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An America Unknown

Author’s Note: In ed school they make you write an autobiography about a time when the teacher trainee (generally white) felt like a minority, out of place, not welcome, and how this can help us empathize with our students. Given that context, and my feelings at the time about being made to write it, I’m a bit more vehement than I would be today. Nonetheless, I think the main outline of the point, at the end, is true. And the story of my life is definitely true, so it may as well be documented somewhere.

I grew up in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. At the time, expats didn’t live in the big universal cocoons that are so common these days. The quality of the “compounds” varied by class, although no one really mentioned it: Raytheon engineers got one big compound with all the best amenities—the biggest pool, an indoor movie theater, a store that sold only American food. Lockheed engineers must not have been paid as well, because they had several smaller compounds with varying facility quality. But my dad worked for the airlines as a mechanic, as did most of the TWA employees, so we didn’t have centralized facilities. We had little enclosed groups of houses all over the city—and beyond. I lived for four years in the Red Sea Apartments, an isolated bloc of 8 apartments just a few hundred yards from the Red Sea and desert all around us—unless you count the Saudi Army base (nothing more than tents with a fence around it) 30 yards away. Right out on the sand bar were two stranded ships. My father and I went out to the closest one on a raft and snuck aboard. I took papers from the captain’s cabin, dated from 1956; the language seemed to be Dutch. I also took a shelf that my mom and I refinished; we both still regret losing track of that antique. We’d also go crabbing at midnight; my parents would round up all the neighborhood kids and we’d saunter out at low tide in the dark. One kid would pin a crab with the beam of a flashlight while another would hold it down with a stick and holler until my dad came and flipped the crab into a bucket.

Then we moved to Old Compound, the original TWA compound situated right next to the airport. Old Compound was great because we lived next to the pool and very near the only TWA employee movie theater. Alas, the movie theater was open air, so following a complicated movie plot became rather daunting when a 707 revved up its engines to taxi or takeoff. Still, we liked it.

We didn’t have our own stores, so we just used the Saudi ones. This was long before segregated facilities came into play—only after Desert Storm were women and children forced to use separate entrances, my father told me. So we went into Saudi shwarma stands to get those divine sandwiches, and we went into the Suq for all our local shopping. Of course, we couldn’t have church in a Muslim-only country, so services were held in the US Embassy. In the early years, we jockeyed around the donkey carts and oil sheiks’ Mercedes in the Chrysler, a gorgeous magenta car with amazing features like air conditioning and power windows. My dad got that Chrysler for next to nothing from a Saudi prince because it had a fuel leak that the prince’s mechanics didn’t know how to fix. My dad fixed it, and for several years we had a car well outside our usual station in life. We asked Dad excitedly if that prince would ever be king and my dad laughed and said no, Sultan was fifth in line. Today, Sultan is nearly 80—but he’s also the Crown Prince. One more to go! [Update: he died in 2011. Sigh.]

Living in Jedda meant that the power would go out without warning—but that just meant it was time to party. The parents would go to one house and drink Siddiqi (moonshine, it’s the Arabic word for “friend”) and the kids to another. In 1975 the country suffered a drought and everyone’s water was cut off. We only got two hours a day—and they never told you when those hours were. So we kept the water faucets on full blast at all times; when we heard the faucets erupt, even if it was 2:00 in the morning, we’d all get up, shower, fill up the water kettles to boil more water (you didn’t think we drank out of the faucets, did you?), and fill up as many pails as possible so we could flush the toilet.

(Eighteen months later, we came home to California, which was having a “drought”. My brother and I speculated that in the US, of course, they probably published a list so everyone knew when their two hours would be. Then they told us that in California, “drought” meant you didn’t always flush the toilet and watered the lawn every other day. Then they had to explain “lawn”. Badumpdump.)

We had no phones. We did have TV for a couple hours of day, when we’d breathlessly watch reruns of “The Fugitive” and “Medical Center” (even way back then, children, those were old shows). But the last five minutes of those shows were always cut off by the tape of the “awah guy”, as we called him, starting the call to prayer (listen to the call for prayer and tell me the two syllables aren’t “awah”). I still laugh when I think of us anxiously watching a 20-year-old show, hoping that the plot would be resolved before the “awah guy” came on. We had no bacon, no pork, no booze that wasn’t homemade. We had no milk or ice cream, but stupendous butter, an Irish brand called Kerrygold. We had bugs in a lot of food, but we learned to accept that bugs were a big step up from worms, and merely gave thanks that worms were less frequently found.

My parents were nothing if not unorthodox, and many of our vacations were spent in far off lands. In 1969, we lived in a Portuguese fishing village for a month. This was not a vacation spot; my dad just knew a mechanic whose parents owned a cottage. The locals thought we were very odd, but the fishermen kindly invited my dad and my brother out with the fleet. My brother caught two fish. I was outraged, as I was the eldest, and demanded equal treatment. The fishermen were perplexed, but obliging, and so Dad and I went out the next day so that I could catch two fish, too.

In 1975, we went to Kenya. Not for my parents the tour bus. No, my dad went around looking for an affordable guy who could show us around. He did not speak the language, but he figured that anyone who did speak English would be eager for some money, and so he found Joe, the kind of guy that people like my dad always find. Joe took us all over the country in his car, from Tsavo to a little northern town at the foot of Mount Kenya. He found wildlife of every sort everywhere, when we least expected it—once he slammed on the brakes, said “HUSH”, backed up around a nondescript bush and there, yawning sleepily, was a lioness, all alone. She eyed us warily, but did nothing. I still have the pictures from my little Kodak 110. While we usually stayed in lovely lodges and hotels, the northern town by Mount Kenya was having a convention, and everything was filled up except this ancient boarding house. We slept three to a bed, my brother, sister, and I, praying that the cockroaches would find a sibling first. In the morning, my mother and I were brushing our teeth in the communal bathroom when a seven-foot-tall man with coal-black skin and ferocious face markings walked in, smiled at us in the cracked mirror we were all using, and pulled out a pick to fix his hair.

