A small local group of parents, community members, and educators recently invited me to give a presentation on my racial journey. This is what I prepared.
Waking Up To Whiteness: My Journey Into Race
How’s the Water?
“There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys, how’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’” –David Foster Wallace
For those of living in North America, the water surrounding us is made up of racism, structural inequality, and white supremacy. Although these currents affect different people in different ways, they affect everyone. Tonight, I’m going to speak on my journey to recognize the water around me. Before I start, I would like to thank you all for letting me tell my story tonight. My racial journey is unremarkable, but I hope it will resonate with white folks in the room who are looking to get into this work themselves.
An Unremarkable Upbringing of Privilege
I’ve benefited from my family’s status as white since birth. Both of my parents hold advanced degrees and were able to use their comfortable salaries to keep me fed, clothed, and educated. I’ve never had to worry about where my next meal would come from or whether or not I’d be able to afford college. This isn’t to say that everything was always perfect. Like so many others, my family has struggled with depression, substance abuse, and trauma. But unlike others, our whiteness and privilege helped guarantee us access to quality medical care, financial assistance, and whatever else we needed to keep the scales tipped in our favor.
Like the majority of my friends, I grew up in a primarily white neighborhood. The teachers and students at the schools I attended were also predominantly white. This never bothered me, as the inability to understand segregation as a loss is a hallmark of whiteness. The fact that I could live a purely white existence without ever thinking about what was missing speaks to the profound anti-blackness that flourishes in America.
Politically, my upbringing reflected a slightly more progressive brand of suburban liberalism. My parents openly supported democratic candidates, believed in a woman’s right to choose, and disagreed with the wars in the Middle East. They supported affirmative action and interracial relationships. I can’t ever remember my family having extended conversations about race, oppression, or inequality. I do remember that my parents regularly hired an African American man named James to help out with yard work. My father told me that James struggled to get a consistent job because he wasn’t able to drive. When I asked why he couldn’t drive, my dad told me that James had been unfairly targeted by unjust laws. The fact that I remember the conversation nearly thirty years later speaks to the impact it had on me.
Race was almost never mentioned during my childhood. If you had asked me about racism, I probably would have answered that it was bad but not a problem where I lived. I was already being socialized into a post-Civil Rights culture where racism meant saying the “n” word. My friends and I never did that (at least not in public), so how could we be racist? I wouldn’t have been able to talk about my racial identity because I didn’t think I had one. Race was something Black people had. White was the universal norm.
Early Memories of Race
Race didn’t pop up on my radar until I started sixth grade. All throughout elementary school, Jeremiah was one of my friends. Jeremiah was African American. He, three other boys, and I were inseparable at school. We cracked jokes together, looked up dirty words in the dictionary, etc. We were excited to enter middle school together. But after the first week of 6th grade, I realized that Jeremiah wasn’t hanging out with us anymore. He had been spending his time with a group of African American kids. I remember being a little upset, but the segregation felt natural. 5th grade ended up being the last time the two of us ever spoke.
After Jeremiah, the OJ Simpson trial is my next memory of race. The verdict was announced during my 7th grade English class. Every teacher in the school had turned on their televisions to hear the verdict. When the jury announced the decision, African American kids and teachers burst out of the classrooms and celebrated in the hallway. I remember looking on with irritation and a weird sense of smugness. Reflecting back on it now, I had already internalized the us/them, white/Black binaries that are essential to how Americans think about race. This was their victory and their celebration.
In high school my friends and I would drive around Arlington. Our late night wandering would often take us through Hall’s Hill, an historical enclave settled by newly freed slaves. Everyone I knew referred to Hall’s Hill as “the rat raps.” This is obviously disgusting. It equates people of color with vermin that need to be exterminated. We also frequently referred to each other as “diorgen”s, which is negroid spelled backwards. During college and grad school, I took classes on race, class, and gender. I studied categories of difference, colonialism, and patriarchy. But I was never asked to confront my whiteness. Privilege and oppression remained abstract concepts to study in the classroom, not to apply to my own life.
The Era of Safety Pin Box
I’ve always considered myself a “progressive.” Up until this year that meant denouncing individual acts of racism, vocally supporting affirmative action, and being aware of chattel slavery’s legacy. I hung my head for Michael Brown and the other people of color regularly murdered by police. But it all felt far away. Black death and racism were background static I could keep on mute.
