The Elephant in the Room

On Friday night, hundreds of American white supremacists had a rally in Charlottesville, VA. In the violent aftermath, dozens of people were injured, and three people died, at least one of whom was a victim of this racially-motivated domestic terrorism. On top of that, people around the world were reminded that racism is alive and well in the United States.

Every single person in that latter group looks just like those who put on the rally.

White people, such as myself, have the unique ability to forget that there are those who wish we didn’t exist. I have been reminded time and time again by people of color that they do not have that luxury.

But right now, it is on all of our minds.

Including the minds of our students.

What do we do? How do we help the next generation be better than our current generation? How do we help make sure the next generation lives long enough to actually become the next generation, and not the last generation?

What I know is that I don’t know.

I’m not going to claim to have the answers. But I have some ideas and some resources that I think can help.

But to begin with, we must shed the notion that our classrooms — our communities of learners — are not able to handle this sort of discussion. Again, for those of us who are white, we are at times able to ignore this, even when it is shoved in our faces. The same is true of our white students. But we are doing a disservice to ourselves and to all our students — regardless of race, religion, and ethnicity — if we make the choice to ignore this or pretend that it is not important to our students. They’re all thinking about it. Our silence on the matter would speak louder than anything else we could say.

This is their world. This is the world they are going to need to make better. It is our job to help them do so. So we need to do some work.

Be properly informed.

Students will be looking to their teachers as thought leaders and will often take their word as bond. So if you start spreading misinformation to your students, that will do one of two things: 1) cause them to lose faith in you, or, more likely, 2) cause them to believe and perpetuate the falsehoods you accidentally proclaimed. Do your research on the events before you share about them.

For this particular act of hate, I have found this resource to be fairly reliable. It appears to have a slight bias, but does not in any way alter the facts that are presented: http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2017/08/state-of-emergency-in-va-after-white-nationalist-rally.html

Survey your own biases in the classroom.

Pay attention to the way you are teaching your students. Are you consistent in your demeanor to all students? Do you have different expectations for different students? Probably. Many of us do, and often times, it’s for a good reason: different students are at different levels, and may need different expectations.

But what about when it’s not a good reason? What if you have higher expectations of the boys in your room than you do of the girls? What if you are short-tempered more often with students who are of a different race than you are?

Obviously that’s a problem in terms of fostering a positive learning environment, but what about the unintended lessons that teaches our students? If you are a white teacher and you are quicker to discipline your black students, what is that really doing? The message to the black students is that they are more likely to be discipline problems, based on their race. The message to their white classmates is the same one.

Imagine you make that mistake often. Imagine it happens for our students year after year after year. Hopefully the students being taught they are less than have other sources in their life that remind them that no, they are just as worthy of respect and have the same level of dignity as anyone else.

But what about the majority students? If they receive the message from school that their minority classmates are less than they are simply because of their race, religion, ethnicity, etc., what happens if they don’t receive a message that says the opposite? Who do they become?

“They sat in our classrooms. Let’s do better.”

The full quote to the above is from LaNehsa Tabb, @apron_education on Instagram. Here’s the full post:

apron_education.png

A lot of teachers like to talk about how teaching is the profession that trains all others. Well, if we’re going to take credit for doctors and artists and lawyers, we also need to take credit for our white supremacists. Many of us back down from these conversations, as we are not the parents of our students. That doesn’t mean we can’t provide a model that is perhaps drastically different than what they see at home. Yes, if you speak up against white nationalist viewpoints or Trump’s rhetoric, you might get some phone calls from parents angry about you bringing your politics into the classroom. You might cause some of your students to lose faith in you. You might lose your job.

You might also get a call 15 years down the road from a former student thanking you for showing them there was a different way to be an adult. You might have a student stick back at the end of the day to tell you they are glad someone said something. You might have a student choose to speak up against racism when they see it. You might cause a student to second-guess a rally they were going to attend. You might cause there to be one less white supremacist in the world. And, as many teachers know, if you know for sure that one person was impacted by your teaching, there are probably dozens you don’t know of.

Be mindful in your curriculum choices.