We went to Greece, shepherded by my father’s Greek mechanic friends. We went on a ski trip in the French Alps—no, we didn’t speak French—and I boycotted skiing because beginning skiers had to ski down a hill through the town to get to the bunny slopes, which were only half as steep as the town hill. No, thank you. We went to Germany, Italy, England, Scotland, Wales, and, most frequently, Lebanon (once taking a cab ride from Damascus to Beirut because all the flights were full). “Intramural sports” meant competing with schools in different countries, so I went to basketball tournaments in Dubai, softball tourneys in Bahrain, and track meets in Egypt—for a treat, our team went out for camel rides. My camel, which I shared with a fellow runner named Kevin, escaped from his owner and went gallumping through the Giza pyramids, with what seemed like all the camel merchants in the world chasing us, yelling enthusiastically.

And then, in 1977, we came back home. I entered Sequoia High School for my sophomore year just four days after arriving in the country we’d always considered the Land of Plenty—they had television ALL DAY, telephones everywhere, bacon, milk, Captain Crunch, McDonalds, and oh, my lord, ice cream in your own refrigerator. Fruit you didn’t have to bleach. Water right out of the faucet. Unimaginable luxuries that didn’t have to be smuggled in.

I was miserable. I hated school, hated our new house, hated our lives. I’m not over-dramatizing. In our family history, everyone agrees that coming back to the US when we did was a huge mistake—it led to our parents’ divorce, and while they are both happily married to others now, their split caused significant financial stress. My dad left for Saudi Arabia again after five years, which meant we lost him from our daily lives for more than a decade.

I took several years to fully adapt to living as an American in the US, despite being of the so-called “dominant” culture. I took another ten years or more to figure out that my life in Saudi Arabia and my parents’ cheerful determination to see the world had kept something obscured from me. In Saudi Arabia, everything was weird. There was no normal. None of us kids particularly enjoyed feeling out of place in north Kenyan towns or Portuguese villages or even Saudi Arabia itself, but we accepted it as part of living our weird life. In America, I would always tell myself, things would be normal.

My brothers and sister were, in fact, fairly normal. They retain aspects of their unusual childhood, but in most ways, they fit nicely into their worlds.

I expected this as well. I spent much of high school and college wondering why I felt alien. I was in America. Shouldn’t things feel more normal?

Alas, the truth was hidden from me in our lives overseas. I—well, it must be faced. I’m odd. I wasn’t odd because my parents moved to Saudi Arabia and took their kids on a fascinating, if unsettling, world tour. I’m odd because that’s who I am. I’m always going to be a statistical anomaly whose life won’t exactly fit in. It’s not a bad thing, and I’m certainly not alone. And that’s the great irony—while there are people whose lives fit comfortably enough in the norm, there is no real “normal”. People on the edges, like me, are just a bit more aware of where the edges are and what it’s like too far from the center.

I was supposed to write about an autobiographical instance of a time when I felt different and discuss how this makes me aware of minority cultures, equity, and democracy in the classroom. As a member of the “dominant culture”, the thinking goes, I need to empathize with those who aren’t part of that culture and reach out and understand the differences.

Whenever others talk about this “dominant culture” that oppresses and locks out others who aren’t of that culture, I am reminded of my anticipation of America and the “normal” life that I thought awaited me when I returned. I understand the difficulties of belonging to a minority, and I accept that many people see the majority culture as dominating and unwelcome. Nonetheless, I think those who feel excluded, as well as those who speak on their behalf, see a “normalcy” to dominant cultures that will give them what they lack. They see a promised land, a sense of belonging, of access that is denied them. In fact, what they want, like the “normal” America I wanted, doesn’t exist for anyone.


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Michele Kerr lives in California, for her sins.

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36 thoughts on “An America Unknown

  1. There is a color to your life that few in America will ever truly know. It may take you further out of the normal, but the American ‘normal’ is, in many ways, not all it’s cracked up to be.

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  2. A wonderful piece, I really enjoyed it. Reminded me of an important time with oldest daughter, where we, as a military family, planned for her to be moved and settled “with the friends she grew up with” for high school after having been overseas and elsewhere for years. Same school, same friends, same city-but she realized being abroad had changed her in ways that they had not and there was a disconnect there that she sometimes struggled with. I continue to believe that on balance the experience of a wider world is still worth the adjustment or disconnect from a more traditional sense of “home” for lack of better word, but as pointed out here, there is no such things as “normal” really. Just perceived ideas we are all doing our best to work through. Excellent read, thank you for sharing.

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  3. I envy your childhood (as someone who never saw the ocean or took a plane ride until my late teens and has yet to leave the country at 38 years old), though I am a creature of comfort with no desire to live under the conditions you describe.
    Thanks for sharing your piece- from a fellow odd person.

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  4. One of the things I suspect of the ‘normal’ American experience is that it is profoundly narrowing of view and limiting of tolerance. That is, the people I know who are most open to hearing ideas, and most willing to tolerate views that do not align with their own, are people who have lived lives far outside what is considered ‘normal’. The more varied and immersive ones experiences are, the more flexible and adaptive the person becomes.

