Race and troublemakers as future prisoners

Last week I tweeted about this article from Sociological Images via Racialicous: Framing Children’s Deviances. In her brief analysis/comparison of the media representation of two boys’ (one white, one black) troublemaking joy rides, Lisa Wade references a book that might be important for thinking about how race shapes our understandings and assessments of troublemaking in its various forms: Bad Boys: Public Schools in the Making of Black Masculinity. I checked this book out from the library and just started reading it this afternoon. From what I have read so far, I think that Ann Arnette Ferguson could offer some important insights on how we discipline children and shape/regulate/distort their expressions of troublemaking.

Check out what she has to say about trouble and the purpose of her study:

But trouble is not only the site of regulation and stigmatization. Under certain conditions it can also be a powerful occasion for identification and recognition. This study investigates this aspect of punishment through an exploration of the meaning of school rules and the interpretation of trouble from the youth’s perspective. What does it mean to hear adults say that you are bound for jail and to understand that the future predicted for you is “doing time” inside prison walls? What does school trouble mean under such deleterious circumstances? How does a ten-year-old black boy fashion a sense of self within this context (2-3)?

I really like how she doesn’t just theorize about how schools “create, shape and regulate” students’ social identities, but she also discusses the agency of the students and their participation in and resistance to schools’ rules and regulations (2). I can’t wait to read more.

What is your image of a troublemaker?

Here’s to the Crazy Ones, the Misfits, the Rebels, the Troublemakers, the Round Pegs in the square holes, the Ones who see things Differently.

So, when STA told me about the Think Different commercial (which I just wrote about in this entry, he pointed out something curious (and troubling): the different descriptions of “think different” correspond with particular images of individuals who embody them. For example, the Crazy One is Einstein while the Rebel is Bob Dylan. Now, here comes the troubling part: when Richard Dreyfuss says “Troublemaker” this is the image that we get:
Martin Luther King, Jr. (at 10 seconds).

Now, they could have easily used his image when Dreyfuss says: the Ones who See Things Differently or, even, the Rebels. So, why use this image with that word? Reflecting on this question, I was reminded of a kid’s book that I discussed at length earlier this summer (here and here and here): The Book of Timeouts. In this book, the author offers 14 different examples of troublemakers who behaved improperly and were punished with a timeout. In my earlier entries, I argued that these examples are meant to serve as moral lessons for kids on how not to behave and why they should try to stay out of trouble. As I was doing a close reading of the author’s examples, I remember being troubled by the one about Louis Armstrong.

Entitled, “The Horn Player That Nearly Blew It,” Lucke describes Louis Armstrong’s stint as a troublemaker:

One upon a time Louis Armstrong was just a poor boy looking for trouble. It found him, on New Year’s Even in 1912 in the city of New Orleans. A short while after that, the police showed up. He was hauled away in a paddy wagon and put in a ‘home’ for wayward children [juvenile hall aka prison for minors]. He thought it was the end of the world. But it turned out it wasn’t. His time out changed everything. While he was there he learned how to play the cornet.

Among all of the examples, which I have listed here, this story about Louis Armstrong is the only one about an African American man (And, why is it the only one? What about Martin Luther King Jr or Malcom X, for example?). The only one about a juvenile delinquent/criminal/street thug–who by nature (at least according to the author) seems to up to no good. And the only one that doesn’t offer any specifics about what exactly Armstrong did wrong. Instead, the description, “a poor boy looking for trouble” seems to be all that is needed (along with the illustration of a black boy) for the reader to understand that Armstrong was a troublemaker and criminal who really deserved a time out. Why didn’t the author provide any more specifics as to why Armstrong was in trouble? What exactly did he do that made him deserve a time out? In all of the other examples the author offers some witty connection between the behavior of the troublemaker and the misbehavior of a child (Cleopatra couldn’t share, Richard the Lionhearted cut through people’s yards, Napoleon took other people’s things). As I mentioned above, these connections are meant to reinforce moral lessons: Don’t be like Cleopatra, learn to share with others. Then you won’t get a time out. What moral lesson are we meant to learn from Armstrong? Don’t be born black or poor because then the police will find you and put you in jail?

The author’s (perhaps unwitting) linkage of poor, Black and young with criminal, deserving of prison, and troublemaker is very disturbing. It invokes a very problematic equation that influences a lot of thinking about and visualizing of troublemaker as someone who disobeys/breaks the rules: troublemaker = criminal/delinquent = black male. For more on this equation and why it is a big problem, see here or here.

This equation is also present in the Think Different ad when the image of MLK Jr pops up on the screen as Dreyfuss is saying, “troublemaker.” The image of Martin Luther King, Jr. as troublemaker should be empowering and inspiring and another example of the virtue of troublemaking. But it could also be seen as just one more image reinforcing the ideas (1) that troublemaking is bad, (2) that it is a form of criminal activity, and (3) that black male troublemakers are all criminals.

Thinking about this problematic link between black men, criminal activity and troublemaking reminds me that any revaluing of troublemaking, as something good and virtuous, also requires a deracializing of the troublemaker and a decriminalizing of the troublemaking activities of breaking the rules and disrespecting the status quo.

The time out as a liminal space of possibility?

So, I am using this blog as a way to work out different ideas I have about troublemaking–how it functions and how it is represented and understood within a variety of discourses and media. At a certain point–family members, friends, colleagues, students, acquaintences, random people on the street–grow tired of hearing me go on and on and on…and on about my theories/ruminations/rants of particular examples of making trouble and valuing troublemakers. That is where you, my dear blog, come in. You are my opportunity to squeeze every troublemaking drop out of an example (I haven’t even begun to tap into the possibilities of the Brady Bunch and “A fistful of reasons”). In that spirit, I want to continue my “critical exploration” of The Book of Timeouts.