Keeping in mind what LaNesha Tabb mentioned in her post, we need to consider the future of our students when we decide what to teach them. We know that diversity breeds empathy (see here, here, and here). What are we doing to bring that to our students? What actions can we take? I reached out to Kathy Burnette (@thebrainlair on Twitter), and she had some wise words:

It is hard to put into words actions we should take because I’m sidetracked by my own alternating feelings of of rage, sadness, and despair. Trying to work my way back to hope. But it’s very difficult right now. As a book nerd, I believe that books, and the way we use them, can provide us some of this hope. But what we have to do is move the literature conversation forward. When we are posting our book lists, deciding what we are reading to our classes, picking books to share with other teachers – take a few minutes. Check that book. What kind of message does this book send? Have I sent that same message to this group before? Is this a book that’s written about people of color but not by people of color? Is this “social justice” book only looking at Jackie Robinson or Rosa Parks?

How are we using books to advance humanity? Are people of color shown as, well, people? Is it like When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon where the main characters are two teenagers who are funny and passionate but happen to be Indian. Or The Sun is Also A Star by Nicola Yoon where Natasha and Daniel meet and Daniel is sure he can convince Nicole to fall in love with him and the main characters happen to be Korean and Jamaican? Is it about twin brothers who go to school and play basketball but aren’t in jail or do drugs? We need to make sure we are sharing stories where people of color are living everyday lives. That’s what should be “normalized”.

Consider that. As teachers, we can help prevent future racists from existing simply by making smart choices in the stories we share with our students.

“If our shelves are diverse but our lives are not, we have missed the mark.” — Chad Everett

I think that speaks for itself. See Chad’s full Nerd Talk text here.

Read Lynsey Burkins’ post on this blog.

Then go read it again.

Own your own racism.

Our students suffer from an epidemic of adults in their life being portrayed as perfect. Their teachers make no mistakes. What they say is always correct.

I will probably write an entire post just about the need to apologize to our students, but let me give you a preview here. And it has to do with owning your flaws.

I am not perfect, though my students sometimes see me as such (and other times, I leave them no doubt that I am not). But I am not and never am. This includes my views on race.

There are parts of me that are racist. Parts of me that act as a white supremacist.

It may seem that I am one of the “good guys” because if I were in Charlottesville this weekend, I would have been protesting the rally, not being a part of it. But do I racially profile? Per above, do I discipline my students differently based on race? Do I assume my good intentions are all I need?

Sometimes, yes. And more.

I have seen this image bouncing around social media for a few months now. I can’t find an original source, but it’s important for us to look at again:

Here’s the thing. If I pretend that I am perfect in terms of my views on race because I don’t do the top of the triangle, it does harm to the students in my care. It does harm because it means that the stuff I do in the bottom part of the triangle is acceptable.

And it’s not.

It’s important that I own my failings, and do so in front of my students when appropriate. If you are having conversations with your students about racism, it’s okay to talk about your own failings. In fact, it’s vital. Many of your students will have the same flaws and failings.

It’s not okay to be racist. But it’s also not okay to pretend that you’re not. The best thing to do is acknowledge your shortcomings, and publicly talk about how you’re working to be better on it. This gives the students in your classroom permission to do the same. To say that they are working on being a better human being, because they’re not perfect.

Check your feelings.

Your students’ feelings are important, because they are developing the capacity to understand them and act on them. Your feelings are much less important. You’re an adult and can find healthy outlets that don’t sacrifice what your students need.

If we wait until the next major hate crime to talk about it with our students, we are complicit in fostering the attitudes that led to that crime. If someone comes through our classroom and we made a choice to NOT talk about the obvious evil that is in our world, and they go on to continue that evil in the world, we deserve part of the blame for their actions.

The community at stake here is more than just your classroom.

That being said, it starts in your classroom. Yes, we’re talking about the world at large, but right now, you have the students in front of you. Be the teacher they need. Don’t brush aside tough conversations because they’re tough. Have them for precisely that reason.

Let’s build a future of empathetic, free-thinking leaders. Ones that recognize white supremacy and similar ideologies as the evil they are. And let’s start that work now.

