Observations

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In my wrap-up post on the dietary aspects of the Whole30, I discussed what I ate for 30 days, how it made me feel, and so on. I stand by that post: I would definitely recommend the Whole30 as an eating plan for people who are looking to diagnose food allergens, kick the sugar habit, try something new that involves eating a ton more fruits and veggies than you might already, and so on.

But then there’s the matter of weight loss. I’m conflicted about addressing this topic in public webspace for various reasons: I feel like as a scholar and educator it’s not always appropriate for me to talk about my body (but where does that line fall?), and I also don’t necessarily want to display my body-image insecurities out here for all to see. However, I blog about topics like weight commentary and thin privilege, as well as why over-sharing when discussing one’s body at all can be a political issue. Here, I guess I’m going with a compromise that makes me comfortable: I’m not saying exactly how much I weigh, and I’m not posting pictures. So here goes.

There’s no good way to say this. I lost 6 lbs in 30 days. And, upon weighing myself one week later, I found that I’d lost another pound, even while reintroducing foods like wheat, dairy, sugar, and alcohol (not daily, but almost).

I’m feeling conflicted about two main aspects of this:

  • I have a small frame. I’m only 5’6″ or so. Was it healthy for me to lose that much weight in such a short time? I said to various friends who expressed concern about me getting too skinny on the eating plan, “Oh, I’ve probably only lost 2 or 3 pounds. I wouldn’t want to lose more than that… if I lost 10 pounds I might look sickly or too skinny.”
  • I still look at my body and think to myself that I could stand to lose a little more weight – or at least redistribute it, such that there’s less fat and more muscle (and yes, I’m aware that muscle weighs more than fat, so I’m not opposed to the numbers on the scale going up). I guess this is less of a weight issue than a body composition issue, a matter of how I perceive my silhouette when I look in a mirror.

Let’s unpack these thoughts. I am unsure what to do about the fact that I’ve had two responses to my body on the Whole30 that are pretty much diametrically opposed. I mean, I can’t have it both ways, right? “Is this too much weight loss” vs. “gosh I wouldn’t mind losing some more” is… a strange dynamic to recognize in oneself, to say the least.

I stand by my statement that I’m not currently “too” skinny. I’m not unhealthy. I’m incredibly active and if my body supports this much activity, then things are fine on that front. But… how long til I reach that point, if I keep eating along Whole30 guidelines even as I reintroduce foods that were until recently off-limits? There have been times in the past when due to other life factors I was unable to eat enough to maintain a healthy weight. I don’t want to go there again (as awesome as it felt to finally have a body composition that was societally rewarded by fitting into cute clothing and presenting as “attractive” without having to feel like I was hiding weight-related flaws).

This is just… such a mindfuck. I don’t think I have serious body dysmorphia issues, though the back-and-forth in my head might indicate that I should look a bit more critically at my self-image. I don’t suffer from disordered eating, and I have never really struggled with that, unlike a lot of other women (and men, too). I’m trying to focus on being comfortable with my body as it is now, and that seems to be having some positive effects on my self-esteem. But I can’t seem to shake the fear that I’ll stop doing the Whole30 and go back to eating like a normal American (well, my version of it anyway) and then regain all the weight I lost, which would somehow be a terrible, traumatic event.

I do not like to catch myself thinking these thoughts. I try to have a realistic attitude toward body acceptance, and I try to promote it among others. I go out of my way to mention the body acceptance I find among belly dancers, for example, and I try to embody the feminist ideal of not putting myself down while encouraging others to embrace their bodies, no matter what shape or size.

I guess I’m putting this post out there in an attempt to be transparent about my thought processes regarding body acceptance, food, eating, and weight loss in our culture. I worry that it’ll come across as a humble-brag along the lines of “whoops, lost all this weight when I didn’t mean to, lol” which isn’t my intention. On the one hand, our relationships with our bodies are very private, and no amount of reinforcement (good or bad) from others will change that; but on the other hand, our bodies are often objects of public comment (both reinforcement and ridicule) and the opinions of others often do matter. What we do with our bodies should be no one’s concern but our own – but where do those boundaries end? Do our families and lovers and friends have a right to be involved with our body care and maintenance? Especially when our physical (and emotional) health can directly impact them?

