I won’t be writing any blog posts for a little while. I’m currently eyeballs deep in educating myself about critical race theory, oppression, education, and the fight for liberation. Until my brain tells me it’s ready, I’ll be keeping my reading, writing, listening, and speaking out of the public sphere. Thanks for keeping up with my posts; I’ll be back.
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.
-Image credit: CC0
“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?
Image Credit: CC0
The Writing Project rules. It has influenced every aspect of my pedagogy. Every summer for the last four years I’ve been fortunate, lucky, and privileged to be able to spend time with my local affiliate’s Invitational Summer Institute. The ISI is a four week celebration of writing. Teachers spend time giving demonstration lessons, participating in writing groups, and learning the ins and outs of composition.
A colleague of mine recently asked about using This I Believe podcasts in class. Remembering that a teacher gave a demo lesson this last year, I shot him the link. I decided to collect some of the demo lesson write-ups on one page. Hopefully these resources might be of value to teachers!
Bonus! Want to Upgrade Your Theory Game? Check Out These Posts on Composition Pedagogy Theory
I called a kid racist today. Or, more specifically, I called a comment he made racist. My 7th grade class was making observations about an image I had projected onto the board. We were using similes and metaphors to describe images when he made the comment.
“Yea, whatever that stuff on the street is, it looks crusty. You know, like Imani’s weave.”
My mind ground to a halt. Nineteen pairs of eyes swiveled towards me, fixing me to the spot. A space of panic opened up inside of me. It was the neural equivalent of a DDoS attack. My brain flooded itself with demands for information. What just happened? How should I react? Was the kid being racist? How close is he with Imani? How is Imani reacting? How is the class reacting?
The classic “oohhHHHH!” that typically follows classroom roasting was conspicuously absent. Maybe kids sensed the existential unease their teacher was suddenly radiating. Maybe they recognized that the Rick had gone too far. Or, since it was the beginning of first period, maybe they were just too tired to get worked up. But whatever the reason for the silence, I was thankful. I needed those precious seconds of to try and work through my response.
Earlier that month I had been reading about the various repugnant ways that white society critiqued and attempted to control Black female bodies. With that fresh in my mind, I made the decision to publicly censure the boy. I took a deep breath into my lungs and steeled my diaphragm in order to try and keep my voice steady.
“Rick, that comment was racist and disrespectful to Imani. There is a history of white men making disparaging and racist remarks about the appearance of Black females. Please apologize and do not do it again.”
Within thirty seconds the class and I had moved on. During my first planning period I found my school’s diversity coordinator and told her what had happened. I knew I hadn’t handled the situation well and that I needed to debrief with the two students as soon as possible.
I contacted someone from the diversity office for advice on how to discuss what happened with Rick. She recommended speaking with Rick about how his comment was insensitive (instead of racist). She also told me that I didn’t need to go into any of the history about Black bodies and the white male gaze. “Tell Rick it’s insensitive to make fun of Black girls’ hair and that he needs to apologize,” she said.
Rick was already ahead of me. By the time I snagged him during lunch, he had already apologize to Imani over Snapchat, Instagram, and in person. When I asked him why he had made the comment, he told me that he was just trying to be funny. I told him it was insensitive and disrespectful to make fun of Black girls’ hair or appearance. His head bobbed up and down like a hyperactive jack in the box. Afterwards I spoke with Imani. She confirmed Rick’s multiple apologies and insisted that she was okay. “Eh, I’m used to it,” she said.
I knew I hadn’t handled the situation well. In my inadequacy to deal with microaggressions in the classroom, I had called a student out instead of calling him in. For anyone unfamiliar with the difference, this is a good place to start. I find myself consistently unprepared to discuss issues of race in the classroom. In Is Everyone Really Equal? An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education authors Robin DiAngelo and Özlem Sensoy address this. They write that
Because Whites choose to live primarily segregated lives within a White dominated society, we receive little or no authentic information about racism and are thus unprepared to think about it critically. (p. 110).
I’m currently battling through my own infantile understanding of racism, intersectionality, and the role of schooling in perpetuating inequality. My ignorance is thick, and the amount I have to learn is staggering, but this is no excuse for inaction.
As a white educator speaking to other white educators, calling students in is a non-negotiable part of our work. Schools are primary sites of socialization for children. And since schools draw from dominant ideologies in order to recreate existing inequalities, it makes sense that microaggressions seem to ooze out of the pores of many students and teachers.
While some students have learned to limit insensitive comments and exaggerated accents when adults are around, many haven’t. And for those who have learned to keep such comments to a minimum when authority figures are present, I would offer that the threat of being publicly shamed is a more powerful motivator than an understanding of oppression and prejudice.
At my school, labeling something or someone as racist has become just as common as kids facetiously calling each other bullies. I’ve contributed to this climate with my own inaction. I’m guilty of using proximity or “the look” or other non-verbals to silence students who make prejudiced and insensitive comments instead of calling them in to discuss the situation. I need to talk to them about why they said it, what their intentions were, and why such comments are harmful. Every single time.
Let me make it clear that this post isn’t about Rick. It’s about my own struggles to snap out of my privileged complacency in order to begin the work of becoming an antiracist educator. For my fellow white educators who battle with feelings of guilt or embarrassment or confusion, let it go. These feelings keep us from throwing ourselves into this work.
