History, Immigration, World

Historical Consciousness and the Global Immigration Crisis

In my world history class, one of the most important skills that I try to cultivate in my students is the skill of “historical consciousness.” I define historical consciousness as being able to see the present through the lenses of the past, to see today as a creation of yesterday. Current events, I tell them, do not fall from the sky. They are culminations and continuations of historical narratives. To understand those events currently happening, you need to know their stories. You need to use your historical consciousness.

Unfortunately, if you watch the news, I don’t think this is a skill that is modeled very well by the lame-stream media. News is framed in nothing but the now, and while the now is the most pertinent component of any news story, you cannot fully understand that now–where it came from or what to do with it–without some historical contextualization. To try and do otherwise leads to false conclusions about the problem at hand, and worse, flawed solutions proposed to fix it. Exhibit A: Immigration.

Immigration is the “A” news topic in the world right now. The horrendous stories coming out of Europe are rightfully receiving the majority of the media’s attention, but immigration on our own southern border has been a hot topic at both of the Republican presidential debates, and our own border crisis ain’t over either.

Voices on the issues vary widely on both sides of the Atlantic. There are those who are sympathetic to the plight of the refugees and those who see them as unwanted intruders. There are those who want to build the refugees a pathway to citizenship and those who want to build walls. But within this chorus of voices, one voice that I personally have had difficulty hearing is the voice of history. What are the historic roots of the sectarian wars in Syria in Iraq?  Of the political and economic disaster that is large parts of Africa?  Of the violence and corruption that defines so much of Latin American governance?  If you read the history books, a large part of the answer is us.

You cannot talk about the immigration crises around the world today without talking about the imperial and colonial legacy from which these crises stem. The dramatic differences that define quality of life between the world of white Europeans and the world of black and brown Latinos, Africans, and Middle Easterners did not come to be by accident–they came to be under a relationship of dominance, the former dominating the latter. It is this relationship that helped to create the political and economic instability the latter group is currently suffering, and the poverty, oppression, and war that they are currently fleeing.

What is more, the relative wealth and comfort experienced by so many living in Europe and the U.S. today is not just the result of living in a country that has never been colonized–it is the direct result of that country’s historic role as colonizer.

Europe and the States were built on the backs of slave labor, both at home and abroad. They were built with the resources of the “third world”–their gold, their silver, their rubber, their copper.   Sometimes these resources were funneled through corrupt dictatorships that the colonizers helped to install. Sometimes they were just stolen outright. And while colonization has come to an end, colonizer countries continue to benefit from the exploitation of their old empires today. Look no further than the “Made in ________” marking on your sneakers and electronic goods for proof of this discomforting reality. The comfort and luxury in what has come to be known as the “developed” world has always and still continues to depend on the “developing” world’s exploitation and misery.

When talking about immigration, I like the way that one writer puts it: “The empires are striking back.” They are fleeing what colonialism and imperialism created, and seeking to take back that which was taken from them generations ago. But increased compassion and understanding of the refugee plight does not reduce the complexity of the problem.

I was listening to NPR a few days ago when a French official said something to the tune of, “To close our doors is to watch migrants literally die on our doorstep, but to leave our doors wide open is to ignore reality.” And reality is real. To open the gates to everyone is not a solution that will help anyone. The settling of said refugees needs to be organized and evenly distributed so that both the refugees and those taking them not only simply survive, but prosper. That said, I have no idea how the fuck to make that happen.

This is a mess, and there are no easy solutions. All the refugees can’t and won’t be saved. The 2,500+ whom have already perished trying to cross the Mediterranean will surely be joined by more of their Afghani, Syrian, Somali and Nigerian brethren before the calendar year expires. The death count at the world’s second deadliest border will continue to pile up as well, along with the countless others who will die from the very conditions that drive people northwards in the first place.

There are commendations to be made. European countries like Germany and Sweden should be commended for the numbers they are taking in. Those in the United States pushing for amnesty and easier pathways to citizenship should be commended for the battles they are fighting. Perhaps most importantly of all, any genuine form of humanitarian and/or economic aid that is delivered to these countries in crisis in hopes of helping to make them not such horrible places to live should be commended, as this is perhaps the one true action that addresses the root of the problem. However, what need not be forgotten is that, while these actions are often framed as altruistic deeds of the benevolent, they could just as easily be framed as the fulfillment of a moral duty–a responsibility to rectify the inequality that exists between those who benefit from a colonial legacy and those who suffer from it.