And then the 2016 Presidential election began. News outlets started reporting increases in hate crimes against Muslims and other minoritized groups. The cultural climate shifted. In response, white folks started wearing safety pins as a sign of allyship. The initiative was started by white women and immediately co-opted through Etsy and other online boutiques. I even wore a safety pin to work one day. And then I saw a few posts on social media about something called Safety Pin Box. The posts all carried an infographic comparing wearing a safety pin with subscribing to SPB. It’s a monthly subscription service for white folks who want to do something about oppression. The money you spend goes directly to Black women. Every month the SPB team (all Black women) sends out tasks for the subscribers. Last month we researched the intersections of reproductive justice and the African American community.
Emboldened by my experiences with SPB, I decided to dip my toe into the waters of social justice. So in March I approached a colleague about designing and implementing a unit on identity and race for my 7th grade English classes. He helped me gather resources and agreed to lead the class through some activities. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I felt that I had to do something. The fact that reading a few articles was all I needed to feel comfortable teaching a unit on such complex and divisive topics speaks to my sense of privilege. I just assumed I could do it and that it would go well. At the end of the year, students told me how much they had enjoyed the last unit. I went into summer feeling like a bonafide social justice warrior.
And then the alt-right marched in Charlottesville. I watched the continuous loop of angry white men with torches in a state of shock. How could this happen in 2017? I kept asking myself. I turned to Facebook to voice my outrage. Luckily, Safety Pin Box members were there to call me out. Where was I for Trayvon Martin? Tamir Rice? Michael Brown? And where would I be in another two weeks when the news cycle moved on to something else? For some reason, it all started to click. I was determined to make Charlottesville the moment when I reoriented my life towards racial justice. And nothing has been the same ever since.
You Must Be Fun at Parties
After Charlottesville, I began investigating my whiteness. This meant, and continues to mean, exploring the innumerable ways in which white privilege affects my life. For someone like me who tops nearly every social category, privilege informs everything I do. And as whiteness scholars have explained, those with the most privilege know the least. This is because whiteness is the norm, the default by which all other bodies and perspectives are measured against. Because of my white privilege, I’ve never had to grapple with issues of race. I don’t have to learn how to navigate spaces because every space I inhabit has been shaped by people like me for people like me.
White folks struggle to have informed discussions about race because we’ve never had to. For the most part, we live, work, and enter into relationships with other white people. We feel entitled to extreme racial comfort at all times. White folks’ inability to handle racial discomfort is termed white fragility. We have been able to completely insulate ourselves from race-based stress. As a result, whenever race comes up, we become frustrated, upset, confused. When pressed, we can become outright incoherent, stammering, stumbling over our words and speaking in circles. In an attempt to combat this, I try to dedicate time every week to study race, whiteness, and critical race theory. Like with most topics, the more I learn, the more I understand just how little I know.
My journey has come with a fair amount of personal, professional, and familial stress. Waking up to whiteness means finding myself at odds with almost everything around me. School curriculum, the police, generational wealth, who lives where, who is in power. It means forcing myself to see white supremacy in everything. I’ve strained my closest friendships. My friends on social media have turned away from me, no longer engaging with or commenting on anything I post. I don’t blame them. I’ve bugged them to pay reparations, to get behind Black women, and to denounce white supremacy. I’ve even slipped photocopies of essays about racism and white privilege underneath the doors of white people I know who live in my building. If I don’t do these things, then I feel the narcotizing sleep of white supremacy creep back in.
For a long time I believed that I had the choice to either perpetuate white supremacy or fight it. Racism doesn’t function at the level of the individual, however; it’s structural. This means that as a white person I have essentially no choice but to perpetuate racism and white supremacy. This can be tough to swallow. So many of us have grown up thinking that we’re not racist. That as long as we keep the “n” word out of our speech and value diversity, we’re in the clear. But now I know that’s not the case. There is almost no way I can detach myself from systems of racial dominance.
But I can educate myself. I’ve learned about the origins of whiteness in colonialism. How our founding fathers used pseudo-science to claim African Americans were biologically inferior in order to reconcile the reality of slavery with the rhetoric of equality. I know that Bacon’s Rebellion drove colonial elites to grant special privileges and status to poor whites, creating America’s first racial caste system. And perhaps most importantly, I now understand that race isn’t an identity; it’s a status conferred upon you by society. Whiteness is property, it’s citizenship, it’s a way to maintain privilege for some at the expense of others. It is a destructive and toxic club that must be abolished.
