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Teachers have a hard time with them intellectually they understand what gifted and learning disabled means. But having it inside a classroom is a completely different story.
ANNA MARIA TREMONTI: Last week Jen Clowes joined two other parents on this program to talk about their struggles with public school systems where teachers didn't seem to have the time, the training or the resources to help their children with special needs. The response was overwhelming. So today we will continue that discussion by turning to teachers who face the issue from a different perspective. Hear them in just a moment. Also today Barbara Kingsolver was already a bestselling novelist when she wrote Flight Behavior widely viewed as a climate change parable. That novel use butterflies in its central plot but her metaphors for the planet's health today are not as delicate.
You feel a lump but you don't want to go to the doctor because you don't want to hear the bad news. Well we've reached that moment where we've got to go to the doctor. This is not going to end well.
AMT: In half an hour, Barbara Kingsolver the novelist with a doctorate in science talks about adaptation through the dual prisms of the social imagination and ecological reality. And then a conversation with Reni Eddo-Lodge.
I'm no longer engaging with white people on the topic of race. Not all white people just the vast majority refuse to accept the existence of structural racism and its symptoms.
AMT: The author of Why I'm no Longer Talking to White People About Race joins me in an hour. I'm Anna Maria Tremonti. This is The Current.Back To Top »
Meeting all students' needs in inclusive classrooms is challenging, say teachers
Guests: Jo-Ann van Vulpen, Carla Kolada, Julie Cornell
When you repeatedly hear things from educators like Ryan is his own worst enemy. A kid with a learning disability is not his own worst enemy. The learning dis- It's not even a disability. I hate that word. I think it's a learning difference. The way his brain works is what makes him who he is.
AMT: Well you can hear the frustration in her voice. Jennifer Clowes is one of three parents I spoke with last week all parents of children with special needs each said that public schools are failing their kids. Across the country public schools are increasingly taking an approach known as inclusion which means students with special needs are taught together with everyone else in the same classroom. It is an idea many people like in theory. In practice schools are struggling with how to make it work. We're going to pick up that conversation today by talking to teachers. But first a note on what we mean by special needs because it refers to a broad range of students. It can refer to students diagnosed with ADHD, autism, learning disabilities, giftedness and mental or physical disability. We have three teachers joining us. Jo-Ann van Vulpen teaches high school she is in Sunridge, Nova Scotia. Julie Cornell teaches grade 6 and 7. She's an Coquitlam, B.C. and Carla Kolada is an elementary school teacher in Nashua Valley just outside of Fredericton, New Brunswick. Hello everyone welcome.
GUESTS: [Cross talking] Hello.
AMT: Julie Cornell, let's begin with you. How long have you been teaching?
JULIE CORNELL: Well I think it's about 12 years.
AMT: And do you agree with the inclusion model?
JULIE CORNELL: I do. I really really do. I have my personal experiences growing up were a little different and so you know I didn't have the same experiences in my schooling to be able to be connected and along for learning alongside any sort of peers that had any special needs. And I think I suffer from it. Personally, I don't think I really developed a good sense of compassion or understanding but as a teacher, I can say that having students with special needs in my classroom has not only positively impacted the other students in the class in ways that go beyond learning, but also has shaped me into an adult and a person, who I feel can very much I guess better understand and be able to guide students to develop themselves in a lot of ways, including developing compassion understanding for peers of any kind.
AMT: So and so over 12 years what have there been challenges for you with inclusion?
JULIE CORNELL: Definitely, definitely. I think that the idea of inclusion, it's absolutely the right thing to do. It's very important. But it takes a lot of effort and support, training money to really put in the proper supports and programs to support teachers to make it to make it work the way we want it to work. I think that it's not just inclusion and then it will be fine. It has to be done in the right way and that's where the challenge comes in.
AMT: So what have you experienced? Give me an example.
JULIE CORNELL: My best example and favorite example comes at the very beginning of my career. I had a student in my class and back then I think that the number of needs across the class was lower. So I had a few students in my class of IPs, one in particular who was a boy with Down syndrome. I would say that him being a part of our class shaped our class into what it was. Each of the kids ended up doing rotations with him, sitting alongside him learning with him. We didn't always have an educational assistant in the class to support but we were resourceful within ourselves to find students to do it. And I think it really created a carrying classroom community. And my fun story at the end of the year that kid was so important our class that it was time for to do our class photo that year he was absent that day and my students stood up and they would not take the picture until he was back at school.
AMT: OK. And so you have only positive experiences with inclusion.
JULIE CORNELL: Honestly, I would not say I have negative experiences. I would say I have frustrations and I know that you've defined special needs for the case of the conversation today, but my opinion goes a little bit beyond that that inclusion is not just about the number of students in our class that have IPs.
AMT: Let me just stop you there an IEP is an individual education plan. So these are what they are. They are called different things in different provinces but it is special plans for different students. Go ahead.
JULIE CORNELL: I'm not sure. I'm not sure about other provinces. I know that where I worked. A student with ADHD is not considered special needs and they don't get any special funding or designation. And that is a challenge because often those students need different kind of supports in place to help them learn. So I don't know what happens in other provinces but yeah there's been challenges in British Columbia, as you know, with some contract language and class composition size.
AMT: Okay, well I don't know but I do know last year - I know you've just started a new school year - Last year you had 30 students and seven students with IPs. Am I right?
JULIE CORNELL: Last year I had 30 students in my class and I had a lot of needs in the class.
AMT: How was that?
JULIE CORNELL: I would say that for me the restored contract language that's come in place, with I have now 25 students and a few fewer needs a better conversation and composing in class. I can definitely feel the difference, but I have colleagues who don't feel the difference.
AMT: Okay. You're still not telling me specifics. So what was it like last year? 30 kids seven IPs, am I right?
JULIE CORNELL: Well I honestly don't feel comfortable discussing too many specifics about the students in my class for the sake of their own personal identity. I would say that in many people I've talked to, people last year and in the years past we're overloaded with needs in the class, that goes beyond the number of students with IPS. That is what I'm trying to say. So you might have three students in a class with IPs and six more that take intense strategies from the teacher. So looking at the number three might be like oh they've only got three but hang on there's a bit or a bigger story to that. It's not just three that you have to really work out and try to make it fit into the class well. There are students that do not get diagnosis or designations but they're still, in our opinion, students that have needs that are quite special.
