I think it’s fair to say that back in the early 80s, there were two kinds of people: Michael Jackson fans and Prince fans.
In my youthful mind, MJ was nice, sweet and safe, and so I rejected him. Prince, on the other hand, better symbolized my teenage rebellion. Prior to Purple Rain, Prince was considered an outsider, a sexual deviant and a “freak.” People thought he was both gay and a sexual predator of women.
My mom could’ve have easily banned him from my musical playlist. But she didn’t. She didn’t bat an eyelash while I sang “Erotic City” and “Soft and Wet” at the top of my lungs, not knowing what the hell I was singing about. One time she asked me to get off couch and do some chores and I told her, with the most sincerity, that I could not because I was busy “visualizing” the video for “17 Days.”
She also could’ve protested when I covered literally every wall in my bedroom with Rolling Stone and Right On! magazine covers. Or when I decided to put the infamous poster of him in the shower on the ceiling right above my bed.
Instead, Mom gave me the room to let my musical tastes and, hence, my imagination run free. She didn’t suppress my sexual curiosity or make me feel badly for having desires.
The ultimate test of her parental patience and loyalty came in the form of a concert featuring Prince, The Time and Prince’s proteges, Vanity 6. I beggggged my mom to take me. Instead of outright rejecting my request, Mom decided to play hardball. “I’ll take you to the Prince concert, if you win me tickets to see Chaka Khan,” she bargained.
You know what happened, right? I spent that night dialing the radio station like a crazy person until I was the right caller. Mission: Accomplished. I was going to see My Boy in person. I was 12 years old.
The night of February 13th was bitter, cold and snowy but you couldn’t tell me nothing as Mom and I made our way to the D.C. Armory, which was basically a giant warehouse with some chairs. She allowed me to run toward the stage during the performances and I had to check in with her between acts. Vanity 6 came out on stage in a full set of lingerie. Prince humped the bed during his performance of “Do Me, Baby.” It was no place for a child. What I lacked in direct adult supervision, I gained in confidence and navigational skills. I roamed the armory like a champ and, from the floor, waved my arms in the direction of my mother so that she could see that I was OK. In retrospect, I don’t know what either of us was thinking.
Mom was my Road Dawg a year later when I begggged her to take me to see “Purple Rain” at a movie theater in Georgetown. This time she didn’t play any games. She eagerly bought the tickets and did The Bird right along with me in the aisle.
I wore a pair of lavender high top Chucks nearly everyday in the 10th grade. I spent what little money I earned on albums, posters, and buttons. Over time, this independence spread into other areas of my life, including my hairstyles, my resistance to all things “girly girl,” my hatred for the Washington Redskins despite growing up in Northern Virginia, and my desire to go to college out of state. Through it all, my mom supported me and provided transportation when needed, and gave me money whenever she could.
Prince, of course, was more than a celebrity crush for me. My obsession with him really mirrors my journey of self discovery. In Prince, I found an individual who dared to break boundaries, who was original, and who spoke his own truth. He sharpened my critical thinking skills and his inspiration can be found in my teaching pedagogy, my managerial skills and my decision to shop at thrift stores. Perhaps only Michael Corleone has a greater influence.
I am grateful to my mother for nurturing this relationship, and subsequently, for nurturing my personal growth. She will forever be the Tricky to my Christopher Tracy.
On the fourth day of our Barcelona trip, Rob reluctantly broke some news to me. His travel sized tube of cocoa butter lotion was now empty. He was out and needed to get more. I panicked. “Are you sure?” I stammered and started moving things around the bedroom, perhaps in search of an overlooked bottle somewhere. “Maybe we can get by another day?”
But we both knew the truth: that little 2.1 ounce bottle was not equipped to handle an ashy black man for a full seven days, anyway. Where were we going to find a suitable product in Spain? In one of those farmacia’s we kept passing by? Doubtful.
It didn’t look good.
