The Privilege of Polite

Makela Elvy and Briana Mitchell
January 2021
Campers in the pool

That doesn't happen at camp. But what if it did? Grounded in their beginnings as a means of preserving youth and innocence, many camps shy away from holding space for difficult conversations, erring on the side of being polite. In this instance, politeness equates to avoidance. But we know that camp is not magical because it is utopian (see the inaugural Trail Mixed column in the November/December issue for a discussion about why that thinking is perilous). We also know one thing that makes camp so special is the rubber band effect that children exhibit each summer. Each day of the program, children try new things — being stretched by the newness of playing Gaga, jumping on a trampoline, traversing a zip line, etc. Not all these endeavors are fruitful on their first attempt, and sometimes kids falter. You swing and miss. You fall off the half-pipe. You whiff every serve toss. And still, you try again. There is something about camp that instills in kids a sense of resilience that allows them to bounce back and get back on the horse. That is the real camp magic. As Simone Gamble (2020) puts it, campers can experience many "oops ouch moments" throughout the course of a summer. So why not lean in to this elasticity and use it to encourage conversations, exposure, and a different kind of courage?

No aspect of our identities exists in isolation. The way race, gender, and class intersect affects the way we experience reality and influences the way we treat others, whether we are consciously aware of these biases or not. Often, when we think about unconscious biases and the danger associated with them, we focus on one aspect of identity — race or gender or class — because when conceptualizing and challenging oppression, it is easier to tackle one social construct at a time. Seldom do we recognize that our campers and counselors may be experiencing compounded oppression based on their multifaceted identities. We often fall back on our politeness and societal expectations and give more grace to our intentions and operating procedures than we do to each other. Thankfully, challenging binaries ("a division into two groups or classes that are considered diametrically opposite," according to Merriam-Webster, 2020) and reasoning with empathy is much easier for children to do.

In a longitudinal study published in the Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, researchers Anna Beth Doyle and Frances E. Aboud determined that prejudice is high in kindergarten-aged children but decreases throughout the elementary school years. The study largely links the decrease to the advancement of a child's cognitive skills (Doyle & Aboud, 1995). Many camps serve children within the elementary school age range, which bodes well for the justification of having concerted conversations with campers about more "sensitive" topics. Cognitively speaking, if students are demonstrating less prejudice at these ages, shouldn't we be using the summer as a time to explore related conversations with our campers?

Another result of the Doyle-Aboud study was that age-related decreases in prejudice in children primarily reflect increases in attitudes that run counter to prejudice (1995). As my favorite counselor used to say, "The proof is in the pudding, folks." Developmentally, once they enter elementary school, children are already increasing their counter-bias, so we should lean into that. We should be talking with our campers about social constructs such as race and gender, the layering of oppression, and privilege they may experience because of their identities. Now, if the adults are uncomfortable having these kinds of conversations, that is a different issue entirely.

In adolescence, when children attend camp, they are just beginning to form their identities, according to psychologist Erik Erickson's stages of psychosocial development. Between ages 5–12 children's external factors, like role models and peers, become their main source of self-esteem, resulting in greater confidence or feelings of inferiority. During this identity stage, children are able to recognize gender roles and are beginning to understand how they should act based on their gender identities. When their interests and behaviors do not fall within the gender binary, children quickly figure out that "they may be punished in big or little ways for being themselves," if they choose not to conform (Goepferd, 2020). This may result in children opting to suppress their true identities out of fear of being viewed as inferior by peers. This phenomenon is especially true for Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) children whose race, an aspect of one's identity that isn't so easily concealed, is already dictated by society to be inferior. If we allow children to limit their gender expression because we fail to create a camp culture that acknowledges gender fluidity in our language or with our facilities, then we fail to protect and support all our campers during these critical, formative years.

Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw asserts that in educational institutions the convergence of race or gender stereotypes play out between authoritative body and student (administrator/student), staff and children (teacher/student), and among children (student/student). She suggests that at each level these interactions are all opportunities for institutions to provide equal experiences for all students to be their full, authentic selves and learn regardless of their identities (National Association of Independent Schools, 2018). This is also true for camps, which have a duty to provide enough structure for children to gain self-confidence, learn how to socialize, and treat people respectfully, regardless of race, gender, or class. These are life skills campers will practice daily for the rest of their lives. We must remember that "identity isn't simply a self-contained unit; it is a relationship between people and history" (National Association of Independent Schools, 2018).

Camps are magical. And as former campers and counselors, it is our belief in the magic of camp that compels us to strive to make camps more inclusive, equitable places of belonging for all. To achieve this, we must collectively move past politeness and adopt a camp culture that embraces people holistically.

Kindling Connections

This section of Trail Mixed was courageously written by Chris Rhes-Dupin. Chris has 18 years of experience in youth development in the outdoors, participated as a member of the ACA, Illinois Mid States Camp Conference leadership team in 2019, and currently provides consultation to camps, youth groups, and faith communities on transforming spaces to be LGBT+ inclusive spaces.

Chris writes:

I started working at summer camp in 2003 after my freshman year in college. It was immediately made clear that although there were numerous members of the LGBT community on staff, talking about minority gender identities and sexualities was out of bounds with campers. This was no surprise to me. We were expected to give of ourselves and work tirelessly to ensure that campers had the most impactful time possible, but we were expected to do that while hiding meaningful parts of who we were.