AMT: Okay and how is that tough?
JULIE CORNELL: Very very tough.
AMT: We heard parents saying basically parents that their kids aren't getting help because of that. So do you feel that you give the kids who need the help the help they need?
JULIE CORNELL: Yes. I guess my comment back to that would be I'm forced to teach every kid in the class. And there are times when what I need to do for the class doesn't work for every student. And so then, how do we fix that? Well sometimes there's education assistants in the class, sometimes or support teachers and sometimes I'm on my own, and if I'm on my own I do the best I can. And that means sometimes I can't do the best for everyone in the room. And that could be a student with a special need, that could be a student who's your average kid who's just not understanding something today. Or a kid who walked in that was hungry. Right.
AMT: Okay well, Julie, hang on and let's hear from the other teachers we have here. Jo-Ann van Vulpen in Nova Scotia, what has your experience been in an inclusive classroom?
JO-ANN VAN VULPEN: In high school students are required to take 18 credits to graduate from high school. It's all that applies to all students regardless of whether they're special needs. So we are seeing students who would be in a classroom for an hour and perhaps in chemistry, perhaps in physics. These might be students who are intellectually functioning at a grade primary level sometimes less. My experience, my background, what I've been doing for the past 10 years is a program that is particularly geared for students who have become disengaged with the education system. And so in that specific program, students with intellectual special needs are not apt to be in it, because this program is intended for students to be in Cooperative Educational placements. However I also teach art and so in that case it's the same as every other classroom, in terms of having all ranges of abilities. And my experience and my thinking on this is that the needs of the children - when we when we talk about an average student - I have a problem even with that term, an average student. The needs are growing and they're growing in our average students as well as society is changing and the demands on society is changing. And the demands on schools have grown to the point where we're expected to take on a far more of a parenting type of role and attempting to achieve all of the needs. As Julie had described, when we are trying to deliver a lesson and we have an individual who has passion, say an individual, all the individuals have different needs, some of them need to have a quiet room, some of them need to have a dynamic environment where that can stress out another child. I'm talking about all of the children. I appreciate the frustrations of parents with special needs students but I hear the frustrations likewise of parents of children who we consider average. Their frustrations are with the other children in the room or with children getting attention that there is aren't. Their frustration is that their children are also not getting their needs met.
AMT: What kind of specific challenges have you faced then in the classroom as you try to balance all of that?
JO-ANN VAN VULPEN: I listen to your guest yesterday Charles Pascal and his comment was the first place I'd look if students are not engaged is in the mirror. And I honestly had to shut down the program and not continue to listen, because the teachers are very much trying to engage all students but they're coming from such diverse experiences and so much demands on their attention, that it is extremely difficult to engage all of the students who have – and virtually every single one of them has a different need. And trying to hold all their interests, explain things in a way that they can all comprehend, or to be expected to diversify a lesson to me that range of needs. I diversify and lesson and one students might have completed the lesson to the best of their ability, in two minutes, where another student in the class will require two to three hours. What then? How do you keep that going? I am very very fortunate to be in a school where class sizes happen to be small and that's because I'm in a smaller community. And I have been very blessed with far fewer problems than what I know my colleagues have in other institutions. But I still feel so often incompetent because I'm not able to meet the variety of needs. What I am learning however is - because of the program that I currently lead - it has allowed for additional pre-planning time. It's also about a cap of students. So my classroom is rarely more than - in terms of this particular program - rarely more than 13 students. And as a result I am able to communicate with the parents and I'm able to meet with the parents. I'm able to communicate with the students one on one when I wish to, and produce and foster a very positive environment. When you're a high school, students by that point are either hate school, or they have to continue on and they're okay with the dynamic.
AMT: Okay, Jo-Ann, I'm going to just stop you there because I want to give Carla a chance to speak as well. Carla Kolada, what has it been like for you teaching in an inclusive setting in New Brunswick?
CARLA KOLADA: First of all just listening to the other ladies, I think we all agree in that it's creating an environment where all students are considered different learners. We live in a country that is one of the most diverse countries in the world. And when you think about the fact that each one of us, each one of us on this panel, learns in a different way. We have different strengths. We have different passions. We have situations where we are uncomfortable, others where we are. And if we think about our schools as an environment in which all children do belong and our children are valued and there are ways in which celebrations of accomplishments can be, then, yes that is a positive inclusive environment. Having said that, I have taught for 20 years now. I've taught in lower elementary in an elementary school however where we really work as a team. I'd have to say I have had many many positive experiences for us at our school. It's about looking at each individual and seeing how we can look at our curriculum and flexibly plan so that each learner can be reflected in that curriculum. It's also about educating the children in our class to value difference and value that we all have a different path to understanding whatever it is that we're focusing on. And I think having said that there have been certainly challenges. There have been children in our kindergarten, grade 1 classes who really, others that say they don't belong. They're not part of that. They are not going to fit in the system. And within a year and a half to two years of working with our classroom communities, with our students, with all of the specialists involved, getting supports in to learn how can we allow this child to be part of this group. I have seen amazing transformations of children who others would have given up hope and said they are not going to fit in. But by looking at each child as an individual and allowing each child to be part of a valued classroom society, class values, school system it's amazing. It's been amazing to see.
AMT: Well it's good to hear that. We don't have a lot of time left in this half hour, but as someone listening would say that you the three of you agree with inclusion. You've got a few bumps but it's not a big deal. That's not kind of what I heard from the parents last week. So what am I missing?
JO-ANN VAN VULPEN: Ethically, morally, yes inclusion is correct. And I do believe the system needs to be inclusive. What you have been hearing I think from the other speakers from Julie, and Carla and perhaps myself is very much a social acceptance and tolerance. What you haven't been hearing is an intellectual or physical growth in these students. That's the other aspect of the potential. So even though we're speaking of the ideal, the reality is such that for us to achieve this ideal successfully we do need to redesign a very old system of education that is based on a classroom of 20 30 and higher sometimes. Class sizes with an educator standing in that room that isn't the dynamic where you can foster successfully for the vast majority of us a wide range of needs. That's not where you can be successful to its greatest potential. I am not elementary educator. I do belong to a small community and I would firmly say that that's where changes need to start where you're actually- We are expecting teachers to be able to be far more personal with our children, fostering almost like a parenting type relationship and therefore we need to establish a structure that resembles that.
