrami, Bilgrami talks about how each one of us thinks in two individual frames of thought: our individual frame and our public frame. Psychologists call this “the frame problem.” It is a natural reaction for us to feel empathy towards an issue like child labor when faced with a direct encounter. In that moment, we may feel anger and a desire to change a societal reality.

Unfortunately, our individual frame of thought quickly disregards these feelings, accepting the situation as a fact of life. We go on with the rest of our day and the problem of child exploitation remains.

It doesn’t have to, though. How can you make an impact? Stay informed and aware of the societal problems around you, talk about them with friends and family. Get in contact with NGOs that aid the societal issues that you are passionate about. Take action. Are you taking part in societal progress, or are you complying with injustice?

Children are our future–get involved with UNICEF. Start a high school club or take initiative on campus: High School and College.

You can also check out some of the videos I shot and edited that feature the authors in the International Panel on Social Progress (IPSP). Learn how they are taking action towards social change within their fields of research. Like us on Facebook and follow us on twitter

Informative Videos:

Sofie Wolthers is a social activist and journalist specializing in photography and videography. She is currently working for the International Panel on Social Progress. She is a senior at Loyola University of Chicago, where she is Vice President of her school’s UNICEF chapter. She was born in Brazil, but has lived in the United States most of her life. Sofie believes in social change, social progress, and equality for all. Contact: sofiewolthers@gmail.com

Guest Post: Michelle Falter on Mental Illness & the Stigma of Difference

The Stigma of Difference: Empathy, Understanding, Dignity, and Justice for People with Mental Illness

Every day I wake up, I have a conversation with myself about whether or not to get out of bed. For most people, I would argue this conversation is more to do with needing a few more minutes of sleep. For me, while that might be the case sometimes, this internal conversation is a struggle to cope with life and stress. This feeling of struggle stems from a chemical imbalance that is truly out of my control. And, although I am hesitant to “out” myself as an academic and educator who suffers from mild to moderate depression due to the stigmas still related to this field, I think it is important that I do so. In fact, I think that part of the reason that mental illness is so stigmatized is that people are not brave enough to talk about these issues in public forums. Discussion about depression and other mental illness is considered awkward, uncomfortable, and people mostly just don’t get it. And things that make us uncomfortable are things that we tend to censor or ignore. For me, I consider talking about mental disorders like depression, schizophrenia, anxiety, etc. an issue of social justice.

Although social justice is an often bandied term that means different things to different people, I like to think of social justice as a concept regarding the creation of a society that is based on principles of equality and solidarity. This society not only understands the values of human rights but also recognizes the dignity of every human being. In addition, for me, social justice also carries with it the need for action, when one encounters injustice.

As I watched the news and listened to the details of Dylann Roof’s massacre of nine African American individuals at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, North Carolina, and the voices of people on social media, I felt an instant ache at the events that were unfolding and just how far we have NOT come on issues of race in America. But, I would also argue that we have not come very far on understanding mental illness in the United States, either. Many people were quick to call Dylann Roof mentally ill.

However, to equate mass murder and racist actions to mental illness is not only inaccurate but it also is deeply hurtful to people who deal with mental illness on a daily basis. Of course, some acts of violence can be equated with mental illness, but it is not the majority. I wholeheartedly concur with Arthur Chu in his recent Salon article on equating mass murder sprees to mental illness; he wrote: “mentally ill are far more likely to be the targets of violence than the perpetrators.” And this can be corroborated by a study in 2001 that looked at 34 adolescent mass murderers. Out of that group, slightly less than 1 in 4 of those studied had a documented psychiatric history–meaning that the vast majority did not, and causality of murder to mental illness couldn’t be directly linked in the cases that did.

What is important to think about as an educator is how mental illness is constructed in our society as a stigma, a modern day Scarlet Letter, for those who deal with the effects of mental illness. In fact, approximately 1 in 4 American adults and 1 in 5 American youth suffer from a mental disorder. As a former middle and high school teacher, I think the fact that suicide is the third leading cause of death in students age 10-24 according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is terrifying and needs to be addressed. Mental illness is widely considered to be the most stigmatized human condition in the world, and when we create these socially constructed stigmas, we push people to the margins of our society. People fear what they don’t know and the stigma of mental illness exacerbates the misconceptions people have about who the person really is. Those who are labeled with a mental illness face oppression.

In 1990, Iris Marion Young, a professor of political science and gender studies, wrote about the five faces of oppression, believing that the presence of even one of these types was adequate to consider a social group oppressed. These five faces include:

  • Exploitation: using people’s labors to produce profit while not compensating them fairly, therefore creating a system that perpetuates class differences.
  • Marginalization: relegating or confining a group of people to a lower social standing or outer limit or edge of society; a process of exclusion.
  • Powerlessness: inhibiting a group of people’s development of one’s capacities, taking away decision making power, and exposing a group of people to disrespectful treatment because of lowered status, determined by the ruling class.
  • Cultural imperialism: taking the culture of the ruling class and establishing it as the norm.
  • Violence: subjecting members of a group to fear of random, unprovoked attacks on their persons or property.

