Have you ever been in a situation where everybody else shared a common experience that you didn't? Was it uncomfortable? Did you speak up? What happened when other people realized that you weren't on the same page with them?
I've lived most of my life this way. I grew up in a place where the loud people were conservatives, where the environment was decidedly Christian, and where everybody simply accepted the way things were. It wasn't until I was a full grown adult and was able to leave town and experience the rest of the world that I realized just how oppressed I had felt my whole life long. On a daily basis, I was confronted with something that did not align with my personal belief system. Looking back, I am realizing that there were more people who did not fit "the way things were done" than who did. Really! Between non-heterosexuals, non-Christians (including Jews, Muslims, Atheists, Hindus, Wiccans, and more), non-meat-eaters, people with food allergies, people with physical disabilities, people with different learning styles, people whose families didn't have extra money, and people whose parents didn't speak fluent English, we way outnumbered the people who were comfortable with the "way things were always done".
So why didn't any of us speak up and try to get things changed to "accommodate" our needs?
Well, for one thing, when you are the one who feels different, it's not always obvious to you that you are not alone. For another thing, many of us are the product of generations-past-immigrants, people who came to this country terrified that they would not be able to stay or would not be accepted into mainstream society. That generation, the one of my grandparents and their parents, didn't want their children to speak the language of the country they had come from. They wanted their children to BE American and the best way to do that seemed to SOUND American and ACT American. And THAT meant:
1. only speaking English,
2. not making a fuss that the food that was served was not Kosher, Halal, vegetarian-friendly, etc.,
3. not making a fuss that the holidays that were celebrated in the public arena were ALL Christian holidays,
4. not making a fuss about all of the guaranteed days off coinciding ONLY with Christian holidays and never getting to have a legitimate day off for their most important holidays and
5. not letting on that their parents didn't understand any of the information that was sent home from school and that they didn't always know how to translate it accurately for them.
Then there was social pressure to adhere to expectations and/or to avoid being heckled, bullied or otherwise called out and humiliated for being "different." And THAT meant:
1. not letting on that the reason they weren't going to the prom, skiing or other common activities was because they couldn't afford to,
2. not letting on that they really wanted to go to prom with another girl or boy rather than in a boy-girl configuration,
3. not letting on that it bothered them to have to swear allegiance "Under God" when their religion didn't include "God",
4. not letting on that they were having trouble with algebra because nobody had ever helped them understand multiplication, division or fractions,
5. not letting on that they were having trouble with driver's ed because their Dislexia had never been noticed and they still couldn't read very fluently,
6. not letting on that it bothered them that they couldn't always go on field trips with the comfort of knowing that their walker or wheel chair would fit in the seats or that there would always be a ramp or an elevator, and
7. not letting on that they never ate at special events or ate from the cafeteria because none of the food was guaranteed to be nut-free, dairy-free, egg-free, gluten-fre etc.
Many of these situations have been addressed over the years between now and when I was in school but many of them persist. For example:
1. Try finding a school that doesn't celebrate Halloween, Christmas, Valentine's Day, St. Patrick's Day and Easter. The holidays are not only celebrated socially and given priority for vacation days but in many places the ideas embedded in the holidays are woven into the curriculum. Children make holiday related crafts, sing holiday related songs, find holiday related offerings in the cafeteria and find themselves having to choose between participating uncomfortably or "making a stink". Parents find themselves likewise in a predicament. After all, nobody wants to be the parent everybody else sees as having ruined their fun. At the same time, it's a problem when Jewish or Athiest kids come home believing that Santa goes to EVERYBODY's house and if he doesn't come to THEIR house that means they are a bad person. Likewise for the Easter Bunny. I realize a lot people think these characters are benign, fun, little characters but the truth of the matter is that, without exception, these characters were adopted by early Christians from other religions for the express purpose of indoctrinating non-Christians into Chrstianity. If you want to be considered a secular school, you have to make the school environment one that is NEUTRAL. That's not to say that Christians can't have their Christianity but it does mean that the Christianity cannot be a part of the curriculum, and holiday celebrations need to be kept private within the household and/or religious community. You can go the road of "well, we'll just include holidays from other religions too". Except that it's impossible to study every holiday celebrated anywhere in the world and accomplish anything else in school, so you will give only a small nod to that holiday AND then there is always going to be something that makes someone uncomfortable. Because when you have an environment where everybody is doing something and it's presented as being the "normal" thing, but it's something that your family doesn't do, then that by default makes you "not normal". Making someone feel "not normal" is ostracizing them. By creating an environment where some children are being ostracized, you are inherently excluding them. Most people understand that excluding is a form of bullying. So by not creating a neutral environment, you are endorsing institutionalized bullying.
2. Some states have recently extended the anti-non-heterosexual oppression that is still rampant in schools today to go so far as create legislation that is clearly oppressive. By not allowing people to determine for themselves who they are and which bathroom they feel comfortable in, we are creating an atmosphere that tells people that they are not important, equal or powerful. That is institutional bullying.
3. Many people don't see any reason to "accommodate" people with special needs, whether it means providing food that adheres to their dietary restrictions or making sure they will be able to get into a facility, bathroom or vehicle easily and comfortably, or providing school literature that has been translated into a parent's fluent language. By not creating a space that is comfortable for people, we are telling them that their issue is not "real" and that they are not very important. This is also institutionalized bullying.
4. Many schools and workplaces treat people of different physical descriptions differently. We name it "profiling" and it's most obvious and being talked about the loudest by black people. It's true that black children are more likely than other children to be punished for the same behavior. They are more likely to have law enforcement invited into the situation and to then end up as victims of a biased legal system. They are not alone though. Asian children who are not at the top of their class are dismissed. "Hispanic" children are treated like second class citizens when people assume English is not their native language. Middle Eastern children are being harassed overtly by peers and school officials. Children who come from bi-lingual households are often treated as being not very bright because developing dual language centers takes longer and they are therefore slower to start outputting verbal language, in spite of the fact that it has been demonstrated that children who grow up having developed dual language centers grow to be better problem solvers with higher IQs. Since we are putting our children into school settings that classify earlier and earlier, this leads these children to be unfairly classified and consequently not challenged to meet their true potential. This is clearly institutionalized bullying.
I could go on and on but this is already long enough. Thank you for sticking with me this far. My point is that we have to make public spaces neutral so that everybody can feel comfortable living together, learning together, and playing together. If you are one of the people who is comfortable with the way things have always been, it is up to you to show the rest of us that you care, that you do think our issues are real and that you do think we are important. It'll be worth the effort. Besides, you never know when it it's going to be your child who feels "less than" in a non-neutral environment. Everyone benefits from neutrality.