Whiteness (Race), Gender, Culture…
Do some suicides matter more than others?
It just so happened that our third dialogue session on identities came on the second anniversary of an 11-year-old’s suicide. Some high school students from Springfield offered a trenchant analysis of why the 2009 suicide of Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover received less sustained public attention than that of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince in 2010. In contrast with the perception that “people are always bullied” in Springfield – where Carl lived and died – “South Hadley always gets good press.” The novelty of “something bad happening there” drew the media spotlight. Kamari, Noelani, Tiffany, Jerrico, Allie, Ashley and Tory had no difficulty naming stereotypes associated with area high schools, including those held by others about them.
Frustration and humor poured out of these young people in equal measure, spinning out in multiple directions and toward a range of targets. These high school juniors are in a bind and they know it. Refreshingly, they sense that high school students from other schools in western Massachusetts are also bound up in their own situations. The strangeness of social hierarchies based on assumptions about identity clearly exasperates them; telling jokes to keep each other laughing is a social coping strategy.
Naming the superficial
Most of the contact between high school youth occurs through sports. “You see what people in other towns think and it’s not very nice.” I was discouraged to learn only negative stories, mainly about South Hadley. I suspect South Hadley topped out the stereotype list both because they are hosting the multi-high school Dialogue Summit on April 30 and because of disparities of public interest in the two suicides.
Some stereotypes about students at South Hadley High School are
- “notorious” and “known for being effective at bullying;”
- “bad” in competition, swearing loudly despite the presence of young kids in the bleachers;
- “They gave me attitude – crazy attitude;” and
- “are always talking junk” and “yelling swears.”
The stereotype scenario became more complicated when we asked how these students at Renaissance High School think they are viewed by others. It depends upon where those other high school students are located. There’s one view from outside of Springfield that lumps all Springfield High Schools together: “ghetto thugs, everyone wearing do-rags, swearing, using guns, smoking dope and selling drugs – both at the same time.” This list was generated with the dull verbal tone of routine and placed in context: “This is what is shown in the media.”
Specifically, these Renaissance high schoolers imagine that their peers from South Hadley and Amherst probably assume they’re
- “loud” and “obnoxious;”
- “fight” and “steal;”
- will “kill them;” and
- “Dress like hoochies.” (“How do you spell that?” I asked. “H-o-o-c-h-i-e-s. You can throw an extra ‘o’ in there if you want.”)
These youth face a different set of stereotypes from their contemporaries in other Springfield high schools. This view came up when asked what they wanted others to know that contradicts the stereotypes. “I don’t think we can technically defend our school,” said Tory. Huh? I didn’t understand – “technically”?
“They always have a problem if you go to Renaissance:
‘you’re smart and stuck up.'”
Interestingly, these Renaissance youth don’t display extremely negative attitudes toward the other Springfield high schools. “All the bad schools have something good about them.” For instance, “Sci-Tech is good, it’s just loose.” Loose meant “30 kids outside” without administrative/adult supervision: “that would never happen here.” Commerce has programs like 1B and 9th Grade Teams (among others), and a legacy. “My dad went to Commerce when it was good… they didn’t play.”
Going in with a Clean Slate
While the students were talking about these stereotypes, I was wondering how addressing these stereotypes directly might unfold during the upcoming Multi-High School Summit. Dialogue co-facilitator Taos asked the important question about how they want to approach the Summit. Kamari responded instantly, “I’m going in with a clean slate.” They are excited! A little nervous but eager nonetheless.
From their point-of-view, neither South Hadley nor Amherst High School are very diverse. By “diversity” the students meant “not predominately one race” – then they had a bit of debate about whether Renaissance is diverse or not. From one view, “Springfield is 75% minorities,” which “isn’t very diverse.” When asked about the label, “minority,” Noelani smiled: “We’re the majority here, but not everywhere else.” The slightly more-detailed demographic breakdown (provided by the students) is 36% Hispanic, 25% Black, 26% White, and .03% Asian.
Those block percentages suggest cultural homogeneity, but most of the Renaissance youth participating in these dialogues have parents who do not share the same ethnic profile with each other.
My hypothesis is that growing up in a family where everyone doesn’t look like the same ‘type’ or even behave – culturally – in the same ways has provided these youth with a neat ability of balancing differences. The evidence is threefold (at least):
- there is no uniformity of identity among students in the dialogue group (most of whom hang together much of the time);
- their ability to perceive beyond stereotypes, and also to ‘understand’ and be able to explain why people from outside Springfield seem unable to exercise such insight in return; and
- their refusal to demonize their contemporaries living in Springfield, even though the vise of being misunderstood/misrepresented both from without and within must suck.
Identities are fluid
The communicative skillset demonstrated by these Renaissance juniors suggests an intuitive comprehension that “identity” is not a single, solid, unchanging thing. We’ve just begun to explore if it is helpful to separate stereotypes associated with the body from stereotypes associated with the mind. Specifically, does learning how to recognize when one is ‘trapped’ by a stereotype based on body help one make the shift to perceiving another based on the consciousness of their brain? Generalizations about awareness and intelligence can lead to troubled relationships, too, so I am not posing this as any kind of universal answer. I am suggesting that recognizing when a shift from body to brain would enhance a relationship, and then practicing enough to be able to pull it off when it matters, are crucial skills for navigating the increasingly complex mixing and blending of cultural ways-of-being in society today.
A fundraiser for an anti-bullying scholarship in memory of Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover will be held this upcoming April 16, 2011. Walker’s mother has become a national leader in the struggle to curb bullying in school, recently meeting with President Obama because of her activism, locally and nationally, to eliminate bullying in schools.