Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Meaning in the Message: Teaching Literacy to Build Community

Benedict Cumberbatch, saturnine star of Sherlock, is officially a "devastated" "idiot." If you are a fan of the actor's work, like me, then you are probably wondering why these words might be used in conjunction with the talented Brit. The reason Cumberbatch must take his turn on the hot coals of public opinion has to do with a recent interview with PBS's Tavis Smiley. In the interview, Cumberbatch said the following phrase:
I think as far as colored actors go, it gets really difficult in the UK, and I think a lot of my friends have had more opportunities here [in the U.S.] than in the UK, and that's something that needs to change.
Americans recognize immediately the unfortunate use of the word "colored" in his statement. As a result of this gaff, the star has had to come out publicly and flagellate himself with his own words, hence the "devastated" way he feels about offending some people. If you click on the link above and read the article, you can see the stream of anti-Cumberbatchian sentiment streaming in from the Twitterverse and political activists. What you may miss is the reference to Tavis Smiley's defense of the actor, tweeting "Those who saw Benedict Cumberbatch on @PBS, know he feels persons of color are underrepresented in ." Now, why would Tavis Smiley say such a thing? Why not jump on the fever train to public disapproval?

Let's concede that the word "colored" carries with it connotations of segregation, summoning ghosts of white-hooded men and starkly-lettered signs. Let's concede that the word brings back the sentiments of the separate but equal world of the pre-Civil Rights United States. Let's concede that it could be an act on par with deification of the stars-and-bars. Let's also concede that the entirety of the sentence speaks counter to any sentiment allied with racism.

At this summer's Teaching Shakespeare Institute, Dr. Ayanna Thompson stopped in to talk with the group about race and the teaching of Shakespeare. We talked about casting, performance, and a variety of topics associated with race and the theater. Something that will always stick with me is the way she described the stakes of continuing to play Shakespeare in a racially one-dimensional way: she noted that the audiences are getting older and remaining generally the same complexion, so who will support these arts as the older white patrons die out and the subsequent generations become less and less homogeneously white? It is a fair question. I was always conscious of the complexion of audiences before, but I failed to consider what that might mean for the future of the art form.

The idea applies to more plays than those written by Shakespeare. I saw a production of Death of a Salesman featuring a black actor playing Willie's neighbor and friend, Charlie. The scene where Willie refuses to take Charlie's money or job offer takes on an entirely new dimension of meaning when Willie is white and Charlie is black. It becomes something much more than simple personal pride. Even Bernard, played by an actor of mixed racial background, becomes more than the successful son. In short, racial considerations are never invisible to American audiences despite our protestations of colorblindness.

So, outside of the wording, what is wrong with Cumberbatch's desire to bring to light the lack of opportunity faced by actors of color in the UK film industry? Instead, the substance of his utterance is lost in the maelstrom of public shaming. The Hollywood and UK Film communities could probably benefit from the discussion of under-representation of minorities in parts that do not fall under facile ethnic stereotypes (read this as person of color = villain/terrorist/or other marginalizing part). The Clark doll experiment taught us that separate but equal is inherently unequal, yet we still give the role of hero to far more white actors than actors of color.

That is where we come in as English teachers. First, I would like to abolish the cliche of our time: tolerance. Think about it. What does it mean to say to someone that you tolerate them? Say it to someone you care about and watch the reaction. Now try saying it with acceptance as the goal. Nowhere in the definition of acceptance does the dictionary declare that accept is equivalent to approval. I may disapprove of so-and-so's life choices, but that does not mean that I do not accept so-and-so for who he or she is. Sorry for the digression, it is just a pet peeve.

How do we frame out discussion of teaching acceptance? We don't have to. There are plenty of examples in the world around us. Take Benedict Cumberbatch. Teach this article and ask students to read for contradiction and complexity as a start. There is something befuddling in organizations that vilify and praise an individual in the same reductive sentence or sound bite.

Another option: take a look at the school's arts programs enrollments. I am married to a choir director who also teaches on the high school level. I am always mystified at the relatively homogeneous make-up of the choir. What's shocking is the number of students of color I see daily who love music, but are enrolled in no musical arts classes at school. Have this discussion, perhaps grounding it in a larger work about race (i.e. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks or Invisible Man).

For the advanced educators: tackle discussions of covert vs. overt racism. The Implicit Attitude Test through Harvard University's Project Implicit allows teachers and students to measure their unconscious biases, including racial bias. I've posted about this tool before and you can find it by clicking on the link here.

If we create an intellectual discourse of acceptance around difference, we can create a community willing to listen to the content of our utterances rather than cherry-picking phrases from the discourse. This responsibility lies heavily upon us as ELA teachers because we are the last stop before students head out into the world to live on their own, a place where these sentiments can have immediate, concrete consequences. Believe it or not, the millennial generation is perhaps the least educated generation on racism. If you look at the article, you will notice that they are also a generation that wants to learn. If we build upon this enthusiasm now, encourage acceptance and real listening, the content of our students' utterances may be allowed to carry the conviction of their open hearts.