    And I think a lot of people recognize this, and try to craft for themselves and their kids these experiences; and I think they often fall short because while the varied part is doable, the immersive aspect is a lot harder without being willing to make certain sacrifices. So you get a taste, which is good by itself, but not the full impact, because you always know it’s just a skimming of the surface, you don’t really have to dive in.

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  5. I’ve been trying to explain this kind of thing to my early 20s kids. You can’t do this kind of stuff once you put down roots, so do it now while you have none. So far, to no avail.

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  6. Michelle this was a wonderful essay. I and my family were in Jeddah from 1972 to 1987. Some of the items you wrote about really touched my heart. Our sons struggled some when we returned. My
    whole family loved it over there. I loved the school, the students, and Jeddah. I taught business at PCS and my ex husband taught science. I was divorced about two years after we returned to the states. My oldest son is in Bagdad, Iraq and my youngest is in Hong Kong.

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  7. This was great Michele. I’ve emailed a copy to myself (where it will last forever, hope you don’t mind) with a notation that ensures i’ll be able to find it when my three wee ones are old enough to give it a read.

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  8. I’ve been thinking about this essay for a bit now. I fear that based on your final conclusions that you rather missed the point of the assignment. Rather than reflecting on what it was like to be the White Girl, or the American girl in all of these foreign states, you focused on your goal to return to “normal” America only to find that the reality of such didn’t live up to the reality. Your final two paragraphs show an effort to understand the mindset of the Non-Dominant Culture by focusing on their desire to “”see a “normalcy” to dominant cultures that will give them what they lack.”

    I don’t think that is fully the case. I see hints of it, but not all of it.

    I have a student who is openly gay. She want to feel safe pursuing relationships with other girls. She wants to complain about being rejected by a love interest the same as any other girl would if a boy rejected her. She wants to be excited about a pending date with a girl, just the same as though a straight girl had a date with a boy.

    From your conclusion, it would suggest that such a “normal” life wouldn’t really satisfy her. “In fact, what they want, like the “normal” America I wanted, doesn’t exist for anyone.”

    But in her case it does. She sees it daily. She watches people assume that proper pairings are boys and girls. She turns on the TV (well, popular streaming shows) and sees the vast majority of couplings to be straight. Films revolve around finding the right girl the right boy.

    Normal in this case does exist, but to the dominant culture it’s an invisible normal.

    The default for me walking through a store is not be followed by security until I do something suspicious. This is not true of black Americans. The default normal for me is see see my formal style of a tux available in dozens of stores in my area. This is not true for an African American who wants to display his heritage at prom.

    I empathize with your plight, the “normal” you sought did not come as you hoped. Access to TV, to American foods, and schools, etc, did not bring you the joy you had hoped it would.

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      • I didn’t read “A Teacher” to be saying she/he* has only one gay student.” She/he just mentions having “a student who is openly gay” and doesn’t even state that that student is the only openly gay student.

        You didn’t understand the essay, though. But I’m thinking that’s because you are writing from the 1950s, and there was a timewarp.

        I don’t know about the 1950s (but I can guess), but when I went to high school (graduated 1992), it was dangerous for a student to be openly gay. There was to my knowledge only one really openly gay student. (Maybe there were more, and there were a couple who were out but not out to everyone.) He was treated pretty horribly, and I was guilty of doing, or at least going along with, some of that treatment. Even so, I read A Teacher not to be talking about bullying such as my classmate went through, but about social norms as we see in popular culture. The 2018 social norms are indeed more openly tolerant and accepting than even the 1990s, but it’s at least reasonable to argue, as I read him/her arguing, that the norm is still based on “straightness.” (For what it’s worth, I’m not 100% sure I agree with A Teacher on that score, but to my mind it’s certainly debatable.)

        *I apologize to , but I wasn’t sure what your preferred gender pronoun is. I admit that because teaching is often gendered as “female” that my default is to use “she,” but I don’t know if I’m right and don’t wish to offend.

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        • Read your post after I finished the reply below, but wanted to say: in 1992, in California and probably New York, there were plenty of schools where kids were openly gay in the 90s and weren’t harassed in any significant way. Hell, there was a case of gay kids going to a prom in 1979.

          There were also places where it was easy to be beaten and harassed for being gay, just as it was still tough in some schools to be a same-sex couple at the prom as recently as a decade ago.

          And there were people who were abused and tormented and bullied despite being straight, for reasons they had no more control over than people do over their sexuality. (While in Saudi Arabia, I was constantly bullied for two years and count that era as the most miserable and painful of my life. When I have nightmares, I’m back there.)

          People who are gay think ‘If the world thought gay was ‘normal’, I wouldn’t be bullied.” Well, maybe *you* (that individual) wouldn’t be bullied. But someone would. Them and us is everywhere.

          I of course oppose any sort of bullying for any reason. But just as there is no “normal” straight white life, there’s no “normal” gay high school experience, no “normal” black life, and so on.

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        • I’m with on this. While I’m sure there is no perfect uniform “normal” that is comfortable for everyone, being a member of a hated minority changes things. Being either erased or tokenized in virtually all mainstream media is soul crushing. It’s not just the outright hate, although that is plentiful and often hard to take. It is also the “other stuff,” which is hard to talk about without sounding petulant.

          Look, these are little things, taken one at a time, but they add up. Being marginalized is a real thing. Such terms name a real state of being, a way of living life.