There may be a follow-up post; there may not be. It’ll depend both on what sort of response (if any) this post received, and how I feel after figuring out where to go from here with my dietary choices.

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This post is a smidge more personal than most of my blog posts here, but I figured this would be the best place for me to discuss my recent eating habits in a larger cultural context since it’s easy to link people to (moreso than my Facebook, which I tend to keep pretty private) and since, well, I do study this stuff as a scholar. Just not usually my involvement in it.

So for those who somehow missed the memo, I spent the last month doing the Whole30. It’s basically an eating plan that’s designed to help you figure out dietary allergens/triggers, reevaluate your relationship with food, and generally be healthier. This means that for the last 29 days, I consumed no

  • Grains (wheat or otherwise, including quinoa and corn which aren’t technically grains but ya know)
  • Dairy (except for ghee, which is okay for some reason)
  • Sugar (except what’s found in fruit)
  • Legumes (peanuts, soy, other beans… sad face, I’m a legume-lover!)
  • White potatoes (sweet potatoes okay, thank goodness)
  • Alcohol
  • Added sweeteners/preservatives/flavor agents (things like MSG, sulfites, carrageenan)

What did I eat? A lot of locally raised protein (eggs, chicken, pork, beef, occasional seafood), a lot of fruits and veggies, and a lot of “healthy” fats (olives, olive oil, avocados, coconut products like coconut milk and coconut oil, and nuts/seeds in moderation). There’s a whole long description in the book It Starts with Food that accompanies the Whole30 about why we should be eating these things, why it’s silly to avoid fat, etc. I won’t get into that here unless people are curious about it.

I wasn’t expecting a miracle. I mostly decided to go on the Whole30 to support family members who were doing so, in an attempt to get a leg up on their health issues. Plus I occasionally like to go on a health spree, and this seemed like as good a health spree as any other.

My results? I slept better (which is a big deal, as I sometimes  grapple with anxiety-induced insomnia). There were fewer nights on average that I had trouble falling asleep in the past month. I had way fewer stomach-aches than usual. I think I’d kinda gotten used to them and forgotten that it’s not normal to have stomach-aches on a daily basis (again: stress is a factor, and perhaps some mild dietary allergen/trigger that I hadn’t pinpointed yet because it wasn’t major enough to cause a reaction that was serious).

Interestingly, I couldn’t kick the afternoon snack habit, though I did manage to ditch the afternoon sleepies. I used to get these bizarre bouts of fatigue between 3-5pm most days of the week where it was all I could do to keep my eyes open. It didn’t seem to be related to sleep deprivation, so the best I could pinpoint was that maybe intense fatigue was a symptom of my seasonal allergies? But now those sleepy times are gone, so I guess it was something dietary. You’re not “supposed” to want or need snacks on the Whole30, but I found myself needing them. Maybe it has to do with the fact that I work out at least once a day, sometimes twice. Teaching dance and directing a troupe keeps me pretty busy, I guess.

There were times when I felt I wasn’t getting enough nourishment, possibly because I have trouble eating tons of animal protein. I tend to default to vegetarian when left to my own devices, so being told that I have to get protein from animal sources (rather than relying on dairy, soy, or legumes) was a tad frustrating. Still, I feel I made the best of the situation. I will be very happy when I can reintroduce these foods and rely on animals less (for one thing, it’s expensive, since I prioritize local and/or organic meat).

I definitely feel/look leaner, though I haven’t weighed myself yet (you’re not supposed to weigh yourself during the 30 days). I didn’t miss most things that much. I would get occasional cravings, especially during my period, but otherwise I felt fine. I guess I’m used to being disciplined… I ran a marathon and completed a Ph.D., after all!

Do I really buy the rhetoric of our bodies having a “reset button” that Whole30 allows you to push? Not necessarily. My experience was in some ways similar to that of their projected timeline, and other ways quite different. I didn’t get the sugar hangover/headache/withdrawal symptoms that so many people do, possibly because sugar hasn’t been a part of my daily diet for some time. I already ate pretty healthy, so I wasn’t really expecting drastic results. I do feel better, though, and I think that people who don’t normally cook every meal and know their way around food labeling practices would really benefit from giving Whole30 a shot. Although, as this one blogger describes her Whole30 experience, the restrictive tone of the program can be off-putting to some.

