“Sure, have a bite, Adam, it’s OK to eat,” said the fantastical character, Eve, in that book all of us have read at some point or another. Of course, it was the book of Genesis, an origin story that in one fell swoop, painted women as creatures of temptation and consorting with serpents. Pandora wasn’t better off. I missed the nuances since I learned them as a child. In other words, I wasn’t a critical reader/thinker.

Zaretta Hammond asks, “How does culture program the software of the brain to tell us what we should be connecting to, avoiding, respecting and disrespecting?” She describes deep culture (racial, ethnic, and national culture) and says this happens to us as babies. This branding is what we get when we’re kids.

Wow, what a powerful insight. If deep culture comes to us as children, then it’s worth taking a hard look at your history, your culture, your religious beliefs. At least, it seems like an obvious connection to me.

Disclaimer: This blog entry is all over the place. Ideally, I would have written my notes and responses to each text then slowly woven the ideas together in a masterful blog entry. Well, that didn’t happen. I didn’t have time, so instead, I dumped it all and tried to fit the pieces together as I was seeing them, perhaps, probably, incorrectly. Enjoy the journey.

Whose Fault Is It, Anyway?

“The poorest and most backward societies are always those that put women down,” says Isabel Allende.

She’s quoted in a book I just read (see my notes here). We see it everywhere. Why?

When I cracked open Elizabeth Lesser’s book, Cassandra Speaks, I was appalled at the collection of quotes that consistently paint women as bad folk to be around, that lie, seduce, and are to blame for everything in a man’s life. Men blame women for so much, and these stories have crept into every relationship people have with each other, regardless of gender.

Of course, reading this book while watching the evening news, the Taliban’s treatment of their countrywomen, I couldn’t help but see Lesser’s words playing out again and again with every bit of news.

In her book, Cassandra Speaks, Lesser quotes Polly Young-Eisendrath:

“Both Eve and Pandora bring death into the world. This is a curious reversal of the fact that women bring life into the world, but it says something about the meaning of “woman” within a religion dominated by male gods.”

Lesser points out in many places where Judeo-Christian tradition is patriarchal, and exclusionary of women. If only exclusion were all there was to it, it is downright critical.

False Stories

The story of Old Testament paradise, a man-made creation according to any Jewish rabbi you may speak to rather than the literal account of how things came to be, is one that has many problems with it. As Greg Epstein pointed out in his book, Good Without God, the problem is that we started at paradise and then went downhill from there.

In what I found to be quite humorous, Epstein points out that the “Humpty Dumpty” perspective is problematic. He outlines it in his book, and here are the relevant part I noted in this blog entry:

  1. The Humpty Dumpty mentality says that the world–be it our personal lives or society as a whole or whatever–needs to be repaired.
  2. Things were once perfect and round and bright and shiny like an egg until they fell and broke into a million pieces, and now it’s our job to reassemble all the pieces.

Of course, they didn’t simply FALL down, right? The Garden of Eden didn’t fall off a wall and break. Rather, it was Eve who brought it all crashing down. And this insidious lie based on a fantasy has framed every single relationship, every interaction between men and women who believe.

In this story, Elizabeth Lesser points out:

So many stories impart the same themes: Men are the morally pure and noble. Women are the ones who succumb to evil and tempt the man.

She cites quite a few examples, making this a must-read book for every woman, and the book should be mandatory reading for all men, especially believers. She points out that as we become more “familiar with our culture’s origin stories and trace their influence,” the process serves as an effective way to take stock of our lives. Uh, it’s a bit more earth-shattering than that.

Greg Epstein points out that “there was never, ever, at any point in our lives or in human history, a perfect egg of goodness to shatter.” But this is what happens and is playing out every day in the news.

Ceasing to believe in God or religion becomes a truly meaningful, worthwhile position when it also means ceasing to live in the past. We move on. We focus not on who wronged us, but on what we can do, what we can build, how we can grow, to make our lives better.

Elizabeth Lesser suggests these stories “tell false and destructive narratives about women and men, femininity and masculinity, and the nature and purpose of life.” Epstein points this out as well, encouraging us to not focus on the past, to move on.

Once you know stories are…well, fictional…then you can say, “I don’t have to learn that lesson. Or I have a choice about how to move forward, even as I leave behind all the baggage of a complicated narrative that is heavily one-sided (patriarchal).

Equity is “reducing the predictability of who succeeds and who fails, interruptive reproductive practices that negatively impact struggling students of color, and cultivating the unique gifts and talents of every student,” according to the National Equity Project.

If you tell fake stories, lies in other words, that denigrate part of humanity (e.g. girls/women, people of color), can you achieve equity? Lesser certainly suggests that we can achieve a fresh perspective on an old challenge. She says that “Women must become protagonists in the stories that shape the world.” What does that look like? Maybe like this:

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), women contribute more than 50 percent of food produced globally and make up over 40 percent of the agricultural labour force. But while women keep families fed and nourished, they are disadvantaged in accessing critical resources for food production compared to men. They lack access to land, inputs, extension, banking and financial services.