          Sure, there isn’t a uniform, idyllic normal. Fine. Got it. But still, there is definitely a state of being treated as essentially abnormal, a way that is dehumanizing, even aside from the overwhelming hate.

          When I first read this essay, it annoyed me a lot. I let it go, because it seemed like a deeply personal observation. I wasn’t sure how to engage with it. However, I think it’s wrong in important ways.

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          • It went to spam for unknown reasons, thanks for letting me know and I rescued it.

            I appreciate you putting your dislike for the essay in constructive terms, as well as your caution towards engaging with a deeply personal essay critically.

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  9. Like most others here, I really like this essay. And I really would like to meditate a bit on your concluding paragraph, because there’s a lot there I agree with. As I read it–and as I’ll paraphrase/reword it–you’re pushing back against the assumption that enjoying pretty much the full knapsack of privileges necessarily means one fits in or doesn’t feel alienated or isn’t somehow marginalized by the “dominant culture.”

    If that’s wildly off, please forgive me, but I’d like to riff off that point and gently push back against another statement from that same paragraph: “I understand the difficulties of belonging to a minority,….” To my reckoning, there’re definitely a least two senses in which you understand those difficulties. One is intellectually. You’ve read about them or listened to people who’ve had them. The second is subjectively. With your background, you were a “minority” in some sense and therefore have a way to “empathize outwardly” your experience in order to get at the essence of what others experience.

    At the same time, there’s probably a sense in which you might not understand those difficulties. There might be a sense of rejection and not belonging when what’s considered “normal” seems to assume a priori that you (the generic you) doesn’t even have a shot at attaining it. That’s a sense in which understanding those difficulties is very difficult for people like me who have (almost) always been in the non-excluded category. I’m of course making assumptions here. I don’t know if you’ve disclosed this or not, but I’m assuming you’re straight, white, etc. But even if you’re not, there are some experiences you don’t have and can’t understand fully. That certainly applies to me, perhaps even more so, because I don’t have your background.

    None of this is to denigrate your conclusion. Even though I’m not sure I wholly agree, I think there’s a lot of wisdom in your last three sentences, “…those who feel excluded, as well as those who speak on their behalf, see a “normalcy” to dominant cultures that will give them what they lack. They see a promised land, a sense of belonging, of access that is denied them. In fact, what they want, like the “normal” America I wanted, doesn’t exist for anyone.” It does bother me that more people don’t adopt that perspective which you do such a good job explaining.

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    • Thanks for your response.

      “I didn’t read “A Teacher” to be saying she/he* has only one gay student.”

      I read “A Teacher” as kind of being utterly clueless as to the entire context of the essay, as well as the point of it. I get more than a bit impatient with people who assume they’re the only people in the world, ever, to understand that not everyone is white and straight. I particularly find it tiresome when the footnote clearly states I live in California, which is second only to Hawaii in diversity when counting simply non-whites (and has much more diversity than Hawaii when considering categories of non-white ), and duking it out with New York for the most sexuality/gender diversity–and, by the way, having lived before that in tremendous diversity for most of my childhood, in a place with strict religious and gender demands. I am gently–well, maybe not so gently–suggesting to A Teacher that the assumptions permeating this and other comments in other posts are really far, far below the standard of debate I’d expect from this august crowd.

      Now, onto your own thoughts.

      When I wrote, “I understand the difficulties of belonging to a minority”, I meant it purely in the intellectual sense. I wasn’t saying “Because of this life I’ve led, I understand their suffering.”

      “There might be a sense of rejection and not belonging when what’s considered “normal” seems to assume a priori that you (the generic you) doesn’t even have a shot at attaining it. That’s a sense in which understanding those difficulties is very difficult for people like me who have (almost) always been in the non-excluded category. ”

      So this next isn’t really what I meant in the essay, but: many people assume that race and sexuality are the only ways to be different, or the only IMPORTANT ways to be different. From the time I was three, I knew I wasn’t like the other girls, that I missed the day in school where they went over How To Be A Girl. I have been troubled and rewarded in various ways for missing that day my entire life. I’m not alone in that, and that’s a feeling many others have, of all races and both–or more, depending on your philosophy–genders. And I didn’t, and don’t, have any more shot of changing the essence of my nature than do gay people or non-whites.

      A lot of folks have a mental straitjacket that says “No, none of this counts because it’s not race or sexuality.” Shrug. That’s fashion. I’m not unsympathetic to anyone who feels excluded or out of the norm, who are denied that sense of comfort, for any reason. I don’t exempt anyone.

      Now, as I said, that wasn’t the specific point of my essay, which I think you understood. People who feel excluded in the categories that the federal government protects want more. They want to feel that their reality is as validated, as part of the mainstream, as the culture that they see as mainstream. And I’m saying ain’t no there there.

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      • Thanks for your responses, to both my comments.

        I think I disagree with your description of A Teacher’s comments in this thread and elsewhere at OT. That’s probably mostly just be between you and A Teacher and perhaps we’ll just have to agree to disagree on that score.

        I do think the fact of person A’s living in California don’t automatically clue person B in about the A’s views of diversity, etc. I’m not personally very familiar with the state. I certainly know of its reputation for diversity. And yet I’ve also heard there are areas of the state that aren’t nearly so diverse, or so open to diversity, as some other areas are. I also believe (and this is a pet hypothesis of mine) that being around diversity can elicit reactions to such diversity. Those reactions can range from the bigoted, to merely questioning the shibboleths of “diversity culture” as it tends to emerge in certain environments.To be clear, I read you as questioning the shibboleths and not as engaging in bigotry. However, I do notice in myself that I make bigoted choices about what to think and (sometimes) do when I’m confronted with diversity in some of its forms.