And I think that is the most important thing to keep in mind. When talking about the conundrum that is the global immigration crisis, we need to think about where this crisis comes from–the historical factors that helped to create the dreadful situations experienced by those seeking refuge. Using our historical consciousness to think about immigration may not necessarily generate solutions to some of those toughest questions, but it can help us to avoid some of the horrible solutions proposed by the people who aren’t using theirs.

“Go back home,” doesn’t solve anything. The huge-concentration of Mexican-Americans living in states like Arizona and New Mexico actually are living in what historically was the home of Mexican people up until 150 years ago when the States took it from them in the dubious Mexican-American war. I’m sure Iraqis and Libyans would love to go back home. Maybe if it wasn’t for the non-stop cycle of violence and political chaos, largely perpetrated by foreign invaders, they would have never left.

At the end of the day, this is just a sad, sad situation. I don’t think that even the staunchest conservative blowhard lacks sympathy for the situation of these international refugees. When they say things like, “We’d love to help everybody. We just can’t,” I really think that they are right. We can’t help everybody. That’s just true. However, in light of history, I don’t think that that reality absolves us of our responsibility to try.

Recommend reading and viewing on the topic:

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Minnesota, Race, USA

Every protest is a nuisance in its time

Black Lives Matter (BLM) is at it again in Minnesota. This Sunday, prior to the Minnesota Vikings first home game of the season, BLM will be holding a rally they are calling #BlackRail to protest police brutality against the Black community, and more specifically to protest the beating delivered last month to 17-year-old Marcus Abrahams during a confrontation with Metro Transit Police near the fairgrounds where he had been working.

People are pissed, not so much about the beating, but of the audacity of the BLM movement to interrupt yet another hallowed event on the Minnesota calendar. Looking at the #BlackRail twitter feed, it is clear that this protest has inspired the same vehement opposition inspired by their protests of the past, and has evoked the same types of comments that, while objecting to these protests, simultaneously demonstrate the very need for their necessity. Comments that express the need for these protesters to find jobs. Comments that label these protesters and the victims that they stand up for as criminals or thugs. Comments with the hashtag #AllLivesMatter. Comments that prove that racism is still a huge problem in this country today, and that the conversations that groups like BLM are trying to start are conversations that desperately need to happen.

But not everyone who opposes these protests is an espouser of racist rhetoric. Some people are just annoyed, annoyed by the fact that their day is being interrupted for a problem to which they themselves do not contribute. They are just minding their own business. They are just going about their day.

This has been the case with every major Minnesota protest put on my BLM. The Mall of America protests bothered people just trying to do their Christmas shopping. The State Fair protests bothered people just trying to enjoy a corn dog. But you know what’s worse than long lines at the mall and cold corn dogs? Dying. And I think this is what many of the frustrated often forget.

I also think that those who write-off BLM as a nuisance are forgetting their history. Movements and moments that we celebrate today pissed off a ton of people in their time. Look at the Civil Rights Movement. The freedom riders complicated the days of people just trying to get to work. Those that sat in on segregated counters disturbed people just trying to enjoy their lunch breaks. And the March on Washington probably interrupted the vacations of families who had saved and planned for that vacation for months and years. Yet it is those tactics that made the movement successful, not just in pissing people off, but helping people to see the light.

That success did not come easy. Challenging the status quo is hard work, especially with so many people living comfortably within it. Pissed off people rose up then against the Civil Rights Movement just like pissed off people are rising up now against BLM. But those people of 50 years ago are not remembered very kindly. They are the people in your history textbook holding the signs that say, “Race Mixing is Communism,” “White Power,” and “Who Needs Niggers.” They are the people who stood against the tide of progress.