Social scientist brain is encouraging me to note the effects of this eating plan on my social life. I’ve been in pretty serious hermit mode with the beginning of the semester, so I haven’t had much social life to speak of. The handful of times that I’ve been out at bars, I’ve been content sipping soda water with some lime squeezed in. I’ve baked desserts and bread for people and watched them eat it without feeling too left out (though I don’t think I’d want to continue that practice indefinitely… I miss being able to taste what I bake!). It’s been a bit of a struggle to make sure I’m cooking good meals for my household, as my partner likes a lot of the foods that I haven’t been eating… but I think we reached a manageable compromise. Anyway, it’s easy enough for me to throw together some orzo, butter, and parmesan as a side dish and then just not eat it.

I’ve gotten some… hm… less than supportive reactions from people around me, though. My eating has been called “strange” and someone has said that I look like I’ve “withered” away. People, I am dancing 6 days a week, doing yoga 2-3 days a week, and doing strength training 2-3 days a week (with some hula-hooping thrown in, too). I couldn’t do all this stuff if I was wasting away. With the exception of days where I literally have trouble putting enough calories in my mouth to sustain my level of activity, I’ve felt pretty energetic and good throughout most of my Whole30.

The accusation of eating “strange” food stings a bit, but oh well. If eating mostly plant matter and animal protein is strange, I shudder to think what passes for normal in this culture. And here we reach my food soapbox, with me sounding all prejudiced and judgey and stuff. I don’t like to come across like that, but I have some pretty strong beliefs about food and health, and most of them go in the exact opposite direction that mainstream American eating practices do (I know that there are a lot of identity issues here, such as class and ethnicity, that make it hard to get access to “healthy” foods, or that do not put high value on them in cultural context – so I don’t mean to sound as though all those people making “bad” food choices are ignorant or uneducated; I know there are a lot of social forces at work here, which I don’t have the space to address in a single blog post, so I’ll just note that they exist and move on).

And here’s where the personal and the social intertwine: I’ve noticed from my personal experiences that people don’t like being confronted with choices that are radically different than their own. This also tallies with my cultural studies, where difference is stigmatized and punished. When someone eats really, really healthy, it makes people who eat unhealthy feel self-conscious. I don’t view my dietary choices as being inherently judgey, but people tend to think that I’m judging them when I eat healthy and they don’t. This is related to the larger issues our culture has with food: we have a twisted relationship with food, where we have received so many conflicting messages with it that we don’t know whether it’s nourishment or consumer product, celebration or deprivation, something to be endured (especially if it’s healthy! oh the torture!) or something to be enjoyed. I’ll go Freudian for a moment and toss out the thought that there’s a lot of projection going on here: people project their own insecurities about food (and, attendantly, body image) onto others, since they don’t have good ways of communicating about and coping with the conflicts about food in their own lives. Or not, I could be wrong about this… but if you’ve ever made a change for the healthier in your life and received a bunch of push-back from people who haven’t made the same commitment to being healthy, you’ll know what I mean.

(on the note of push-back, my friend Adam just posted a link to this great post about feeling like an outsider due to the desire to eat healthy… yep!)

I’m going to wrap this up, and discuss weight and body image in a subsequent post. So I’ll go ahead and publish this now, on the morning of Day 30 of my Whole30, and return after I’ve weighed myself and thought about that a bit.

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Before I launch into this post, I’m going to publicly proclaim my intent to write at least 2 blog posts per month. Hopefully this will motivate me to follow through on that intention. I manage to find a little time to relax here and there, so in theory I could make the time to do it. And goodness knows I’ve got plenty of thoughts rattling around in my head that could be transformed into blog posts. So there’s that.

In the rest of this post, I’d like to discuss a distinction between being and doing that I’ve noticed, in terms of self-esteem but other things too. A post by Samantha at Not Your Mother’s Playground caught my attention and helped me articulate some of these thoughts.

Titled On Being Amazing, the post discusses why it’s tough to hear “But… you’re amazing!” in difficult times. In particular, this passage really resonated with me:

I’ve noticed that in times of despair people will often reach out to me, offering their words of comfort. These internet hugs are lovely and certainly appreciated – at least for the intentions behind them, but they can also fall flat when presented like this:

“Don’t feel sad. You’re amaaaaazing!”

