Monday, March 24, 2014

Our Differences Become Deficits

I hear this at least once a week.

"She tries really hard but just doesn't have family support."
"Our XYZ students struggle because so many come from broken homes."
"There's not much you can do when he doesn't have a father at home."

When I was growing up I had many Uncles and Aunties. This Uncle was my dad's friend and this Auntie was really my mom's cousin and I'm not really sure how we knew that Auntie. Some of them were brothers and sisters of my parents. Some were cousins. Some were my parents' friends who were adults. All of them were family.

In the United States, when we think of family, we think of a father, a mother, and 2.5 kids.

When we look at our students, we see a missing father and think this kid doesn't have a family. We think a house with aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents is a sign of poverty. We look down on a mom with eight children and pity her assumed lack of education. We discount the woman who has taken care of all of the neighborhood kids.

Shift your lens for a moment. Imagine we valued an expanded view of family. The old woman who brings over food. The household full of noise and life and love. The neighbor who picks up all of the kids from school. Everyone becomes family. Now who has the deficit? The girl in this household who lacks a father but has the entire community? Or the boy with one sister, two parents, and doesn't know his neighbors?

We assign deficit to our students. There will always be a gap when we allow the ideal to be constructed using dominant norms.

Yes. The systems that imprison and deport the parents of our students need to be dismantled. I agree. But we make the problem worse.

That perceived deficit ends up having real-world consequences. We assume our student is misbehaving because he doesn't have a mother so we ignore it. We never call home because there's no father to call. We accept low scores because his mom has to work and isn't around to help.

We do nothing. We lower our expectations. We don't teach. Our students don't learn. A gap is created. It's not because your student doesn't have a father. It's because we missed the family he does have. To us, it just didn't look like family.

This doesn't stop with just schools and teachers. Invoking Patricia Hill-Collins, we can look at how transfer of wealth, loans, and taxation operate on an ideal of family that is centered on the dominant norm. We can look at our country built around freeways and the conveyances that fit a 2-partner, 2.5-child family so nicely. We can look at who can be a dependent on our health care and can visit us in prisons and hospitals. Even now, folks are becoming less comfortable with deporting a mother but are still fine with deporting the aunt who is the primary wage-earner in the household. Benefits accrue over time for those who fit the dominant norm of family, the system perpetuates itself, and gaps get wider. These systems stretch across our society yet are completely invisible.

We make the mistake of thinking we see deficits when we're really seeing differences. It is our obligation as teachers to de-center ourselves and see the strengths that are already in our students and our communities. Until this happens, we are part of the problem.