Life is a work in progress, and this is where I am now. Learning about whiteness so I can denounce it. Learning from and following Black women/femme in the pursuit of liberation. Constantly making mistakes, having my white feelings hurt, and then coming back for more. Thank you.
For the last few years, I’ve been one of those “I just close my door and teach what I want” teachers. I’ve outright rejected the pedagogical norms of my school to pursue my own path. I’ve refused to create common assessments. My hermitude became a badge of honor. I saw myself as an outsider fighting the good fight.
It wasn’t until I began working on an essay with Julie Gorlewski that I realized the fundamental error in my thinking. The essay explored the dual roles of teachers: we are both and always agents of the state and agents of change. Closing my classroom door to the world granted me autonomy, but it alienated me and hampered my ability to work with others. I had turned my back on my colleagues and on my community.
So when this school year started, I decided to try and work within the system. This has meant a slew of changes. Some of the switches were small. For instance, I now begin every class by leading students through an “I can” learning outcome. Although I agree with Joe Bower and Jesse Stommel that fixed outcomes cut off authentic inquiry, my administration expects them. Other shifts have been more dramatic. For the first time in years, I’m now teaching what I’m officially supposed to be teaching. I even signed up to be part of a curriculum writing team. What better way to have the social justice and anti-racist curriculum I craved?
The process has not progressed as I thought it would. Faced with more academic standards than could possibly be taught with any level of depth, I’ve struggled with making social justice a priority. Our next unit is 3-4 weeks long. In it we’re supposed to teach students to use context clues; identify prefixes, suffixes, and roots; distinguish between fact and opinion; analyze persuasive techniques in media; identify organizational patterns; make inferences and draw conclusions; identify the main idea; and use text features to skim a text. This is on top of the general English Language Arts stuff of developing a love of literacy and reading and writing authentically.
It’s certainly possible to pursue these outcomes in a way that helps students read both the word and the world, but it takes a committed effort. It has to be the thing, not something extra. Butting heads with my colleagues has given me ample opportunity to reflect on Robin DiAngelo and Ozlem Sensoy’s reminder that “Because dominant institutions in society are positioned as being neutral, challenging social injustice within them seems to be an extra task in addition to our actual tasks” (141).
Making the cognitive and perceptual leap from “we have to cover these standards” to “who benefits from these standards, who loses out, and how can we prepare for democratic citizenry?” is as difficult as it is essential. But until everyone in the room acknowledges the inherently political nature of teaching and learning, ‘finding room’ for social justice and anti-racism is all but impossible.
The way we discuss and envision critical thinking and democracy must also change. In my experience, schools tend to define critical thinking as the process of identifying problems and inventing solutions. This frames students as capitalists and problem solving as opportunities for entrepreneurship. In a social justice context however, critical thinking refers to “a specific scholarly approach that explores the historical, cultural, and ideological lines of authority that underlie social conditions” (1).
And when it comes to democracy, mainstream education casts schools as instruments to educate for democracy. Schools produce democratic citizens by informing students about history, the importance of peaceful protest, and the power of voting. In contrast to this, Gert Biesta discusses education through democracy. A continuous process of learning to value and exist alongside those who are fundamentally not like us (120). Schools can support society in this work, but they cannot create, sustain, or save democracy. And what this would even look like in a public school classroom, I have no clue.
Back inside the classroom, I’ve had a much easier time implementing aspects of culturally responsive/culturally proactive teaching. My students use a variety of discussion and response protocols, combine their out-of-school interests with traditional academic skills, and build knowledge through collaboration and discussion. But most of this gets at the how, leaving the what largely intact. And the what is what I’m interested in changing.
I don’t know how to reorient my classroom around social justice and anti-racist pedagogy, yet. For now, I’ll continue teaching the official units, working with the curriculum team, and looking for ways to exist in that interstitial zone between thesis and antithesis, as an agent of the state and an agent of change.
Dominant groups have the most narrow or limited view of society because they do not have to understand the experiences of the minoritized group in order to survive; because they control the institutions, they have the means to legitimize their view. (DiAngelo and Sensoy, 48).