AMT: Okay. Well that's interesting. Julie, what do you think of what Jo-Ann is saying?
JULIE CORNELL: Well sorry I had another idea I wanted to share. I guess the biggest challenge for me doesn't it. It lies more in the fact that I think what I heard in the in the frustration of the parents side, is that they want teachers to be better educated to support their children. They were very concerned about the fact that they didn't know enough about each child's condition or you know the type of condition that they're facing. I think my stress or my worry is that there are so many different types of special needs that I think it might be a little- I guess the question is what is reasonable to expect from a classroom teacher? Can they be a classroom teacher who can teach math and language arts and social studies and all those things and also be an expert in ADHD and behavior and anxiety and threats and depression and all of the different things you face? Is it reasonable to expect that the classroom teacher can be all of those things? I think it might be that the classroom teacher can implement good plans with support of other people that might be better experts at that. It's a lot to ask one person to be an expert in all of those things. I think that's what the teachers struggle with and the parents too. They're frustrated that the teachers don't understand this condition well enough but yet we're dealing with so many different conditions and different parents. It's hard to meet the needs of all parents.
AMT: Okay, we have to leave it there. I appreciate all of you weighing in and telling us a little bit more about how you think about it. This is a conversation that will continue. So thank you for being part of it. That is Jo-Ann Van Vulpen, she teaches high school and we are reaching her in Sandridge, Nova Scotia. Julie Cornell teaches grade 6 and 7 she's in Coquitlam, B.C. and Carla Kolada is an elementary school teacher in Nashua Valley outside of Fredericton, New Brunswick. We do want to continue this conversation. We want to know what you think as you listen. Is the public school system in your community working for children with special needs? Is it working for all children? Is it working the way you think it should? We want to hear from you and we're going to keep the conversation going with a special call in show next week that we'll do right across the country. So next Tuesday October 3rd we want to hear from parents, teachers, students as well, from coast to coast to coast. Get ready to share your stories with us. We'll tell you more about how to reach us. All of that next Tuesday. We will continue this conversation. There's lots more to talk about. Stay with us. The CBC News is next and then she's got a doctorate in science. She's a celebrated novelist. She's even an Oprah Book Club pick. Barbara Kingsolver’s message to us today will be one of Adaptation. She is my guest in our next half hour Barbara Kingsolver. I'm Anna Maria Tremonti. This is The Current.
[Music: Theme]Back To Top »
'This is not going to end well': Author Barbara Kingsolver on climate change
Guest: Barbara Kingsolver
AMT: Hello. I'm Anna Maria Tremonti and you're listening to The Current.
AMT: Still to come, why did Reni Eddo-Lodge a black British journalists decide she'd no longer talk about racism to white people. We'll talk about just that and some of the conversations her decision gave rise to and half an hour. But first, offering the future of life on this planet.
[Music: Adaptation theme]
How could our weather turn murderous. A few degrees look more on the thermometer. To stabilize the flood and fire storms, we'll have to reduce our carbon emission by 80% within a decade. Heaven help us get our minds around that.
AMT: For decades Barbara Kingsolver has been writing about nature, justice, biodiversity, social change all with gripping plotlines and all through the eyes of unforgettable characters. What better person to talk to as part of our ongoing project Adaptation because adapting to our current social and ecological realities requires more than facts. Adaptation must occur in the social imagination and deep within the hearts and minds of individuals. Barbara Kingsolver was raised in rural Kentucky and university degrees including a doctorate in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. She has written everything from scientific journal articles, to poetry. And she's written 14 books of fiction and nonfiction. Barbara Kingsolver became a household name in 2000 when Oprah selected her novel The Poisonwood Bible for her book club. Throughout her novels the natural world is more than a setting, it's another character in the story. Her detailed descriptions of plants and animals evoke a sense of wonder and awe for all life. Her last novel Flight Behavior is considered a climate change parable. She's thought a lot about how to talk about such a daunting phenomenon and what we need to do to adapt to the new reality. Barbara Kingsolver lives in Abingdon, Virginia and that's where we've reached her. Hello.
BARBARA KINGSLOVER: Hello. Thank you for having me.
AMT: For listeners who are not familiar with Flight Behavior, can you give us a thumbnail sketch of the plot?
BARBARA KINGSLOVER: A thumbnail sketch of the plot is that a remarkable event occurs, a natural event occurs in a little town in the Southern Appalachian Mountains which is perceived by a lot of the local people as a sort of wonderful miracle from God. And it attracts a lot of attention national and international attention and it brings in scientists who study this phenomenon and understand that it's really a kind of a harbinger of disaster, because it's it has happened because of climate change. It's a novel about humans and the human capacity to understand what we're seeing in different ways based on what we want to see. So the natural event, I don't really want to give away but it has something to do with the migration of butterflies and a sort of a terrible shift in a migratory pattern. And while this hasn't actually happened, I spent a lot of time while I was writing the book - Of course I did a lot of research and I talked with a lot of scientists who study this phenomenon who were very helpful in advising me as I constructed a scenario that well it hasn't happened. It certainly could happen. And it's the kind of thing we're going to start seeing more and more as natural systems become disrupted by climate patterns that have never before occurred on Earth, you know since the publication of that novel. Well I will say that I have written another novel that will be coming out next year. So I'm still thinking a lot about this. And it's an interesting time to be talking about it because in the United States we've just seen an unparalleled human disaster coming out of two storms that were both unprecedented in magnitude, in one way or another. One of them was a hurricane Irma which hit Florida at a rate of speed - a sustained rate of speed of wind speed that's never before been recorded. And of course just before that, you know days before that hurricane Harvey and you know people are calling it a 500 year flood or this or that. But in fact it's the new normal. We're going to see more and more of this for the simple reason that warmer air holds more water. Warmer oceans stir up bigger storms and it's all going to fall on us. So there you are.
AMT: Well and there's so much to pick up on that. And I'm going to ask more about the hurricanes as well. And your book Flight Behavior, it's many layers it's also about perception. It's about what people see in front of them and how they interpret it.
BARBARA KINGSLOVER: Yes.
AMT: When it comes to our natural world.