        [ETA: I guess that paragraph means I see things differently from what Oscar says above about how having a range of experience encourages widening one’s scope of tolerance. But I’m possibly misreading his point.]

        When I wrote, “I understand the difficulties of belonging to a minority”, I meant it purely in the intellectual sense. I wasn’t saying “Because of this life I’ve led, I understand their suffering.”

        Thanks for clarifying. That was a point of confusion on my part.

        A lot of folks have a mental straitjacket that says “No, none of this counts because it’s not race or sexuality.” Shrug. That’s fashion. I’m not unsympathetic to anyone who feels excluded or out of the norm, who are denied that sense of comfort, for any reason. I don’t exempt anyone.

        I certainly can sign on to that paragraph. I’m well familiar with the straitjacket of which you speak. I especially sign on to your last two sentences, but that’s more as an aspiration. I fall short quite often.

        People who feel excluded in the categories that the federal government protects want more. They want to feel that their reality is as validated, as part of the mainstream, as the culture that they see as mainstream. And I’m saying ain’t no there there.

        That’s a good re-encapsulation of what I see your argument as, although I did stray from that understanding in my comments above. If I disagree, it’s probably only that I see “some” there there where you appear to see none. However, maybe we’re just haggling over price at this point?

        At any rate, thanks for engaging my comments.

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        • With the additional context I think I understand the point of view better. And I can see if the assignment was “Tell us about a time you were ‘the other’,” that you are probably being truthful in your report of getting a high mark. I may have misunderstood how explicit your instructor was about the goal being “show empathy with people who feel marginalized by being outside of the Dominant Culture”. I try to be very clear with my students as to Why they are doing given assignment but I appreciate not everyone does that.

          To another point, let me say that I don’t believe I am straight-jacketed by a view of “only this or that counts as discrimination”. As much as you’d like to put me in a particular box I am afraid that is not one I feel is fair. I recognize that there are many aspects of your identity that can be marginalized by the Dominant Culture, from the most obvious of sexual identity to simply ” not be “taught how to Girl”. I used a particular example of one of my students this year who was open enough with me to lament how her sexuality impacted her and how she perceived the world around her. Yes, if this was 1950, she would a) have a different experience as people learned of her sexual identity and b) she probably wouldn’t confide it in a high school teacher.

          But looking at your essay’s conclusion, with the added context of your comments here, I have the following take away:

          Men are afraid of being laughed at; women are afraid of being killed.

          What you’ve said here, I would surmise your answer to Atwood would be to say “Hey, everyone’s afraid of something.”

          Given the state of things, I don’t believe that answer shows empathy or even real engagement. Just over a week ago, a boy murdered the girl who turned down his advances and 9 other people with her. I think that trying to move our general culture in a direction away from this as a generally good thing. I don’t see value in reminding women, or people of color, or gays, or people who didn’t learn “how to Girl” that “everyone has it rough.”

          It’s the general intellectual equivalent of “All Lives Matter”. They do, absolutely. There are no lives that DON’T matter. But when you see evidence that some lives are treated by the dominant culture as though they don’t matter, then we should focus on why that’s happening and what can be done to deal with it.

          I believe that some of my black girls could very well be bullied for not having been properly taught “how to Girl”. However I think many of them would trade the non-stop scrutiny of police, the unwarranted killing of their cousins and friends, the extreme application of maximum penalties compared to their white equivalents for a chance to ONLY be picked on for how well they “Girl”.

          Finally, yes I’m using relatively easy to discuss forms of discrimination. I don’t claim that they are the only ones, clearly. But I find that going too far out into the weeds distracts from the bigger picture. Yes I have more than one gay student (I believe; not everyone is that comfortable telling their math teacher such things) as well as my own diverse classrooms.

          : My nom de plume was first adopted many years ago when the members of then-“The League of Ordinary Gentlemen” were getting a little long winded on educational policy despite it being fairly clear that none of them were full time classroom teachers. I wanted my opposition to what was then the prevailing wisdom to be seen through the prism of “someone who is actually doing this for a living” rather than “someone who has thought a lot about education policy”. Yes, that’s a rather heavy-handed appeal to authority, but for me it matters if someone is speaking from “I’ve read a lot of scholarly work on this” compared to “I’ve put in a lot of hours doing this.”

          I identify as male, 90% straight (I won’t say hetero-flexible because I don’t think I’m really that flexible), middle aged and middle-middle class (though with two incomes my spouse and I present as upper-middle). My preferred pronouns are They/Them though honestly He/Him work just as well. I have also expereinced a fair amount of dismissal when advocating for women because of my male identity: “Can’t women speak for themselves”. As such I try to walk the line of Ally, amplifying stories and trying not to tell them as though they are my own.

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          • Thanks for answering my query, and I’m sorry if it was too intrusive. I’ll try to use “they/them” when I remember, but I’m sure I’ll fall short. Because you answered me, I’ll offer my own disclosures: My pseudonym is the name of a character with whom I feel I have a lot in common, from one of my favorite books, Dubliners (a collection of short stories). (Before that, I used to call myself Pierre Corneille, but he wasn’t really one of my favorite authors.) I used to consider myself something like 80% straight. Now I identify just as straight, not so much because I’ve changed personally as because my definitions of straightness/non-straightness have changed. I consider my background to be “affluent working class” and my spouse and I are, at least for now, in what I’d call the Upper Middle Class, even though through our lifestyle we probably present as “only” middle class.