Which raises the question, how will those who stand against the goals advocated for by groups like Black Lives Matter be judged by history? 50 years from now, after the tide of progress (hopefully) has washed away much of the racial injustice and systemic racism that exists today, how will those people be remembered? I don’t think it is going out on a limb to say, “Not well.”

I’m not trying to compare yesterday’s racism to today’s. Thankfully, in most of the United States, such direct and honest racism is considered unacceptable. Today’s battle is more against the subtle stuff, the systems and sayings that don’t explicitly advocate for racist goals, but nevertheless achieve racist results. These are the battles that Black Lives Matter are fighting.

So next time that even the thought of a Black Lives Matter protest inconveniencing your day enters your mind, and you feel that frustration and anger starting to creep in, pause, and think big picture. Think about the march of history, where we’ve been, and where we’re hopefully going. Think about who’s helping us get there, and who’s standing in the way? Who’s rolling with the tide, and who’s pushing back against it? And then take a deep breath, and relax. Realize that even if Black Lives Matter is making some people’s day suck a little bit, their cause is a worthwhile one, because they are fighting for people who have it a lot worse. And whatever you do, don’t get pissed off, because even though mall patrons, and fair-goers, and Vikes fans are not the people gunning down unarmed Black men in the street, their annoyance with Black Lives Matter’s persistence to advocate for justice is still problematic.

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Education, USA

What a professional educator looks like

The deprofessionalization of teachers is one of the greatest threats to American educators today.  From curriculum confining state and federal standards to micromanaging administrators, we teachers are constantly fighting back against a system that treats us as glorified presenters rather than the intellectual professionals we study and work so hard to be.  And while this form of deprofessionalization deservingly receives the lion’s share of the attention from those who are fighting back against it, there are other infringements on teacher professionalism that should be challenged too.  One of those infringements is the monopolized dictation of what a professional educator looks like.

I have a somewhat unique appearance for an educator.  I’m a white guy (which ain’t all that uncommon), but I also have tattoos on my neck and forearms, gauge earrings, and prefer to dress in black jeans and flannel shirts nearly every day of the school year.  My district was great last year in letting me be me, but after a week of back-to-school workshops, I am a little worried about some of the language that was being thrown around about “professionalism.”

What is more, I know that I have male colleagues in other districts that have far less liberty in this area than I do. Teachers who have to dress in collar shirts and ties, Dockers and penny loafers, and whose visible tattoos would not be tolerated.  Teachers who, in a word, are required to dress like “professionals.”

The accepted notion of what it means to be a professional is one that is generally unchallenged in educational circles. However, I would argue that it is a notion that is incorrect on the one hand, and worse, harmful to our mission as educators on the other.

Professionalism Defined

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The idea that professionalism can be defined in a dress code is blatantly false.  An incompetent teacher gains no additional ability or credibility by slipping on a necktie.  Likewise, a competent teacher is no less capable of providing a quality education to her students when she happens to be wearing a pair of sneakers.

Professionalism is not a look; it’s an attitude.  Professionalism is not about the way you dress; it’s about the way that you carry yourself.  Teachers demonstrate professionalism when they hold all their students to high expectations, when they create a curriculum that is rigorous and culturally relevant, and when they show respect to each and every one of their students, eliciting a mutual respect in return.

I understand the rationalization behind “professional dress,” the idea that we need visual representations of the line that divides teacher and student.  I simply disagree with its ability to achieve those results.  We teachers distinguish ourselves as professionals by what we do in the classroom, and that is something that a dress code cannot help nor hinder.

The Paradigm of a Professional

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But how can a dress code for teachers be harmful?  Dress codes for teachers can be harmful because they monopolize the idea of what a professional can look like.  We want all of our students to grow up to be professionals in their chosen trades.  But when we create a cookie-cutter version of what a professional is, we are consequently alienating any students who don’t fit that mold, oftentimes students that already feel alienated in school due to things like culturally irrelevant pedagogies or a lack of peers who look and think like they do.

To link professionalism to certain articles of clothing, clothing that for the most part descends from White European traditions, alienates those students that struggle to envision themselves dressed in such attire, as well as students who simply do not desire to dress in that way.  Hence, those students may come to the (false) conclusion that they can never grow up to be professionals.

