Tuesday, June 21, 2016


As the school where I have taught for the last 28 years prepared to be absorbed into the local high school, there was a great deal of moving, and we teachers stacked unwanted items into our Large Group Instruction Room (Note: if you're older than 35, it's what a multi-purpose room is now called.).  We were allowed to scavenge out anything we wanted before the rest was sent to the DI (Deseret Industries, the LDS thrift stores).   Mounds of books were there for the taking, and I took plenty!
Among the books were some from our teachers' library, and I grabbed a large pile of crime novels by Tony Hillerman.  With the help of the local public library's filling in the gaps for the novels missing in the stack, I've now read the nearly the first 10 in the series, so I've got a good feel for the recurring characters and the setting, as well as Hillerman's style.
Overall, it's a pretty good series -- obviously, or I wouldn't still be reading it ten books in and prepared to read the rest.  But Hillerman, in trying to make Navajos always the heroes, goes a little overboard with racial stereotyping of every non-Native American race.
Mostly, whites are stereotyped.  The white characters in the books are usually either portrayed as foolish for their wannabe Indian ways or else angry and unappreciative of the desert or of other cultures.  This is forgivable, I suppose, as the whole purpose of the series is to make readers more aware of Navajo life and culture, so I guess making whites the "Other" works.
But one of the main things of which Hillerman makes fun in nearly every book is that white folks can't tell one tribe from another, that "all Indians look the same."  (OK, fair enough.  I'm not sure I could tell a Cherokee from an Iroquois, but Navajos are usually pretty easy to spot.  One gets to be familiar with their genetic traits when one sees them around in Southern Utah enough.) He really pounds this theme.
This is why I found it hilarious that Hillerman totally and completely misses his own stereotyping -- probably actually racism at this point -- of Latinos in book 9, Talking God.
In the story, a middle-aged man has been murdered and his body has been left in the brush near a train track.  All identification has been removed from the body -- even his dentures have been taken -- so that the murderer cannot be traced through the victim.
Hillerman's two protagonists, Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, are both working on the crime from separate angles.  Leaphorn learns from the Amtrack people that among the victim's possessions recovered from the sleeping compartment of the train were a couple of books in Spanish.  He also learns that the Amtrack employee who gathered up the victim's things is a man named Perez, who speaks Spanish and apparently had some conversation with the victim at a point or two before his murder.
Leaphorn, desperate for clues as to the victim's identity, grills Perez for two pages about everything the victim said or had in his room.  (Note: this book was written in the 1980s.  Apparently, it was not normal for people to have their names on their train tickets or to reserve sleeping compartments at the time, because Hillerman never has Leaphorn ask about that.)
Now, Leaphorn supposedly speaks some Spanish (later in the book he manages some fairly complex sentences, including the irregular formal command tense of the verb "to come"), but  he speaks only English to Perez.
Now, here's the irony: Hillerman, who for 9 novels has made fun of whites who think all Indians are the same, clearly thinks all Latinos (he calls them "Hispanos") are the same.  At no point does Hillerman have Leaphorn ask Perez or Perez volunteer his opinions as to where the murder victim is from.  Hillerman seems completely unaware that a Spaniard doesn't speak like a Mexican who doesn't speak like an Argentine who doesn't speak like a Cuban who doesn't speak like a Chilean (which is, incidentally, what the victim turns out to be, whereas Perez is likely to be Mexican if he's from the West or Puerto Rican or Cuban if he's from the East; either way, he'd have been able to tell by the victim's speech alone that the man was from Chile or Venezuela and from his looks that he was unlikely to be Peruvian -- as the victim was quite tall).  But Hillerman, he who makes fun of "all Indians are the same" clearly has "all 'Hispanos' are the same" in his own belief system.

Friday, June 17, 2016

It's Really Not All That Hard, Folks.

In the wake of the tragedy in Orlando (49 people killed by a gunman in a gay night club), the internet has been swamped with people talking about how to explain to their kids that gay people were killed -- presumably because they were gay or friends of gays.  This has also led to more discussion about whether or not schools should mention the existence of LGBTQ folks to children.
My thoughts?
Look, it's really not that hard to explain to kids, folks.  Let me give you an example:

It's 1995 and a gay couple in my dance group, Bart and Thom (both white), have just adopted an infant girl, Eliza (black).  Although I have been around gay men in various dance groups for years at this point, I have never heard of gay marriage before and have had no clue that a gay couple would even want to adopt a child.  (I will learn much in the years that follow.)  Nevertheless, I like Bart very much and try to like his (understandably, in retrospect) rather defensive partner, Thom, and I wish them happiness -- even as I wrap my mind around a new concept.
It's their 3rd time bringing their new daughter (some 5 or 6 weeks old at this point) to rehearsal, and I happen to be standing nearby as Thom is picking up her things, preparing to leave, when the 7-year-old son of a straight, white, Mormon man in the group stares at baby Eliza and says, "Where's her mom?  How come she doesn't have one?"
Thom looks up and our eyes meet.  He and I have never been super-friendly at this point (we will get over this in the future), never allies -- as he has too much resentment for Mormons and the Church's intolerance of gays.  However, I see he's a panicked new dad; he has not yet figured out how to answer this awkward question in the 1995 world of intolerance.  There is a split second of silence between us, during which I realize that my experience as a teacher needs to override his right as a father -- just this once, until his feet are more firmly planted in the role.
"Oh, she has a mom," I say confidently.  "Everybody has a mom.  But Eliza's birth mom knew that she would not be able to take care of her, give her a safe home and a good education.  So when her birth mom found out that Bart and Thom wanted a baby to love, she was very happy to know that her little girl would be going to a good home."
Immense relief floods Thom's face.  "Exactly!" he says, smiling.  (I can tell he plans to use my explanation the next time a child asks him.)
"Oh," says the boy, and he runs off to do something else.  He is satisfied.  He has no problem with the baby's having two fathers.  He has no problem with her being a black child of white parents.  He has ABSOLUTELY NO ADULT HATE OR HANG UPS over the situation at all.  That's it.

More than 20 years later, it's easier, not harder, to explain this stuff to kids.  Not everybody has the same kind of family.  It's not that hard, folks.  Stop getting so worked up about it, and just tell kids the truth on a level that's right for their age.  The 7-year-old wasn't asking about gay sex; he just wanted to know where the mom of the baby was.  An 11-year-old would probably have more questions and need more explanation.
So, how do you explain to kids about the tragedy in Orlando?  Well, you tell them there are scary people in the world, people filled with hate of those who are different from themselves or different from what they think people should be like.  And sometimes these scary people set out to hurt and kill.  This time, gay people were the target.  Yes, it's scary.  And, yes, we do need to be careful.  But we don't need to hate; that will only make it worse.

Hiding stuff from kids will only make them suspicious and afraid.  Just tell them simply and truthfully, but not hatefully.

Oh, and just so you know, Bart and Thom are still together now.  They live in a different state, so I'm not sure if they're married or not, now that it's legal.  But they raised Eliza and Andy (adopted a year or so later) into great young adults.  Their family -- which worked just fine -- was the main reason I never picked up on the Mormon hatred of gay families.  By the time such stuff began to be preached in Church, I already knew that a gay family wasn't all that much different from any other family, and certainly was nothing to fear.