This post is the fifth in a series about including diverse voices in English curriculum while exploring issues and needs related to gifted students. This series will focus on various essays found in the YA nonfiction anthology, Our Stories, Our Voices: 21 YA Authors Get Real About Injustice, Empowerment, and Growing Up Female in America.
View the first post and more about this anthology here. Guidelines for integrating this text or individual essays in your curriculum and how to set up things appropriately with your students are also included at this first post.
How do you help gifted students recognize, process, and confront microaggressions?
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Having the Courage to Question
The recent passing of literary giant Toni Morrison has a lot of us thinking about the many legacies of Morrison’s books and words. One of them is this summons:
“If you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.”
Sona Charaipotra, author of Tiny Pretty Things and Shiny Broken Pieces, is a writer, mother, and entrepreneur who frees others with her work. Once imprisoned by racist comments and incidents that infiltrated her adolescent psyche, literally taking away the flavor from her life, Charaipotra has found the courage to question and confront the many perils of racism, both subtle and blatant. In her liberated, empowering essay, “Chilled Monkey Brains,” she shows us how to do the same.
Before diving into the essay, you may want to view and/or show your students (with parental permission) the “Chilled Monkey Brains” scene from the 1984 film, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, that Charaipotra references. You can spark a discussion with your students by asking them to identify all the stereotypes and racist and sexist images that make this scene problematic. Note the year of the film, and its popularity at the time.
Charaipotra shares painfully vivid descriptions of being teased and taunted, and “asking for trouble” from kids “who didn’t see the beauty” of her Indian culture. Her essay will invite you and your students to relate to the insecurity many feel when claiming their identity, which competes with the self-protective instinct to choose the security of anonymity and/or denial. From the description of “the fury of lockers slammed with the force of anger,” to the blood-chilling racist attacks in her town, Charaipotra’s memories will likely elicit in readers both recent and past memories of microaggressions many have experienced or witnessed.
You may choose to share with your students your own struggles with microaggressions. Before sharing my own, I want to take care (as a white woman who grew up in privilege) not to equate my experiences with those of the essayist, but to show how despite our different experiences, we can develop empathy as we identify with the feelings others have. In my particular case, it was the questioning a heritage I’d always taken pride in and the shock of finding it misunderstood and unacceptable by peers that was hurtful.
Taking pride in our centuries-deep Quaker roots was a value my parents instilled in us early. But as I soon discovered, growing up in Bible Belt North Carolina, being Quaker was “different.” Even after I tried to explain Quakerism to classmates and friends (the acronym S.P.I.C.E. was a way some believed encapsulated our faith: simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality) nobody understood it. “Do you even believe in Jesus?” they would ask. “Are you the ones who ride around in buggies?” On the bus in fourth grade, the girl bouncing alongside me casually asked which church my family attended. I longed to say something normal and acceptable, like “the Methodist one.” I cringed when I had to say, “Quaker,” and endure again the confused expression and questions that seemed more contemptuous than curious. When eighth grade rolled around, our study of North Carolina History included the mention of Quakers, with a brief sentence that read, “Although many Quakers were abolitionists, a few owned slaves.” One classmate turned to me and muttered, “Your ancestors enslaved my ancestors. I’m not talking to you anymore.” Another classmate would relentlessly tease me and say, “Quaker! Hey, Quaker! You been eatin’ some Quaker Oats, Quaker?”
Charaipotra elucidates exactly how I felt upon hearing these comments: “I took it to heart,” and it made me “question the majesty of centuries of tradition.” It took me a few years to take deep pride again in my family’s Quaker roots. Charaipotra masterfully connects the “anti-anti-anti sentiment of Trump’s America” (“not my America,” she emphasizes) as giving new fuel to an “already raging fire.” More importantly, she pinpoints why the courage to question and confront microaggressions is so critical now more than ever.
Whether it’s ethnicity, religious practice, sexual orientation, gender expression, or any other identifying factor, Charaipotra’s bold essay inspires us to recognize and challenge dangerous microaggressions. Her incisive examination of seemingly innocuous images, comments, mispronunciations, and cultural appropriations that serve to “otherize,” makes it clear that we as educators have an opportunity and a duty to empower our students to not only “get their stories back” from the decontextualized, whitewashed versions, but to proudly raise their voices and keep telling their stories to create real change.
Before You Begin
Because each of these stories share voices that are often silenced, they must be given “big space” in the classroom. By that we mean stories must be read more than once, and annotated–listened to, carefully. These stories should be celebrated. They should invite a reader to go inward. They should invite a conversation between the reader and the writer.
