Graduate Research Corner, Interviews

Graduate Research Corner: Keri DeJong on “Youth Oppression” [Part II]

Part II

Q: It does. It becomes about producing future adults.

A: And that you as a parent are fully and completely responsible for everything your child is able to learn, not able to learn, what they do, what they don’t do, when really your child is a human being and influencing a lot of that too. It really sets parents up.  

Q: Kids are very different. For example, my oldest son tends to be a but more compliant and wants to please, while the younger one is very different; what I see with him is he’s starting to reflect back to me the negotiation tactics I use with him. So I’ll say something like, you don’t get to do that until you do this. You have to put your clothes away before you can listen to music on the iPod, or something like that. And then he’ll reflect that tactic back to me, and say, “alright, well then if I do that I get to listen to the IPod and play Wii.” But I’m teaching him a kind of currency that I’m constantly questioning myself. I would like them to be doing these things because they want to, not because I’m using some bargaining chip or form of leverage. So then I have to say, “no, you don’t get to negotiate.” It’s the “because I said so” phenomenon. If I had to distill down my own experience of youth oppression it would be that memory of my parents saying, “because I said so.” So there’s always this question, why?

A: It’s tricky to get into these sort of microscopic parent-child things. The “because I said so” thing is a strategy and it is kind of a metaphor of the power that adults have. Young people can also say that, and can also exercise that kind of power. But there’s much more socially behind when an adult says that than when a child does. I always think of that Verizon commercial –the Verizon person shows up and there’s this large group of people behind them, and that’s sort of the picture I have of what’s behind your words. You have all of these policy, laws, history, and cultural norms when you say something. So this question you asked about turning into a well-adjusted adult because of a form of youth oppression, but what else could have been possible if you didn’t have these experiences? What else could’ve been possible if you got to participate in the world in a different kind of way as a young person? What if you were able to have more fluid and emergent power relations with adults and other young people? If you had more of a say in your own boundaries, and what you needed, and what interested you? If you got to feel like you were a contribution, all day long, for all of the years that you were in school? If you got to feel like that now, in grad school, in the work that you’re doing, not just when you submit a dissertation but all the way through? What else would be possible? Those are the questions that I’m really interested in. And I think those are the questions that are going to open up these other possibilities. And there’s something about the different ways that we ask the questions, and I’m very interested in what happens when we switch the questions around.

Q: But as an adult I think that I became a well-adjusted person, disciplined, learned good habits of living and so on, because of a form of oppression. Maybe oppression is a word that’s very ideological and gives it a certain value judgment, but what happens when you substitute the word “discipline” for oppression, or something like that?

A: If we substituted the word “discipline” for “oppression” we’d be talking about something else; we’d be having a different conversation. I experienced oppression and I turned out this way. And yes, we are resilient human beings that continue to do amazing things even in the face of oppression. But how much more connected could we be, how much more inspired could we be, how could our lives be bigger, how could we have a more intact sense of fairness and justice. That was something that I learned in social justice education. I was recently out to dinner with a group of friends, and everyone was kind of zombied out, and this two-year old was there and his mom was asking, “do you want some cheese, some crackers, some this and that…” and putting food in his face, and sometimes you want kids to eat at a particular times because it’s a structured world we live in, but he would say “nooo!” He would state his “no” very forcefully, he didn’t have any baggage about it, and he was smiling at people. There’s a way that I see young people having this really connected sense of fairness, and then getting really upset when they see something that’s unfair. So there’s a way very early on that we experience this discouragement that things aren’t going to be fair. So what would happen if we were able to come into the world without this kind of discouragement? Those are the kinds of things that I’m wondering about.

Q: I’ve heard myself say to my kids, “life is not fair.” And they do, they have a really acute sense of justice, and part of that is because of having so little “say” over what they can do and what they get. So when they get a share, it needs to be equitable. One of the things that’s fascinating to me is to think about this question of youth oppression in terms of capitalism as a total system. Capitalism is this almost totalizing system with pockets of resistance. And it’s about competition, achievement, striving, and aspiration. All of those things, if you look at the industrialized world, they don’t happen without closing certain things off to make other things possible. So can you go from the micro to the macro perspective with the idea of youth oppression and fit it into the larger picture of capitalism?

A: My literature reviews looks at childhood as colonization. Young people are socialized to participate in the service of the nation. To become citizens that will participate in a way that will maintain the society. What I looked at was the discourse that supported colonization, a lot of it dealing with Enlightenment discourse; practices related to time, progress, universality, the child / adult dualism, and people with souls that needed to be saved –all of these things that created a justification for colonization. The practices of parenting, and understanding childhood, are embedded in these discourses. The infantilization of nations; nations in development, and so on. It’s a lot to look at, but these macro and micro discourses work side by side. Currently we have this discourse around bullying. That’s very prevalent. And I was thinking about what creates these social climates at school, and one thing that kids talked about in the interviews was that there is currency; it’s not the kind of currency that adults have –it’s not money– but the currency is looks and the trappings of wealth in terms of clothes, electronics, and other forms of capital, like social and symbolic capital. This is very present and connected to a sense of safety and belonging.

Q: Because capitalism sets up these expectations that are so often not met, especially in America where the dreams of wealth and affluence are so present. There are so many adults with kids who are secretly unsatisfied with what they’ve become, where they feel like they haven’t achieved their dreams, and so what they do is transfer them onto their kids. Like, “I’m going to relive the things I did do really well through them,” or “I’m going to try again to live out my dreams of success through my kids,” this sort of thing. That’s one of the ways that capitalism functions through desire and aspiration and we control our kids with it –almost like a form of “authorship.” We see them as a reflection of ourselves, and we’re trying to, in a sense, write the script for them.

A: Yes. But we also internalize these messages about ourselves, and there’s this sense that as soon as we turn eighteen everything is going to be different. But nothing’s different, right? And then we feel like frauds for the rest of our lives because we never feel this freedom or this power that we were promised as young people. So if we feel like failures as adults, then I think our children would be the next way to try to get some success out of that situation. It’s out last chance, our last hope. And we want the young people in our lives that we love to do well, to feel powerful, to be successful, to feel safe. We know how we got to that in our lives, and we work with what we know, for the most part, and we try to imagine other things too.

Q: So one of the things you do here is try to problematize the whole category of “childhood” as something that’s fixed and stable. And I think this is something that, at least in a more common sense way, adults are aware of because we always feel a little bit like kids. Or at least we retain some sense of having a child within us, or have access to what that was like. So do you remember a point at which you felt like you had some awareness that you are now an adult? Because adulthood is this thing that even adults don’t totally believe or understand, right? Or at least it takes a long time. Even as so-called “adults,” as long as our parents are there, then we still feel like someone’s child –like children in some sense.

A: Yes, I would love to have a second part of this be interviewing adults about adulthood. There are so many studies about young people from an adult perspective, trying to figure something out about young people’s minds to give us a sense of what our adult minds are doing. But we don’t study adults in the same kind of way. Well, I didn’t do a literature review on that, so I can’t…  well it doesn’t appear that way [laughter]. There’s not the same prevalence of adult development theories, it’s not looked at with the same attention and resources that we put towards understanding young peoples’ minds.  Another thing is that there’s such an intense segregation between young people and adults. Either you can interact with your own children, or you can work in a school, or daycare, etc. but for the most part it’s very separate. And there are these things in place keeping adult and child spaces separate. I’m usually with other adults, so when I started doing this research and I went into a focus group with eleven high school students I was reminded, Oh I’m going to be the adult here. So I think more spaces and structures for building relationships between youth and adults is important.

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