Monday, December 7, 2009

Teaching Against Misogyny

Misogyny is a theme that appears again and again in my classroom. (I raise it sometimes; sometimes it rears its own ugly head.) We recently finished the Freedom Writer’s Diary, in which some students shared their painful experiences of rape and sexual abuse. The reactions of my young students to this is fascinating. Many of the young men in particular state that they’d become violently angry if someone abused a mother or sister of theirs. I can see them shaking their heads and almost growling as we read. The young women sometimes do the same. And of course, some of my own students have written about their experiences of rape, abuse or even prostitution.

The journal of one of my young women, who is happily not here any more, wrote about having sex with strange men who “offered” her food and shelter. At this point in her life, she was sleeping on park benches. Was she raped? Or was this consensual? I certainly can’t see a thing consensual about it given her life circumstances and age. Just like being a racist doesn’t have to mean you’ve got a pointy white hood for lynching, sexism doesn’t have to mean you beat up women. They both can be much more subtle than that.

How then do we teach against misogyny? How do we make it visible in the Hobbesian world of random, family or gang violence? How do I tell my students misogyny is wrong when I’ve seen other adults here snicker along with the kids at the music video portrayals of women? One recent conversation with my students really drove this home. In a couple of poems we were reading, the young women who wrote them expressed the desire to be taken seriously for their ideas and mind. Some students expressed the view that that’s great except in the ‘hood. There, men are and should be in charge, the argument went. That’s just how it is. Life is too dangerous otherwise. Even more depressingly, it was two of my girls expressing this view! I was reminded once again that part of “reforming” schools is developing communities. All too often efforts at reforming methodology, holding teachers accountable or reducing school violence happen in isolation from or in the absence of community development initiatives. Unless they harmonize, school reform will fail.