White supremacy is blinding. It obfuscates our perception of the world, distorting some truths while burying others. The funds of knowledge I’ve attained over thirty-six years represent only a tiny sliver of what’s out there. Only now am I coming to grips with just how little I know.
I’ve always associated myself with perfectionism. I’ve written about it, read countless self-help books on the topic, and attended out-patient support groups for it. As a result, I’ve bought into the standard explanation that perfectionism stems from an unbalanced combination of nature, nurture, and external factors. I attacked it with therapy and medication. I took my failure to “get rid of it” as just more evidence that I had it. And then I came across White Supremacy Culture by activist, educator, and author Tema Okun
In the article, Okun discusses the various ways white supremacy influences individual personality traits by favoring certain ways of thinking, knowing, and being in the world. The article explores fifteen personality traits including perfectionism, a sense of urgency, defensiveness, quantity over quality, paternalism, individualism, and objectivity.
Okun explains that these characteristics are damaging because “they are used as norms and standards without being proactively named or chosen by the group.” She explains how these norms and unexamined traits damage everyone. Certain traits on the list such as individualism, fear of open conflict, and objectivity have all made appearances in various books and essays I’ve read. But I’ve never seen anything that positions perfectionism as an outgrowth of white supremacy culture.
Perfectionism is only one example of my recent unlearning. Every few days seems to bring some new revelation that causes me to reread the world. Consider the recent shooting in Las Vegas. In the past, I’ve responded to similar white-on-white terrorism by calling for stronger gun reform and excoriating the gun lobbies. And then I read this Twitter thread from @Queersocialism. That led me to look into the relationship between the Black Panther Party and modern gun laws. I’ve existed on this planet for three decades without being exposed to this perspective on gun violence and gun control.
My understanding of reproductive rights is another example of how white supremacy breeds ignorance. Growing up in a staunchly pro-choice household, I’ve always considered myself to be informed on the topic of abortion. And then I began researching reproductive justice and Black women for this month’s Safety Pin Box assignments. What I’ve learned about eugenics, the history of violence against pregnant Black women, and women of color’s contribution to family planning does more than offer “another side” to consider. It demolishes everything I took to be true about how the world works. It forces me to see what I’ve been allowed to ignore.
Turning back to perfectionism, when I posted the article on social media, a number of my white colleagues voiced their disagreement. They said that the traits discussed in the article are just that, individual traits. Aspects of someone’s personality uncoupled from larger social and historical factors. Where the article saw ideology, they saw a sort of agnostic and deracinated individualism.
Understanding perfectionism as a component of white supremacy asks many of us to take a theoretical leap of faith. We can’t connect the dots until we’re willing to reconsider everything about the way we’ve been socialized to see the world. For many of us, we’ve come to understand white supremacy as something that happens when bad white people do things like march with torches on Charlottesville. But this limited understanding of white supremacy as local and individual acts of explicit racism misses the point. It lives everywhere and it informs everything. A metanarrative of systematic oppression that’s been able to render itself all but invisible to so many of us white folks.
In Darren Aronofsky’s 1998 film Pi, a tortured mathematician struggles to reconcile genius, the divine, and numbers. Towards the end of the film he comments that “If we’re built from spirals, while living in a giant spiral, then everything we put our hands to is infused with the spiral.” This strikes me as an apt description of white supremacy culture. We were born into it. We live within it. And without relentless and careful introspection, everything we do perpetuates it.
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The skittering hi-hat from Cardi B’s Bodak Yellow slunk through the classroom. Students bobbed their heads as they composed poems and personal narratives about their names. Period 1’s Class DJ surveyed the class with a smile and returned to his seat, leaving his phone plugged into the class speakers for the duration of independent writing time.
Before this year, classroom jobs remained off of my radar. They never interested me. For one, I struggle to delegate work and I have a severe perfectionist streak. I also assumed middle school students would turn up their noses at the quotidian ins and outs of daily classroom life.
I was wrong. The more I’m leaning back, the more they’re leaning in.
So this year, kids in my classroom will be:
- Griots: Taking pictures of what we do in class and posting them on our class social media accounts
- DJs: Creating playlists of instrumental versions of popular songs that they’ll play during independent work
- Teacher’s Assistants (TAs): Running any errands, distributing and collecting materials, and dismissing groups based on cleanliness when the bell rings
- Book-Keepers: Keeping our classroom library organized, helping suggest books, picking books for book talks
- Time-Keepers: Watching the clock every time we have timed tasks (which for the most part happens multiple times per class)
- Class Advisory Board members: Meeting with me every Wednesday during lunch to give me feedback on my teaching. What lessons are working, what aren’t, and how I can improve.