On one of our morning jaunts to the local neighborhood cafe, out of the corner of my eye I spotted something familiar in the window of one of the local shops. I gasped and pointed. “Rob, look!”
Not only was there a bottle of lotion but also jars of hair conditioner and creamy moisturizers on full display for the world to see. Intrigued and even a little giddy, we stepped inside.
To our great surprise and wonderment, there were whole walls of Palmers and Aveeno. Racks and racks of coconut oil and shea butter. Motions No Lye Silkening Shine Relaxer System. In the back of the shop, we saw brown skinned people laughing, listening to music and getting their hair done. It was like we had stumbled across the Wizarding World of Black Hair Care and Body Creams in Spain. Or perhaps we accidentally came upon a portal that transported us from Barcelona direct to 125th and Lenox Avenue in Harlem.
Rob grabbed not one but two bottles of lotion, while I made a mental note that the store also sold the butter creme moisturizer that I was looking for.
Filled with excitement that la ciudad could be so generous to us, we walked by the next day. But our new discovery wasn’t there. Instead we were confronted with a closed gate. Where were the posters advertising the latest shampoos and hair coloring treatments? What about all of the people who looked like us? Body balm, gone. Murray’s dressing pomade, bye bye. Cocoa butter lotion, adios. It was like we had imagined the whole thing.
But how does a store just shut down in 24 hours? Was it a pop up business of some kind? Back in the States, my mom, ever the Dumbledore for all things related to beauty supplies, conjectured, “I think it was God the whole time. God knew that if Rob stayed ashy, your trip would’ve been ruined. That shop was put there just for you. It doesn’t really exist. Be thankful.”
Previously in Barcelona . . . Jabari came to Spain with only socks and sandals. We walked a few miles throughout the city in search of authentic sneakers. #nofakes
Let’s go to sleep in Paris
Wake up in Tokyo
Have a dream in New Orleans
Fall in love in Chicago
~”Paris, Tokyo,” Lupe Fiasco
I have a very hazy memory of traveling with my family, including my crew of cousins, to Jackson, New Jersey, probably a three hour drive from our home in Northern Virginia. Our ultimate destination was Great Adventure theme park. I barely remember the park, but I do remember the drive, the humidity and the low budget motel. It was probably the highlight of my youth.
As a typical working-class kid, my vacations were limited to theme parks (Great Adventures! King’s Dominion!) and family reunions in the South. The idea of traveling out of the country was never an option, at least not in any concrete way. When I was in college, I never ever considered Study Abroad, and I did not obtain an official passport until 2015.
My husband and I were fully aware of the import of taking our children out of the country. This would be one of those times when we felt like we had finally Made It. A straight up Huxtable move. Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about something similar when he describes why he took his son to Paris:
“What I wanted was to put as much distance between you and that blinding fear as possible. I wanted you to see different people living by different rules” (pp. 126-127).
Before we left for Barcelona, my husband and I had The Talk with our kids.
“You might get stared at.”
“Don’t get mad if people try to touch your hair.”
“People might mistake you for Kobe.”
We felt it necessary to have this candid conversation for two primary reasons: 1) both kids have social anxiety, and we wanted to prepare them for possible uncomfortable social situations; and 2) I had heard stories from several black students about their racialized experiences abroad, including being called “negro” or being mistaken for prostitutes.
As fate would have it, our kids were disappointed. Despite their eager anticipation, they experienced no outward racial discrimination or even double takes. “Que guapo!” one of the waitresess beamed when she saw Jabari’s hair up close. Her eyes got even wider when she saw Zoe’s tangled curls in all of their glory.
In fact, the kids adapted quite easily to this foreign place. Once when we stepped into the foyer of our apartment building, Jabari took a deep breath and then exhaled, “It just smells like Europe here!” After maybe two days, he told us that he had started to do some serious reflection and wondered aloud about the amount of food waste in the U.S. and our overall capitalistic system. (Let’s see how long that business major lasts, I thought to myself).