BARBARA KINGSLOVER: Yes. I really wanted to write a novel about how we talk about climate change how we think about it and why we don't talk about it and why it is so hard for us to think about. And I really also spent a lot of time researching human psychology, reading a lot of literature about how people decide what to believe because this is this is something that's well studied. What we all think is that we look at the evidence and then we make a rational decision. Actually that's not what happens at all. Most of the time for most people what we do is decide what we believe first and then look for information that confirms what we want to believe. And it's you know we can point fingers and talk about other people doing this, but in fact we're all doing pretty much the same thing. We're all selecting our news sources and our information sources and surrounding ourselves with the people who will confirm kind of what we want to know. This makes it really really hard to change our minds or to sort of accept new information, particularly new information we don't want to here because climate change is really really terrible. Let's face it. This is not going to end well. You know it's a wonder we look around and see as us as a society, as nations, as a world. This terrible thing is coming right at us and we are not doing very much to either adapt or to stave it off. And you think why in the world are we behaving like this. The answer is because we're humans. It's analogous to avoiding going to the doctor. You know you feel a lump, or you know you feel a shortness of breath. You feel like something's terrible there but you don't want to go to the doctor because you don't want to hear the bad news. Well we've reached that moment where we've got to go to the doctor. This is not going to end well. Sorry. Sorry to be so direct. But you know we can submit ourselves to the chemo to the difficult procedures. We're going to have to undertake, or we can ignore it and live as we are living for a little longer. But it's not going to end well.
AMT: Well and so I'm interested in what you thought just before Hurricane Irma hit Florida and while Hurricane Harvey was that the very tail end of hurricane Harvey and the damage is being assessed in the water still there. Scott Pruitt the head of the Environmental Protection Agency said it was “insensitive” to talk about climate change when talking about the hurricane. What did you think when you heard that?
BARBARA KINGSLOVER: I think he doesn't want to talk about it. He is literally the worst denier in the world right now because he's in the position to do the most about it and he's refusing. I have no sympathy for that man. He should not be in the position. He's being incredibly insensitive by refusing to address this natural and human disaster that's coming at us. And it makes me really angry because the people who are hurt the most by climate change are the people who have the least control, the fewest resources to move, to get themselves out of the way to move you know to higher ground so to speak. And also they are the people - not just in the U.S. but globally - the people who are contributing least to carbon emissions. The poorest people in the world, in India, in the Bay of Bengal, those are the people who are doing the least to contribute to this problem. And those of us who are doing most, who live in the biggest houses, drive the biggest cars, have the biggest carbon footprints are somewhat insulated from the effects of the first, you know the first, the head of this disaster by the resources we can use to shelter ourselves or even out and build dikes giant dams around Manhattan or whatever people are talking about you know putting more resources into protecting our extravagant lifestyle.
AMT: You know it's interesting this is where your fiction meets the real world. You have a scene in flight behavior where the main character is talking to someone who's sort of working to get people to recognize climate change. And he's got a list of the things you need to change in your life.
BARBARA KINGSLOVER: And he's from California or someplace. Yes.
AMT: And he as he reads them out to her, she's lives in-
BARBARA KINGSLOVER: Southern Appalachia.
AMT: In relative poverty. She doesn't have a lot in it's like fly less, eat less meat.
BARBARA KINGSLOVER: Right. He is saying like, yep “bring your own silverware to restaurants” and she says “I don't eat in restaurants” and he says “take fewer airline flights” and she says “I've never been on an airplane”. Yes. Even within the nation of the United States, even within developed nations there are also people who are living with poverty and that's certainly true of Texas. The flooding from Hurricane Harvey has left a lot of very poor people in terrible straits.
AMT: Why is it so hard to talk about climate change?
BARBARA KINGSLOVER: Well there's a whole novel worth of reasons and some of them are obvious. None of us likes to talk about difficult things. We don't like bad news or we don't like - just as I said we don't like to go to the doctor when we're afraid we're going to be told of bad news. But climate change is bigger than this and it's a harder problem to get our minds around partly, because it is abstract. We can't see or hear or most of the time really feel this slight shift in temperature that has such dramatic effects. We only see it you know at its worst when the hurricane hits. Also another problem that nobody's really - few people are talking about with the exception of a handful of people I call profits. One of whom is Canadian, the wonderful Naomi Klein. She wrote a book called This Changes Everything that looks head on at the fact that to address climate change we have to address something much more fundamental which is capitalism. We have to address the fact that the very basis of our economy rests on growth, on infinite expansion, infinite growth. That's our definition of success. And here's where we stand now. I'm not a politician. I'm not a spiritual or moral leader of any kind. I'm just a novelist. I invent scenarios but I'm also trained as a biologist. So I can invent scenarios that are based in reality. And here's a reality. There's something called bio capacity which is the simple measure of the world's productivity. So if you imagine everything that the earth produces in a year and that is the things we grow wheat, corn, chickens, pigs, whatever, also the things that a forest grows the leaves, the biomass, of a forest, the plankton that grows in the ocean the fish and so forth. This is actually a measurable quantity. And biologists and physicists and ecologists can estimate the full bio capacity of the earth. All right what proportion of that do you think we the human species are using, are consuming every yea? Just take a guess.
AMT: Go ahead tell me.
BARBARA KINGSLOVER: A 125%. So we're using more than the earth produces every year. Meaning okay, we're backing up and we're using biomass that was created in earlier years most notably by through fossil fuels. We're using more than the Earth makes. We're overdrawn by 25% a year and that's growing too.
AMT: And that's called unsustainability, then.
BARBARA KINGSLOVER: That's called unsustainability. I'm sorry to laugh but it's so simple. I'm laughing at myself at humanity that we think, we are acting like children. We think we can keep taking more than there is to give. We just can't. And so this system that's just deeply entrenched in our minds. The system that tells us we can only be happy if we have more. It's doomed. It is simply doomed. And so what's the answer? The answer obviously is that we have to learn a new way to think. There are communities that have done this. There are nations that have done this on a limited scale, have looked around and said “okay this is all there is. How do I use what there is and figure out how to be happy with that rather than always wanting more?” But as it's not easy to do. I think it will be a generational change of necessity. I think those of us who've lived our whole lives with a certain expectation will have a lot of trouble accepting the idea that less might not be more, but less could be enough.
