by Mary Louise Gomez - 2019
In this chapter, Mary Louise recounts Toni Morrison’s (2017) arguments in The Origin of Others about what grounds peoples’ sorting and ranking of persons they consider unlike them in aspects of race, social class, gender-nonconforming identity, or language background. She recounts how her own Latinx family engaged in such conversation about people they saw as not conforming to expected standards of behavior in 1950's and 1960's small-town New England life. Although they were themselves derided for their social class and language background, they nonetheless held so-called “others” accountable for their religious, marital, employment, or cultural nonconformity. Mary Louise likens her family’s cataloguing of the failures of “others” to contemporary perspectives on people seen as outside of those with privileged identities.
Recently, I have been reading Toni Morrisons (2017) book The Origin of Others, commemorating her 2016 Norton Lectures concerning the literature of belonging at Harvard University. Once engaged in reading, I could not stop. I reread page after page, and then the whole slim book again, then twice more. And then I just sat and contemplated what I had read. The following is one result of my musings that seems appropriate, given my task in discussing what you have read in this volume.
In her book, Morrison wrote of how people passionately proclaim their innocence concerning heinous acts committed on others, not as a result of their own criminal or bestial behavior or deeply flawed characters, but as a consequence of other persons innate faults of character, culture, and/or community membership. Therefore, Whites acting with impunity towards Blacks whom they proclaimed they owned were not at fault; rather, the lack of humanity in those seen as deserving of callous treatment is the root cause of Whites conduct. Morrison wrote that much of the way Whites write, talk, and behave is aimed at maintaining their status relative to those seen as others. She asserts, To lose ones racialized rank is to lose ones own valued and enshrined difference (Morrison, 2017, p. 30).
Growing up in New England in the 1950s, I understood hierarchies of all kinds at an early age. I apprehended these primarily through contact with my large extended Latinx family, with whom I spent every national and Christian religious holiday and other important events, such as graduations and confirmations. While we rotated at whose home we would meet for potlucks or at what state parks we would picnic, there were two elements of these gatherings that remained the same: There were always plenty of delicious home-baked rolls, pies, cakes, and cookies to consume in celebration and a commensurate amount of conversation among the adultsunfailingly about people physically absent but alive and colorful in everyones imagination.
After reading Morrisons volume, I was reminded of hearing my aunts and uncles conversations at these noisy family gatherings when the subject of other Latinx people's political, social, family, and/or cultural behaviors were discussed. To my confusion, their moral character, religious affiliations (or lack thereof), employment (or unemployment), and marital status all seemed to be indicators of their worth as persons. Unemployed or underemployed men, those who had left marriages and children with little or no financial support, and others who were known not to be faithful to their spouses often came under fire. Questions about people with such characteristics were frequent: Why did they behave in the ways they did? To what purpose? What were they thinking when they behaved in ways that were immoral or seemed foolish or ill-mannered? What was to become of them or their children? Who would ever trust them?
Later on, while riding home in the comparative safety of a dark car, I sometimes asked, What exactly was wrong with Mr. Canales?" or "Why did my Uncle Pepe say bad things about Mr. Rodriguez?" Recognizing that I had heard a bit too much, my Mother said that those were not conversations for childrens ears and that the people who were discussed were not like us. I remained confused.
As I continued to listen carefully to these conversations over the years, I recognized that the people who were mentioned seemed very much like us, except in a few small dimensions of difference. For example, all of my relatives (men and women) were employed at skilled or unskilled jobs and often held second, part-time employment as well; were long married, with two or a few children; were affiliated with churches though perhaps not regular attendees; were first-generation Americans or had children who were born in this country; as adults spoke English learned at school after speaking Spanish at home; and owned small, modest homes. All hoped their children might go to collegesomething none of the group had achieved. Many had not graduated from high school, but had gone to work in factories to support widowed mothers and/or siblings. And while everyone spoke Spanish when gathered together, all were proud English-speakers who considered themselves White. Those who were topics of conversation were only slightly less economically well-off than my relatives. Or they simply had more difficulty in maintaining public lives that seemed without fault. People who fell outside parameters of what was thought appropriate behavior were considered flawed.