These suggested writing and discussion prompts assume that you have done work to set up a safe space in your classroom, that you offer opportunities for students to journal privately as well as for you as the audience, and that you remind students of how to engage respectfully when sharing different opinions. Some questions below are best saved for independent writing, while some might work for small-group discussion, and others, for large-group discussion. Some may be good material for research and independent projects.
Because some students are still recovering from microaggressions, be sure to introduce the topic a day or two before you embark on reading this essay and completing its activities. Explain to students that they can choose among writing and discussion topics and that you are open to consider alternate prompts where appropriate. Recognize that some students may not be a space to explore their personal experience.
Discussion and Writing Prompt Guide
- Define the following terms by researching the standard definition. Then, give an example of how you have seen each in current events, your personal experience, or others’ experience:
- “Whitewashing” or “whitewashed”
- Who was Saddam Hussein? Share what you learn about him and elaborate on his meaning and significance in the essay.
- Who were the Dotbusters? How were they formed, and what was their mission? Explain the significance within this essay.
- What is the effect of juxtaposing the hate crimes that were reported vs. “the many that must have gone unreported”?
- Charaipotra describes the intangible but still painful consequences that haunted middle-class Desi immigrants. For example, her parents faced racism as pediatricians navigating the American medical system of schooling. Imagine and/or write out a scene to show what that might have looked and felt like for Indian immigrants.Or, if you know of someone in your family or ancestors who have survived such experiences, you might wish to imagine their experience and talk about how that makes you feel.
- Charaipotra’s efforts to blend in with classmates included boy band fandoms and going to school dances. She mentions that “no one really asked us to dance.” Why does she include this detail? What is the effect?
- Research one of the post 9-11 hate crimes that Charaipotra mentions on page 57. What are you learning about hate crimes and this particular one? What questions do you now have?
- Charaipotra cites several examples of hate-filled rhetoric and hate crimes that have happened since the 2016 election. Of all the disturbing incidents, which statistics do you find most concerning? Why?
- Charaipotra asks, “What [do the recent acts of violence and deportations] have to do with ‘chilled monkey brains’? Only everything.” What does she mean, and why does she say this?
- What is the “white gaze” narrative? Do you see yourself as part of this–either by living under the gaze, or by doing it yourself?
- Charaipotra gives many examples of “deceptively mild forms of racism on-screen and in pages,” including references to celebrities like Bobby Flay, Scarlett Johannsen, and Matt Damon. Cite examples of your own observations of “whitewashing.”
- Throughout the essay, Charaipotra makes a distinction between “real America” and “Trump’s America.” How do you define real America? How does it differ from Trump’s America?
- The essay closes with: “Our voices are our power. We must use them–and teach the generations after us to do the same. Together, all those voices can create an epic boom. Maybe even one that can take down a wall.” What “wall” is Charaipotra alluding to? Do you think it is a fitting reference in light of current events? Why or why not?
- Charaipotra mentions how the short stories of author Jhumpa Lahiri had her “smitten.” Read the first two chapters of Lahiri’s novel The Namesake and compare and contrast the theme of identity in Charaipotra’s essay with that of Lahiri’s novel.
Making a personal connection
- Early in the essay, Charaipotra explains the angst of standing out as the only Indian kid in her class. Despite her efforts to be invisible, she explains, she couldn’t help but get noticed. How have you experienced or observed this feeling in your own life?
- After enjoying but not finding herself in classics such as Anne of Green Gables, where a white girl was the protagonist, Charaipotra finally found her “angst, personal teen triumphs and traumas echoed” in the film Bombay Talkie. Can you name a novel or film that did the same for you, that you could see yourself in? If yes, describe how you see yourself and why.
- The essay cites students who taunted, “If I come over, can we have some chilled monkey brains…or maybe roasted roaches?” What kinds of similarly hurtful comments have you endured or observed that strike at someone’s identity or culture?
- Who do you think labeled Charaipotra the “fluffy girl”? Can you relate to being grouped or labeled in ways that don’t resonate with your real values and interests?
- Visit the website of Charaipotra’s book development company, CAKE Literary. Explore some of the titles and identify some you would have liked to have read as a child and/or ones you might like to read to a youngster (like a younger sibling or babysitting charge) in your life.
- Charaipotra explains the process of how she learned she’d have to find and raise her voice. Charaipotra’s vision for her daughter and for future generations is for us to “raise our voices and create the change we want to see.” How do you see yourself now or envision yourself in the future contributing to Charaipotra’s vision?