The first time I ever got called a “beast,” a few years ago, I was at a gym and had just finished a tough workout.
Sweaty and hair in disarray, I blushed a little with pride when my coach described my work on the mat. He had clearly meant it as a compliment, but I also felt a strange knot in my stomach. Like lots of women, I have struggled with body-image issues for years and, as an athlete, with concepts of masculinity and femininity.
For nearly a decade, I had sought approval under different names, ones much less badass than “beast.” I reveled in being called “cute,” “small” or “too pretty” to do something. When that same coach had, earlier that month, described me as a “110-pound girl,” I basked in the glory of that diminutive for days. I would see myself in the mirror and secretly smile at having been mistaken for someone so much smaller than I actually was.
And isn’t that a problem?
The Rio Olympics, then, were a mixed bag of emotions for me. As an athlete (and a person), the Olympics are often a thrilling show of what the human body is capable of. On the one hand, there were triumphant “firsts” for women—especially women of color. On the other, it was a reminder of mindsets about women that, frankly, are antiquated and sad.
Some sports writers and commentators made infuriating choices in their coverage of female athletes this year. Teaching Tolerance covered a few: from credit given to men for the performance of female athletes to lack of coverage altogether to ridiculous stereotypes about women in malls (because that’s original).
Still, the coverage of women at the Olympics was only a very visible symptom of a much larger issue. Female athletes consistently get less coverage, and when women are portrayed at all, the language used to do so reinforces stereotypes, not to mention the extra layer of sexualization that happens to female athletes of color.
Watching this summer’s Olympic coverage pushed me to ask myself this: Knowing that I, as a teacher and the “adult in the room,” inherently have power, how can I use my words to create a space that is equally celebratory of the beasts and badasses I teach each day—regardless of gender?
Here’s the thing: We know that words matter and that girls and women tend to compare themselves to unrealistic models of physical beauty. And I’m not advocating for some alternate extreme, in which teachers refrain from telling a student that something they’ve done or the way they are is “cute” or “sweet.” I don’t want my students to think there is something inherently wrong or weak about femininity either.
Women of the world take an international platform at the Olympics and prove that women are not just “sugar and spice” but can also be tours de force of physical strength, who move not necessarily against but rather beyond the stereotypes placed on us. In a world where some people still attempt to break women—athletes or not—into piecemeal parts, we must view ourselves and all our students as unique, whole individuals.
When we congratulate students on their athletic or academic accomplishments, we need to be sure it isn’t tied to “othering” concepts (for example, “You run fast for a girl”). Likewise, each time we speak to our students, we should create a space where we phase out language that teaches girls to be diminutive: “Get a boy to help you carry that,” and “Act like a lady” come to mind.
The more we move away from this type of language, the better we teach young people to call out stereotypes of women. When we use language to create empowering spaces, we show all our students, especially our girls, they are capable of being the beasts and badasses we’ve known they are all along.
Torres is a seventh- and ninth-grade English teacher in Honolulu, Hawaii.
The Atlantic: “The stain of segregation bleeds into the most basic elements of black lives—from housing and health to food equality and educational opportunity—and no area exemplifies this like the neighborhoods that make up the South Side of Chicago.”
The Atlantic: “Even with help from excellent teachers, counselors, and principals, school can be an insurmountable challenge for undocumented kids ... .”
The Baltimore Sun: “The school system would have been the first in Maryland to close on the two most important Islamic holidays, Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr, when they fall on school days.”
Education Week: “‘We do see corporal punishment as just one piece of the school-to-prison pipeline and the disproportionate disciplining of students of color.’”
The Guardian: “‘Coding is extremely creative and is an integral part of almost every industry. Make girls see that.’”
NBC News: “As a transgender student in a conservative district of Florida, Adams can only use one of three gender-neutral bathrooms—all of which, he says, are inconveniently located. Two weeks into his sophomore year, he hasn’t gone to the bathroom at school once.”
NPR: “Many common terms used in sex education exist in [American Sign Language] quite literally—gestures that seem to mimic the act being described. For other explicit terms, there isn’t a sign at all.”