In my time at camp I was repeatedly told — either directly or indirectly — that my identity was too "controversial" to be discussed with youth. But the truth is, even if I never talk about it openly at camp, it is still going to get talked about. For most kids, if they can't immediately understand someone's gender, they are incapable of moving past it until they have answers. I've had more interesting conversations with people under the age of 18 about gender than you can imagine. I have started almost none of them.

I can recall one such conversation going like this. It occurred before most people knew I was transgender. My presentation was what most would consider masculine but not usually read as male. I was using they/them pronouns, but only with people who asked (which was not part of our organizational culture). To set the scene, I was standing around with a group of kids on the first day of camp. We were doing normal first-day small talk. You know, "What are you excited about?" "Are you here with a buddy?" "Where's your water bottle?" "No, there are not alligators in the lake." Seemingly out of nowhere a camper blurts "Okay, let's play a game!"

Cool! I think, a leader in our midst.

"Here's how you play. Raise your hand if you are a girl." (All the kids raise their hands — without thinking.)

The leader is watching me intently. I know where this is going, but I appear nonplussed.

"Okay," she says knowingly, "now raise your hand if you are a boy."

ALL EYES ARE ON ME. I make no moves but with body language show that I will not be answering the question.

The leader, exasperated, blurts out directly to me, "Well, which is it?" It isn't a question — it's a command.

What did happen: I fumbled through a noncommittal answer because I have been conditioned to believe that talking about my gender is out of bounds and could even endanger our mission. The campers were still confused and curious, and I felt a little bit more invisible than I did when the day began.

What should have happened: I tell her, without judgment, "I think the question you are asking is about my gender, which isn't all that important. What does matter is that I use the pronouns they/them. So, when you talk about me, you can say "Lunchbox (my camp name) is great. They like to sing camp songs just like me. This is an important question and I want to make sure it makes sense to you."

Silence and the erasure of "controversial identities" is problematic. When youth in our program are forming their own gender identities, representation matters. It is faulty logic to believe that representation only matters to kids who are living, or will come to live, as someone who expresses their gender differently or who identifies as something different than the sex they were assigned at birth. We cannot expect our society to become more equitable and safer for transgender and gender-nonconforming youth without creating spaces where all gender presentations and identities are valued as worthy of representation.

So, after 17 years in the industry, I am now working to create more equitable and safe spaces through education, engagement, and empathetic guidance. I know this work must be done in the absence of shame. We have all been conditioned to navigate a system that privileges those who fit neatly into preconceived gender boxes — and leaves out those who don't. While it is not our fault we exist in this system, it is our responsibility to work to deconstruct dangerous binary expectations. Because for our full personhood to be honored, we require more than inclusion. We require justice and, in the words of Dafina-Lazarus Stewart, "Justice challenges: ‘Whose safety is being sacrificed and minimized to allow others to be comfortable maintaining dehumanizing views?'"

We thank you, Chris.

For More Information

Here are some resources you can use to help make your camp more welcoming for campers, parents, and staff who are members of the LBGT+ community.

  • Book a consultation with Chris Rhes-Dupin at transplaining.info.
  • Read Intersectionality as Critical Social Theory by Patricia Hill Collins
  • Watch Audrey Mason-Hyde's TEDx Talk "Toilets, bowties, gender, and me" on YouTube
  • Listen to Activist, You! (ages 5 and up) — each episode features an interview with a young activist. Guests include kids and teens who fight for racial justice, climate justice, immigration reform, LGBTQ+ rights, and more.

References

  • Doyle, A. B. & Aboud, F. E. (1995). A longitudinal study of white children's racial prejudice as a social-cognitive development. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, vol. 41, no. 2, pp. 209–228. JSTOR, Retrieved from jstor.org/stable/23090532.
  • Gamble, S. (2020, October 12). 12 ways racism, colonialism, and anti-Blackness can be present at camp. Lecture presented at 12 Ways Racism, Colonialism, and Anti-Blackness Can Be Present at Camp in Zoom, New York, NY.
  • Goepferd, A. K. (Director). (2020, October 26). The revolutionary truth about kids and gender identity -->. Retrieved from youtube.com/watch?v=knNjvX6eoBI
  • Merriam-Webster. (2020). Binary. Retrieved from merriam-webster.com/dictionary/binaries
  • National Association of Independent Schools (Director). (2018, January 19). Kimberlé Crenshaw: What is intersectionality? -->. Retrieved from youtube.com/watch?v=ViDtnfQ9FHc

Briana Mitchell has been a camp attendee since the age of six and a previous camp counselor and Teach for America Corps member. She is the director of AF Camp, a Change Summer camp, where she works to create high-quality summer opportunities for students that will increase their overall confidence, responsibility, curiosity, and independence. She is also the co-founder of Smore Melanin — a platform dedicated to providing resources for BIPOC camp professionals.

Makela Elvy, M Ed, is an environmental educator and camp enthusiast. Along with Briana, she is also the co-founder of Smore Melanin — a platform dedicated to providing resources for BIPOC camp professionals. Over the course of her career, Makela has held camp positions ranging from head counselor to program manager. Her experience includes nature interpretation, curriculum development, and the creation of a 10-week venture program rooted in experiential learning.

Photo courtesy of Camp Brave Trails, Los Angeles, California.


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