AMT: How does again we look at Flight Behavior and where you set this in your main character being a woman who is poor and really working hard to raise her family in a place where there's not a lot of opportunity. How does where you live in Southern Appalachia inform how you see the many sides of how people react to the very thing you're talking about?
BARBARA KINGSLOVER: Is it's very interesting to live in a community and a region that is on average the poorest, most limited economy in the United States. But at the same time at the same time people here are bombarded with imagery from in the media. We're surrounded by images of wealth of extravagance of people who are living you know very very high consumption lifestyles and seeing how this is glamorized. I think it makes people want more than they have. I think it makes people feel dissatisfied and perhaps even shame. There's a lot of shaming and self-shaming that goes on among poor communities. And it's not just soft shaming. I mean Appalachian people are just bluntly ridiculed in the media in my country. You know people make fun of hillbillies with impunity. And that's another thing that flight behavior is about; divides. The divides between rural and urban populations, divides between science and religion, between educated and uneducated people. There's a lot of sort of contempt, not just disaffection, not just misunderstanding, but overt contempt between these groups. And one of the things I really wanted to look at is how these divides come about and what can be done to bridge them. I've always been a person straddling bridges because as I as I said I was trained as a scientist but I work in the humanities. I work as a novelist. They're not very many writers of fiction who got degrees in science you know who are trained scientists. And then I left academia because I thought I love this stuff. I love the science, the natural history that I'm writing about in these scientific publications. What I don't love is that only you know when I was working on my dissertation I thought: “They're probably 11 people in the world who will want to read this. I think I'd like to go for a bigger audience than that.”
AMT: You found one. [Laughs]
BARBARA KINGSLOVER: [Laughs] Imagine my surprise. I did. I did. But I'm glad because I mean if there's one thing I can say we need to do it's to talk across these divides. And one thing that I really wanted to say in-flight behavior is that contempt gets us nowhere. You know if we only accept information from people we trust, from people we perceive to be on our side ,then what use is a dialogue that begins with the words “you idiot”. You know if that's where you start, the conversation is over.
AMT: Well talk to me a little bit more about how fiction influences the way or it can influence the way we view the environment?
BARBARA KINGSLOVER: Well one of the things I love about writing fiction is that it's a way of packaging information that is unthreatening, possibly even a little stealthy. You know because people will read and know. If I wrote a nonfiction treatise about climate change, or about that you know the physics of climate change, or about the psychology of how people perceive and process information and make decisions, the only people who would read that book or those publications are people who already had decided they were interested. Whereas if I can put that same information in a story that's shown to you rather than told to you, through the lives of interesting characters that you start to believe in and you start to kind of accept as your friends, then people might come to that information who weren't really looking for it, but who really enjoyed knowing it. It's just the nature of people to want to hear stories. And I love stories that tell me something I didn't already know. I love stories that take me to places I haven't been or put me inside the brain of a person that I could never be. Fiction creates empathy and empathy opens us to the possibility of new ways of looking at the world. And let me tell you that's what we need now.
AMT:I want to ask you then if as we wrap up a little bit about hope because in 2008 you gave a commencement speech at Duke University. You talked about climate change and about hope. I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about the source of your hope and what you want people to think about.
BARBARA KINGSLOVER: Well I can’t tell people what to think about. That's their choice. What I can say is that hope is an option. It's something that I choose and it's a renewable option. If I run out of hope at the end of the day, which I often do, I get up the next morning and I put it on with my shoes. It's something I have to do because I have children, because other people have children, because there are generations coming up who need me to stay engaged. When you give up hope you remove yourself from the equation. I don't feel like I have that choice. I have to keep working toward the vision of a better future that I have in mind. Any other choice I think is institutionalized child abuse.
AMT: And so as we look again at this moment in time so many people recovering from devastating, or were trying to recover from devastating weather events extreme weather events. A conversation that that is connecting the dots to what we're seeing with that misery to climate change. If you could have the conversation change amongst your neighbors end change amongst those people in positions of influence in government capitals, what would you wish you would hear?
BARBARA KINGSLOVER: Please let us learn from our mistakes and to shoulder the blame. It's interesting to me. It doesn't make me happy but I can't miss the irony of the fact that Texas, a very large state that has given us a very large number of legislators who are climate deniers and who are also adamantly opposed to government subsidy and government assistance of any kind, are now asking me as a tax payer on bended knee to help bail out the state of Texas. I will gladly help the people who need help, but I am also going to be a parent and hand that over with a request that we grow up here and start looking at the cause of this problem.
AMT: Barbara Kingsolver thank you for sharing your thoughts with us.
BARBARA KINGSLOVER: You're welcome.
AMT: Barbara Kingsolver acclaimed novelist. She joined us from Abingdon, Virginia Let us know what you think about what she has to say. You can tweet us we're @thecurrentCBC. Find us on Facebook go to our website cbc.ca/thecurrent, click on the Contact link. Stay with us in our next half hour journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge joins me to talk about her new book Why I'm no Longer Talking to White People About race. I'm Anna Maria Tremonti. This is The Current.
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Why journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge is no longer talking to white people about race
Guest: Reni Eddo-Lodge
AMT: Hello I'm Anna Maria Tremonti and this is The Current. In just a minute I'll be talking about racism and race with Reni Eddo-Lodge. But first we have a letter we want to share in response to a guest on yesterday's program. I was speaking with Jill Marten's. She's a nurse in Penticton, BC and she was talking about her son Daniel who died of a fentanyl overdose last year. Daniel is one of a staggering number of Canadians who have overdosed from opioids. He joins a long list of statistics. He's also one of a growing number whose organs have been donated. And as she grieved her son's death, Jill Marten's found herself in a unique situation because she has worked for years with chronic kidney disease patients in need of transplants.
I've seen patients’ lives changed before my eyes. I've been the person jumping up and down next to the patient whooping with joy knowing that one of our patients is going to get a kidney. And you always know on the back of your mind that there's a family going through a traumatic incident in that horrific scene is going on the back of your mind. But in the forefront of your mind you have just seen the tremendous amount of joy that it brings families. It's nothing short of a miracle.
AMT: Jill Marten's sons organs were donated for transplant after he died of an overdose. And that conversation really affected many of our listeners. One of whom has experienced the joy that she just talked about there. And we have a reading of her letter to us.
My adult child recently received in Oregon from someone else's child who died from fontanel.
