Saturday, January 21, 2012

Little victories, the personal and the political

Posted on January 21, 2012

Yesterday (January 20, 2012), Debalina and I went to meet with the Tippecanoe County school officials to contest the categorization of our son Shloke as a "English as a Second Language (ESL)" child. This was after I had written to the school administrator about how that categorization was incorrect and had asked to see race-based data from him about decisions that are made on the basis of the categorization (resources provided or denied on the basis of specific metrics, and the race-based breakdowns of these metrics. I was interested to know how often children of color were denied specific resources although they qualified under a certain metric as compared to Caucasian children).

At the meeting, the school officials were very gracious. They had also brought in a bilingual expert who specialized in Spanish and English, and who in someway understood our struggle although she was not conversant in Bengali. This particular expert worked with the increasing number of bilingual Spanish-English families in the school system. She shared with us that she understood our anger because she herself was of Hispanic origin and recalled how she felt angered when she was asked to take TOEFL to demonstrate her English proficiency although she had spent majority of her adult life in the US.

Our discussion with the school staff was productive, and we engaged in a dialogue about what the structural implications are when a child growing up in a multi-lingual context where there is a lot of language shifting that goes on is classified by the system as "English as second language (ESL)." A mistaken classification, that might often be on the basis of what school staff and volunteers want to hear in their heads, has large consequences for the child and the kinds of structural resources that he has access to. The school administrators admitted that there was a need for greater training and information-based advocacy directed at school staff and teachers.

This is a small victory for us and for Shloke, and this small victory points to the need for engaging in everyday struggles that challenge the assumptions that are built into our systems. You see, in a climate of political correctness and equal opportunity, nobody and particularly so with administrators of broader educational structures, wants to hear that their structure is racist. And yet there is so much racism that is built into the institutional processes of these structures and the seemingly well-meaning, good hearted people that inhabit these structures. That IS the hegemony of Whiteness.

The school official who had noted down that we had mentioned Shloke grew up primarily learning Bengali wrote that down because she wanted to hear that in her head and that is the perception she had walking into the door with. Even though we filled out a form in which we wrote specifically that at home Shloke spoke both English and Bengali, in that order, and repeated to her multiple times that we code-switched in our everyday conversations, she wrote down what she did because she had already made up her mind.

It is hard to speculate what went on in someone's mind when they decided to operationalize a situation in a particular way that seemed far from reality to us, the parents of the child; but what we learn from this situation is the increasing necessity of equipping our school systems, colleges, and universities with staff and administrators who understand the nuances of culture, are willing to engage in the complexities that constitute boundary crossings, and are open to listening and learning.

In a report of the consultation meeting, the school staff had noted that the "parents gave us contradictory information." The truth is that we said what we did all along, that we code switched often at home, and Shloke was exposed to both languages: English and Bengali in his home environment.

Yesterday, at the end of our meeting, the school administrator offered to re-write the evaluation and also offered to revise/edit out the statements about us giving contradictory reports that were written into the consultation form. You see in a world where the truths are often constituted on the basis of who gets to narrate the truth, our personal actvism allowed us to rewrite the story. However, we could not have engaged in this personal activism had it not been for the guidance of colleagues who directed us to resources and the advise of Hope Gulker and Jeanette Leonard, the faculty members of the Purdue Speech Lab who educated us, guided us, and equipped us with invaluable resources. To us, Hope and Jeanette were guardian angels who built our efficacy and empowered us. We also had the privilege of having my father, baba, with us at the time, whose personal politics of activism and advocacy in speaking out againts injustices offered us a template for action.

Debalina and I created an alternative narrative that challenged the process frameworks of a dominant structure and re-wrote its framing of us as liars by interrogating the processes of the structure and by being comfortable with "being uncomfortable" in asking these questions; however, we were "able" to do because of the structures we inhabit as Purdue academics. We are surrounded by friends and colleagues who ask difficult questions, and seek to engage with the complex answers to these difficult questions. In sum, we are privileged.

I wonder how many parents are so privileged to have access to the advocacy and activism resources to raise their voices when injustices such as this happen everyday through seemingly innoucuous practices. How would someone with lower levels of access than us to communicative structures and to their rules have responded?

How do we turn our personal sorrow and engagement to a weapon for collective organizing, as a resource in our community that challenges the well-meaning racist processes that inhabit our educational systems and struuctures? How do we turn our activism into educational opportunities for dominant structures, and in interrogating the games of racism that they play out everyday in excluding "the other"? Most importantly for us, how do we as academics inhabiting university structures turn these lessons of learning into entry points for advocating for systemic changes in evaluation systems that carry out their racist biases through their seemingly innocuous rules and procedures?

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