Learning Racism on the NYC Subway

I spent this past week in New York City with my mom and little siblings, who are six and nine years old, respectively. Aside from a few times that they were too young to remember, this was their first time in the city and they had a great time.

On our last day in New York, however, they were confronted with a situation that they would never have encountered back home in Ohio.

We had just gotten on the subway in Queens to go to Manhattan. The train was full, but my  brother and sister found seats next to an older lady. My mom and I, meanwhile, stood facing them.

As my siblings sat down, the older lady mumbled something in their general direction. “I’m watching you,” she growled at them.

None of us paid much attention to this at first. I took out my phone and started reading on it, just as many other commuters on the train were doing.

And then the older lady started saying something that made me consciously notice her race–African American–for the first time.

“Are you takin’ pictures of me? You takin’ pictures of me? I can call the police on you for that. I’ll blow your brains out. Look at your ugly white face.”

I calmly ignored the diatribe, as is the unspoken code of conduct on the New York City subway. It’s impossible to spend even a day in the city without encountering at least one person who is drunk, high, schizophrenic, or otherwise in a state that makes them spew nonsense. The thing to do is to just let it go.

My mom and my siblings took note as the lady kept going.

“You bunch of white trash. I’m watchin’ all of you. You and you and you.” She gestured at my brother and sister.

She kept going in this vein right up until the train reached her station. She stood up and picked up her purse. “Finally I never have to see your ugly white faces again,” she said, and left the train.

I sat down in her seat next to my siblings, glanced out the window, and saw the lady walk off. I turned back around and relaxed. As the train was about to pull out of the station, I heard a thud on the window behind me. My siblings and I, startled, turned around and saw that the lady had come back and hit the window where we were sitting.

This experience made quite an impression on my brother and sister. They talked about it to all the friends and family we saw that day, and they were still talking about it on the plane home the next day. I tried to tell them that some people are strange or disturbed and say weird things, but that these people are not the majority. I’m not sure what they thought about it, but I’m afraid that they’re too young to consciously, coherently think about it at all.

As a young adult who purposefully tries to stay educated about race relations and the history thereof, I can’t say that this experience changed my opinion about anything. I’ve met and been close to enough black people to know that most would never say such things–just as most white people would never say such things to them.

But my siblings have not. In the leafy Ohio suburb where my family lives, diversity is almost nonexistent. We’re one of very few Jewish families here, for instance, and when I Iived here I knew only a handful of black people and no Latino/a people. (Asians are probably the only minority that’s well-represented here.)

This trip to New York was probably my siblings’ first experience with seeing such a tremendous diversity of races and ethnicities (not to mention orientations and gender identifications). The fact that one of their only verbal interactions with a stranger in New York happened this way can’t be a good thing.

Furthermore, unlike my little siblings, I’ve read enough about race relations to understand the circumstances that cause people to develop the views that the lady on the subway had. Perhaps she’s watched friends and family members being unjustly stopped and searched by the police. Perhaps she’s been denied housing or other needs because of her skin color. Perhaps she’s witnessed white people refusing to sit down next to her on the subway at all. Perhaps her calling us “ugly” is a response to a mass media that depicts whiteness as the only variety in which beauty can come.

I know all of this and more, but my siblings don’t, and they’re way too young for me to try to explain it to them. With all the difficulties they face because of learning English as a second language, having a culturally nonconforming family, and, sometimes, even simply being Jewish, the idea that someone might view them the way they view kids who taunt them for their accent or curly hair, is probably a confusing one. They don’t know what it means to be “white” in America. I don’t think they’ll know for a long time.

And that’s the real tragedy. If these two kids develop the unjustified fear of black people that many white people have (even if it’s only subconscious), it won’t be from the surrounding culture, as many would assume. It’ll be from a concrete experience that happened when they visited New York City for the first time and encountered people who don’t look like them. They’ll remember feeling trapped on the subway as a woman they don’t know threatened to “blow their brains out.” They’ll remember being told that their skin color makes them ugly. They’ll remember that the woman was black, because she pointed out that they were not.

And so, racism is perpetuated. Even if my siblings end up forgetting this particular experience, there may be others, and there will be many other kids who encounter a situation like this one. My brother and sister weren’t to blame for this woman’s distress, but to expect her to “rise above” it would be presumptuous. Whatever happened that made her say those things is real.