Every day I'm grateful to the loved ones of my child's donor for their courage and lifesaving generosity, at a moment of profound grief and pain. Every day I'm heartsick and furious that my child's donor died because I believe their death was preventable. I believe we're only pretending that we're taking the drug overdose crisis seriously. There's lots of busywork, platitudes, wringing of hands and token amounts of money being thrown around to prove our seriousness. Yet hundreds continue to die. We know what would actually make a difference to the drug overdose crisis. All we need is the will, courage and humanity to implement policies that have been proven to eliminate such crises and positive we transform society and individuals. We can and must eliminate the supply of donor organs from overdose deaths by eliminating overdose deaths. Every day, I'm grateful to my child's donor and their family for my child's life. Every day I apologize to the donor and their family that we as a society failed them and let them die. Every day I rage that we as a society consciously choose to continue to let other people's children die unnecessarily.
AMT: A reading from an e-mail from a mother in Vancouver she wished to remain anonymous if you missed my initial conversation with Jill Martens. You can find it on our web site cbc.ca/thecurrent. You can also find it on podcast or on the CBC Radio app.
AMT: You are listening to The Current on CBC Radio One. I'm Anna Maria Tremonti. Reni Eddo-Lodge is a British journalist, a black journalist. One day in 2014, she had had enough.
I'm no longer engaging with white people on the topic of race. Not all white people, just the vast majority who refuse to accept the existence of structural racism and its symptoms. I can no longer engage with a gulf of an emotional disconnect that white people display when a person of color articulate their experience. You can see their eyes shut down and harden. It's like treacle is poured into their ears locking up their ear canals. It's not they can no longer hear us. This emotional disconnect is a conclusion of living a life oblivious to the fact that their skin color is the norm and all others deviate from it. At best, white people have been taught not to mention that people of color are different in case it offends us. They truly believe that the experiences of their life as a result of their skin color can and should be universal. I just can't engage with the bewilderment and the defensiveness as they try to grapple with the fact that not everyone experiences the world in the way that they do. They've never had to think about what it means in power terms to be white. So any time they're vaguely reminded of this fact they interpret it as an affront. Their eyes glaze over in boredom or widen in indignation. Their Mouth start twitching as they get defensive. Their throats open up as they try to interrupt, itching to talk of you but not to really listen. Because they need to let you know that you've got it wrong.
AMT: Reni Eddo-Lodge reading from the blog post she wrote that fateful day. It got a lot of people talking. It opened up a discussion about how we talk about race. Who leads the conversation? Who needs to take up the mantle in fighting against racism? And the conversation keeps going. What began as a blog post three years ago has become a book. It's entitled Why I'm no Longer Talking to White People About Race. Reni Eddo-Lodge is with me in our Toronto studio. Hello.
RENI EDDO-LODGE: Hello, thanks for having me.
AMT: When you first wrote about not wanting to talk to white people about race, what kind of reaction did you get from white people?
RENI EDDO-LODGE: I didn't get any negative responses from white people I got a lot of despair, a lot of shock, a lot of “wow I can't believe that you felt this way” or “I'm so shocked that somebody could feel this way”. “Please don't stop talking about this. Please we need you etc. etc.” I think really we think about race relations as what is our relationship. What my letter was a breakup letter saying: “Okay, thanks. But this is too difficult. I'm emotionally exhausted.” And what the white response was in particular was a “oh my god please don't go”. [Laughing] You know that's not what that dynamic was.
AMT: And how did you react to that?
RENI EDDO-LODGE: Gosh I don't think I reacted directly to those people, but the response from both White people and people who are not White was enough to make me decide that this was going to be the thing that I was going to focus on with my writing from henceforth. You know I was a broke graduate. I really had nothing to lose, no dependents and I just thought: “Right I'm going to make this my mission” and I wanted to fundamentally change people's perspectives on this issue. And that was where I started out with coming to this book.
AMT: Tell me more about what you were experiencing at the time that you even wrote the blog post.
RENI EDDO-LODGE: So I was involved in a number of leftists, like progressive, feminist circles, activists circles, discussion groups etc. etc. because I was very much full of fervor. I really wanted to change the world. Right. I think that we all do when we're young. What I was finding in those groups as they were almost always overwhelmingly white or white dominated. It's not I was the only brown face in the room but I was one of few. And they were always very reluctant very reticent to discuss race. If you questioned the priorities of the group and perhaps suggested that those priorities were colored by Whiteness with a capital W you would be told “oh it's all in your head. You're being divisive, etc., etc. You're creating the problem”. And I came away from those discussions some public, some private, roundly demonized and definitely seen as the angry black woman. And I was even called aggressive and a bully by a former member of British parliament. So that was great.
AMT: Okay well I want to explore your ideas more but all of this but let's clarify a few terms. How do you define white privilege?
RENI EDDO-LODGE: Well first we can't talk about white privilege without talking about structural racism. Right. Because there is no yin without yang. Structural disadvantage has a political purpose. And that point is to concentrate political power. And so when we look at structural racism, and I look at the big picture stats in Britain, children who are not white were systematically disadvantaged in the school system, under demarked by their own teachers. When it came to going to university they were being under marks in order to get the grade they needed to get jobs. People with African and Asian sounding names in the job market applying for positions, were far less likely to be called to interview than people with white British sounding names. I found in the criminal justice system black people were far more likely to be treated harshly for the possession of drugs than their white counterparts who had basically done the same crime. Repeatedly I saw over and over again in the big picture that basically if you are not White the institutions that we expect to treat us equally are not. So that's what I define as structural racism. Now I think it stands to reason. Logic would suggest that if let's say people with African and Asian sounding names are with similar qualifications and experience than their white counterparts are not getting called to interview, when they apply for the job, then you actually are at advantage if you have a white British sounding name, right. And that also stands of all of those other stars. I have just mentioned. You know if black children are being chronically under marked by their teachers then it means that their teachers are probably looking at white children more favorably. And so that's what I really mean by white privilege I'm not talking about living in the lap of luxury. You know I'm talking about structural advantage. Almost like social lubrication that improves the life chances of some at the expense of others.
AMT: You're also talking about an absence right. So if white privilege means an absence of having to deal with the very things you just brought up. They don't even register or they don't because they don't have to register if you're white. That's white privilege. Yet you go through a list of it's an absence of your race being viewed as a problem first and foremost, an absence of being less likely to succeed. It's an absence of all of these things.
