Talking About Identity

My preteen niece is reading a new book in class, “This Book is Anti-Racist” by Tiffany Jewell. It teaches her about white privilege, identity, intersectionality, and anti-racism in a glossy, rainbow-coloured compendium that resembles a graphic novel. It reminds me of “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” “Reviving Ophelia” and other classic, progressive works for girls growing up in the eighties and nineties. However, this new book focuses far more on the impact of racism in the wake of recent political unrest and the beginning of a much-needed dialogue.

Similar to these previous, girl-power books, “This Book is Anti-Racist” has drawn serious criticism from parents. They are concerned that their children will feel like bad people if they are part of the “dominant culture” of North America. That is, white, heterosexual, cisgendered, able-bodied, neurotypical, middle class, English-speaking, and Christian.

While COVID has put an enormous pressure on teachers to suddenly craft online curricula that the most distracted generation will understand, the pandemic has also given educators a certain levity in the material they are allowed to teach. Courses have grown more holistic, with elementary students doing Zoom yoga. And, public middle school students learning about their identity in ways that, only ten years prior, they could only do in their elective university courses.

Parents are concerned that students part of the “dominant culture” will feel antagonized. This is especially true of students from families that struggle financially. As these struggling households are reminded daily of their lack of resources, identity politics feels alienating, insulting, and uselessly indulgent, as it has since the 1960s.

Yet pro-woman is not anti-man. Pro-queer is not anti-straight, nor anti-cis. Anti-racist is not anti-white. Even if a student cannot relate to any of the identities featured in the book, they will undoubtedly encounter people with complex identities throughout their academic and professional careers. Such books, even if parents wholeheartedly disagree with them, will expose their children to different lived realities. Such exposure leads to increased empathy and understanding, two qualities our polarized world desperately needs.

“When this pandemic is over…” increasingly sounds like a pipe dream, not unlike “When I become a billionaire.” The world has changed permanently— socially, economically, politically, educationally. This includes a serious discussion about identity about privilege. And giving new material a chance.

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