In the 1950s in northern New England, church membership for families was common, and, while this was not practiced by all adults, many children, often accompanied by their mothers, were sent to church and Sunday school. These endeavors were seen as good for their moral development. How this occurred no one seemed certain, but an inoculation of Christianity once a week was viewed as beneficial for students of all ages. The notion that someone would join a group other than a mainstream Protestant sect or Roman Catholic parish was beyond belief at that historical time and geographic location. In fact, when a young man or woman was seen as becoming too involved in religious life, they might become a novice in a religious order or a seminarian, and this, too, was judged as too extreme and to be guarded against. Engaging in religious life at a certain time and place was judged as appropriate, and even needed by developing children, but too much religion was seen as unnecessary and perhaps leading to fanaticism.
Indeed, just as Morrison argued, we were engaged in ranking those we saw as outside our group, as others. Only a few degrees may have separated my aunts and uncles from those they disparaged. Ranking these "others" made my relatives feel that their place in an imagined social hierarchy, however fragile, was slightly more secure.
So, too, does it seem that, in contemporary times, when individuals demonize those whom they understand as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender people or those who decline to name their sexual orientation or gender, they are proclaiming the triumph of normalcy for cisgender and heterosexual people only. Everyone else falls outside of what is regarded as natural and conventional and is to be disdained for what are seen as their choices. Further, such hierarchies reinscribe the rights of those who intimidate or bully others because of sexual orientation or gender-nonconforming identities. This, too, absolves those who act hatefully and locates the so-called problem in those scorned.
Like ones sexual orientation, today ones language background is also frequently viewed as a dimension of identity that merits alteration. And schools are often seen as sites for fixing this problem. Rather than taking an additive approach to language and culture, U.S. schools seem focused on assimilation and replacement of all other languages by English and all other cultures by that of a homogeneous, middle-class set of norms of thinking and behavior. Nothing else will do for students but to assimilate and take up new ways of walking, talking, thinking, and acting. With these come new values that are to be internalized as well.
When my friend Gail was a little girl and asked her grandmother to teach her Italian, the language of her native Sicily, her grandmother replied, Gail, you do not want to know my language. It is dirty, a dirty language! With that, she turned and walked away. And Gail cried. Gails grandmother had learned well that her language was not valued and that her granddaughter would be better off not knowing it. Later in life, as with my family members, her language was saved for family only occasions and rarely, if ever, spoken in public.
Whereas ones language background is challenging to hide, I have found over years of teaching elementary school that students often seek to hide their familys social-class status, particularly when it is clear that their family lacks material goods to which others in their classroom or school have access. Then, expensive goods and labels seem to matter all too much. For teachers, school administrators, and others affiliated with community and school programs, low-income families often are deemed overwhelmed with numerous jobs and responsibilities for many children, or not able to plan for, juggle, and perform complex parenting duties. Therefore, through no fault of their own, children are thought to suffer. Such misdirected pity mixed with disdain locates in low-income people multiple intersecting causes for their own troubles, none of which do anything but blame the root causes of poverty on the poor themselves and deny them simple access to needed goods and services.
Further penalized and demonized through schooling are peoples abilities when these deviate from a presumed norm of well-being, either physical, mental, and/or emotional. Contemporary schooling attempts to remedy these presumed deficits, sometimes through separate classes and at other times with inclusion models for some students. However, nearly all are grounded in notions of modifying curriculum and pedagogies to meet students imagined shortfalls. Differentiated schooling all too often means segregated schooling, with less demanding and rewarding outcomes. Once again, people are ranked according to an alleged standard and provided with what we assume they need with means thought necessary to achieve those goalsfrequently without our seeking the voices of those affected.
People who inhabit the zenith of virtual category ladderssuch as race, social class, and ability, for examplemay feel overwhelmed, anxious, angry, and distressed all at once. How should they imagine themselves meeting the needs of everyone who requires services? Where will they find the emotional strength and resilience to do so? How can they prepare to do everything for everyone? Indeed, teachers often feel this way, caught in webs of institutional, social, and cultural constructions that seem too complex to unravel. It has been our goal in this volume to provide some questions that teachers, those who educate them, and community members who work alongside them may ask, not in hopes of finding solutions to the numerous challenges named here, but, by collaborating, to craft more inquiries together. We hope the authors we featured here may point the way to some next questions that we can all ask.
Morrison, T. (2017). The origin of others. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.