My favorite unit to teach is a unit I co-create about origin stories (“origin stories” as in “pourquoi tales,” not comic book character backstories). I’ve always loved them and there is something about imagining a fresh beginning in a fictional way that I find so fascinating in it’s unrestricted ways of explaining observable truth. I’ve taught origin stories in nearly all elementary grade levels and, this year, as I develop the unit with my sixth graders, I’m feeling even more energized than normal because, this year, we’ll apply the idea of origin stories to the origins of our self identities.
Sixth graders have all kinds of complicated feelings about themselves and their relationships to others. When we develop our Self-stories this year, instead of hammering down on the small-moment personal narratives they’ve long grown tired of, we’ll use folktale-like examples to guide our explanations of our identities in fun and whimsical ways… my goal is for kids to slowly start to lower their walls and let others in to see their hopes, dreams, aspirations, joys, followed by their fears, insecurities, and frustrations, too. This work will build until we create our final draft origin stories to explain, in one focused way, an event in each of our lives that contributes to how we have become the people we are today.
In developing this unit with my students (I have a curriculum-enhancement committee of students from my classes who weigh in on things like representation, authenticity, and interest), we’ve decided that in order to do this work in an honest way, we’ll all be growing as writers together (myself included). I started thinking about what part of myself I would share with my students… I’ve experimented with several versions of myself. I’ve always learned a great deal from each of those iterations (sometimes learning the most from experiencing who I am truly not instead of who I truly am). So, I’m asking myself, which part of my true Self do I want to expose, dig through, and share with my students?
I finally decided to share how I grew to identify myself in Whiteness as it relates to my identity, culture, and relationships, both in reality as well as in the abstract. I know I will have to explain what I mean by that to my students, but I think it’s important for kids to grapple with the fact that while they will not be in face-to-face contact with all types of people as they grow up, these identities of Others will begin to develop in their minds (a stereotype or single narrative of what a specific demographic is like). As those identities develop, whether based on experience, story, or guess, we will create a relation to those identities and decide where we stand in the context of said people’s presence. For example, I had never interacted with a black child before middle school. Growing up in a highly segregated white town, I “knew” that this child would be the same as me because my parents taught me that “we’re all the same and MLK made it so." It’s little surprise to me now that my experience didn’t match this color-blind narrative when I met her. Just as would have been true of any new girl to our school, she spoke differently, played differently, and dressed differently from my friends. I was uncomfortable with the fact that my single narrative of what a black girl would act like (she’s supposed to be just like me) didn’t match what I was seeing, so, I decided it must be that something was wrong with her. She wasn’t the “right kind” of black girl, meaning, I didn’t see her as who she truly was, but rather, I saw her in relation to the identity I had erroneously created in my mind.
Being white, I didn’t have to realize my whiteness or even contemplate my race or culture until high school because I was surrounded by it (books, TV, movies, school, home). I went to a leadership camp as part of our Associated Student Body leadership team. The camp directors split us up into small, diverse groups. I suddenly found myself in a group of all black girls. My first reaction was that I wasn’t in the right group. I quickly darted my eyes around the room looking for an indication of some sort of mistake… when the facilitator started the circle discussion. A talking stick was passed around the circle, prompting us to get to know each other. I listened to names I had never heard before which I knew I would struggle to pronounce if I dared try, they made references to unknown stories, and when we took a break they were talking about musicians of whose existence I wasn’t aware. I’d never felt isolated in that way before and I was angry that someone would put me there. When we started the conversation about race, I was excited to finally be able to participate -- I proudly espoused my colorblind beliefs and was quickly and sternly put in my place. I didn’t understand any of what this group of girls openly and honestly shared with me and, I remember quite clearly, I didn’t want to. I was the epitome of white fragility.
Fast forward two years and I’m a freshman at San Diego State University. I signed up for a writing class -- just a random one that happened to be in the perfect time slot for my dream schedule. As it happens, it was in the Chicano/Chicana Studies department. I had literally no idea what that meant, but this was nothing new to me because a lot of things in Southern California were written in Spanish and I frequently didn’t understand what things were named after. When I arrived in class and sat down I didn’t notice immediately that I was the only white student in the class. It wasn’t until the professor took role by calling out our names in what seemed like a random order. By the time she read through multiple Hernandez, Rodriguez, and Chavez students, she arrived at my maiden name, “Brown.” When she made eye contact with me after my obligatory, “here,” she said, “Oh, hi. Yeah, you’ve got a bit of adventure in you, don’t you? You’re here. I’m glad you’re here.”
I wasn’t sure exactly what she meant until she got to “De la Fuente” and a white-presenting guy sitting directly behind me called out. I say “white-presenting” because I thought, and the professor thought, he was white because he looked white; however, he corrected our mis-identification aloud, as if he was fully aware of what we were thinking, by letting the class know he was biracial. This time, being surrounded by non-white peers, I didn’t feel like a mistake was made, I didn’t look around for someone to blame or save me, because I chose this class. This was on me. I heard the teacher say she was glad I was there. It stuck with me. I added it to my list of things to remember:
#1 The girls at camp said I’m racist because I’m white, even though I’m not (not racist, that is)
#2 The professor is glad I’m here (but I’m not sure yet)
This writing class was one of the best classes I’ve ever taken to date. We workshopped our writing pieces which all followed a personal narrative format. Each class session, several writers brought a class-set of copies of their narrative. We received about five narratives each session, read them on our own for homework, marked them with feedback, and then talked about them in a circle the next session. Not only did that experience build up multiple narratives in my mind about non-white identities and experiences, but it also made me realize how my identity was wrapped up in whiteness. This class was the best gift I have ever received in my life. It awakened me to the beginning of my learning. It was truly the first step in my realization of who I am, how my identity contributes or counteracts racism in all it’s forms, and, perhaps most importantly, how much I realized I had to learn and grow. I am beyond grateful for that experience because, without it, I don’t know that I would have begun to work through my fragility and bear witness to the stories people had been telling all around me, gifts which have continued to expose more and more of what I actually don’t understand at all.
So, I’ve added it to my (edited) list of things to remember:
#1 The girls at camp said I’m racist because I’m white, and they were right; I can work with it or work against it, but it’s there
#2 The professor is glad I’m here and I can’t believe I didn’t realize at the time what a gift it was to be allowed in such a sacred place of vulnerability
#3 Stories have power; look for them, listen to them, lift their voices
I don’t know how I will create my origin story yet in my class. I’ll do that with my students. The thing I do know now, is that there in that writing class, 14 years ago, is where my origin story begins.