Based on these distinctions, I think we can make a very clear claim that people with mental illnesses are oppressed due to at least three, and maybe all of these faces of oppression. Clearly, as already indicated by the stigma, people with mental illness are marginalized. Those with mental illness can be fired from jobs and denied health services. They are targets of violence in the form of physical and verbal attacks and ridicule. People with mental illness are constructed as not “normal”–instead they are “other-ed” through stereotypes–images of mentally ill as violent, unreliable, or incompetent. As Young argues, “the culturally dominated undergo a paradoxical oppression, in that they are both marked out by stereotypes and at the same time rendered invisible…The stereotypes so permeate the society that they are not noticed as contestable” (p. 59).

As noted, people are uncomfortable talking about mental illness and therefore it is often just not even talked about, rendering it truly invisible, yet everywhere. Two high school students recently tried to talk about depression in their high schools only to be censored by their principal.

In addition, because people’s notions of the mentally ill are so ingrained, often those with mental illness have internalized the stereotypical notions, which in many cases leads to feelings of shame and lowered self-worth. As someone who suffers from depression, sometimes I feel overwhelmed with the pressure to prove I am not “crazy,” unstable, or incompetent. I also think it is very important to note that mental illness is one of very few illnesses that people are encouraged in some ways to hide. Those diagnosed with cancer or diabetes are not discouraged from speaking about their illnesses. Yet, mental illness is often considered a family secret; something not to discuss with respectable company. But, we need to stop considering mental illness a weakness. It is a disorder, a flaw of biology and chemistry, not a flaw of a person’s character or ability.

So what should be done in order to be more socially just educators? First of all, start talking about mental illness. Unpack the stereotypes with other teachers and, of course, students. Discussing facts about mental illness is a good first step of reducing the shame that many youth feel. I personally recommend the Peabody award-winning documentary “Hearts and Minds: Teens and Mental Illness” which demystifies mental illness for teens through the stories of four teenagers.

A second recommendation is simply having empathy, not sympathy for people with mental illness. I cannot tell you how many times in my life I have been told to perk up or just cheer up. Hmm … if only I had thought of that! While friends and family are well-intentioned with statements like this, it can come across as belittling and irreverent. Mental illness is not something that someone can snap out of. Instead, offer your listening services and moral support through daily or weekly check-ins.

Third and finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t advocate the use of literature to talk about mental illness. As a middle and high school English teacher, there are many wonderful books that could open up conversations about people with mental illnesses. I will offer a few of my suggestions, but there are many more great ones.

Depression and Suicide:

  • It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini
  • Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
  • Hold Still by Nina LaCour

Anxiety Disorders:

  • I Don’t Want to be Crazy by Samantha Schutz
  • Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Eating Disorders:

  • Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson
  • Elena Vanishing: A Memoir by Elena Dunkle

Bipolar Disorder:

  • Crazy by Amy Reed
  • Freaks Like Us by Susan Vaught

Thought Disorders (e.g. Schizophrenia) :

  • Chopsticks by Jessica Anthony and Rodrigo Corral
  • Cameron and the Girls by Edward Averett

PTSD:

  • The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson
  • Something Like Normal by Trish Doller

Self-Harm:

  • Cut by Patricia McCormick
  • Scars by Cheryl Rainfield

Reference

Young I. M. (1990) Justice and the Politics of Difference. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Michelle M. Falter is a doctoral candidate in the department of Language and Literacy Education at the University of Georgia, and former editor of the Journal of Language and Literacy Education. She has been a secondary English teacher for ten years, having the privilege of teaching in both the United States and abroad in countries such as The Dominican Republic and Germany. Michelle’s scholarship focuses on the role of emotion in the English classroom, and helping educators co-construct knowledge with their students using participatory, critical, and dialogical teaching practices. Michelle can be contacted at mfalter@uga.edu or on twitter @MFalterPhD.

Grappling with Social Justice

I find myself wondering if “social justice” is becoming a buzzword–a trending topic. On one hand, of course it is. Everyone wants social justice, right? How can a person argue against justice, especially in a country that defines its founding upon it, in a way? On the other hand, though, talking about it and living it are two different things–especially, in my opinion, when it comes to teaching for social justice.

Christine Sleeter (California State University, Monterey Bay) wrote a compelling piece for the Journal of Language and Literacy Education titled, Deepening Social Justice Teaching. In it, she addresses the very issue I am currently struggling to understand: what, in fact, does teaching for social justice look like now? How is it changing, and how can I evolve with it in order to best meet my students and my community? I don’t want this work to look like a trend; I want it to be my past, my present, and my future.

According to Sleeter (2015), “Teaching for social justice means developing democratic activism: preparing young people to analyze and challenge forms of discrimination that they, their families, and others face, on behalf of equity for everyone.” To me, that means meeting students where they are, asking them and getting them to ask questions about their world(s), and troubling the ideologies behind those questions and answers. Then, and most importantly, acting out in response to those thoughts.

Sleeter’s words (throughout this piece) encourage me to look past talking about issues, and toward talking back at them (hooks, 1988). Teaching for social justice is not just expressing one’s anger about the injustices found in our country, but acting out against them. As a teacher, I think “all of this” has more to do with how my classes are conducted–what we read, what we write, what we do, how we interact with our communities–and less about what is in my heart as a social justice educator. I can want the best for my students. I can hope for change, but I need to be social justice–be the change (as Jones mentioned in her TSJ guest post).

So, what can we do to make sure “social justice” isn’t trending, but is becomingbeingstaying?