“Until we end the discrimination of women around the globe, I doubt these things will change even though women are in the largest part of the world’s food producers,” said Nierenberg, who co-founded and now heads the global food systems think tank, Food Tank. (Source: Global Issues)

Lies My Teacher Told Me

If my Sunday school teacher told me lies, what about my public school teacher? Oh, that’s right, I went to private school for K-12, so it’s pretty much of a “Question everything” kind of experience. Whether public or private school, if you studied history out of a textbook, then you were lied to.

I now understand why my history teachers, especially those in high school, often were bitter or spent time “birdwalking,” that venerable practice of speaking about their life adventures while purporting to cover the material. Brother McCarthy at Central Catholic High School told about his experiences in Peru (making him one of my favorite teachers, but not for his lessons of history).

Brother Schnitzer (who wore alligator skin boots and guayaberas) delighted in sharing biting insights and brilliant commentary. Now, I realize both were letting us consume a load of lies.

This is driven home when I read a book like James W. Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. Consider that in all twelve textbooks reviewed (one of them being the one I practically inhaled, analyzed, memorized, regurgitated to get 100s on countless quizzes on) the following is never shared:

  • Helen Keller was a radical socialist. I had no clue. I even watched the documentary on Helen Keller. I had no idea she wrote books, marched, and supported socialism.
  • President Woodrow Wilson was a white supremacist. Wait, what? He was prejudiced against Blacks, and put into effect a variety of policies and programs to hurt various peoples. After reading what Loewen had to say about Wilson, which was excluded, my perspective changed.

I was shocked at reading this. Is it my teachers' fault I didn’t follow-up as an adult and question everything, research it all, more? Does the canard, “I was raising a family and working on my career” let me off the hook? Probably not.

In the book, James W. Loewen (he passed away August 19, 2021) points out:

I began with Helen Keller because omitting the last sixty-four years of her life exemplifies the sort of culture-serving distortion that will be discussed later in this book. We teach Keller as an ideal, not a real person, to inspire our young people to emulate her. Keller becomes a mythic figure, the “woman who overcame” but for what? There is no content!

Consistent with our American ideolog of individualism, the truncated version of Helen Keller’s story sanitizes a hero, leaving only the virtues of self-help and hard work.

Keller herself, while scarcely opposing hard work, explicitly reject this ideology.

As a result of what I read of Helen Keller, my perspective changed as well. In either case, I found myself saying, “What a bunch of lies I was fed in American high school.” You have hope that historians will be truth tellers, but no such hope for textbook publishers and teachers forced to lie to the next generation.

“Cuando reclamamos nuestra historia, reclamamos nuestro destino”: When we claim our past, we claim our future. (source: Texas Monthly)

Forget the Alamo

Can we have hope that “Remember the Alamo” monuments will stand untarnished, a fierce beacon for Texas' fight for independence, freedom? Well, not quite. In their book, Forget the Alamo, a book I am only now beginning, the authors assert several points:

  • It was about upholding slavery, not freedom
  • Mexican allies were written out of Texas history, an act of ethnic cleansing
  • “Mexican American kids can grow up in Texas believing they’re Americans, with the Statue of Liberty and all that, until seventh grade when you were taught, in essence, that if you’re Mexican, your ancestors killed Davy Crockett, that that’s kind of the original sin of the Texas creation myth. It has been used just anecdotally for generations to put down Mexican Americans, a big beefy white guy going up to the little Mexican guy and punching him in the arm and saying, “Remember the Alamo,” that type of thing. (source)

As someone with dual citizenship, United States through my father, an American of Swedish descent who fought in the Korean Conflict and Panama via my mother, a secondary mathematics school teacher, I have always been grateful for my heritage.

What I am less grateful for is the LIES taught to me in school, in church, and I just don’t get it. Why not accept the events as they happened, learn from them, and do better? I suspect this is a naive perspective. Lying about what happened enables those in power to perpetuate their reign, to subjugate others.

Consider Dr. Loewen’s point:

“Telling the truth about the past helps cause justice in the present,” was his guiding principle, he wrote. “Achieving justice in the present helps us tell the truth about the past.” (source)

When you consider Texas history, American history, religious history favoring a particular perspective through these lenses, one may get the feeling that there has been a grave miscarriage of justice. My first inkling (yeah, I feel naive, stupid) that there were deep, serious problems I was unaware of due to my transplanted status (Panama to Texas) was The Son, a drama series. Consider this quote about and you’ll know exactly how I feel:

I didn’t know much about Texas when I moved there for graduate school. In my first or second semester, I took a class in life and literature of the Southwest, and that’s where I first heard about these events along the border in 1915-1918, what Anglos called the Bandit Wars. It involved a series of attacks on ranches and infrastructure that were basically minor.

