Society: Julie Chen, Miss America, & Michelle Rhee
The recent discussions about TV personality Julie Chen's plastic surgery (see above, "required" by her agent, she says), combined with the racist tweets following the crowning of a nonwhite Miss America, reminds me sadly of the racism and sexism that I have seen, read, and sometimes sensed underneath criticisms of education's most prominent Asian-American woman, StudentsFirst founder Michelle Rhee.
A look back at some of the attacks on Rhee suggests that there has been a small but consistent pattern of critics describing Rhee in racist and -- even more commonly -- sexist language. The fact that this kind of thing is happening is pretty unsettling, whether you agree with Rhee or not. The fact that it's going un-noticed and un-challenged is even more disturbing.
At times, the racism and/or sexism comes right to the surface. Most well known perhaps is the time last year when Rhee was called a racist epithet by Miami-Dade educator Ceresta Smith at an anti-reform meeting, as acknowledged and denounced in this Diane Ravitch blog post.
But that certainly wasn't the first time Rhee was described in racist or sexist terms by her critics. The Frustrated Teacher described her using a misogynistic (but not explicitly racist) term, and she was described in sexist terms by DC Mayor Marion Barry. Former MA AFT writer Jennifer (Edushyster) Berkshire used the same sexist slur against Rhee last year. A Daily Kos blogger suggested that Rhee was attempting to "seduce" an HBO host.
Then there are the images. The AFT-created anti-Rhee blog Rhee First for a time had images of Rhee with her mouth taped shut and with a long Pinnochio nose. All Voices has a cartoon of Rhee that might be considered offensive, depending on the viewer's sensibilities (see at right).
But most of the time the racism and/or sexism I sense is beneath the surface. The intense personal nature of the attacks against Rhee and her ideas is clear. Most of Rhee's harshest critics are white, as are those journalists who write about her.
Of course, accusations of racism are nothing new, and go both ways. Rhee has described some of the coverage of her reign in DC as racist, according to John Merrow, and addresses the media focus on her dress and appearance in a brief AOL video segment here. She and her policies have been accused of being racist against low-income minority families. No doubt, Rhee says and does some pretty intense things. (Her recent attack on California's teachers unions is a good example.)
School reform is not show business. I'm not suggesting Rhee needs to change her appearance to make herself more palatable to others, or that her critics are all necessarily racists. But the same kinds of language are not generally being used publicly & without apology against reform critics (Diane Ravitch, Randi Weingarten, etc.) or even white/male reformers (Wendy Kopp, Arne Duncan, etc.). And I think we should all think about that.