For once, I have no solution to propose. My purpose in sharing this story was only to illuminate the importance of teaching children how to empathize and how to keep themselves from forming stereotypes–much easier said than done.

They should also be taught more than just that slavery “happened” and is now over (if only race relations were really that simple). The woman on the subway was a racist and she was wrong, but people don’t become racists in a vacuum.

I can only hope that when my siblings are old enough to understand all of this, they will still be open-minded enough to learn it.

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Facebooking in Class–Symptom, not Disease

FINALLY I get to use this meme in a serious context.

I think I’m going to have a series of posts criticizing GOOD’s pathetic education section, which is currently failing even harder than my insomniac classmates are at their finals.

This is an older article, but I decided to dig it up and poke fun at it anyway.

This article suggests that having a “15-minute tech break” for each half-hour of class would help students focus because they’d do all their Facebooking in those 15 minutes and then put their phones away.

The people who propose these initiatives seemingly have a complete lack of understanding of how young people actually use technology, and for what purpose. For instance:

Rosen says his tech break concept “works amazingly.” For every half-hour of focused work, he recommends allowing a 15-minute tech break. Once a students sees that nothing is happening on Facebook or send a friend that critical text message—they’re able to refocus, he says.

That’s not the way Facebook and texting work, though. You don’t just check it and then forget about it. You like to be on it. What’s to stop people from having their phones out under their desks outside of the “tech break?”

Furthermore, I don’t see how this is even doable. This would increase class time by a whopping 50%—ludicrous when everyone, both students and teachers, are already severely overbooked. (In fact, that may be why students use their phones in class to begin with.)

In addition, like it or not, multitasking is here to stay. If students are forced to learn how to integrate technology with learning rather than strictly separating the two, they’ll be better equipped to handle modern work environments, where you’re usually required to answer phones/emails/messages while working, and so on.

Finally, I still don’t understand why people see Facebooking/texting in class as some sort of crisis of epic proportions that requires a complete restructuring of the school day. Are students actually becoming dumber? Are their grades dropping? And even if they are, might it be because of much-needed and still-lacking education reforms, and not because of Evil Technology?

I obviously haven’t done research on this (though, by the looks of it, this guy hasn’t either), but I’d guess that Facebooking and texting in class aren’t a cause of distraction–they’re a symptom. Back in the day, kids would doodle or pass notes or just stare into space. These days they text and go on Facebook. What’s the difference? Oh, right, there’s a convenient piece of Evil Technology to blame.

That, ultimately, is the argument that I believe overrules everything else I’ve just said. If the problem is–shocker–not Those Darn Kids but the fact that school is worthlessly boring, then it’s time to have a completely different dialogue. This dialogue will have to be about how to make school both educational and fun and not about how to get Those Darn Kids to do what we want them to do.

Let Them Eat Snacks

Next up on the syllabus: snacks.

In what might be the best argument for the abolition of the tenure system that I have personally heard of, a professor at Cal State Sacramento has walked out of his own class to protest the fact that some students didn’t bring snacks.

To elaborate, the professor, George Parrott, has had the following “snack policy” since shortly after he began teaching in 1969: students must “work in teams” to provide a homemade snack for each class, or else he’ll refuse to teach it. Apparently this helps promote teamwork and teach students about the consequences of unreliability.

Well, recently Parrott was forced to follow through on his threat because some students failed to bring snacks to class, and now university administrators are investigating the matter. (I don’t really know what there is to investigate. Dude’s been doing this since the 70s, so I’m sure it’s not news to them.)

Two things disappoint me most about this occurrence. The first is that the aforementioned wingnut is a member of his school’s psychology department. It always seems like it’s us psychologists who fuck everything up. Forcing people to electrocute each other, turning them malicious by pretending they’re in prison, having live sex demonstrations on stage…and now this. Seriously, academic psychology can’t seem to catch a break.

The second disappointing factor is that one of my favorite magazines/blogs, GOOD, has come out with an article in support of this inane policy. GOOD is all about alternative education, which doesn’t surprise me since its education section is “in partnership with University of Phoenix,” which might be the biggest baloney of a “university” I’ve ever heard of.

Anyway, the article claims, among other things, the following:

It’s well established that students who have close relationships with their peers or professors are less likely to drop out. At a time when only 30 percent of adults over 25 have a degree and only 56 percent of college students earn a degree in six years, colleges are looking for ways to ensure that students feel like they belong on campus.