            (Also, and I know I’m now addressing a part of your comment responding to Michele and not me, I would like to say that when I stated I knew people who exhibited “straitjacketed” thinking, I wasn’t thinking of you or anything you said)

            I wanted my opposition to what was then the prevailing wisdom to be seen through the prism of “someone who is actually doing this for a living” rather than “someone who has thought a lot about education policy”. Yes, that’s a rather heavy-handed appeal to authority, but for me it matters if someone is speaking from “I’ve read a lot of scholarly work on this” compared to “I’ve put in a lot of hours doing this.”

            I don’t think the appeal to authority here is that heavy handed, to be honest. While I’ll usually offer my opinion on many things, including pre-College education, about which I have no or almost no experience, I have a great respect for experience.

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          • If you’re experiencing dismissal it may have as much to do with quoting Margaret Atwood to a woman telling her own life story while being (seemingly) completely deaf as to the implications of you doing so, as it does with being treated unfairly because of your male identity.

            Men are afraid of being laughed at; women are afraid of being killed.

            What you’ve said here, I would surmise your answer to Atwood would be to say “Hey, everyone’s afraid of something.”

            If you think Atwood is on to something, you may want to re-examine your approach of consistently putting down one of the few female authors who writes for the site. For example, on this post, you came in to talk about how she failed before you understood what she was saying. (I suspect you still don’t, but I don’t actually expect people to understand everything, just not to come in hot, as you did, on posts that are pretty clearly labeled ‘first person’ and which discuss someone’s very personal experiences.)

            (I didn’t say anything before because I know wouldn’t appreciate my saying something – I’m reasonably sure she still won’t – but as someone who has been trying to deskew the gender balance of this site for literally years, I *really* don’t appreciate your approach, and seeing you talk about how you prefer to veil your maleness so that you don’t get dismissed *while* you are literally being a crappy ally to women is one step too far for me to just sit back and watch happen. Women giving you an extra few steps to be a jerk if they think you might also be a woman, and not giving you those extra few steps if they don’t, is something I’d think you’d *understand*, not take advantage of. That said – if your identity is nonbinary – feel free to own that here. But this “I identify as male,” (but I don’t want to be treated as one), if true as stated, is pretty selfish behavior, from the point of view of a trans person especially… do you know how many people treat trans women like that’s all they are doing, and use it to excuse all manner of viciousness?)

            Next time, come in with more respect, or don’t come in.

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            • Thank you for the comments and I will certainly examine if my choices to participate here in discussion is worth any of our collective time.

              For the record:

              I do not “veil” my maleness. I use a non-gender specific name, as I stated, because my emphasis when I first starting using it was specifically to draw attention to my vocation. It was not to “hide” or “deceive”. I am very sorry that you have seen it that way as that was never my intent. I also humbly apologize if my use of the phrase “Identify as male” was disrespectful; no conditions attached.

              For the content itself, I only addressed the final paragraph which was not about her personal experience but her overall summary and conclusion. Her life is her life and she should absolutely tell her story as she tells it. However, I felt that her conclusion of “there is no normal; life sucks for everyone in its own way” was off the mark and was itself incredibly non-empathetic. While the essay is marked as “first person”, I am sorry that I thought it’s conclusions were debatable.

              I think I understand what she is saying in her conclusion as others have echoed support. Did I come in “hot”? I thought I provided a well reasoned rejection to the suggestion that “normal” was something that those outside the dominant culture shouldn’t aspire to. I thought I had laid out the fundamental dangers of that view and how disrespectful it is on its own. For my efforts I was insulted (several times) and dismissed out of hand as being beneath the quality of discussion worthy of the site.

              I appreciate wanting to built an inclusive and diverse writing base for the site that was once called “The League of Ordinary Gentleman”. I truly apologize if my disagreement over policy and politics has come off as trying to silence Michelle because of her gender.

              I have made an effort, and perhaps not a good one, of not putting Michelle down as a person. I have tried, generally, to take a solid ground of being about the issues and the conclusions, not the people. Yes I had some mis-steps in the previous discussion, and yes Michelle and I seem to have two general life philosophies that are fairly in conflict. There were many here I could have addressed my concern about the conclusion “we all have it bad, stop trying to be normal” to. The vast majority of the comments here were supportive of this conclusion and I could have addressed any of them as easily as I addressed my concerns to Michelle directly. Perhaps I should have, or perhaps I should have simply let this post pass me by.

              I will take your words to heart and reflect on them before I initiate again. I would also invite you to engage me by email to further discuss this if you’d like.

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              • “I fear that based on your final conclusions that you rather missed the point of the assignment.”

                is an intensely condescending thing to say, particularly when followed by “you are probably being truthful in your report of getting a high mark”. “you are probably being truthful?” – that isn’t, at all, goading someone, bringing up past conflict between the two of you? none of that is “a solid ground of being about the issues and the conclusions”.

                She was dismissive and insulting because you were being dismissive and insulting while commenting on the conclusions she’s drawn from her experience. (At least that’s my read on it.) Like, what else would you expect? I’m not in love with her response, but I was trying to give her some space and didn’t intend to intervene.

                But once you spoke in the *same comment* about how you experience being dismissed when people know you are male, and preferring “they/them” pronouns, while also quoting that *particular* Margaret Atwood quote, i was pushed over the edge to caring, frankly. (Again, if you are actually nonbinary or otherwise have a complicated gender identity and struggling with that – fair. But if you say you aren’t, I have to read you as if you aren’t. And when you say you aren’t in that context, “veiling” is exactly how it reads.)