Earlier today, I had a brainstorm while I was in the bathroom (Martin Luther, eat your heart out!).  I started thinking more about the link between troublemaking and punishment and kid’s troublemaking and time outs. One thought I had (and that I mentioned in my last entry), was: Do they need to be linked? Can we imagine the consequences of troublemaking to be good (transformative, leading to change) instead of all bad? That is a continuing theme of mine and one I will come back to again and again. But, after I finished my last entry, I started thinking more about the connection between making trouble (in all forms) and being punished. Then, I started thinking about the prison industrial complex and all of the important critical activist work that is being done on this crisis. So, I picked up a book by Angela Davis that I have been meaning to read all spring, Are Prisons Obsolete? In her introduction she ponders what it might mean to do away with the prison system and rethink how we address and deal with crime. Instead of reforming prisons or finding ways to create more of them, she wants to raise the question of “how to prevent the further expansion of prison populations and how to bring as many imprisoned women and men as possible back into what prisoners call ‘the free world’” (20). For many, that is a radical and inconceivable idea. How, exactly, could we go about doing this? Davis’ shift in emphasis would require a complete transformation of how we think about “criminals”, criminal activity and how to respond to it.

With that in mind, I started thinking about the time out and how it functions in terms of resolving (or at least dealing with) kid’s troublemaking behavior.  Consider how Lucke envisions it when she writes in her introduction:

You got more and more out of control. Finally someone like your mom noticed and said, ‘You need a time out!’ And suddenly, surprise!–you were on a little vacation form everyone else. In a corner, by yourself, where you could pout away until you could play nicely with others.

Lucke understands the time out implicitly and explicitly as a place of punishment and, in many of her examples, presents it as the equivalent of a prison cell. As a prison cell, the time out place (most often the dreaded time out chair) becomes a space of confinement that you are banished to when you do something wrong. You go to the time out chair not so much to settle down but because you did something that you need to be punished for. The time out chair takes you out of the action and out of the fun. It is meant to separate you from everyone else–from your friends, family, the world–as a reminder that you shouldn’t act out, you shouldn’t be too full of yourself, you shouldn’t step out of line.

The time out chair (and the idea of the time out in general) can be understood simultaneously as a threat (see kids, don’t behave like these bad troublemakers who got extra long time outs) to ensure that none of us actually do things we aren’t supposed to and as a means for wearing us down and draining us of our ability to resist and step outside of the system (so, you want to make trouble, huh? We will just lock you up until you come to your senses).  Whether it functions as a threat or a means of punishment, the time out (chair) is a necessary part of a kid’s moral education.

As I mentioned in my last entry, Lucke uses her different examples of troublemaking as moral lessons for her reader. The front flap makes the connection between troublemaker and moral lesson explicit: “Lucke showcases some of the world’s most famous troublemakers and proves that lessons can be learned from all of them”.  For each of these troublemakers, getting a time out (and often in the form of the time out chair) is a necessary part of growing up and learning what not to do. Don’t be too full of yourself (Hannibal). Share with others (Napoleon). Always apologize (Grace O’Malley). And, reading about what these other troublemakers allows kids to shape their good and improper behavior against the threat of punishment for bad behavior.

But, what if we thought about the time out space differently? What if we didn’t imagine and reinforce it as a fixed location for punishment, as a kiddy prison cell where you went when you misbehaved? What if we reimagined the time out space as a space of reflection and rumination, where a kid could ponder and process their thoughts and feelings and where she might be able to channel them in different ways? And, what if we imagined the act of a time out as not being experienced in a time out chair? What if we kept part of the goal of the time out (that is, to allow a kid to cool off and to stop the trajectory of their out-of-control actions), but didn’t connect that goal with punishment and got rid of the chair?

Would disconnecting the time out (as the process of stopping or tempering out-of-control behavior) from punishment enable us to think differently about how to deal with “bad” behavior? Would it allow parents to think differently about how to guide (instead of just disciplining) their kids? Would it give kids a different model for thinking about how and why they should develop strategies for dealing with their desires to disrupt and challenge authority? Would it require that we rethink moral education outside of the discipline and punish mentality?

Now, I need a lot more time to ruminate on this idea. I want to do a lot more (re) reading on punishment (Foucault, Davis, to name a few). I want to do a lot more researching on how the time out chair functions within the literature on child development. I want to think more about what this might mean for how I do my own parenting. And what this could mean for how we respond to the prison industrial complex.

I want to be very clear here: I am not suggesting that there is a simple (and direct) connection between children who are sent to the time out chair and prisoners who are sentenced to a prison cell. It is much more complicated than that. What I am suggesting is that the implicit and explicit connections we make between improper/out-of-control behavior, punitive consequences, and moral lessons begin in the time out chair and help to produce a society that becomes too dependent on prisons as the answer for “solving” crime and too dependent on punishment (or the threat of punishment) for developing morals and/or ethical codes of conduct. Troubling the time out chair and how it should/does function, could open up some new ways of thinking about how to deal with and understand disruptive, improper behavior. And it could open news way of thinking about how to develop and practice moral education for children.

Now, in ending my writing here, I haven’t even begun to answer the question I posed as the title of this entry: The time out as a liminal space of possibility? I guess that will have to wait as I continue to think through how to connect these thoughts that are swirling around in my head. Maybe I should spend some more time in the bathroom.

It worked for Martin Luther and Doc Brown (is that too obscure of a reference for you?), didn’t it?