Race, Class and Gender Met in a Bar…

intersectionalityI want to be bell hooks when I grow up. I want to be such a bad ass scholar that I can write an essay for The Feminist Wire telling Sheryl Sandberg to get-on-my-level or sit down somewhere.

Phew.

That essay is everything I need. Pieces like this written by formidable scholars are the motivation I need to fight my small battle in the arena of social justice. Just this weekend I was engaged in such a battle.

I posted the following on my Facebook wall: My mom witnessed a 10-year-old white boy peeing in his front yard in their suburban subdivision. He was hanging with his friend in front of his house, got up, walked to his front door and peed. He didn’t even pee with his back to the street; no, it was in profile. Now, if that 10-year-old boy had been black and a white neighbor saw that, what would’ve happened?

I knew when I posted that I would receive the obligatory let’s make light of the issue type of responses. Indeed, some people expressed their amusement. Some made jokes about enacting similar behavior. Some expressed their outrage. And one expressed her confusion with my anger.

I made explicit my issue: People called the cops on the black boys in the neighborhood for playing basketball AT THE BASKETBALL court in the neighborhood. In fact, they complained so much at the presence of black males (who lived in the neighborhood), the basketball court is now a skate park. If the white neighbors called the police on black boys playing basketball, imagine what would’ve happened if they’d been peeing in public. #IndecentExposure #PublicUrination #SexOffender You have only to look up statistics on juvenile arrest rates to see this reality. In fact, the National Council on Crime released a report about this in 2007.

Following this comment, one woman said it has nothing to do with race. Someone agreed and said she thought it was about cultural ideals and perhaps the people in the (middle class suburban) neighborhood. A different woman chimed in stating: I think the question concerns who can “pee” without consequence, and who can’t. I think it’s safe to assume that to some people, black youth behaving this way would be framed as bringing down the neighborhood and delinquency, and not just a non-threatening instance of “boys being boys”.

I made other random comments about white privilege, male privilege, etc. But my point seemed to be completely missed by most people responding. A friend sharing my outrage summed it up nicely to me in private conversation: This young boy’s behavior is representative of the myriad of ways he will continue to piss on things (and people) throughout his life.

The simple fact that he felt safe enough, empowered enough, entitled enough to urinate in plain view of neighbors is reflective of how social systems position white males in this country. Issues of power, privilege, race, class, and gender cannot be disaggregated and analyzed separately. The formers do not exist without the latter(s). Any discussion of privilege IS a discussion of race. A discussion of race IS a discussion of class. One must always factor in gender as a moderating variable capable of enhancing or suppressing one’s status. Is this not common knowledge?

I guess not.

Having a few days to digest this exchange, I am pushed to consider if this may be one of the reasons effective education reform has not emerged. We (read: people like Sandberg) attempt to fix problems not fully understood. Just as Ms. Sandberg cannot erase sexism through empowered (pseudo) feminism, one cannot erase educational inequality through pseudo democracy. What of poverty? Segregation? How can you propose ‘choice’ as a solution when almost half of public school children come from families for whom choice is a dream?

The convergence of race, class and gender are blatant in any public school classroom. Males are disciplined harsher than females. Black males receive the harshest discipline followed by black females and Latino males. Poor students are more likely to be enrolled in special education. Poor students of color are almost three times more likely than white students to be in special education. Poor students receive the least qualified and least experienced teachers. Expectations for female students are lower in math and science classes than for male students. Extracurricular funding is disproportionately given to male sports teams. 73% of classroom teachers are women. Only 8% of classroom teachers are ethnic minorities.

These data are not new. They tell an old story of white upper-class privilege. And the ending has yet to change. Whether you’re hawking books, peeing in the yard or trying to get an education, your road to success has already been paved. Whatever choice you have is socially constructed along with race, class and gender.

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