Explaining “Normal” to a Seven Year Old

Separate is never equalA few months back, after reading the book Separate is Never Equal, my daughter, Addi asked me:

“Daddy, why are the white people so rude to Sylvia’s family?”

My initial thought was, “that’s an easy one.  We’ve talked about racism and discrimination so many times.  I can reference back to many of our previous conversations.”  However, the answer that came out of my mouth was a little more nuanced than usual. “Because Sylvia’s family does not like what is normal for their school district.”

As I moved throughout the rest of my evening, and for several months to follow, I asked myself, “what is normal?” My goal was to advance Addi and my conversations about prejudice, discrimination and inclusion as well as develop a better understanding of the social world she/we live in?

What unfolded over time was the creation of the Cycle of Normal…and a daughter who is more aware of prejudice and discrimination.

A few days ago, I introduced Addi to the Cycle of Normal and we revisited a few conversations from the past, beginning with Separate is Never Equal.  Within minutes she got it.  We recognized that the work of many historical characters had less of an impact than it was initially thought, but disrupting normal is possible as long as we build relationships and stay focused on awareness, education and inclusion.

This blog post introduces the Cycle of Normal in the context of the conversation Addi and I recently had.  If you would like a visual of the Cycle of Normal and additional resources, please contact me.

The Cycle of Normal

The Cycle of Normal consists of five initial components.  The components typically unfold seamlessly within split seconds.

Normal

The normal that we maintain in our everyday social lives is a natural function of the human brain.  Normal allows us to sustain attention on what we perceive as important for our survival.  It provides us with comfort and security we need to navigate an otherwise uncontrollable environment.

“Addi,” I said. “In Separate is Never Equal, the white people were so rude because their normal was segregation, and they felt that the integration of schools was in no way a normal they wanted.”.

Stereotypes

The normal of the white people in the story was based on deeply ingrained stereotypes of Mexican people.  Stereotypes are perceptions of groups based on grossly simplified characteristics or qualities.  People often struggle to process stereotypes because they are trying to combine many at one time (gender, race, ability, native language, etc.).

“The white people had stereotypes of Mexican people based on what was significant to keeping their schools normal.  They thought all Mexican people were the same.”

“That’s wrong!” She responded.

Biases

Stereotypes lead to preferences and biases.  People have a countless number of biases influencing their moment to moment decisions.  Some are conscious; others are subconscious (implicit).  Some biases can be meaningless.  Others can have significant impacts on other people.  Such was the case in Separate is Never Equal.  Biases evolve through experiences that break down stereotypes.

Addi, “the principal and superintendent refused to allow Mexican children to attend the white school because he thought Mexican families didn’t share the same values as the white families (conscious), and Mexican children were less interested and worthy of a quality education than white children (conscious and subconscious).”

Assumptions

Biases guide sweeping assumptions. Assumptions allow people to move forward blind to the plurality of persons’ lives.

“The white people in the story assumed that all Mexican children and families were inferior to white children and families.  They assumed Mexican children couldn’t speak English.  This might have been the case for some Mexican children, but not Sylvia and her brothers.”

Prejudices           

Based on stereotypes, biases and assumptions we develop prejudices.  In Separate is Never Equal prejudices are made about Sylvia and her family before anyone talks to the family.  The prejudices of school staff and administrators frame all Mexican people as different/worse, and less capable than white people.

“Addi, do you remember that the administrators believed that, because Sylvia and her brothers are Mexican, they don’t care about school like white children?”

Stereotypes, biases, assumptions and prejudices often occur without giving them any consideration.  In Separate is Never Equal, the behaviors of the administrators were detrimental, but under other circumstances stereotypes, biases, assumptions and prejudices can be helpful.  They allow us to tune out noise, build a knowledge base and make quick decisions.  What matters is how people respond to their prejudices.  Do they discriminate, like the administrators at the white school, sending Sylvia and her brothers to the “Mexican school” where there are few learning resources and the teachers are not committed to the learning of students?  Or, do they draw awareness to the prejudices and provide all children with well-resourced school with teachers who are committed to everyone’s success?

