What is Christian hegemony?

It’s Real World Wednesday and this week we get to learn from both Talia Cooper & Hadar Harris!!

Talia has been working as a Jewish youth educator and organizer for the past nine years, first as the executive director of Jewish Youth for Community Action, and now as the program director for Ma’yan and a youth trainer for Jews for Racial and Economic Justice. 1929869_1659933880963006_4840128724977366613_nShe is currently reading Paul Kivel’s book “Living in the Shadow of the Cross” and is excited to share some of her learnings about Christian hegemony and how it connects to our work with youth.

Hadar currently works as the Executive Director of the Northern California Innocence Project where she works to to create a fair, effective and compassionate criminal justice system and to protect the rights of the innocent. From 2002 – 2015, she was the Executive Director of the Center for Human Rights & Humanitarian Law at American University Washington College of Law. She is also the mom of two young boys.

This week, we asked them: What is Christian hegemony? How does it show up in schools? How does it impact kids? And what can teachers do about it?

Here are their incredibly thoughtful and thought-provoking responses:

Hello awesome people. My name is Talia Cooper.

So what is Christian hegemony? It’s a fancy sounding term that basically means Christianity is considered the norm while all other religions and peoples are, well, other. Christian hegemony is also the larger term that encompasses anti-Semitism, islamaphobia, and the oppression of other religious minorities. Note that a person doesn’t have to be a practicing Christian to still benefit from the bigger system.

Christian hegemony says things like, “Christmas is a normal, American holiday.” (Christian hegemony is also intertwined with white supremacy, which would say, “normal Americans are white.” Paul Kivel goes into more detail about the connections between Christianity and whiteness). I brought up Christmas because it’s often easiest for people to notice Christian hegemony during this time of year. But the reality is that Christian hegemony runs much deeper, affecting each and every one of us year-round, both institutionally and interpersonally, all the way down to our core psyches.

So how is Christian hegemony showing up in schools & affecting kids? Some examples include: requiring kids to make Christmas ornaments and sing Christmas songs, having no school on Christian holidays, giving tests and quizzes on other peoples’ religious holidays, and having SATs on Saturdays.

But it’s even more complex than that. Here’s one way Christian hegemonic thinking shows up in schools:

It is a Christian ethic that hard work is good and will be rewarded (and conversely that laziness is bad and will be punished). This ethic in Christianity often refers to the afterlife, but in a secular Christian culture the concept shows up as reward and punishment in this life (we see this in political rhetoric all the time, like with the notion of “welfare queens” being lazy good-for-nothings). In my Jewish culture, for example, we believe that there is inherent goodness in all people and no one needs to work hard to prove this. I should say that I know plenty of Christians who also believe this, but what I’m talking about now is the dominant Christian narrative that has invaded all of our institutions and thoughts—not individual Christians. (I’m really not trying to get down on Christians here, and neither is Paul Kivel).

Paul Kivel always used to say to me, “Hard work is just hard work. It’s not inherently good.” Dictators work hard. Donald Trump works hard (sometimes). Oil companies work hard. So are they doing good things for the world? No.

And yet we continue to teach kids the virtue of hard work.

Does that mean that we should instead teach them to do hard work that is actually good for people and the planet?

I suppose that would be an okay next step.

But for me, I believe that people inherently want to work hard and contribute to their communities. This is because doing nothing is boring. Being connected to people, deepening those connections, and finding our strengths and passions—now that’s a fun life!

I don’t think we have to drill it into our kids that they have to work hard, because most people are capable of figuring out on their own how to lead an engaged life. My friend, Megan Madison, reminds me that she has never seen a lazy baby; young ones are constantly squirming around, making eye contact and engaging with their environment.

But we don’t foster this. Instead we latch on to the dominant Christian ideology that hard work is good and should be rewarded. Then we administer rewards and punishments as needed. Kids who don’t fit the education system are told it is their fault and are punished. Kids who do succeed work themselves tirelessly. This is a disservice to everyone.