The first step involved asking the students to figure out what skills each job needed and how each job would benefit the class. I created a one-page description for each job, placed the sheet on a large sheet of butcher paper, and then hung the butcher paper around the room. In groups of 3, students rotated through each job station, spending two minutes jotting down answers on the charts. The idea was to help students think through the ramifications of each class job before applying. Here are the one-pagers I created. Forgive me the old memes.
Afterwards, interested students completed a simple Google Form application. They chose the jobs they were interested in and explained why they would be a good fit. At the end of the day I went through and selected students of color who expressed interest. The next day I wrote out “acceptance” letters in fancy font, printed them out on quality cardstock, and signed them with a flourish. In every class I revealed the acceptance letters with as much fanfare as possible.
It’s been a week since I passed out the letters. Certain jobs like the book-keepers and TAs were able to start immediately. The griots and DJs, however, have required slightly more attention. Class DJs had to figure out how they would pick songs, if they wanted to take requests, how often they would change their playlists, etc. Griots had to create social media accounts, figure out how to advertise them, determine what they would take pictures of and, as one student kept reminding the group, “find the right aesthetic.” As a result, these two jobs have yet to begin.
The decision to go all in with classroom jobs stemmed from Christopher Emdin’s essential For White Folks Who Teach In The Hood. Emdin devotes an entire chapter to discussing the intersections of student responsibility, classroom culture, and equity. He describes classroom jobs as a way to create “…a space where each student is a full citizen responsible for how well the class meets the collective academic, social, and emotional goals” (107). For Emdin, jobs are part of an approach to pedagogy centered on “fostering socioemotional connections in the classroom with the goal of building students’ sense of responsibility to each other and to the learning environment” (105).
In a few weeks, I’ll gather together every student with a job so we can reflect. What needs to be changed? What jobs should be added/removed?
I’m beginning to see how successfully implementing classroom jobs can shift the culture of a classroom. It’s not easy, and I’m finding that I need to spend more time helping students understand that their jobs are about sharing responsibility, not lording power over one another. I’m confident that as the year progresses, and as I become more skilled at working with students in this new way, we can shift the balance of power and co-construct the community we need.
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“Just as language makes some ways of saying and doing possible, it makes other ways of saying and doing difficult and sometimes even impossible.” (Gert Biesta, 14)
When it comes to education, language matters. The words we use to discuss education frame how teachers understand and approach their work inside the classroom. As teachers, our linguistic practices speak certain relationships into existence. Discussing children as “at risk” and “in need of remediation” creates a relationship built upon deficit ideology (there’s a problem with you), meritocracy (because you just aren’t working hard enough), and authoritarianism (Luckily, I’m here to fix you).
A basic example of this is education’s discursive shift from a language of teaching to a language of learning (Biesta). Every professional development I’ve attended in the last few years speaks in this modern language: student-centered learning, teacher as facilitator, students as consumers in control of their learning, and personalization are all examples of the language of learning.
This summer’s professional development was no different. I shuffled between schools and sat in various rooms while consultants and administrators told me what to focus on for the upcoming school year. Regardless of the content of the presentation, the speakers always circled back to phrases such as “what’s best for our kids.” I learned about the latest software acquisitions, the retooled curriculum, and various policy changes. Everything to “meet the needs of today’s learners.”
After Charlottesville, I was hoping to hear how my affluent and nationally ranked district was planning on tackling racism and white supremacy. Unfortunately, these topics were only mentioned during an optional break-out session. The session took place during our single day of county-wide training. Teachers had the opportunity to choose between sessions on race, gifted services, or the county’s new standardized test. The 45 minute session was the only time I heard mention of Charlottesville, white supremacy, privilege, or racism throughout the seven days of professional development my district mandates before the new school year begins.
I split the rest of my time working on my classroom and listening to outside consultants talk about differentiation and assessment. The presenters were all wonderful, and I walked away from every session with new ideas. The topics are worthwhile for sure, and teachers need to be knowledgeable about how to work with a variety of students. The problem isn’t with what was included; it’s with what was left out.