Leaving aside the fact that canceling a class doesn’t seem like the best way to facilitate close relationships, I have this to say about Parrott’s methods: he clearly hasn’t studied his own field very well. The technique Parrott is using when he denies a lecture to the entire class because of one student’s mistake is a grade-school staple called collective punishment. It’s something I’ve fervently opposed ever since I was old enough to understand what it was (which, for me, was pretty damn young). Collective punishment is based on the premise that if one person causes negative consequences for the rest of the group, the other group members will convince bully that person into changing their behavior. What a great way to make students “feel like they belong on campus.”

Of course, there’s lots more wrong with this situation than just the dubious use of social psychology to manipulate people. First of all, if you poll random college students about why they’re in college, things like getting a degree and acquiring knowledge in their chosen field are likely to be higher on the list than learning about teamwork. Is teamwork important? Sure. But that’s not what we’re paying thousands of dollars for.

If he were that passionate about students learning how to work together, the professor could’ve taught a class about teamwork and petitioned to have it made mandatory. Or he could’ve had the class work in groups to carry out research projects or make short presentations at the beginning of each class. Or any number of things that are less stupid than forcing people to make their own snacks on their own time and money.

Some might defend this, saying that many of his students like the policy and that it’s not that hard to make snacks and whatnot. But I would argue that, when it comes to education, it’s the principle of the thing. Nobody should be picking classes based on whether or not they have time to bake cookies. Nobody should be denied a class because some random idiot forgot to.

Mental Illness Is Not a Punchline

Damn, I’m certainly on a crusade against humor these days.

That was sarcasm, by the way. I love humor. I just think it should be deployed carefully.

A few days ago in my Psychology of Personality class, the following happened:

Some people were having their own conversations while the professor was trying to give a lecture. The professor cracked a joke–“Hey guys, I have ADD so I can’t focus if other people are talking, so please stop!” followed by “I don’t really have ADD, but still.”

Now, for the record, I totally get that it sucks for a teacher when people are talking in class. But I also feel that there are other ways to address that situation without making a joke about having a mental illness that you don’t actually have. Especially, you know, if you’re a person who has a PhD in psychology and conducts research on people with actual mental illnesses.

The sad thing is, before he followed his comment up with that disclaimer, I was actually really touched. I thought it was wonderful that a professor of psychology would take a stand against the stigma of mental illness by stating in class that he has one. But then, you know, it turned out to just be a joke.

~~~

Last spring, I took a class on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. It was an advanced class, with just around ten students or so, taught by one of the most esteemed professors in the department. We got to the chapter on Borderline Personality Disorder, which, as you may know, is considered one of the most frustrating mental disorders–both for clinicians and for the patient’s friends and family. So naturally, no discussion of it could be complete without my professor’s bombastic explanations about how she tries to avoid treating BPD patients because they’re just SUCH a pain and about how she once had a friend with BPD who was just SO hard to deal with. Everyone gasped and laughed at her descriptions.

Then, of course, the other students had to start raising their hands and talking about their own friends that they’d taken the liberty of diagnosing with BPD, and how  horrific those people were.

This was a time in my life when I was seriously wondering if I had BPD myself, so, yeah, that was pretty unpleasant.

~~~

Last fall, I took a class on psychopathology. It was my second psychology course ever, and my first that related specifically to mental disorders–a topic very close to my heart at the time since I’d been diagnosed with major depression only a month before.

Before the course started, the professor sent out an anonymous survey to the entire class about our experiences with mental illness. On the first day of class, she disclosed the stunning results–more than half of us said we’d been diagnosed with one.

So we got to the chapter on depression and the professor started talking about depressive cognitive distortions, using specific examples. The professor started listing them off in such a way that the whole class started laughing. And laughing, and laughing.

Now, I totally get that it sounds funny. Consider this dialogue:

X: I’m getting a B in calculus. I’m a total failure.

Y: You’re not a failure at all! You have straight As in the rest of your classes.

X: Well, those don’t count. They’re easy anyway.

Y: Yes, and calculus is pretty hard, so it makes sense that you wouldn’t do as well. Besides, a B is a pretty good grade.

X: No, it’s a shitty grade. Everything I do is shitty and I’m always going to be a failure.