Indeed, it was completely worth every penny to provide this opportunity for our children. On our last day, I put my arm around Zoe and said, “You’re going to move to the UK when you get older, huh?” She grinned and nodded.
“Well, thanks for telling me now,” I laughed. “This gives me time to prepare. I’ll be sure to visit you often.”
After a six hour plane ride to New York City followed by a 7 hour flight, my family and I arrived in Barcelona around 7am the next day. Exhausted and bleary eyed, we bumbled through the airport and made our way to the local bus stop outside. That’s when it hit us: we were in a different country with limited knowledge of the language and no real idea of how to get to our host apartment in the Poble Sec neighborhood. As directed, we took the bus to Placa Espanya and had to walk an additional quarter mile to our new home.
This entire time it was pouring down raining. I mean, non-stop. Puddles everywhere. And it was cold. I looked down at his feet and noticed that Jabari was still wearing his Stance socks and Nike slide on sandals. “Son, don’t you want to change? Are you Ok walking around like that?” Stoically, he nodded and mumbled a response, so I didn’t think anything more of it, figuring this must be some kind of trend at his college.
But Rob gave me the scoop later: J left his sneakers back home. Those Nike sandals on his feet were the only shoes that he had. Forget Las Ramblas and La Sagrada Familia. We were on a mission to find a pair of size 13 athletic shoes in Spain.
Ever the navigator, Rob identified 24 Segons aka The Basketball Store a few blocks away from our apartment. Feeling more confident in our ability to navigate the neighborhood, we trekked on over. Cerrado. We were puzzled. After all, it was Sunday, and the weekend is a major day for capitalist exchanges back in the States.
Undeterred, we returned on Monday–right in the middle of the day! Surely, the store would be open for customers then. We saw lights and an employee inside. Jabari put his hand on the door handle, but the clerk shooed us away. The hell??? He pointed to the store hours on the glass door. And that was our introduction to the Spanish siesta. Lo siento, los Americanos! Come back later!
So we turned our attention to the infamous Parc Guell, a park designed by Antonio Gaudi, and then we headed south and took a leisurely stroll through the Gracia neighborhood (one of our favorites), stopping once for churros and hot chocolate (yum!) and then again for tapas. We walked up steep inclines, across the rocky landscape in the park, and then back down major hills into the city. Overall, it was probably a good two miles, maybe more.
Throughout the city, we noticed groups of dark-skinned street vendors, most likely Senegalese immigrants, who hung out at the various metro stops and other touristy areas with their faux handbags and shoes.
As we walked by one particular group, a guy sized up Jabari and called out to him in a cool American accent: “What size you wear, man?” The guy had a blanket full of knock off sneakers. “Just $20.”
J paused for a minute, clearly conflicted about his options. Ultimately, he decided that getting off-brand Yeezy’s just wasn’t worth the risk. Apparently, he was trying to avoid the inevitable deep depression that comes with procuring rip-offs on the black market (no pun intended). Adidas before Falso. Street cred before Good fakes. Mental health before undermining capitalism. Sorry, bro. The search continued.
Previously, on As The Racial Micro-Aggressions Turn, our son was written up for inciting a brawl and, one year later, he was identified as gifted. He also was asked to bring to school a dish from our “home country,” so by the time our daughter had a similar assignment some years later, we didn’t bat an eyelash. Oh, you want her to wear native garb from our homeland?
We sent her in a cotton dress from Target. Don’t get me wrong. I am all in favor of celebrating ethnic diversity. But the emphasis on ancestral homelands strikes me as highly problematic for reasons that I can’t quite articulate. I turned to my mother for perspective. “Who keeps child-sized immigrant wear in their closet???” She refused to dignify the topic any further.
I also asked a few friends with school-aged children for their input. To make sure that my survey was scientific and unbiased, I made sure not to ask black people. My hypothetical question was pretty simple: what would you do if your kid was given an assignment to wear something from your homeland?