Here’s an example of how “hard work” plays out in our education system: a kid who does lots of community service and volunteering is rewarded in the college admission process. A kid who really focuses on taking care of their health and on building amazing friendships will not be rewarded in this process (and likely punished for not having extra-curriculars).

So what can we do about it? Well, big picture, I think we need to reshape the entire education system, from pre-K through graduate school so that we’re not simply producing hard workers, but instead fostering connected, curious, loving, liberation-minded beings. Let’s work together towards that!

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And in the meantime, here are two other things we can try:

  1. Take out the morality and talk about logical consequences. There are different outcomes for different choices we make. For example, if we don’t brush our teeth in the morning, this does not make us a bad person worthy of punishment. Instead, not brushing teeth has the possible short-term outcome of stinky breath, and dental health issues in the long-term. The outcome of being mean to a kid in a classroom is that that person will feel hurt and it might take away from your own learning too. The outcome of having unprotected sex is that you could get very sick and/or pregnant (again, these are not punishments for being a sinner, they are just outcomes). Does that make sense? Take out the moralistic thinking. Just assume that people are inherently good and awesome, and that they might need help thinking through possible outcomes.
  2. Encourage rest and play. In addition to the regular subjects, be sure to include games and creativity as well! Teach kids to notice when their bodies need rest. Teach that playing games, making friends, creating art, and taking care of our bodies are things we get to do the rest of our lives. Teach these as highly important topics.

Start or keep doing these two things and you’ll be on the team of liberation and ending Christian hegemony.

Wow!  Thank you, Talia!  Here’s Hadar’s take:

It’s Not a War on Christmas – It’s a Campaign for Diversity!

My children were born in Washington, DC and they grew up in a “very Jewish” community for their first 7 and 8 years, respectively. Jewish day school.  Kosher markets.  Shabbat dinner with friends and family every Friday night. Even “Sunday Little League” so as not to interfere with Saturday synagogue time.   That said, they had non-Jewish friends and lived in the larger world, but life was definitely on a Jewish schedule.

This past August, we moved to the Bay Area.  I moved back to the Bay Area (I grew up here) but the boys moved here.  And while Leo started second grade at a Jewish day school, Adam started third grade in a small school for bright kids with learning differences.

It is a great school that has been transformative for his learning, but it has also been transformative in other, unexpected ways.  Mostly, his awakening recognition that he is a Jew, living as a minority in broader American culture.

Adam easily found good friends in his class of twelve boys and the transition was remarkably easy for him, but as winter break approached, we had a tearful bedtime discussion (when most important conversations seem to take place).  He was agitated about the school “Holiday Extravaganza” concert and oddly, asked me if he could stay out of school “for a week or so after break.” I asked him what he meant since Christmas would be over by then, and he launched into an apparently long pent-up monologue.  I posted on Facebook that night as my heart broke for him.

Here we go: Nine year old boy experiencing his minority religious status for the first time. Painful, heartfelt weeping about feeling excluded and judged because he does not celebrate Christmas (he is the only Jew in the class). Significant fear of being ridiculed because he will not receive Christmas presents (and everyone is already comparing notes about what they will receive – apparently some nasty comments have already been made). Frustration and annoyance of feeling invisible at a time where everything is focused on a set of traditions he does not observe (I offered to go into the class to talk about Hanukkah but the teacher never scheduled it). That said, no request to actually celebrate Christmas (good, since we don’t). No begging for a Christmas tree (unlike some family members who shall remain nameless…) There were real tears in this conversation. Another hard moment when childhood confronts reality and the world becomes a little bit harsher and more complicated…

That night I also emailed his teacher and the top school administrators, describing Adam’s reaction and concerns.  The response was swift but somewhat unsatisfying, particularly in light of the fact that I had already asked the teacher if I could come in and share our Hanukah traditions with the class (to which I had had no response). His teacher (who is wonderful in so many ways), assured me of her efforts “to remain “holiday neutral” in the classroom.”  She told me that the “Holiday Extravaganza” concert “will not be simply a celebration of Christmas. The class numbers are all about the “winter season” (lots of snow stuff)…”