That is an example of several cognitive distortions, including overgeneralization, disqualifying the positive, magnification, and labeling. And, when read aloud in a particular tone of voice, I can see how it might sound kind of funny.

But having been through it myself and studied it extensively, I can also hear the pain behind what X is saying. It’s not a punchline. It’s a cry for help from a person trapped inside their malfunctioning mind.

~~~

Here’s the thing. I get it. People with PhDs in psychology have spent years and years reading, writing, and talking about stuff like this. I’m sure that it’s completely normal for two psychologists to crack jokes about mental illness to each other.

Knowing that many people who pursue degrees in psychology are spurred to do so by their own experiences with mental illness (I’m an example of this), I understand the urge to joke about it because I joke about it myself. It helps alleviate the fear and pain of living with mental illness.

That doesn’t mean I’d joke about it to a room full of 100 people who don’t know me well and who may be dealing with their own issues, though.

Case in point–at the time I took the aforementioned psychopathology class, I was still learning how to recognize cognitive distortions in myself, and I was beginning to realize the extent to which they’d ruined all of my previous interactions, friendships, and relationships. To have a room full of 100 people laughing uproariously about something that nearly brought you to suicide just three short months before is, well, no laughing matter.

~~~

I’m not saying there’s no room for humor about mental illness. There definitely is, and humor has been one of several strategies that have helped me process what happened to me. But humor must be used carefully.

I’ve written before about the complex relationship between humor and mental illness–here, here, here, here, and here. But this time, the situation is very different because the off-color jokes are coming not from comedians, television writers, novelists, or clueless friends of mine, but from people who know more about psychology than 99% of the population.

Unfortunately, I still haven’t quite worked up the courage to tell a person with a PhD that they’ve offended me.

But I’m working on it.

Learning How to be Happy

I’m going to go out on a limb and criticize something even more popular than the things I usually criticize–my school’s Happiness Club.

The Happiness Club is a prominent student organization at Northwestern that aims to increase happiness by planning all sorts of activities for the campus, such as kite-flying, free hot chocolate, water balloon fights, “silent” dance parties, and so on. In other words, all fun and exciting activities.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is that it’s not “happiness” that these activities are promoting; it’s momentary joy. Momentary joy is an important component of a happy life, but it’s not even close to all you need.

Let me explain. Most Northwestern students have been fed on a steady diet of stress, sleep deprivation, and SAT prep classes since before we hit puberty. The kinds of effects that such a diet inevitably has–for instance, perfectionism, fatigue, anxiety, and depression–are things that no amount of kite-flying will cure.

To put it bluntly, most people I know here (myself included) are simply not capable of living our lives in a way that’s conducive to long-term happiness and well-being. We suck at prioritizing–academics and extracurriculars come before friends and family, every time. We demand perfect grades from ourselves. We apply to only the most prestigious internships and burst into tears when we inevitably fail to get those positions. We fill our schedules to the point that we have to schedule in shower time. We don’t pause to relax, think, or meditate.

In other words, the skills that we lack–balance, mindfulness, perspective, and a healthy amount of compassion for ourselves–are exactly the things that are not being taught to us here. These are the skills that lay the foundation for a happy and meaningful life.

Of course, there are resources. CAPS (our psychological service) offers workshops, and RAs are encouraged to emphasize the need for balance and stress relief to their residents. But the people we look to and trust the  most–our peers–are often more of a negative influence than a positive one. (For instance, how do you think I feel about my own study  habits when my friend tells me she stayed up till 4 AM studying, slept for two hours, and got up at 6 to keep going?)

That’s where a group like the Happiness Club should, theoretically, come in. In addition to the undoubtedly fun activities that they already plan, why don’t they offer workshops on stress relief, meditation, or yoga? Why don’t they bring in speakers who talk about how one can be both productive and happy in college? Why don’t they encourage greater awareness of things like perfectionism, anxiety, and depression?

We need to start up a campus dialogue about these things, because there isn’t one right now. Occasionally, late at night, one of us will admit to a friend that we’re just not living the right way. But this conversation needs to happen on a larger scale. There is too much misery here. I don’t doubt that many Northwestern students are happy in some sense of the word, but they’re not as happy as they could be, because while all the adults in our lives have taught us how to live a successful life, nobody’s taught us how to live a happy one. Maybe it’s time to teach ourselves.