                If you want to convince me that you’re really trying to focus on being about issues and being reasonably respectful, you can start (it’d just be a start) by spelling her name right if/when you engage her again.

                As the moderator, I am on principle always open to discussing things in email, and if you want to discuss this further we can. But for myself I don’t think it would be helpful.

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  10. I thought this was a good essay. I want to get that out of the way. first, especially since I kind of think I disagree with a lot of it. Or maybe just that I had such vastly different reactions to my own experience with a similar exercise that maybe I missed the point. Or maybe there are different points based on different experiences.

    Growing up I was very much part of the local dominant culture. I’m straight, white, cis, male, so mostly that’s the case with America as a whole. The one area where maybe I’m a little off–I’m Jewish–didn’t even put me in a minority. The town I was in was split between Catholics and Jews almost evenly; if anything it was Protestants who were a little on the exotic side.

    And my experience with not being the dominant culture–at least the one that stuck with me and still comes to mind to this day–was really about as mild as it could be. I ended up taking a graduate level quantum mechanics course in my junior year of college, and the department there had an extreme example of what you see in a lot of graduate physics departments in the US [1], with large numbers of foreign students.

    In this case literally every other student in the class was Chinese.

    This wasn’t a real problem in terms of, I dunno, feeling unwelcome or something. During the lecture I was like everybody else: paying attention to a lecture about a fairly involved topic and trying to make sure I copied the equations on the board correctly.

    But when it came time to do the problem sets and prepare for exams, well, I had a practical problem. I didn’t have a group of fellow students to work with. I didn’t have access to the copies of previous years’ worked homeworks and exams that they did. This wasn’t because they excluded me or anything; it’s just that I… didn’t speak Chinese.

    This wasn’t insurmountable. It was just an obstacle I had to deal with and that semester I was in pretty good spirits anyway, so I noticed it and pushed through by working a little harder. No problem.

    But it stuck with me because it was probably the best possible scenario for actually making me feel that way, and I still noticed. It still threw some sand in the gears.

    I dunno. It was easy to extrapolate from there about how it could just make things harder due to, well, network effects, even if issues of “normality” never came into it, and even if the only “dominance” involved was that of a fluke of class scheduling.

    I don’t think I’ve ever placed it in essentially the same basket as being bullied or deliberately excluded (both of which I experienced in school, because you are absolutely right that this isn’t the sole way that can happen).

    Hell, maybe I missed the point of the exercise.

    [1] Or at least you used to. I worry about the future.

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  11. I wanted to pen a short and unqualified apology. I have real confusions about the conclusion of the essay and how it works with the stated goal of the assignments but I did a horrid job of raising them in an appropriate way. I let other concerns cloud my writing and those concerns did not come out as respectfully as they should have.

    I understand the challenges of such a personal essay and the vulnerability of putting yourself out there with a narrative of your own life. I should have worked harder to raise my questions in a way that was supportive of the narrative even if I disagreed with the final conclusion of the piece.

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  12. So I took a break from this page for a while and just came back.

    It’s absolutely true I dismissed A Teacher’s comments. It’s because the last time I tried to engage I ended up being too insulting for the site. And my objection would have been basically the same as last time, so I’d be repeating myself, too! So I figure flip rejection is better than repeating comments that were deemed insulting. But I really didn’t see A Teacher’s response as more insulting or clueless (from my vantage point) than last time, so no need to apologize at all.

    I understand Maribou’s concerns about attracting female writers to the site, but at the same time I want to be clear that I found nothing sexist about A Teacher’s response, nor do I think my piece particularly relies on being female or as “deeply personal”. I also am untroubled by A Teacher’s masking gender–I think it’s a good plan, basically, and in our last debate I remember mulling if this was a guy who was just comfortable with everyone assuming him female. Score!

    A Teacher says:

    “I have made an effort, and perhaps not a good one, of not putting Michelle down as a person. I have tried, generally, to take a solid ground of being about the issues and the conclusions, not the people. Yes I had some mis-steps in the previous discussion, and yes Michelle and I seem to have two general life philosophies that are fairly in conflict. ”

    (if you want to apologize for something, apologize for that extra l!)

    I think the last part of the last sentence is exactly right, but here’s the thing: by assuming that my experience, or lack of a particular experience, leads me to my opinions, you ARE putting me down as a person. That’s why I find it annoying. As I said–I live in one of the most diverse areas of the world, diverse economically, socially, racially, and sexually. I am not rich, and I live in the Bay Area. It is literally impossible for non-wealthy whites in the Bay Area to cocoon themselves even if they wanted to–and most whites in the Bay Area would leave if they objected to diversity, I think.

    At the time I wrote this article, I was in one of the most demanding and prestigious teacher education programs in the country–a program so prestigious that the director did all she could to first renege on my admission and then expel me, because she was worried someone with my views would be bad for the brand. And yet, ironically, the director herself gave me As in all my work on heterogeneity and access (she taught the class), and I likewise got As in most of my classes designed to educate the students on diversity and different cultures because unlike many of my classmates with far more approved politics and philosophies, I had a much broader understanding of diversity than they did.

    The point of the essay is NOT “hey, things are tough all over.” In fact, the meta-point of this essay was essentially to rebut the assumptions driving the assignment. Experience does NOT lead people to have one particular opinion. Living as a minority does *not* lead everyone inexorably to think oh, gosh, everyone needs to live a mile in these shoes and then they’d all be enlightened.