But what happens when you expand the paradigm of a professional to include those of us who choose to look or dress less traditionally?  What kind of cognitive dissonance might that create?

Admittingly, at first, it could be met with some resistance.  “Professionals tuck in their shirts. My teacher leaves his shirt untucked. Therefore, my teacher is not a professional.”  But as the school year passes, this initial rejection to expand one’s paradigm will be repeatedly challenged as the teacher continues to gain students trust and to facilitate a safe, caring, rigorous learning environment.  The only option the student has left is to allow their paradigm to be expanded, to accept that teacher as the professional they have proven to be.

Credibility as a Status Quo Challenger

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The other reason I believe that stringent teacher dress codes can be harmful to our mission as educators, particularly educators like myself who wish to build their classrooms and curriculums on a platform of social justice, is because they reduce our credibility as status quo challengers. Social justice teachers are constantly encouraging their students to challenge institutions and question traditions. This message simply isn’t as powerful when it is delivered by someone who looks like either a tool of corporate capitalism or like they have a 3:30 tee time after school that day.

Social justice teachers gain credibility by practicing what they preach. Students recognize them as different, an especially powerful experience for those students who feel different themselves. Witnessing such challenges from their teacher could inspire students to push back against unjust policies as well. This probably isn’t what most districts want, but it is what a district deserves when they enforce student dress codes that contain so many racist and sexist underpinnings.

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Of course there are limits to how far one should take the “new professionalism” that I propose. For instance, I would never advocate for teachers to be able to wear bathrobes and slippers to school, nor would I approve the wearing of a t-shirt featuring Bob Marley enjoying a marijuana cigarette. That being said, a tee containing some Marley lyrics, “One Love” for example, could be very powerful both for making connections with students and spreading a message of love and acceptance. Bob, too, was a social justice advocate, after all.

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NOT OK

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OK

 Also, I do not want this to be misperceived as an attack on those teachers who do choose to dress in attire more traditionally considered as professional. I think it’s great when teachers rock funny ties or high heel shoes or don a dry-cleaned suit. Some kids really dig this too. I just don’t want these to be the only kinds of professionals that I see in my building.

Teachers with non-traditional dress and appearance show students that there is more than one way to be a professional. They teach students that being a professional is about who you are and how you act, not what you look like. And in that lesson, those teachers also teach students to be fuller, truer versions of themselves, to chase passions and follow dreams. “Be you,” they say, “and be the fullest, most successful version of that you that you can possibly be.”

Our physical appearance is how we express who we are. It’s how we show others our history and our culture, our interests and our values. Limitations on a form of expression so vital should only be made with the utmost care and caution, and only when the added security provided clearly outweighs the consequences of any damages such limitations might cause. That rationalization works for swastikas, but not for blue jeans, especially blue jeans with so much potentially powerful symbolism sewn into their seams.

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Minnesota, Race

Fuck Lake Calhoun

Yesterday marked one week until the beginning of the NFL regular season. In a previous blog post, I detailed some of the icky-ness I’ve been feeling in recent years towards the game of professional football. Another thing that could have easily made that list was the franchise notoriously known as the Washington Redskins.

You don’t need to be a scholar of critical race theory to recognize the word “redskin” as a racist one. It just sounds racist. And though I’ve read varying accounts of where exactly the word “redskin” comes from, it definitely sounds like something invented by a racist white guy with little knowledge on subjects such as social constructs and the biological effects of melanin. Even if it wasn’t (although I bet it was), there is no doubt that in addition to any positive connotations the word may have acquired throughout its historical journey, the word also has roots buried deep in the soil of ignorance and race-based oppression.

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As the football season continues to ramp-up, discussion surrounding the controversial name will surely ramp-up as well. But winding down with the summer is a somewhat similar name-related controversy that deserves more attention, and is also much more pertinent to the people of the Twin Cities.

The name is Lake Calhoun. For most Minnesotans, the name is synonymous with suntans and cycling, parks and paddle boarding. But for those with a historical knowledge of the man to whom the lake pays homage, the name has a very different connotation.