We didn’t talk about race, class, gender, or any social category. We didn’t talk about the opportunity gap or how disparities in discipline cause children of color miss to miss more instructional time than their white counterparts. There was no talk of stereotype threat, implicit bias, or the various ways white teachers like myself continue to perpetuate white supremacy on a daily basis. We talked about data without interrogating the systematic racism and unnamed white, middle class norms propping it up. We nodded along to talking points about the need for democratic citizenry without exploring what that actually means. We spoke of critical thinking without engaging in it ourselves.
Ijeoma Oluo writes that “Everything short of racial justice is white supremacy. Everything.” With this as my guide, everything I experienced in my in-service training served the interests of white supremacy. To me, racial justice education must go beyond exposing children to multicultural texts and telling teachers to have “tough talks.” Again, these things are important. But unless they’re hitched to an antiracist curriculum that de-centers whiteness and equips children with the skills to analyze society in order to change it, it’s not enough.
Speaking about “what’s best for all learners” allows us to stop short of taking those steps into direct antiracist education. We need teachers, administrators, and schools who are willing and ready to name white supremacy and attack it with an unwavering focus. I wasn’t one of those teachers. I didn’t speak up once throughout the training. I was afraid of being judged and becoming “that guy.” What privilege it is to be able to place my own racial comfort above doing my job as an educator and speaking out against racism. I’d say something about ‘how it won’t happen again,’ but it will because that’s how privilege works.
So with this post, I check myself and begin again.
Image credit: Kimberly Farmer
This is a scary blog post to write. I’ve been writing about race for a couple of months now, and every time I do, my body revolts. My eyes blink uncontrollably; my hands tremble; my heart feels like it’s trying to crack open my rib cage and escape. The fear of exposing my racism hijacks my rationality and rides roughshod over my nervous system.
At the same time as I’m coming unglued, I feel a desire to be recognized and congratulated for my posts. My brain serves up images of me leading other white folks out of racial ignorance and into some sort of enlightened state. I look desperately for signs of affirmation from people of color that I’m “doing the work.” My need for approval is itself a manifestation of white supremacy. I want to be recognized, to be praised as an example of what it means to be an anti-racist white guy. No matter how hard I try to ferret out these impulses, they always return. Often within the same second.
Right now, this is the best that I can do. No matter how many times I rewrite these sentences, there’s no way to out-write the orbit of my own ignorance. I’m not disparaging myself, just trying to work through what happens inside of me when I try to talk about race. It will take more than reading a few books and and writing a few blog posts for me to come to terms with hundreds of years of white supremacy. It’s likely that I’ll never be able to understand my participation in systematic oppression and dominance. That’s the power of ideology. My whiteness isn’t like an article of clothing I can decide whether or not to wear. I exist through my whiteness.
I was one of those white people who was shocked by Charlottesville. My ability to be shocked by bigotry comes from living and participating within a culture of white supremacy. When I say white supremacy, I’m not referring to hooded Klansmen or racist family members, but the social institutions (politics, medicine, education, law, etc.) that work in tandem to grant white people material benefits by subordinating people of color.
After Charlottesville, I started speaking up on social media about issues of race and white privilege. I posted graphics of white supremacy, shared anti-racist classroom resources, and spoke up about the importance of white people putting in work. A few white men reported my posts to Facebook for being “racist against whites.”
White folks also began popping up on my social media threads to call me out for “sermonizing” and “causing divisions.” At first, I was surprised. Why would something so simple as a self-explanatory image or a post about racism draw such ire? And then I remembered: white fragility.
The men commenting on my posts and reporting me provided textbook examples of how whites struggle to comprehend and discuss race with any level of complexity and nuance. White folks also lack the stamina necessary for serious discussions around race. I’m no different. Working on this post has hollowed me out. Sustaining the mental energy required to write this post has left me gasping for air.
I’m able to call out fragility in these men because I recognize it in myself. For instance, a few days ago I read “White People Have No Place in Black Liberation,” a phenomenal essay exploring the inextricable link between Whiteness and oppression. (Support the author and the publication here) The essay is painful to read because it feels like a personal attack. The essay’s conclusion, “…our focus is always on Black folks figuring out new and better ways to get free—independent of white people and capitalism and the entirety of western empires,” triggers an existential howl from the depths of my whiteness. What about me? Can’t I help? People of color need me! I’m useful! That author sounds mean.