I have learned how to take a compliment over the years. If you think that I have done something to warrant being told I’m amazing or awesome or insert compliment here, I will certainly take it. I will blush and I will be genuinely grateful. However when it’s used as a blanket response to “I’m sad or angry”, it’s a lot harder to digest.

I agree that this sort of statement can sometimes  feel dismissive, as though by accomplishing all this amazing stuff I somehow shouldn’t get bogged down by anxiety or depression, or I should be smart enough to think my way out of it, or something. This comes dangerously close to the “but why can’t you just choose to be happy” advice given to people dealing with mental health issues that, while often well-intentioned, is dangerous and thoroughly misunderstands what it’s like to deal with mental illness (see this fantastic blog post by Naamah_Darling for a deconstruction of this rhetoric).

I also think that this tendency to conflate being and doing (you’ve done amazing things so you are an amazing person) can be dangerous for another reason: it makes the parts of one’s identity blend together in a potentially judgmental way. For a long rant on the ways we in Western culture tend to conflate various aspects of people’s identities – especially when they pertain to sex – see my post on the adjacency effect over at MySexProfessor.com (basically, the laws of sympathetic magic plus stigma and pollution, condensed and written about in non-academese with sexuality as the primary topic). People who engage in certain acts are thought to be a certain kind of person, and those sorts of judgments often lead to hostility, stereotyping, and violence.

For these reasons, I think it’s important to uncouple the being and doing parts of people’s identities, even while recognizing that there are some links, but those links need to be put into context. I’m a firm believer in actions speaking louder than words, for example; so if someone says they’re my friend, they’d better be there when I need them (and I’ll do the same). I always try to make sure my actions are consistent with my values. Stuff like that.

Otherwise, let’s think very carefully about how we conflate being and doing when it comes to personhood. I’d love to hear about more examples of this phenomenon if people want to leave a comment!

Photo by Jane Bradley

Performance at Bloomington Belly Dances 2011. Photo by Jane Bradley

On a rare night out, I went to a club with a couple of friends and enjoyed some time on the dance floor as well as off it. The music was largely EDM (electronic dance music, for those not familiar with the folkspeech of its fans) and dubstep, which is both fun and difficult to dance to, because of the interesting way that the rhythm and other sounds interact in the music.

As someone with over 14 years of dance experience, I can navigate a dance floor pretty competently, no matter what the genre of music is. But I got to thinking about how we dance when in uncertain situations, like with unexpected types of music or an unfamiliar environment (maybe when a stage is uneven) or other variables.

To me, it really comes down to form and intention. By “form” I mean posture, technique, and how exactly we choose to structure our movements. At the very least, I endeavor to have excellent posture when I dance, and also when I’m not dancing. I spend a lot of time with my laptop, so I try to make sure I’m not hunching too horribly during those hours. Posture conveys confidence, and good posture is the foundation of a solid dance technique that is both safe for you as a performer and more conducive to creating compelling experiences for the audience.

Since the only style of dance I’m teaching right now is American Tribal Style® Belly Dance, I think about posture a lot in those terms. Having the proper posture is what frees up your spine and hips  to undulate, lift, and drop. It’s really amazing what adjusting your posture can do for your dancing.

So, even when I have no idea what the hell is happening with the music I’m dancing to, I check in with my posture a lot to make sure my chest is lifted, my hips are tucked, and my arms are appropriately angled, strong, and elegant. In theory, good posture is itself a thing of beauty, and a dancer could simply stand in good posture for long moments and still hold the audience’s attention, having in that moment transformed herself into a statue-like thing of beauty.

Intention is the other part of the equation. Intention means moving when you mean to move, and being still when you mean to be still. It means directing your gaze in order to direct your audience’s gaze (it always amazes me how linked the two are!). It means giving each movement your full attention so that no motion is ever wasted or extraneous. It means sometimes being minimalist, and sometimes being a whirlwind of activity…but whatever you are doing, you’re doing it on purpose, with an intensity that comes from being in the moment.