Clearly, these friends are not very authentic, so I consulted my pal, Marilyn, reared by a family of educators in the Midwest and one of the most socially aware people that I know. She also has not one but two African American children. Surely, she must have her finger on the pulse of diversity education in schools.
Marilyn: “USA! USA! Or we could dress her as a hick.”
She then went on to explain how her friends let their children dress up in the traditional wear of a country that they are interested in, rather than sticking to the whole Dress Like Your Ancestors assignment. Hold up, I say. You mean this is an actual assignment for the school? I thought we were speaking in hypotheticals for the purpose of this research. “Yes,” Educated Marilyn texts back. “Every year [my daughter’s] school celebrates Multicultural Day and encourages all of the students to dress in their native garb. There is a parade during recess and all of the parents are invited.” Then Marilyn has a revelation. “Maybe they can dress as Harriet Tubman.” I realize now that this topic requires greater reflection. WHY do schools think these assignments are a good idea? What assumptions are being made about people’s histories and culture? On the one hand, black American kids or other groups who don’t readily identify as immigrants can feel marginalized during these school-sanctioned celebrations, particularly when there is an emphasis on “home” being outside of the U.S. Additionally, we run the risk of constantly viewing some groups (e.g., Latinos) only through an immigration lens, as though they are perpetual visitors and outsiders. Just as important: with all of the emphasis on clothing and food, what messages are we sending to young people about multiculturalism and cultural sensitivity?
I recently facilitated a two-hour workshop to mostly faculty and some staff and students at Nevada State College, a four-year public institution right outside of Las Vegas. NSC’s population primarily are low to moderate income first-generation college students, many of whom are also returning adults with full-time jobs. In consideration of the students, I was asked to present practical and tangible things that professors can do in the classroom given the unique experiences of first-gen students.
Prior to my visit, I consulted with my BRILLIANT friends and colleagues across the country and here’s what they had to say on the matter:
I share my experience as a first-generation student and use that to discuss the importance of campus involvement and mentorship–this is where I plug the student org that I advise!
As for assignments, I give them at least one paper where they can center themselves in the analysis, which helps them perceive themselves as authoritative knowers.
Also, I make an offer to write letters of recommendation *if they participate and do well in the class.* Once I make this announcement, I see a remarkable shift in some of the students who have aspirations for internships, scholarships, etc., but don’t know how to ask for letters.
I also don’t assume that they know what kinds of support services we have on campus, and integrate information about those services into the discussions as they apply to the course content.
~Larissa Mercado-Lopez, Fresno State University, women’s studies
I’ve learned students really like work that has them moving and more than just lecture. I try to give them group work in the classroom and activities so they can become part of a discussion.
I’ve also learned to read their body language and give them a “breather” break when possible. Videos or short clips really help, too. We have a generation of young people that have grown up with different technology than the one I grew up with (like internet) so they are very hands-on and react good with multiple ways of learning.
~Elizabeth Gonzalez-Cardenas, California State University, Long Beach and California State University, Northridge, Ethnic Studies
I do a lot with unwritten rules… A kind of “why do they [profs] do that?”
~Amy Baldwin, Director of University College, Literacy & Writing Faculty, University of Central Arkansas
I think approaching every course– and every skill set– as if it is not self-evident is crucial. So not assuming that there is one way to take notes, to close read, to use tech or blackboard or whatever you are using, to structure a paper, to make an argument, etc.
I think if you make the nuts and bolts of what you are asking not just transparent but something you come up with as a group in class, there’s more awareness that first gen-ers already have the skills they need (so less self-doubt) and more clarity on what can seem like invisible norms and rules they haven’t been let in on at home or in high school, necessarily. So the class is less like a club you are joining late and more like a game we are all learning to play, and helping to shape/name the rules.
This and always varying the way students can contribute and participate in class, so that everyone gets days to be a leader/facilitator built-in, as well as pairs, small groups, peer workshopping, etc. that way those with outsize confidence who feel overly prepped for college aren’t the only ones talking/shaping the conversation.