The Undefeated: “The social tightrope that black athletes have to walk to avoid criticism is absurd. ...”
The Washington Post: “[Louisiana] school leaders are far more worried about making sure they have enough teachers than they are about the physical condition of classrooms ... .”
The Washington Post: “The lines drawn around school districts ... serve as walls that define communities and drive property values, separating black from white and poor from affluent.”
If you come across a current article or blog you think other educators should read, please send it to email@example.com, and put “What We’re Reading This Week” in the subject line.
Mix It Up at Lunch Day turns 15 this year! Register today, and you’ll become part of a long tradition of kickstarting new friendships in schools across the country and around the world. The "official" date for Mix this year is October 25, but you can host your event any day—just be sure to register.
Let this be your guiding principle as you plan: Don’t do it alone. Mix planning is a great opportunity to create relationships with colleagues in other grade levels, subject areas or departments. And don't forget to enlist administrators, office staff and cafeteria workers—this is a lunch event, after all. Here are some tips to get you going:
- Find four. Invite a minimum of four people to an initial planning lunch. Begin with at least two teachers from departments or grade levels other than your own. Then invite at least one administrator and a couple of folks from the cafeteria.
- Maintain an air of mystery. “I have an idea I want to talk to you about. Can you come to lunch with me to discuss it?”
- Get away for a while. Meet in a location where you can talk without distraction.
- Break the ice. Use these Mix It Up icebreakers to get the group comfortable with each other.
- Get ‘em in the mix. Make an announcement: “I want our entire school to do what we just did!”
- Spell out the details. Tell them all about Mix It Up at Lunch Day, set for October 25.
- Assemble your team. Ask each staff member to commit some time and energy to helping you plan this year’s Mix event. They may know other colleagues who would be perfect for the planning committee. You’ve just created your core group!
While you’re on a roll, enlist parent organizations, local sports teams and community groups that interact with your school. Organizers who have “mixed it up” themselves will be the best models for students when the big day arrives.
Be sure to check out our six easy steps for getting started. And stay connected to the Mix It Up community through Mix It Up blog posts, Facebook, Twitter (use #MixLunch!) and online resources. With the support of the Mix community, your school can plan and carry out a great campaign. We can’t wait to hear about it!
Born and raised in Argentina, but having spent my adult life in the United States, I am fluent in English and Spanish. I always thought that speaking more than one language was beneficial, so when I had a daughter, I wanted her to learn both of my languages. Since she was bound to learn English from her teachers and peers, I chose to speak Spanish with her. She grew up bilingual, and decades later, she is now raising a bilingual child of her own.
I have often wondered why so many Americans with parents or grandparents who spoke another language never learned a word of it. When a friend of mine pointed out that, in her family, the first generation of immigrants was focused on fitting in, I realized that the perceived practical value of a language is a crucial factor for learning it. Recently arrived immigrant groups are usually poor, not well connected and frequently shunned. With language as the main identifier of one’s group, the more quickly one learns English, the sooner this identifier goes away. Foreign languages in this context may be perceived as liabilities.
The first time I noticed a child in the United States who spoke Spanish but pretended he didn’t, I was baffled. But if you were a Latino child in my poor, Northeast Connecticut community, speaking Spanish may have given you nothing but grief. And so, ironically, the most disadvantaged become less likely to take advantage of the rich, low-hanging fruit of knowing an additional language that eventually may give them an edge in the workplace. In a global economy, a foreign language is a marketable skill that may tip the scale in a competitive situation.
In my town, teachers and school administrators do their best to support bilingualism, but with prejudice and discrimination entrenched, speaking Spanish is not perceived by many of their students as helpful. Unintentionally, these students’ families may support this stance through their own negative experiences within their larger communities. All these elements present emotional barriers to developing and maintaining bilingualism. For successful learning, this negative perception must be addressed with every child who has the opportunity to learn a language other than English from a young age.
When I’m out with my young granddaughter, we speak Spanish. The wide range of responses I sense from strangers around us spans from sheer delight to harsh judgment. At times, even I become self-conscious enough to switch languages, as if needing to prove that we can speak English, that we are home. Children may not be able to understand and articulate these subtleties, but they certainly notice and internalize them. Their perceptions of others’ reactions will be a factor in their motivation to learn.