When a dancer manages to incorporate both form and intention into a performance, it can be stunning. If a dance is simple in terms of form, but fully developed in terms of intention, I’m guaranteed to love it. Doing things the other way around is more of a gamble. This is one reason I’ve always felt lukewarm about belly dancers who learn the choreographies of others to perform; I feel like it’s harder to be as fully invested in intentionally dancing when the moves aren’t originally your own, and when you’re having to remember something that came from someone else. But this could also be a symptom of the fact that I really dislike memorizing things. And there are certainly a number of talented, beautiful, compelling dancers who perform the choreographies of others, so I don’t mean to disparage them here. This is more of a “this is what works for me as a dancer” post, and I’d be curious to hear the thoughts of others.

Of course, as a folklore scholar, I’m tempted to add more terms and themes to the discussion. For instance, I frequently tell my folklore students that we can identify a genre by looking at four elements: content, context, form, and function. So in an intellectual sense, I don’t think that form and intention alone are adequate to helping us understand what’s going on in a creative performance. But as a dancer, and as someone wanting to keep it simple for my dance students, I’m going to stick with form and intention for now.

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In my Introduction to Folklore class yesterday, we talked about food, leaving me, of course, super-hungry after class. I ate a delicious vegetarian dinner, belly danced for an hour, and then had some leftover homemade butternut-squash pie from Thanksgiving.

One of the main points we discussed in class was that food preferences are both individual and cultural. Certain flavor combinations are found only in specific regions or among certain groups, and those flavors are often considered “normal” – until you run into what another culture thinks is tasty, and you’re usually in for a shock (case in point: Estonians put pickles and ketchup on their pizza; I’m normally pretty open-minded about food, but I was both disgusted and offended by this practice).

Sometimes, no matter how you’re raised, there’s just no accounting for taste. One person’s comfort food is another person’s gag-inducer. Sometimes we try other cuisines and find them more palatable than what we were raised with, but other times people don’t bother to venture far from what they grew up eating.

Here, we begin to see the interconnections between food and value systems. People express their identities through the foods they both choose and refuse to eat. Whole families and ethnic groups declare their affiliation by what (and how, and when) they eat together. The allocation of food labor – which remains thoroughly gendered, even in this day and age – tells us still more about what people value, and how they express those values through their eating preferences.

I love food, and I love talking about food, so I really tried to reign myself in while in class, so that my students could reflect on their families’ Thanksgiving traditions. I was quite pleased when my students were able to verbalize which aspects of their family meals were traditional and which were variations or innovations. A surprising number of students recounted how That One Random Dish (Like Oyster Dressing) Become Traditional Because An Elderly Male Relative Likes It Even Though He’s The Only One (again, I’m seeing gendered patterns; is it any surprise that eccentric whims are tolerated when people in positions of authority demand to have their way even if no one else likes what they want?).

I didn’t talk much about food and religion with my class, in part because it’s not my specific area of study, and I didn’t really prepare a lot of material on that topic since we had plenty to discuss anyway. Besides, I figured that they’d just had Thanksgiving, so those food traditions would be fresh in their minds.

But it turns out that despite the fact that I don’t identify as religious, religion has influenced my food preferences in one major way: I don’t really like pork.

Yes, read that sentence again: I don’t really like pork. And I can’t pinpoint any logical reason why. Except for religion. Even though I’m not religious.

Bear with me for a moment (or, ya know, a paragraph or three). My mom’s side of the family is Jewish. Not really in the religious sense, but more in the cultural sense: we celebrate the main Jewish holidays by getting together with our family and preparing the appropriate foods, but we don’t go to temple or pray much. It’s more about the communal and family aspects of the religion.

My family is also composed of serious foodies. So we never bothered keeping kosher, in part because there were just too many tasty things out there to eat. My mom and dad each traveled through Europe in their college years, and so they would eat whatever was available to them. I ended up doing the same thing, because while I feel strongly that treating animals ethically is important, it’s also important to me to be a gracious guest at dinners, to be able to try new things while traveling, and to have an easy way to get enough protein and iron and other nutrients because I live a very active lifestyle. So while I’ve dabbled in vegetarianism in the past, and I still cook many delicious meals with minimal or no meat, I consider myself an omnivore these days.