And yet when I walked into the school the next day, I saw the overwhelming evidence of Adam’s feeling of “otherness.” The teacher had put “The 12 Days of Room 3” on their classroom door.  Against a red backdrop, she had made twelve windows, like an Advent Calendar, representing each of the 12 boys in the class.  Each day, they opened another window as they counted down to winter break with a short poem about each boy (they were all boys) and a picture of the kid with his favorite Star Wars or Minecraft or other figure.  At the bottom of the door it said “Happy Holidays” and there was a picture of a Christmas tree – and a menorah. It was cute – but it was clearly Christmas.  In addition, the school’s main office was decorated with snowmen dressed in red and green, poinsettas, and a banner saying “Merry Holiday.”  All week before the break, teachers were dressed up with reindeer headbands and ugly Christmas sweaters. It may have been cloaked in snowflakes and the non-denominational classic “Jiggle Bells” but it was 100% Christmas.  Let’s be honest: we don’t have snowmen or reindeer in Palo Alto – even in the era of climate change…

Further explaining her curricular efforts at “holiday neutrality”, Adam’s teacher wrote: “All of our morning journal entries have been on topics like “tell us about a holiday tradition you enjoy with your family”, “what are you looking forward to doing over the break”, and “if you could give your parent(s) any gift what would it be”.”  I realized then, that while she felt that she had truly tried to be sensitive, the pull of “Christmas hegemony” (if not Christian hegemony), and the lack of understanding of other traditions was too strong.  She didn’t “get it” that her “neutral” questions were loaded and still marginalized or excluded some of the kids in the class – maybe most especially, mine.

That said, the same week as the Holiday Extravaganza, Adam and his classmates presented their reports on the California Missions (a rite of passage for California students). The hegemony of Christmas may have been in full force, but at least the presentations and posters acknowledged the egregious abuses against the Native Peoples by the missionaries.  That certainly wasn’t part of the reporting and research when I was growing up in California.  It gave me some hope.  I guess as much as some things stay the same (Christmas), there is hope for the recognition of diverse experiences and maybe even diverse traditions someday.

Three Quick Tips for Educators/Parents:

  1. Fried latkes do not smell the same as pine needles.  Hanukah is not the Jewish Christmas.  Neither are Diwali or Eid.  None of “us” have Christmas-substitutes.  They are different holidays with different traditions and different stories underlying their creation
  2. “Holiday Neutral” Doesn’t Mean Adding Menorah Clip Art. To truly be “holiday neutral,” the central holidays of all students’ religious (or non-religious) traditions should be equally observed, discussed and respected.  These may not all occur in December (indeed, they don’t).  For the Jewish calendar, Rosh Hashanah (usually at the start of the school year) or Passover (in the spring) are much more important holidays than Chanukah. Purim (with hamentaschen and costumes) is much more fun! Other religions have holidays like Diwali and Eid which are wonderful, tradition-rich holidays enabling true sharing of values, beliefs and traditions (not to mention (more) great food!) Valuing the key holidays of all religions enables more neutrality than simply creating Christmas add-ons to make the non-Christian kids feel a little better. Also, by highlighting other traditions before Christmas, that may sensitize the Christian children to a broader diversity of traditions (and might inspire them to be more tolerant) before the overwhelming Christmas-Is-Everywhere month of December begins.
  3. Schedule the “Winter Concert” for Actual Winter.  There is no reason that the Winter Concert needs to take place before winter break.  Indeed, winter doesn’t technically start until after the December 21 solstice – and by that time schools are usually on holiday (they were this year!)  By scheduling the concert before Christmas, there is pressure (perceived or real) to perform “holiday” (i.e. Christmas) music which will inevitably exclude – or essentialize – someone.  It’s still winter in January. Schedule the damn concert after break!

From the bottom of our hearts, THANK YOU, Talia and Hadar!

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