What can teachers do to counteract these internalized negative perceptions to promote the learning of languages? The first step is to recognize that these perceptions exist and that children want to be “cool” among their peers. Persistently uncover and demonstrate the benefits of speaking additional languages, and consider a variety of strategies to do so.
Field trips and travel to areas where different languages are spoken may not be possible for school systems with limited resources, but connecting with children in other countries using technology may be quite easy. To provide just one example, linking with a “sister classroom” in Senegal may offer motivation to communicate in French via Skype, as well as endless opportunities to enrich curricula in other areas, such as geography, biology, history and anthropology.
The use of bilingual books could also be expanded. Bilingual books in schools help children make linguistic connections between languages. In children’s homes, bilingual books allow every family member (a grandma who may not speak English or a young uncle who doesn’t know Spanish) to share the same story. These books benefit adults in the home, too, by improving their own language skills and communication competence.
Getting bilingual authors to read bilingual books in schools or bringing in other bilingual role models for special topics clearly illustrates to children that bilingual skills are valuable. For some students, the experience of meeting bilingual professionals, entertainers, artists or entrepreneurs may highlight the positive aspects of bilingualism and provide motivation to develop and maintain it.
In spite of recent anxiety about immigration and global connectivity, people will continue to travel and interact with the rest of the world. While there always will be challenges to cultural understanding, language doesn’t need to be one of them. We need to prepare children to cope with a rapidly changing environment. Improving their learning of languages is a good start.
Berlin writes bilingual children’s books and essay collections. Learn about her work at deliaberlin.com.
This TIME.com headline ran with an article that explains the reason: A few of Phelps’ friends from back home were loudly paying homage to their hometown Baltimore Orioles.
Hours before, when Gabby Douglas stood on the gold-medal podium, she didn’t laugh; she just stood at attention. She also didn’t put her hand over her heart—and the world of social media roared. Many people didn’t find her behavior as endearing.
Douglas was called “disrespectful” and “unpatriotic.” Phelps, on the other hand, was considered adorable as he giggled with his friends. His behavior will make you “smile.” Hers was enough to send social media into a frenzy of trolling and bullying, to the point that she had to make a statement.
Putting aside the problems with call-out culture in general, we should consider why Douglas and Phelps were treated differently.
Phelps’ public persona is rooted in being one of the greatest swimmers of all time—but his maleness and whiteness factor into that identity as well. He is “the boy next door,” laughing during the anthem with other boys next door who came to see him swim. He is the Opie to the American Dream perpetrated during the “simpler” time of The Andy Griffith Show—a time when women couldn’t get credit cards and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had just been enacted.
Douglas may be the girl next door for many Americans, but not in the version of the American Dream that privileges whiteness. And her visible identities—black, female—put her under different scrutiny. The fact that her behavior is perceived as disrespectful and Phelps’ behavior is seen as cute exposes structural racism and sexism.
I have already written about how the media does not know how to speak about female athletes, but to speak about black female athletes is another, even more complicated discussion that needs to happen online and in our classrooms.
To cultivate cultural literacy about the ways we talk about people of different identities—and to help students see the importance of intersectional analysis—we can use a comparison of the treatment of Phelps and Douglas. Their similarities are specific and parallel, and the differences are so tremendous they cannot be ignored.
To foster critical thinking, we can ask our students first to compare the situations. Once they have observed that the treatment of Douglas differed from that of Phelps, we can ask them the bigger questions:
- Why do you think the response was different?
- Do you think this situation is a one-off, or do you think it is part of a structural problem?
- How does gender matter here (see the comparisons between Phelps and Katie Ledecky)?
- How does race factor in here (see the difference in response to Douglas and McKayla Maroney)?
- How does the intersection of gender identity and racial identity play into this discussion?
The rhetoric used by this summer’s Olympic media has given educators many rich examples that we can use in the classroom to introduce students to intersectionality. We can use these events in popular culture to help our students investigate larger societal issues.
Clemens is the associate professor of non-Western literatures and director of Women's and Gender Studies at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania.