My nine-year-old went to iCamp this summer, and there, he learned how to make an iMovie.
He had a great time. I’m an educator, and I was happy to see that the student-to-camp-leader ratio was great, the pedagogy was solid for the pre-teen set, and the kids got lots of hands-on-screen time in a welcoming and vibrant environment. Each morning the teachers made clear their goals for the day, sign-posted important things they would cover, and let the kids know their expectations. As a bonus, the staff leading it was multiracial and included women. It was also free, and I got to spend two hours chilling out in the mall.
The kid was most delighted to learn how to use the Apple app Garage Band – and he has spent hours since then — hours — mixing music. His short film – in which a dragon attacks a village and our hero, a knight, saves the day – took about six hours to make, and three minutes to watch. The Apple camp facilitators screened it on the final day of camp to a packed house of parents and campers. It was a huge success.
So why did I end that day feeling so damn sad?
It started at the fifth presentation. We were all gathered around and had seen the first four films, including a five-minute long-shot of a boy playing “When the Saints Go Marching In” on his trumpet while his dog howled, and another of a young boy and his dad being shrunk and getting lost in their back yard, complete with evil twin toddler siblings. The fifth presentation was to be the first one from a girl, but as the tech loaded it onto the screen, she said, “You don’t need to show mine.”
“You sure?” he asked her. She nodded. He moved on.
She’s probably shy, I thought. The mom next to me, a friend from my son’s elementary school, whispered that she hoped her daughter wouldn’t be too shy to show hers.
We patiently watched a few more films, including her daughter’s educational clip on how to bake brownies, and one about a young girl who befriends a wild horse. Then two more girls demurred. Then another. Each time, they’d raise their hands when their names were called and say, “You don’t need to show mine,” or, “Lets not watch mine,” before the tech could start the movie. I got a pit in my stomach by the time the fourth girl declined – when she did, the tech said, “But your art is so great, I am sure everyone would like to see it.” Indeed, we could see the opening shot, and it looked pretty cool. She maintained: no.
A mom standing close by laughed and noted, approvingly, “The girls are so modest!” I grumbled, out loud but quietly to the mom-friend beside me, “It’s sad that they don’t want to share their work.”
If this is about modesty, I thought, we need to tell girls to be proud of their work! But as an eighth child deferred – the only boy to defer, and the only African American boy in the room – I thought: Perhaps these refusals aren’t about modesty or shyness. Perhaps they’re about privilege.
Of the twenty-seven kids who made iMovies and iBooks, nine asked that their work not be shown — a full third of the campers. Eight of those nine were girls, and one was an African American girl, the sister of the only boy who sat out the presentations, too.
This was a free camp, and devices were provided for those who didn’t own them. It was held in what I felt to be a welcoming multi-racial and multi-ethnic environment. It was low-stakes and creative.
And yet, it still replicated what we know about kids of color and girls in classrooms across the country: They – and the contributions they will make – get lost. Somehow, even with a caring, passionate staff, they still believed that their contributions weren’t as important as the ones offered by other kids.
Perhaps, I thought, it is that these kids, the ones who didn’t participate, sure are good culture readers. Perhaps they have already learned that, for people who look like them, being recognized in this country is usually not a good thing. It would only be rational for young girls and African American children to expect that they won’t be on television for their intellectual or creative accomplishments, and that their films won’t be screened. Perhaps they know, already, that if they achieve fame it will likely be by their proximity to violence, or by victimhood. They are just as likely to be the girl who was raped at a party, the boy who was gunned down for walking in the street, as they are to be the teenaged inventor winning a scholarship or an Oscar for Best Screenplay.
Then I think of the entitlement of the kids – like mine – who shared their work without question. These are children who know, without a doubt, that their parents and their peers and teachers – heck, society at large – will be interested in watching an excruciating, four-minute video of them playing Wii. That is privilege: the privilege of white boys and some girls who already know, who just assume, that their work is valued.
As we left camp, I asked my son what it felt like to have his work shown. I told him I was proud of him, that I was thrilled with what he’d learned, and that he’d had fun. I told him how sad I was that some kids hadn’t shown their movies, and we talked about the social identities of the kids who chose not to, as well as the identities of the kids who did.
He had noticed, and he got it. Then, he asked what he could have done about it.
What a question.
It’s a question that should confront all of us who hold privilege, whether we are educators or not: What can I do about it?
I told him what I remind myself of whenever I walk into a classroom — that he could attempt to form relationships with kids that help them all feel safe and valued by asking them about their work and interests; he could be an encouraging sort who smiles at kids he doesn’t know and offers compassionate critique. And I told him that, occasionally, he could defer, that he has the option of opting out, of conceding his floor space to someone else whose views he is interested in hearing because they aren’t often heard, or whose art he is interested to seeing because it should be seen.
My son is nine years old, and he’s a quiet nine, not boisterous or scene-stealing. It feels odd to encourage him to be more reticent. But as a mom committed to anti-racism and to gender justice, I need to help him be alert to the privilege he has, the benefit-of-the-doubt that he gets when he walks into a classroom or onto the playground, and I need to start giving him the tools to use his privilege to benefit others.
Renee Cramer is a professor at Drake University and Chair of the University’s Department of Law, Politics, and Society. She is also a Life of the Law advisory panel member. Her latest book, which is about our cultural obsession with celebrity pregnancy, will be published in 2015.