So, religion enters the equation because while we ate plenty of shellfish and other non-kosher foods, pork didn’t cross the dinner table too often. This was also a matter of personal preference, as both of my parents find that pork can easily dry out, even in the hands of an experienced cook. So it just wasn’t something we ate very often. It became a habit to substitute other meats, and this even extended to (dare I utter the holy word?) bacon. Yes, BACON. I grew up eating turkey bacon. Most everyone who learns this about me pities me. I don’t think I had much in the way of real bacon til I was an adult, adrift in the world on my own.

Since leaving home, I’ve experimented with cooking with pork products, and I find that while I tend to enjoy bacon (duh) and other cured pork products like prosciutto and sausages (especially from Smoking Goose!), plain ol’ pork doesn’t do it for me. Loins, chops, you name it, I’ve tried it. Once in a blue moon I enjoy ribs or pork belly. But my poor partner (who’s from Texas if that tells you anything) keeps asking me to cook pork and I keep responding with things like, “I’ll think about it… ooh, look, wild-caught salmon is on sale!”

To the friends who have fed me pork in the past (especially my Philly friends, who fed me pork from a local pig that was raised sustainably!): don’t worry, I’m sure I enjoyed that meal (yes, especially that one). It’s just that I don’t seek out pork as a main course unless I’m in a very particular mood.

What I really mean to say in this long-winded excursion through my personal and family life is that our food preferences are acquired largely unconsciously, through means not of our own making. A religion that I do not identify with except in terms of cultural practices caused me to not be exposed to a certain food, which I do not really care for still today. The texture/taste preferences of my parents – who exposed me and my sister to a TON of food, both domestic and exotic – influenced my own feelings about how food should taste, look, feel, and smell. These factors, so far out of my control yet so essential in shaping my identity, have indelibly marked me, even as I, a fully-grown individual, can consciously make changes to and adapt to new environments.

This is what we study when we study food: the role of culture in molding individuals, who do their best to mold culture right back. Many of the forces shaping our lives are out of our control, if we’re even conscious enough of them to think of them in those terms. And yet, as the study of folklore shows constantly, individuals creatively draw upon cultural traditions as resources in the struggle for self-determination, self-expression, and even survival.

When I say that I don’t really care for pork, I’m making a statement about myself that is larger than myself. Analyzing food is an entry point to humanity through the lenses of the individual, the society, the family, religion, ethics, gender, social class, ethnicity, nationality, and much, much more. It’s kind of amazing that what we put into our mouths yields so much rich information.

And now I’m hungry again.

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I’m really concerned about education in America. For one thing, the education senate committee in Indiana is recommending that public schools teach creationism. I don’t know whether the motion will pass, but I cannot believe that religious topics are being discussed in a school system that’s still struggling to eradicate bullying and improve literacy rates. I have nothing against people wanting to teach their own creation myths but not in the science classroom, please, and don’t waste time on debating this when basic needs go unmet.

In addition to the tension between religious and secular concerns, the problem, I think, is partly that the quality of American education varies drastically by region and economy, and partly that we focus on competitiveness and testing over promoting equality in the classroom.

This article on the Finnish school system addresses these concerns. Finnish schools have no standardized tests, and there are no private schools. Yet their schoolchildren have some of the top test scores in the world. The hypothesis is that in creating an equal education opportunity for everyone, and by allowing teachers to evaluate the needs of their students rather than conform to a national curriculum meant to produce high test scores, Finland’s children are made to feel comfortable and cooperative in their classroom endeavors, which leads to better learning.

All Finnish schools must be safe and healthy environments: “Finland offers all pupils free school meals, easy access to health care, psychological counseling, and individualized student guidance.” Can you imagine what that would be like in America? If kids who were somehow different (shy or nerdy or LGBT or whatever) didn’t live in constant fear? If the kids who weren’t different didn’t feel the social pressures to bully? If kids could focus on their schoolwork because they were adequately fed?

I don’t know if I see Americans coming round to this viewpoint anytime soon, especially since it seems like we’d rather invest our money in other things. But I think that our policy of devaluing education will make things much worse both in our country and in our interactions with others. Having an poorly educated population (or a population with drastic discrepancies in education) in a democratic nation is a terrible idea – and it also means that we’re not well-equipped to compete with the scholars and inventors of other nations. Or, you know, just have intelligent conversations with people from other cultures. Because let’s not forget that America is multicultural, and if we’re not giving our children the education to maneuver in our own society, we’re doing them a great disservice.

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