In other words, solid student-centered learning–it’s not just about the teacher/student dynamic! It’s about the students, period– ESP first gens and other vulnerable students.
And take every class to the library! It’s not just the practical skills of research they can learn there– it’s how to formulate a research question at all, and how to change it once you’ve started reading.
~Samantha Pinto, Georgetown University, Department of English
Putting forward the notion of growth mindset at the begin in of class, explicitly discussing a variety of learning strategies, making an effort to connect with all students from the start and getting them to see me as a resource from the start.
~Curtis Bennett, Loyola Marymount University, Department of Mathematics and Associate Dean, Seaver College of Science and Engineering
I would consider also getting their back story, personal stuff, maybe a survey to discuss during one on one’s with you. In particular, I recall how my mother didn’t believe that the library was open until midnight, so I would have to continuously explain myself and why I hadn’t called sooner. Negotiating familial expectations and cultural norms might still be real, even for gifted first geners.
~Helen Alatorre, Assistant Dean of Students for Leadership, University of Wyoming
Encourage students to discuss their academic assignments, projects, goals etc with their family – not to discount your family’s intellect just because they didn’t go to college.
I also make sure to explain acronyms and offer virtual or phone office hours if they’re too nervous/unsure of doing face-to-face office hours.
~Dimpal Jain, California State University at Northridge, Department of Education
Make their friends allies in their success. Form study groups. Check in on one another.
Remember that campus services such as tutoring, writing centers, counseling, etc. are for their use. I’ve seen students feel either ashamed of seeking help or misperceiving how much help their classmates get.
Make time to keep in touch with family and friends.
Multitasking while reading does not work.
Maybe ask them what kind of life they imagine for themselves. I found that some students would talk about being a doctor or lawyer because they didn’t know what other kinds of jobs could help them earn a living and still be happy. If they could meet people who were first gen and are now doing something else, that might be good.
Be very attentive in class and work to look attentive.
I wish I had known how membership in student organizations could be beneficial after college.
~Tracy Curtis, University of Wisconsin at Madison, Department of Afro-American Studies
I talk up the importance of struggle, mistakes, uncertainty and even failure and persistence. I talk about how writing is always hard. Even for me and all professors. I talk about my learning new sub fields and the joy and terror there. I let them see that they should value all of that.
Eliza Gibson y Rodriguez, Loyola Marymount University, Department of Chicana/o Studies, chair
Because I discuss the role of social context in determining experiences as part of my course content, I address the hidden curriculum and socialization to educational practices. This allows me to directly address first gen student issues, as just one element of difference in educational institutions. I have to be careful to frame as a strength, as well as challenge, but I have to do so for all of the backgrounds I discuss.
I also try to create some degree of transparency and also place myself in the first gen camp and how it shaped my experience as an undergrad.
Also, Rachel Washburn did a great series at the CTE a couple of years ago that addressed our assumptions about what students come into the classroom knowing. One of the workshops was about unpacking this knowledge so that as instructors, we are more explicit about teaching our students practices and processes that we might think of as “general knowledge,” but are actually disciplinary-specific ways of thinking and knowing.
I do my best to constantly switch back and forth between facilitating and teaching and mentoring. I take time in each class to talk about my own process of writing and studying to make my thinking an object of analysis. Lots of – “here’s how I would do this/answer this/approach this/strategize to do this.”
~Denise Pacheco, Executive Officer, Office of the Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs, University of California at Los Angeles
So takeaways? Some faculty may already employ these strategies into their classrooms; others may use them but may not be aware what the strategy is called; and then the vast majority may not be aware that they may need to adjust their teaching for different audiences. It is very possible to both hold high standards for your students while also providing a road map for how to get there!
Our son is identified as “gifted” when he is in the second grade. When he brings home the official school notice, we burst out laughing.
Sure, we’ve always considered him to be a bright kid, very serious about LEGOs and inclined to the occasional insight. (“I am not a nerd; I am a mammal,” he once declared). But gifted? He was only seven years old.
