Avoiding Patricia Arquette Moments in Education Reform

When Patricia Arquette called for equal pay for women after being awarded the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in late February 2015, Meryl Streep stood, cheering, and Hillary Clinton voiced her support as well.

However, social media began to catalog a much different response, notably by black Haitian writer of Bad Feminist Roxane Gay and Imani Gandy, attorney and political journalist advocating for women’s rights, who explained:

With those words—whether intentional or not (and personally, I believe it was unintentional)—Patricia Arquette gave voice to a system of structural erasure that has been the gold standard in the feminist movement since well before Sojourner Truth stood up and declared “Ain’t I A Woman?”

That erasure assumes that all men are white men and all people of color are men. And that erasure leaves women of color wondering where they fit into all of this.

In a follow up blog, Gandy adds:

My conversation with [Nicole Sandler] got me thinking about the conversations that I have with white women about privilege and why it tends to devolve into shenanigans and feelings of ill-will (as it unfortunately has with Nicole).

Oftentimes when I have these conversations with white women, they’ve never heard the term white privilege before, or if they have, they dismiss it as inapplicable to them.

Arquette represents the dangers of good intentions in the context of unexamined privilege, as Gandy confronts above and then emphasizes:

Here’s the thing about privilege: There are all kinds. There’s privilege based on race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, citizenship status, and on and on. (A great primer on the concept is Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Privilege Knapsack.”)

And you know what? Almost every single person on the planet has privilege in some form or another.

Me? I have class privilege. I make a decent living now and I grew up upper-middle class. I never wanted for anything. And I rarely want for anything now. (Certainly the things that Iwant are luxury items that I really don’t need. I mean, I’ve got my eye on a Michael Kors purse, but do I need it? Hardly.)

Additionally, Arquette as a white woman offers an important moment for the education reform debate, notably since education has its own Arquette in the form of Ruby Payne.

“The current teaching population in the U.S. comprises mostly white, middle-class women,” explain Sato and Lensmire in their analysis of Payne’s claims about poverty and why those discredited stereotypes are nonetheless embraced:

Osei-Kofi (2005) thinks that Payne’s stereotypes provide the well-meaning educator with a certain “guilty voyeuristic pleasure” as they get to affirm their own normalcy against the “comfortably familiar” image of the poor as pathological. Payne plays on our sense of ourselves as normal, the norm, as well as on our sense of the poor as different, other.

Sato and Lensmire then quote Osei-Kofi:

“Based on this depiction of the poor, educators become perfectly situated to take on the role of middle-class, primarily white, saviors of children in poverty by being ‘good’ role models, and teaching these children the so-called hidden rules of middle-class. Through the objectification of the poor, educators are implicitly positioned as the true histor- ical subjects with ability to act in creating social change.” (Osei-Kofi 2005, p. 370; emphasis added)

Bomer, and others, have exposed the same dynamic, including how Payne misrepresents poverty and race in her frameworks:

Racializing the representations of poverty means that Payne is portraying poor people as people of color, rather than acknowledging the fact that most poor people in the US are white (Roberts, 2004). By doing so, Payne is perpetuating negative stereotypes by equating poverty with people of color. Although there is a correlation between race and class, this does not justify her use of racialized “case studies.”

Payne’s audience of teachers is primarily white, female, and middle class, so their probable shared perspective makes it likely that such signals will be understood as racial. Given that the truth claims do not explicitly address the relationships between poverty, race, ethnicity, and gender, we are merely pointing out the absence of such considerations from Payne’s work.

And despite a growing body of research refuting Payne’s claims about class and race, Payne continues to prosper on her self-published books and workshops and has often been defiant—a cycle not unlike Arquette’s defense of her comments and advocacy—as Gorski notes:

For example, in response to a critique of A Framework published by Teachers College Record (Gorski, 2006b), Payne (2006a) writes: “Gorski states that his lens is critical social theory. My theoretical lens is economic pragmatism. The two theoretical frames are almost polar opposites.”

Indeed.

Well-intentioned people, then, unwilling to examine their own privilege and then defiant against the voices of others who speak from marginalized perspectives are as apt to derail the call for equity in education reform as the so-called corporate reformers.

As I have detailed in literacy education, uncritical embracing of the “word gap” reveals the blinders of privilege and then leads directly to policy distorted by racism, classism, and sexism—policy, then, that perpetuates inequity while claiming to be reform.

As Gandy explains above, everyone must be open to examining her/his own privilege, even when she/he feels primarily to be in a marginalized status (such as white women), but that self-examination is often hard since the factors are so close and familiar.

While watching an HBO’s Real Sports episode on Death on Everest recently, I was struck how the relationship between Shirpas and mostly affluent and often white mountain climbers is a stark but real example of the danger and power of privilege: White wealth pays to defer great risk and even death from the climbers to the Shirpas.

A context such as that—also examined in Death and Anger on Everest by Jon Krakauer—may offer the distance needed to understand privilege before turning the mirror on ourselves and those near us.

Nonetheless, as much as the Arquette controversy is important for a national examination of privilege, it is also a key moment for committing to avoiding more Arquette moments within education, where there is no room for privilege or the status quo of racism, classism, and sexism.

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