Final thoughts

Jen Vincent, who tweets at @mentortexts and was a leading voice on this topic at Nerd Camp Michigan along with Kathy Burnette and Chad Everett, offers her closing remarks.

After the act of terrorism in Charlottesville this weekend, you might have seen the hashtag #thisisnotus on Twitter. I think the sentiment intended is that we, as a country, as people, as citizens, can do better. This should not be us. I wish it wasn’t us. But it is. As much as we need to move forward and do better. Better at being informed, at speaking up, at discussing social justice with our students, we also need to understand how we got here. I implore you, if you have not seen the documentary 13th from Ava DuVernay, go watch it before you do anything else.

Before watching 13th, I knew how deeply seated racism was in America but I didn’t realize how people and their specific actions have overtly contributed to the pervasiveness of racism across our country. Truly, across our country. Here is a map from Southern Poverty Law Center that shows hate groups currently in the United States.

It is important that we check our biases, that we are well informed, that we have discussions with our students. Yes to all of this. But we also need to take time to know how we got here so we can make connections between the past and now. If we don’t understand the scope of institutional racism, I fear we will continue to stay in denial and claim that this is not us, when clearly it is and it has been for a very long time.

Additional resources:

A Google Doc of teaching resources
#CharlottesvilleCurriculum on Twitter
Teaching Tolerance has a wide range of resources
NPR has a compiled a list of resources
The Early Childhood Education Assembly of NCTE has two resources that may be helpful: here and here.

 

3 thoughts on “The Elephant in the Room

  1. I have spent six weeks this summer with students, librarians and educators talking about race, culturally sustaining literacy and pedagogy and the power of writing to bring change. This has been work I have been committed to for over 14 years. I work at this journey daily, because as a white person I will always need to learn more and do more. There are many of us who have been explicitly calling out the role of race in our society and in schooling long before Charlottesville. So, I’d like to add a little advice:
    1. Know the language to use.
    When folks say things like “White people, such as myself, have the unique ability to forget that there are those who wish we didn’t exist. I have been reminded time and time again by people of color that they do not have that luxury.” call this what it is: WHITE PRIVILEGE.
    Know and understand ALL the ways that white privilege impacts you DAILY. For more insight, check out Peggy Macintosh’s seminal work: https://nationalseedproject.org/white-privilege-unpacking-the-invisible-knapsack
    2. Curriculum: Yes, the books we choose are important. But that is just a start. How we design curriculum, the questions we ask, the perspectives we examine, the pedagogical choices we make. That is the deeper work. James Banks started addressing this in the 1990s. A brief overview of his work around how we reimagine our curriculum to be anti-racist can be found here: https://www.learner.org/workshops/socialstudies/pdf/session3/3.Multiculturalism.pdf
    Teaching Tolerance has a framework with K-12 standards for Anti-bias Education. Align these standards with your content standards to create a more empowering, anti-racist curriculum: https://www.tolerance.org/frameworks/social-justice-standards
    3. Examining bias: Often we think we are doing this. But at times, our white privilege allows us ignore things which might make us uncomfortable to consider about ourselves. Project Implicit is a small way to examine where your own biases might lie: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/index.jsp
    4. Read, Listen, Read, Listen, Repeat: True equity work is tough. I used the word journey earlier, that’s what it is. It is not a series of events, tweets, FB statuses,etc… It is work. Hard work. It is a journey up a steep mountainside to challenge almost everything we know and understand as white educators. And in this work, we as white educators should be talking less and listening and learning more.
    David Kirkland shared a great list of books earlier today. I still have a few to go on this list, so that will be my challenge to myself. https://www.bustle.com/p/17-books-on-race-every-white-person-needs-to-read-76401
    Listen to voices of people of color in person, via social media, at conferences. No one person speaks for any group. To truly understand the issues from a lens other than our own white lens, we need to listen wide and listen long.
    Engage in the journey every day. Charlottesville happens every day in a myriad of ways. Only through diligent intent will we bring the changes that need to happen.
    Peace,
    Teresa

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