The park was packed. Babies giggled in their strollers as their caregivers guided them along the forest’s paths. Camp counselors roamed the perimeter of a playground, corralling loose children before it was time to go. Teenagers ran amok through the trees, roasting each other and enjoying the final weeks before school starts up again. I ambled through the park with Lola Bear, my yeti-like dog, enjoying the unseasonably temperate August weather.
All of a sudden, I flinched. Two Black teens had passed me on their bikes. My nervous system fired off a fight-or-flight response. The flash of fear receded immediately, but the aftershocks remained.
I monitored my thoughts and feelings as I continued walking on the path. The two boys had abandoned their bikes and were now playing on a swing-set. Everywhere around me was human activity, but my eyes kept pulling me towards the swing-set. Regardless of where I placed my attention, my brain kept a mental note on where those two teenagers were. On average, I had the desire to “check on them” once every four to five seconds (I counted).
This happens just about anytime I see someone with a significant proportion of melanin pigment in their skin. Even at my school, a building where children of color make up the majority of the student body, I still freeze up for a microsecond whenever I see children of color in the hallways. Students I’ve taught and formed relationships with, students who have let me into their hearts and vice versa, still engender that split second hesitation.
By the time I’ve caught and named what’s going on inside my brain, it’s too late to stop it. Under White supremacy, my fear response makes sense. In Racist America: Roots, Current Realities, and Reparations, Joe Feagin writes that ideological racism includes positive images of Whites as well as strongly negative images of racial “others” (142). My brain is working off of thirty-five years of racist stereotypes and media representations. This is socialization in America.
I am the beneficiary of white privilege and of a racist society. It doesn’t matter if I believe it. All that matters now is what I can do to interrupt it. Robin DiAngelo writes that Whites have two interwoven tasks:
“One is to work on our own internalized oppression – the ways in which we impose limitations on ourselves based on the societal messages we receive about the inferiority of the lower status groups we belong to. The other task is to face the internalized dominance that results from being socialized in a racist society – the ways in which we consciously or unconsciously believe that we are more intelligent, more valuable, and more deserving than people of color.” (p. 53).
As a cisgender heterosexual White male from an upper-middle class family, I have zero internalized limitations. The only marginalized social category I belong to involves neurodivergence; I have pretty intense ADHD. But I haven’t experienced oppression from it because I’m at the top of every other social category. My race, class, gender, etc. ensure that I suffer few penalties for my struggles to focus and filter information. I can make mistakes without worrying that my carelessness will be ascribed to my race or my gender or my ability.
DiAngelo’s second task, to examine my internalized dominance, is where this and my last two blog posts sit. I’m working to unearth the fear that gnaws at my nerves anytime race comes up. The defensiveness I feel when anyone puts me on the spot about my privilege. The existential unease that rockets through my body when I see Black males.
If you’re interested in starting this work but unsure of where to start, here’s what I’m doing for my first steps. I’m donating to organizations like Safety Pin Box. I’m reaching out to the people of color in my life and making moves to build and sustain relationships with them. I’m attending movies made by people of color. I’m compiling antiracist resources for my classroom. I’m speaking out on social media and engaging with White folks who seem confused and upset. I’m doing everything I can to educate myself. Every day provides a new opportunity to take some form of antiracist action. Stomach the discomfort, work through the confusion, and let’s do something.
Image credit: Yuriy Khimanin
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.