 I’ve changed the names and identifying details to preserve the privacy of those involved.
I recently saw an article from The Atlantic making the rounds on my various social media feeds. After reading a handful of teachers respond positively to the article’s claims, I wanted to offer an alternative perspective. The article in question, “The Writing Revolution”, presents an informal case study of a high school’s writing program. Students at New Dorp High School were struggling to grow as writers and thinkers. Administration and teachers tried multiple strategies to rectify the deficit, but nothing seemed to work. It wasn’t until the school emphasized grammar and sentence construction that the quality of student writing skyrocketed.
Author Peg Tyre suggests that New Dorp’s problems are endemic to American education (“But the truth is, the problems affecting New Dorp students are common to a large subset of students nationally.”). If only students were taught the basics of grammar and spelling, the article suggests, American students would be at the top of the international report cards.
In my eight years of teaching, I’ve learned how potent this argument is. I’m not entirely certain why, but the rhetoric of “Kids these days can’t write. If only they did X, then we wouldn’t be in such a mess” seems to appeal to a wide audience.
As far as I’m concerned, the article is demonstrative of how America’s media reports on education. First off, it’s written by someone who hasn’t spent time as a classroom teacher. According to her website, Tyre is the “influential” author of “widely praised books” on education such as The Good School: How Smart Parents Get Their Kids the Education They Deserve. Experience as a classroom teacher should be a prerequisite for anyone writing an article about the details of classroom instruction.
“The Writing Revolution” follows a structure recognizable to anyone familiar with the history of American school reform. It begins with an invocation of crisis (today’s children can’t write), relies on superficial statistics (“Other research has shown that 70 to 75 percent of students in grades four through 12 write poorly”) and promotes a conservative, back-to-basics program (“The Hochman Program, as it is sometimes called, would not be unfamiliar to nuns who taught in Catholic schools circa 1950”).
The article does contain some useful takeaways. Tyre notes how many teachers of writing are unfamiliar with composition pedagogy. And writing across the content areas receives a shout-out, as does the primacy of writing in the educational enterprise in general. Unfortunately, the positive aspects of the article are buried underneath paragraphs of garbage such as,
Fifty years ago, elementary-school teachers taught the general rules of spelling and the structure of sentences. Later instruction focused on building solid paragraphs into full-blown essays. Some kids mastered it, but many did not. About 25 years ago, in an effort to enliven instruction and get more kids writing, schools of education began promoting a different approach. The popular thinking was that writing should be “caught, not taught,” explains Steven Graham, a professor of education instruction at Arizona State University. Roughly, it was supposed to work like this: Give students interesting creative-writing assignments; put that writing in a fun, social context in which kids share their work. Kids, the theory goes, will “catch” what they need in order to be successful writers. Formal lessons in grammar, sentence structure, and essay-writing took a back seat to creative expression.
I’ve never come across the idea that writing instruction went through some sort of shift 25 years ago. And the notion that teaching the general rules of spelling and sentence structure improves writing is unfounded by research. In fact, Constance Weaver provides compelling evidence that strict adherence to the superficial aspects of writing produces inferior writing. “Some kids mastered it, many did not.” What does that even mean?
Another paragraph states that,
‘At teachers college, you read a lot of theory, like Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, but don’t learn how to teach writing,’ said Fran Simmons. How could the staff backfill the absent foundational skills their students needed in order to learn to write?
Pedagogy is inherently political. One informs the other, whether you think so or not. Expressivism and process pedagogy, the methods of writing instruction mischaracterized throughout the article as some sort of liberal indulgence, are in reality complex bodies of knowledge, each with their own traditions, political contexts, and historical significances.
Grammar is not an either/or situation. Teachers haven’t forsaken grammar at the altar of student choice. Scholar-practitioners like George Hillocks and Jeff Anderson and Lisa Delpit and Peter Smagorinsky and Constance Weaver have long advocated for contextualized, rigorous, and meaningful grammar instruction. This is an incredibly complex challenge. Creating units of study that engage students in authentic grammar study, teach the concrete building blocks of language, introduce students to real-world genres and audiences, and instill a love of literacy is the highest form of teaching. I am nowhere near mastering it. Not even close. Providing instruction at such a high level can only come from intense reflection, deliberation, and intention.
Asking kids to start sentences with conjunctions is easy, making them care about it is not.
Yes, we want students to be better writers. Yes, we want teachers to be the best they can be. Only a fool would think otherwise. But that doesn’t mean the chicken-little histrionics on display throughout this article are valid. Instead of pointing the finger at incompetent teachers, it’s worth investigating why many of us feel uneasy with grammar and composition pedagogy. Perhaps it’s related to crushing accountability mandates, scripted curriculum, increasingly technocratic teacher preparation programs, market-based professional development, or the utopian demands placed on us.
Lastly, education is a combination of academics, politics, and economics. Any article or pundit promising school improvement without addressing all three factors is peddling snake oil. Teachers, we must make our voices heard. We will disagree, and that’s a good thing. Only good can come from the dialectic of conversation. But we cannot stand by while imposters tell our story.