RENI EDDO-LODGE: Hmm. And I think in the book one thing that I said that I would disagree with now is I said that white privilege is an absence of the consequences of racism but actually no. White people benefit from the consequences of racism you know. And that's not me saying that White people- I'm saying want people's life chances are improved in that structural disadvantage. I'm not saying that because that is the case White people always succeed, just like I'm not saying that because racism is a case. If you're not white you will always fail. Because the odds are just the odds. And they can be beaten. But the odds are still the odds. You have to recognize that context.
AMT: And one other point that you make is the difference between racism and prejudice. It's worth having you explain that.
RENI EDDO-LODGE: Yes. I understand racism to be prejudice plus power and I'm not the first person to assert that. I learned to in a university lecture [unintelligible] exactly who said if I had stolen it from them full disclosure. But what I mean by prejudice plus powers that I think anybody of any race can be racially prejudiced. But the question is are you in a position of power? Do you have the structural advantage to actually affect other people's life chances with that prejudice? And I say in the book I have a little anecdote which I'm happy to share now about you know - I no longer eat meat but when I did, I was queuing up West Indian food shop and there was a white couple in front of me. They bought their food. They left. Then a smiling black man behind the counter, he greeted me and he said “Ha ha ha I saved the best cuts of meat for us”. The people are us, right. Basically saying you know “white people I don’t like them very much,” right. Well we got clear example of racial prejudice there. But the fact of the matter is that man is not that coupl’s landlord. He's not their boss. He's not their teacher. He's not a politician and acting policy. All he has control over in that instance is their lunch.
AMT: That's not institutional that's individual.
RENI EDDO-LODGE: Exactly. I think that sometimes with racism we can get really hung up on interpersonal prejudice which is absolutely a part of it. But I'm very interested in the big picture and I think we should look at how prejudice takes hold on an institutional scale.
AMT: Well let's look at the big picture. What flaws do you see in how we think about racism today?
RENI EDDO-LODGE: I think that we have a very childish like stunted analysis of racism. I think it's sort of started us and stopped at “judging people on the basis of the color of their skin is a bad thing, wrong to do. Don't do it”. And that's it that's where we stop. And like I'm not being funny but people tell that to their toddlers and the analysis doesn't really develop. That's what the analysis was when I started writing about seven years ago. I would say that due to recent events the conversations about racism are becoming a little bit more sophisticated. But there seems to be like two different groups of people who think about race. Either committed anti racists who are worried about race and power and how if unchallenged can lead to global atrocities. And then there are the committed racists who are really really committed to upholding white supremacy in all of its forms.
AMT: And the ones in-between, however.
RENI EDDO-LODGE: Exactly. In between I think that there's been sort of like this unspoken policy of colorblindness which is “don't judge anybody by the color of their skin in fact don't mention anyone's race we're all the same race or the human race. Kumbaya my lord let's all like hold hands and be happy”. But actually not seeing race does not end racism. Like you can’t just ignore the problem and then just hope that it goes away. We have to see race in order to see how racial power dynamics continue to be perpetuated. And as long as we are committed to not seeing it, we are actually at risk of continuing to perpetuate it.
AMT: Well that gets back to the whole issue of white privilege. Right. And you write at one point you know who really wants to be alerted to a system that benefits them at the expense of others. I mean it's really interesting to me that even in the conversations I'm hearing this week, what pushes people's buttons on the issue of racism is people say well this idea of systemic racism I disagree with that. We've heard that and we just heard that in it in a debate yesterday on The Current ,of someone saying that the issue of the NFL is not about race, and it's not about system because that pushes a button, because it means that everybody is complicit.
RENI EDDO-LODGE: Well you know you can disagree with climate change, but it is happening. So let's not be obtuse about this. Okay, let's just be honest about the context. I can say I disagree that the sky is blue, right, but is still blue. So let's just be honest about the context that we're working in. And I think that like sometimes the White people can be devastating realization - which is why some White people can just be so resistant to this understanding that you know we live in a structure society and actually like the countries that we know or love, many are built on settler colonialism, including Canada which is absolutely one of the fundamental cornerstones of capital White ideology and White supremacy. You know we want to believe that our countries are good and great and ground. But I just think we know we can't change our past but we can be honest about it in order to improve the future. You know meritocracy is not something that we currently have it's something that we continue to strive towards. And in order to strive towards that we actually have to be honest about what's getting in the way of meritocracy currently and racism is one of those things.
AMT: And you make the point good people can be racist. What do you mean by that?
RENI EDDO-LODGE: Why do don't think racism is a case of morals. I think that we would just understand racism as a dominant ideology that we all born into and we can either choose to be critical of or we can choose to be complicit in, then sure anybody can be reproducing racism. You know I think again you know you asked me what our current understanding of racism is. I think that we think that racism lies in the hearts of bad people. And so, “how can I possibly be racist because I'm a good person. I see myself as a good person”. That's why you keep hearing this phrase all the time. I don't know if that happens here but here in Britain all the time. “So and so hasn't got a racist bone in his body”.
AMT: That's a common phrase.
RENI EDDO-LODGE: Yes. And actually that is again - that's just willfully obtuse, willfully ignorant. We have to recognize what we are reproducing and sometimes it can be unconscious.
AMT: You tell a little story of when you were a girl and you were a real Harry Potter fan.
RENI EDDO-LODGE: Oh yes yes yes.
AMT: And they announced auditions for Hermione, for the movie. Tell us what you went through?
RENI EDDO-LODGE: Well I walked up and down my garden reading out the lines[chuckles]. And then I decided to - I decided not auditioned for it because there was - I realized that in most children's literature if the race of a character was not defined, it was on to say that that character was white. And so I decided not to do it even though I really wanted to audition for it. You know I thought it was quite interesting, quite pertinent when you know the Harry Potter play in late 2015 was being discussed and then we found out the adult Hermione had been cast as black and then lots of sensibly people who would say “I'm not racist. I've never I've not got a racist bone in my body. I'm a good person” would suddenly [unintelligible]. They will like “oh my god. How could Hermione be black? It is not possible. It is not possible”. I thought that was really interesting because we see these wars happen in culture, in literature, in film. The first thing to say about that is you know it's fiction and totally made up. So really any interpretation of a fictional character can be any race, it works because it's not actually anchored to truth. But secondly I think that literature and film and fiction really speaks to our understanding of the world. And part of our understanding of the world is a relatable character has to be white, that we should be seeing the world through white eyes. And if it's through the eyes of a character who isn't white then that's a specialist perspective.
