In order to introduce students to issues relating to identity, I would have them read the novel Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan. Many different types of identity are addressed in the novel: class, race, gender, and nationality. Students would be drawn in by the exciting events of the story line, which has the feel of a movie packed with drama, action, and the potential for romance. Esperanza is a dynamic character who must endure many trials in order to discover her true potential in the new life that she and her family choose to live. In Esperanza Rising, Esperanza and her family flee Mexico due to tragedy and hardship brought on by political corruption. Once in America, Esperanza must work hard and be strong for her family, leaving behind a memory of affluence in her home country.
Esperanza Rising is a fiction novel that could be the narrative of many people who immigrate into America, escaping oppression and/or extreme conditions in their country of origin. Yet even with so much freedom here, there are still issues, controversial subjects, and hotly contested topics, many of which do not stay in the home. Instead, we see them everywhere we look, on the news, in court, and during political debates. For example, what a couple, whether they be heterosexual or homosexual, does in their home is nobody’s business. Yet, this has been a huge political topic for years, resulting in each state voting whether to allow gay marriage to be legal. The same issue arises regarding abortion. Women should be allowed to choose what is best for their own bodies, but again politics, and even religion, become involved and stifle our feelings of freedom and our rights as citizens of America.
I feel that once you teach students, or anyone, about identity and the politics associated with it, social justice is an eventual step. Let me explain why I feel this way. Identity politics and social justice go hand in hand due to the realization that one does have a great deal of freedom in regards to who one wants to be. With the freedom to be whoever you are, he/she will express him/herself, which leads to self advocacy, as well as a potential to advocate for the rights of others. When an individual or a group feels that his/her rights, or the rights of a group, are not being respected, then social justice will come about. This can happen in many ways, but the key is to be heard.
Although individuals can choose to be apolitical in their own lives, the issues of identity in the public sphere tend to become political. Those who are opposed to the rights that others are trying to hold onto, trying to create, or are trying to make aware to others, the opposed have their own rights. They create their own identity politics, but their mission is one of restriction of freedoms and rights. All citizens in the American society have a right to be heard.
For example, even though I am a white man, I can advocate for the rights of other groups in our society. If I were to teach a unit on identity, with one of the sections focusing on feminism, I would make the point above clear to my students from the onset. I would state that although I am not a woman, I can still teach literature that reflects the views of feminism and advocate for the rights of women. I could select sections of Jane Eyre to build a strong case that Jane as a character is unique, in that she is strong, for a man or woman, and that she chooses an untraditional path for the majority of the novel. Jane is a character that gets into situations that would be difficult for anyone to handle, regardless of gender. It is only at the very end of the novel where Jane takes on a more traditional role in regards to family.
It is possible that my own gender could get in the way of teaching literature that deals with identity, but the best approach is to be aware of the self. I would be sure that I am always conscious of my craft, which includes practices such as mindfulness. By being aware of how one presents material to his/her students, the main points of identity, and why such issues are important, can be carefully laid out and received by one’s students. The hope is that it will allow his/her students to become aware of diversity and to be able to genuinely participate in our democratic society.