My brain is literally and figuratively unable to think about what it means to de-center myself. It’s like trying to speak a language I haven’t learned yet. So I sit with my feelings and monitor my reactions and defensive posturing. I don’t feel bad about feeling bad, and this isn’t a pity-post. The experiences I’ve described here represent absolutely nothing compared to what people of color must experience on social media on a daily basis, much less “in real life.” As Robin DiAngelo notes, my Whiteness “affords me a level of racial relaxation and emotional and intellectual space that people of color are not afforded as they navigate mainstream society” (177-178). I must do better and I will do better.
I recently watched a video of minister, author, and teacher Reverend Dr. Raymont Anderson discuss pain, spirituality, and healing. He mentioned how caterpillars transform into butterflies; they dissolve themselves in their own acid before rebuilding anew. Caterpillars use specialized diagram cells to regenerate their new wings, eyes, and antennae. The maps they need for their journey are contained within. But what happens if the directions I carry inside are faulty? How can I reinvent myself if I’m always going to the same place?
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Can empathy save the world?
Cindy O’Donnell-Allen, author of Tough Talk, Tough Texts: Teaching English to Change the World, argues that it can. Tough Talk explores how teachers can use tough texts to build empathy, challenge students academically and, like the subtitle suggests, change the world. O’Donnell-Allen’s book helps children enact democracy by teaching them to read challenging texts and engage in civil discourse in the classroom.
Tough Talk is a superb classroom resource. It combines critical literacy, discussion protocols, and contemporary research. O’Donnell-Allen highlights empathy as a crucial element to civil discourse inside and outside of the classroom. Empathy becomes a way for students “to view both the characters they read and the classmates with whom they interact more compassionately” (31). This post is not meant to disparage O’Donnell-Allen’s wonderful work but instead to grapple with empathy and think through what happens next.
Framing empathy as a potent force for social justice is not uncommon. Last year, my district embarked on cultural competency training designed to build empathy and improve ‘educational outcomes’ for students of color. Over the course of the year, facilitators from central office led us through various workshops. We responded to YouTube videos, participated in reading groups for classic social justice texts, and interrogated our subject positions as teachers. Who are we, where did we come from, and how do these formative experiences shape our daily interactions with students?
I do not wish to discount this work. Helping our students navigate and appreciate the plurality of life is a worthwhile goal. But is it enough? For the critical pedagogue, instructional methods and political power are intertwined. If we begin with Paulo Freire’s declaration that students must read the world and the word, then the social justice classroom should prepare students to analyze, critique, and ultimately challenge society’s vectors of oppression.
In my middle school English Language Arts class, students have analyzed the diversity of my classroom library. We used a diversity wheel to explore the various ways our identities intersect. A privilege walk helped students make concrete the effects of race, class, and gender on our lived experiences. But when it comes to resisting and overturning our white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, I’m not convinced that empathy is enough.
As students are becoming critical readers and thinkers, O’Donnell-Allen states that “they are also learning to view both the characters they read and the classmates with whom they interact more compassionately” (32). Then the best we can do as educators is to plan meaningful learning experiences, provide feedback, and create a space where this sort of vulnerable learning can occur. I’m reminded of education’s perennial debate over inputs, outputs, and the black box of the mind. Will the input of empathy lead to the output of liberation? Will tough talks and civil discourse create students who are ready to resist? We must be proactive. Our classrooms cannot start and stop with empathy.
Empathy does not require realignment of social relations. This is not to say that it cannot be a component of social transformation, but in our current context that conveniently confuses dialogues about diversity with material transformation, dialogue for empathy can all too easily become parking lots for emotionality and white fragility, recentering whiteness and irrationally requiring people of color to bear witness to these emotions. (83)
I have witnessed this emotionality among white students in my classes when we discussed issues of privilege and oppression. In fact, my previous blog post can be read as another indulgent display of white fragility. It’s too easy for me to think that such discussions are enough. That my only duty is help students analyze structures of domination in schooling and society.
As a white educator speaking to other white educators, it’s imperative that we guide our students beyond discussion. This coming year, my focus will be on the second part of praxis: action. Inside the classroom I must orient my pedagogy towards social justice work. Because as Patel explains, such talk “cannot be read as politically comprehensive or inherently facilitative of social change” (83). Talk and analysis must lead to student engagement with society. Otherwise,
we risk falling short of social justice’s ability to transform and liberate.