John C. Calhoun (1782-1850) is one of the most decorated politicians in the history of our country. During his lifetime, he served as a vice president, a senator, a secretary of war, a secretary of state, and in 1824, was even a candidate for president. He was also one of our nation’s leading crusaders for the right of a white person to own a black person.

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Battling back against the rising tide of abolitionism in antebellum America, Calhoun even went as far to call slavery a “positive good,” claiming that the black race “came among us in a low, degraded, and savage condition, and in the course of a few generations…[grew] up under the fostering care of our institutions…to its present comparatively civilized condition.”

Clearly this guy was a complete and total piece of shit. Yet, although he may be one of the worst, Calhoun is hardly the only American whose legacy continues to be heralded today despite his horrible record as a human being. Our cities, and classrooms, and streets, and currency all pay homage to the names and faces of some of the most prolific slave-owners and Indian-killers in our country’s history.

And while it might take a bit more convincing to get people to turn their backs on the likes of Washington and Jefferson, the case against Calhoun is a relatively easy one to make. He didn’t lead a revolution or write a declaration of independence. He was a crotchety old civil-war-southerner whose primary claim to fame was his advocacy for the rights of minority states to enslave minority people.

So why does the name remain? Efforts to change the name began more than a decade ago, and a recent petition started just last June has already gained thousands of signatures. What’s the hold up?

Part of the problem is bureaucracy, as local government has struggled to determine exactly who amongst them would hold the power to act on such a proposal. But if you search the topic on social media or browse the comments sections of some of the related articles, it becomes quickly apparent that many Minnesotans just don’t support the proposed name change.

Their argument is not so much a defense of Calhoun as it is a defense against what they perceive to be a never-ending onslaught of political correctness. They are sick and tired of the relentless mob that cries foul at every semi-insensitive or inappropriate utterance.

They also worry about a domino effect, a fear that by giving in to one list of demands we are launching a process that will lead to the inevitable disintegration of our collective backbone. Gone will be the days where one can make a controversial comment without being subpoenaed by the apology police. Banished will be the names of any person, place, or thing that could be misconstrued as crude when viewed in a particular cultural context.

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I can empathize with that sentiment. We as a society are often too politically correct for our own good. I would even argue that a certain amount of political incorrectness is both necessary and healthy. Sometimes the truth is offensive, and when that is the case, semantical tippy toeing will not lead you to it. Some cases of political incorrectness are worthy of defending. However, I do not think this means that every crusade for righteous political correctness should stop.

Calhoun was an unequivocal bastard. He doesn’t deserve that lake. The word “Redskin” is blatantly racist. It shouldn’t be commemorated on a sports jersey.

These are fights worth fighting, and they don’t stop being fights worth fighting just because some liberal douchebag corrects your pronunciation of “Iran.” They are fights worth fighting because the cause is real. The effects of Calhoun’s racist ideology are still causing suffering to African-Americans living in the United States today. Native Americans are still subject to harmful stereotypes and still reeling from the tragic effects that those stereotypes have had on their people. And the fact that both these names still exist show that our country has not even come close to coming to terms with its racist past, and that it never will if it can’t make these types of rectifications.

Maybe “Calhoun” and “redskin” don’t offend you. That doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if you’re an unoffended white person. It doesn’t matter if you’re an unoffended black person. It doesn’t matter if you’re an unoffended “red” person. What matters is that it does offend some people, most importantly significant groups of black and red people who have historical and social reasons to be hurt by those words. That’s why those names need to change, and I will always support the right of people to fight back against words that they consider hurtful.

Still, at the end of the day, these are just words. Changing the name of Lake Calhoun to Mde Maka Ska, a Dakota name meaning “White Earth Lake,” will not end the systemic oppression of black people in the United States, nor will it give the Dakota their lake back. The elimination of the racist “Redskins” trademark won’t eliminate stereotypes and discrimination against Native American people, nor will it disappear the centuries of cultural genocide to which they’ve been brutally subjected. But they are steps in the right direction, small steps, but steps that need to be taken if we ever want to get serious about taking those much bigger steps and addressing those much bigger problems for real. Thankfully, it sounds like that may be starting to happen.

SIGN THE PETITION FOR A LAKE CALHOUN NAME CHANGE HERE!!!

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