    So when A Teacher brings up race and sexuality as he does in both this piece and the prior one I wrote, I’m just rolling my eyes in disdain and high dudgeon. Surely it’s occurred to him that I’ve formed these opinions *while* considering blacks, Hispanics, Asians, gays, transgenders, women, Muslims, and any other special category that I probably have more experience with than 99% of the population?

    “It’s the general intellectual equivalent of “All Lives Matter”. They do, absolutely. There are no lives that DON’T matter. But when you see evidence that some lives are treated by the dominant culture as though they don’t matter, then we should focus on why that’s happening and what can be done to deal with it.”

    The “dominant culture” does not treat any life as if it doesn’t matter (with the exception of the unborn, for those who hold that view). The political and economic realities of American life cause some groups to suffer significantly more than others–rarely by design, sometimes by prejudice, sometimes by horrible circumstance.

    My article is addressing a fairly narrow point on this topic which, if I apply it to Black Lives Matters, looks something like this: what they really want doesn’t exist. Please notice the utter absence of advice on what they “should” do. Please note also that I believe our country should continue to strive to change and improve, and I believe it does. It just won’t always do so in ways that meet your approval. Or mine!

    “I thought I provided a well reasoned rejection to the suggestion that “normal” was something that those outside the dominant culture shouldn’t aspire to.”

    At no point did I suggest this, and as I said, it indicates you don’t understand the essay.

    Pillsy, I think you are saying that you didn’t suffer when you were in a minority, and are thus disagreeing with me on that point? I don’t think my piece argues I suffered, does it? The irony was that I didn’t suffer much while living as a minority, although I enjoyed the idea that one day I’d be “normal” in American. In contrast, returning to “normal” made me miserable, because, alas, I’m not normal!

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  13. Michele Kerr:I also am untroubled by A Teacher’s masking gender–I think it’s a good plan, basically, and in our last debate I remember mulling if this was a guy who was just comfortable with everyone assuming him female. Score!

    Once again, you’ll have to pull that extra point off the board. I have never made an effort to mask my gender. Again, the Gender Non Specific title of “A Teacher” came from my simply wanting emphasize my status as an educator in a particular discussion and it stuck since. I said I prefer They as a pronoun because I don’t feel it necessary to constantly re-affirm my gender when people just plain forget. There has been no concerted effort to hide who I am. If someone addresses me as “She” I have (when it’s happened and I noticed) generally taken to correct them. If I have not, it has been simply because I didn’t make a note of it, not because I was rubbing my hands together cackling “ah HA! I’ve foooooooooooled them”.

    I have a MALE Avatar. If I was actually making an effort to mask my identity I would, you know, maybe use a generic image too?

    (if you want to apologize for something, apologize for that extra l!)

    Consider that apology extended.

    I think the last part of the last sentence is exactly right, but here’s the thing: by assuming that my experience, or lack of a particular experience, leads me to my opinions, you ARE putting me down as a person.

    This is fundamentally confusing. How else would you form opinions? We are nothing but the sum of our experiences. That’s what we are. Unless you subscribe to the idea that your choices are driven by a spirit possessing you (which I would find inconsistent with your previous statements, but at this point I cannot rule it out either), then where else would you form opinions?

    I do find it surprising that someone with your experience thusly documented could at the same time sound, to my eyes, callous to others. But if that’s the result of it, so be it. All I can do in the form of discussion is to present an opposing point of view and a (I try) persuasive argument to consider it.

    So when A Teacher brings up race and sexuality as he does in both this piece and the prior one I wrote, I’m just rolling my eyes in disdain and high dudgeon. Surely it’s occurred to him that I’ve formed these opinions*while* considering blacks, Hispanics, Asians, gays, transgenders, women, Muslims, and any other special category that I probably have more experience with than 99% of the population?

    And once AGAIN I will explain that the reason I went to Race and Sexuality as points to consider in a broader discussion of diversity is because they are the easiest to understand and consider. There are, of course, other manners of diversity to consider. In fact the one I’m finding the most effective to go to in discussion is able-bodied status. The simple question of “When was the last time you went out to eat and wondered if you’d be able to physically use the restroom?” or “When was the last time you were invited out and wondered if you’d be able to physically access the space suggested?” These are things that, at least in my circles, a good number of people hadn’t considered and that makes it a good point to really discuss affect of privilege.

    And no, I don’t assume that because you live in California “For your Sins”, that you have made any such efforts to understand diversity. My mind is immediately taken back to an evening at an overnight retreat when one of the girls in our group started knocking on the wall in a clearly-non-random pattern. The next day she was aghast that we didn’t knock back to talk. “Didn’t you all know that code? I learned it in rehab!” I’m a little better informed now of you background and that’s helpful, but your assumptions for “don’t you know how Diverse I am?” comes off a little, well.. off.

    My article is addressing a fairly narrow point on this topic which, if I apply it to Black Lives Matters, looks something like this: what they really want doesn’t exist.

    I accept that this is your point of view and I suppose it would be best not to attempt to change it.

    I think you’re horribly wrong. I think you’re tragically wrong. I think you lack a fundamental understanding of what BLM wants.

    But I recognize I’ll never, probably, convince you otherwise, least of all this far down in the comments.

    In contrast, returning to “normal” made me miserable, because, alas, I’m not normal!

    And for some of us, this is the thing we try the hardest to address: There is no reason that being outside “the normal” as defined by the dominant culture should make anyone miserable.

    I appreciate your engagement. It is always curious and stimulating.

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