Maintaining the Cycle of Normal

Maintaining the cycle of normal means following the status quo and remaining blind to prejudices.

Discrimination

“Addi, if people don’t recognize their prejudices they lead to acts of discrimination.  The administrators had a prejudice against Mexican people.  They discriminated against the children by sending them to the “Mexican school.”  The children at the Mexican school were not provided with an education that was equal to the white children.”

Marginalization

The outcomes of discrimination are marginalization.

“Sylvia’s father tried to speak up, but he was ignored.  He was not given the opportunity to talk and be heard.  He was marginalized.”

The administrators sent the Mexican children to the Mexican school with the attempt of silencing them and their families and make them powerless in the decision-making process.

“Remember, Sylvia’s father had to fight and sacrifice his time and money to get a lawyer and build alliances with other populations of people in California who were marginalized.  The school district did everything they could to take away his power.”

Inequity

Marginalization leads to inequity.

“Like Malala Yousafzai, Sylvia’s rights to a quality education were not being met.  She didn’t have the resources to learn the content white children were learning.  Without the same learning opportunities as a child, she would not have access to the same opportunities as white children as adults.”

Fortunately, prejudices do not need to follow the pathway of discrimination, marginalization and inequity in the Cycle of Normal.  Alternatively, a person can recognize their stereotypes, biases, assumptions, prejudices and the impacts of discrimination.

Deconstructing, then Reconstructing the Cycle of Normal

The Cycle of Normal is hard to disrupt.  It takes time, effort, commitment and a reconstruction of normal.

“Sylvia’s father, the lawyer and other advocates for integration had a challenge that no one before them had overcome.  It would have been much easier to stay on the Cycle of Normal, but her father was committed to disrupting the cycle.  His disruption meant constantly raising awareness, educating other people, and helping schools integrate and be inclusive.”

Awareness

Awareness occurs through experiences.  Being aware means that a person recognizes institutionalized systems of oppression towards marginalized peoples.  The person recognizes racism, sexism, ablism, classism, etc. in their daily lives.

“Everyone must always be aware of their prejudices, why they are prejudiced and how they may discriminate against other people.  It requires people to share experiences with unfamiliar people and learning from them by building relationships.”

Educate

We cannot become fully aware of our stereotypes, biases, prejudices and acts of discrimination without formal and informal education.  We must also take learning into our control.  We can make learning a part of the reconstruction of our normal by making a point to listen to read/listen to literature about equity, watch programming that reflects the normal of others and listen to podcasts that reveal experiences unlike our own.  When there are opportunities, we should attend cultural events that pluralize a group or social identity.

“Addi, what could the administrators have done to become more educated on the Mexican culture and Sylvia’s families?”

“Daddy, how many times do I need to tell you!  They should have built relationships.”

Inclusion

Inclusion tends to be the stage where many return to their old pathway of normal.  That cannot continue!

“Addi, for Sylvia’s school to be integrated, her father was required to bring the school district to court.  Inclusion and integrations don’t need to be that difficult.”

For more on this, please read a past blog post of mine on inclusion.

Equity

“Once the school was desegregated, Sylvia received an equal education, right daddy.”

“Yes, it was equal, but not necessarily equitable. Every student received education, but that doesn’t mean they had the necessary resources they needed to learn.”

A person who has a new normal where prejudice is constantly at the forefront of consciousness, must not accept equity as absolute.  Equity not only requires a person to step out of their pathway of inequity, it also demands sacrifices that go beyond the time and efforts for becoming inclusive.  A person must be willing to abandon preferences and biases and distribute their wealth of resources.

For many people, normal goes on unquestioned.  For other’s, those who are marginalized, it is devastating.  If you consider yourself an advocate for justice and equity you must recognize that your normal must be reconstructed.  If you would like additional resources to help you understand, deconstruct and reconstruct normal, please contact me.  I am happy to provide you with free resources.