A teacher, parent or student (!) can make a referral for GATE screening. In our case, we had no idea that our son had been identified or tested. We later find out that most testing begins in second grade, but students may qualify for Intellectual Ability as soon as second semester of kindergarten.
Once a student is identified as gifted, she “requires an environment which encourages extremely high levels of abstract thinking, motivation, interest, achievement, peer interaction, and a radically accelerated pace of learning,” and she also becomes eligible for specialized programs like School of Advanced Students (SAS), targeted magnet programs, Honors and Advanced Placement courses, etc.
And here’s the kicker: the gifted designation stays on a student’s permanent record for perpetuity. It doesn’t matter what grades the child receives, he remains in the gifted program until he leaves the District or graduates from high school.
But we don’t know any of this at the time. We just shrug and don’t think anything more of it.
As a gifted student, our son now qualifies for the School of Advanced Studies (or SAS) at his public middle school, essentially an honors track for basic subjects like math, English and science. He mixes with “regular” students in journalism and physical education.
The school requires all students to wear a uniform. But one of the English teachers mandates that the sixth grade SAS students tuck in their shirts to differentiate themselves because “they are going to college,” she says.
Because he had not been tested in elementary school, one of our son’s best friends, a student of color, applies for the SAS program. He is denied several times before he is finally admitted in the seventh grade.
Although the middle school is over 80% black and Latino, most of the SAS kids are not. I request a meeting with the principal to discuss the demographics of the SAS program. I am armed with a copy of Whiteness as Giftedness for support.
She tells me that she is aware of the racial imbalance. And she discloses—without irony, regret or hesitation—that if the parent of a white student does not feel comfortable with her child in “regular” classes (because the black and Latino students are “too loud”), then the student may request a “social promotion” and be transferred to the gifted program.
I look around to see if there are hidden cameras anywhere. Surely, the graduate students back at my office at UCLA are pulling a prank on me. No one would really admit to such a thing out loud would they? Right to my face?
Four years later, when she is in the sixth grade and also at the same middle school, my daughter says that she is fed up being one of three black kids in the honors classes. She wants to leave the school altogether.
In a preemptive strike, I warn her that she might expect something similar when she gets to high school. Her target school, University HS in West LA, has a similar population. The SAS program there also is diverse I tell her.
“That means not a lot of black kids, huh?” she responds cooly, Intellectual Ability in full effect.
The old middle school principal is fired, so I meet with the new one, an affable African American man that many of the parents adore. I express my daughter’s concerns and tell him that we are looking at other school options. He tells me there’s nothing he can do to diversify the SAS program. Kids either arrive at the school “gifted” or not.
To address the disproportionate number of underrepresented (i.e., black and Latino) student populations in gifted programs, beginning 2011, LAUSD requires ALL second graders to be tested, eliminating potential teacher bias and parent intervention.
A 2015 report reveals that the LAUSD gifted testing process has been compromised due to suspicious results. During the 2012-2013 academic year, entire classrooms in some cases were above the 99th percentile thanks, in large part, to “pre-exposure” of the test used to measure giftedness. In other words, some internet savvy and well-resourced parents were able to find the GATE instrument online and had their student “practice” before the actual test.
One of my daughter’s best friends, also African American and currently in the ninth grade, remembers taking the GATE test back in the second grade. “It was pretty easy,” she shrugs. “Just a bunch of shapes and colors.” I ask what stands out most of her experience.
“Being gifted to me . . . was a time where the so-called gifted kids would be pulled out of class and given special treatment. They were made to feel as though they were better than everyone else. The kids who weren’t in the GATE program would think of themselves as not as smart as the other kids. Children chosen to be in the [GATE] program would boast about being a ‘smart kid’ putting others down as they did so.
Being tested at a very young age to begin with really doesn’t make sense. People change, along with their abilities and strengths.”
Pearl, 14, has plans to become an entrepreneur and is opening an online store this year. Harvard University is her top choice. For now.