AMT: I've got to ask you about the controversy in us right now. Donald Trump, president Trump attacks on NFL players and other athletes kneeling during the national anthem, calling out saying things to NBA players who don't want to show up at the White House. He says it's not about race. What do you hear in that controversy that's roiling right now through the U.S.?
RENI EDDO-LODGE: I think that is just talk about Donald Trump. Full stop. So the incredible American writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, he made a comment so pertinent to me, really really resonated with me. He said something along the lines that I'm not quoting verbatim, the first black president of the United States was the epitome of an exceptional black person highly educated, grace, decorum, just the utter like epitome of working twice as hard for half the reward. And the president who followed him was completely unqualified for the job. A demagogue, a populist, somebody who plays to the country's worst prejudices. And I think that that really speaks to the existence of structural racism in that country, that Obama had to work twice as hard. Perhaps, let's be real 50 times as hard. The country responded by electing somebody completely unqualified, completely ignorant of the country's problems. It almost seems like you're damned if you do and damned if you don't. You know if you're a black American right now, I think the respectability politics sometimes of anti-racism says “look if you want to be taken seriously smarten up! Wear a suit! Act proper! Behave! Go to the institutions! Do the learning! Go to the best institutions.” Obama did all of that, racism didn't end. And with this NFL controversy, I mean anybody who says it's not about race. That's your first red flag. We should recognize that the initial peaceful protest that was started by Colin Kaeperncik almost a year ago now, was in protest of racial injustice, of unaccountability of the police forces, of black men dying in the streets unarmed. And Donald Trump has not sought to recognize the roots of that very peaceful protest. Or even, he's never commented. He's never even commented on the black lives matter movement in America. But another thing that really is interesting about the whole dynamic is I think that Take a Knee protest is the most peaceful protest. It's respectable. It's dignified. Somebody like Donald Trump and his supporters who say is unacceptable and that is the wrong way and it's disrespectful. It's evidence of how they continue to move the goalposts when it comes to civil rights issues, that they say or well I support what you are doing but I think what you're doing is all wrong. So you're telling me that direct action is wrong. The right thing is wrong, that looting in protest of racial injustice is wrong. Okay, fine. But you say: “Oh find a more respectable way to do it.” Okay so I marched in the streets of the placard. Now that's wrong that's rowdy. Okay. Simple peaceful protest just kneeling down is also wrong. They're moving the goalposts. There's no right way to them, in their eyes over protesting racial injustice because they don't see it as a problem. They don't see the racial injustice of the problem in that country.
AMT: But it actually has brought a lot more attention on it. At one point it was Colin Kaepernick and now it's a whole bunch of teams. And there are other people coming forward, there's NBA players coming forward. But we still don't see him. We do see some white owners locking arms. We don't see a lot of white players joining those black players and being so vocal. I'm asking about this because you make a really powerful point. Now you talk about the responsibility for fighting racism isn't actually the responsibility of people of color. It's the responsibility of white people.
RENI EDDO-LODGE: Yes. I do. I do make that point because, wow, I think the beneficiaries of the system should call out if they recognize that it is wrong. I do. White players should absolutely be kneeling in solidarity with their black colleagues. And also white players should be attacking what is Donald Trump's impeachment or freedom of expression, because that's what his comments are. That's something that's protected in that country's constitution; freedom of expression, freedom of speech. And a peaceful kneeling protest is the ultimate example of freedom of speech and freedom of expression. And I think that you know if Donald Trump was brown or a black man in a developing country, who was commenting on the affairs of his country like this, while being the head of state. We would call him what he is which is a demagogue. We would.
AMT: Do you see glimmers of hope in any of the discussion that's going around, beyond Donald Trump, in the issues that you raise?
RENI EDDO-LODGE: So I think what's really interesting is I feel like there's a broad consciousness raising happening now, amongst people of color, amongst white people. I feel like we are on the tipping point. I feel like something is around the corner. I think things really will change because it feels now like the issue that we can't continue to ignore. I think that before what we had, some may have called it unity some may have called it harmony. But I think it was it was a very precarious type of peace. I think there were some voices deliberately locked out. I think that you know in the 60s there was a civil rights movement that was happening in [unintelligible] countries. And after that there was a feeling that “oh that's done now. That's done. We're cool. We sorted that out.” One thing that I really go after in the book is why liberal complacency. I go after that feeling of it being done because that is dangerous. That is dangerous. I think we should always be vigilant.
AMT: Thanks for sharing your ideas.
RENI EDDO-LODGE: Thank you for having me.
AMT: Reni Eddo-Lodge is a journalist. She's the author of Why I'm no Longer Talking to White People About Race. And she's in Toronto this week as part of the six Degrees Citizen Space which is an event organized by the Institute for Canadian Citizenship to discuss inclusion and citizenship. That's our program for today. Tomorrow I'm going to be speaking with the activist and artist Ai Weiwei. His new work is a documentary called Human Flow. He has filmed with refugees in 23 countries to document what he calls the human crisis, as opposed to the refugee crisis. You can hear him here tomorrow. Now today stay with Radio 1. Q is next and Tom Power will be talking filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro. And finally we've got another thing to leave you with, Barbara Kingsolver, the celebrated writer. You know she's a talented writer but did you know she's also a talented musician? Not only did she go to university on a classical piano scholarship, she is the founding member of a band called The Rock Bottom Remainders. A group made up entirely of authors. Through the years members have included Stephen King, Dave Barry, Amy Tan as well as Barbara Kingsolver. So we leave you with the Rock Bottom Remainders performing in the midnight hour. I'm Anna Maria Tremonti. Thanks for listening to The Current.
[Song: In The Midnight Hour]
I'm gonna wait 'till the midnight hour
That's when my love come tumbling down
I'm gonna wait 'till the midnight hour
When there' no one else around
You're the only girl I know
Can really love me so, in the midnight hour
CBC would like to acknowledge the support of the Broadcasting Accessibility Fund.