The result of those attacks was a long series of massacres of Mexican-Americans, or tejanos, all along the Texas border from Brownsville up to West Texas. It was a major part of Texas history… and I’d never heard of it. And that was the seed of the first part of the book. Source: Bustle

Makes you think, doesn’t it? The truth is all around, but you can be blind to it. And, when your eyes are opened, things fall apart.

When the stories that have glued together a culture lose their potency, things begin to fall apart. But new things rise up. (Source: Elizabeth Lesser, Cassandra Speaks)

Fable Factory: From Murderers to Heroes, Liars to Truthtellers

When the glue that holds a culture together loses its potency, all hell breaks loose. Would that be a fair description of what’s been happening lately? And, that socio-cultural war over whose story is right is headed for our schools. It’s in our schools now. Once you know the truth, you can’t perpetuate a hoax. Once you know that John Wayne made racist remarks, President Woodrow Wilson was a racist, that Helen Keller was a socialist, that Texas Rangers were a hit squad for runaway slaves, Mexicans, and Mexican-Americans, my goodness, you can’t un see the truth.

The heroism and exploits of the Rangers have been portrayed for decades in Broadway plays, dime-store novels, radio dramas and movies and TV shows, most notably “The Lone Ranger.” But in the five years he spent researching the Rangers, Swanson also found a dark side to their story. They burned villages and slaughtered innocents. They committed war crimes, hunted runaway slaves and murdered so many Mexicans and Mexican Americans that they were as feared on the Mexican border as the Ku Klux Klan was in the Deep South. Throughout it all, Swanson writes, the Rangers operated a fable factory to burnish their image as heroic defenders of the innocent. (source: Cult of Glory: The Bold and Brutal History of the Texas Rangers, as cited in NPR).

This quote, this perspective of “fable factory,” matches, doesn’t it? Throughout time, people have been lying and perpetuating lies about how we came to be, what happened, and using those stories to subjugate others.

These stories paint half the human experience (women) in the worst possible way. They offered the opportunity for growth and redemption, but again and again, most chose to tell the story of humiliation and subjugation. It all began a long time ago and continues today.

Toxic positivity: The Garden of Eden?

When I first read about toxic positivity, against the backdrop of history’s gruesome visage, I have to tell you, I saw immediate connections. Let’s review what toxic positivity is, shall we? According to Medical News Today, it is defined as follows:

Toxic positivity is an obsession with positive thinking. It is the belief that people should put a positive spin on all experiences, even those that are profoundly tragic.

As I was reading about toxic positivity, in light of culturally responsive teaching (CRT), I couldn’t help but ask, “What has history taught us?” The truth is, history has taught us that people lie. They’ve been telling big whoppers from the beginning, all the way back to Genesis. In a simple way, the story of paradise is one of toxic positivity that disenfranchises women in a horrible way.

How can we embrace culture of all, when so much of our own is based on lies about oppressing the other(s)? Oppressing ourselves?

Culturally Responsive Teaching

I don’t know the answer to that question. I do know that a desire to learn more about culturally responsive teaching has made me ask, “What about history? What about my beliefs and values?” And, at a time in my life when I can finally examine the truth, I am simply appalled at my own ignorance, at the lies, and worst of all, the injustice. Doing a self-audit is exactly what Edutopia recommends:

The first step in being culturally responsive is to do an internal audit—yes, you read that right, an audit: truly digging deep inside of ourselves and recognizing and naming those things we don’t want to look at or talk about. The experiences we’ve had along our journey in life have formed stereotypes which have then turned into implicit bias. These unintentional, unconscious attitudes impact how we relate to our students and their parents, and how we choose curriculum, assess learning, and plan lessons.

This is important because, and this is the part I choke on every time I read it:

Culturally responsive teachers also have to be aware of the sociopolitical context schools operate in and dare to go against that status quo. Students need to understand the system that is working around them in schools. Give them context and don’t be afraid to talk about the tough subjects that may not be addressed in your school.

Unbelievably, sociopolitical context is defined as:

This sociopolitical context refers to contemporary ideologies, regulations, policies, conditions, laws, practices, traditions, and events that define America’s education. … The sociopolitical context affects every society due to the connection between democracy and public schools…At an individual level, teachers, school leaders, and other educators are largely influenced by the ideologies and beliefs in society. They act on them whether they believe them or not. Racism and other biases manifest themselves through school policies and through school staff practices and decisions. (source)

Did you see that? Ideologies, traditions, laws, practices. And, then you have only to consider how America, how Texas, perception of past events has been challenged, how current government has responded.

I suspect my next book will be Zaretta Hammond’s Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain. In the meantime, check out this video as a way to clarify some of the points.

Update: I watched the video. Wow. I’m going to go watch it again.