Hello Educators. It is with deep sadness, frustration, anger, and renewed resolve that I write today. The question asked of raising a racist was one posed by one of my professors in my graduate program. He waited as we threw out possible answers.
“You demonize races outside of your own.”
“You elevate your race as superior and support it with ‘evidence’.”
“You teach your version of historical events.”
“You paint other races as savage and inferior.”
“You rationalize the behavior of racist groups as appropriate and necessary for the wellbeing of society.”
His response to all of our suggestions was…no.
The answer…you do nothing.
Those words have never rung truer for me than they did over the occurrences of this past week. It is easy to look at the officer kneeling into George Floyd’s body for over 8 minutes and say…”I would never do that.” And yes…maybe most white people would not but there is a lot that unaware, well-intentioned white people do that embolden officers like Derek Chauvin to operate as he does…like doing nothing or in a moment of heightened emotion, doing something that seems completely out of sort.
Even more telling was the incident with Amy Cooper, who, knowing the history of black men and law enforcement, chose to call for assistance in a manner that could have left another black man wrongly accused or worse…dead. In her responses since the incident went viral, she has apologized and has stated that she realizes that she overreacted and that she is not a racist. In her mind, she may believe this. She is registered as an Independent with a track record of donating to Democratic candidates including Obama. How can she possibly be a racist? The question becomes, if that behavior does not rise to the level of racism…what does?
There is a way that we’ve begun to define racism that seems to leave many above the label and without introspection. Some believe that a racist is the white supremacist driving through a crowd in Charlottesville, VA, or the KKK member…the extreme types. Of course, Amy wouldn’t classify herself as a racist when defined in this way. She is beyond these apparent forms of racism. What happens, however, if we take a step back and liken racism to the body of a vehicle? It is what we see initially when observing a vehicle. It takes the most space. Its colors and shape are memorable and draw the most attention. It also has a horn that can sound and cause alarm. The engine can be revved up to illicit the start or progression of something. It, however, has no traction and no opportunity for forward motion without the tires it sits upon. Without the tires of unconscious bias, maybe another of white privilege, and other reinforcements, there is no opportunity for the vehicle of racism to continue to have the traction it needs. Officers like Derek Chauvin, respond to calls like that of Amy Cooper regularly and if she isn’t aware enough to recognize the power that she holds and the way that she views an African American male when her emotions run high has racist undertones, she will remain complicit to the ongoing racism occurring within this country.
This week struck a chord for many and it didn’t matter if you were black, brown, or white. Social media housed conversations pushing for the disrespect and disregard for black bodies to end. Protests throughout our country show the exasperation felt by our collective humanity. What has also come up is the question of, “what can I do…personally? What power do I have to end racism? The problem is so much bigger than me.” To that I would say, own the power you do have and recognize that your willingness to do the internal work to acknowledge and dismantle the bias that you have accumulated over time is paramount.
I have come to the somber conclusion that racism is so baked into our society that if I am not actively working to dismantle it, I am likely complicit in supporting it.
Being silent empowers racism. Living an unchecked and unreflective life empowers racism. Living as if color doesn’t exist and has no bearing on decisions made…empowers racism. Acting as though you don’t see color…only people, empowers racism. Thinking that generational poverty and violence in the black and brown community is a choice and not being aware of the systems in place designed to oppress and suppress…empowers racism. It is a sobering reality but it is just that…reality.
As educators, we are in a unique position to help dismantle the racist reality that our students are immersed in daily. It is important to remember that Amy Cooper was once a student. She went through 13 years of education and every day she walked into a classroom, she either had her privilege as a white female, reinforced, or checked. She probably learned that people of color were slaves who were unable to stop colonialism and will never be an equal peer. She likely learned respect in the way that the dominant oppressive culture regards it rather than the vast interpretations of respect that indigenous people and various cultures bring to the concept that is neither hypocritical nor oppressive. She learned who was worthy of having a voice and those who should remain silent. She was taught to applaud oppressors as leaders and conquerors who helped expand the territory of the United States to what it is today while downplaying or sometimes remaining silent on the destruction of existing people groups and cultures. She learned what she was taught, partly by the educators she encountered. Yes…I know that there is a curriculum that is given and must be taught that is steeped in racism but there is also the hidden curriculum that we bring with us. It is our beliefs, perceptions, and biases that fill in the blanks of the written curriculum.
We cannot teach anti-racism without doing or undoing the work to be anti-racist. We also cannot educate from a lens of equity if that lens has not been developed. This personal work requires a high degree of commitment and a willingness to be uncomfortable that remains well after the news narrative has shifted or the protests have quelled. If you are white and reading this, and just beginning this journey, let me be the first to tell you that you will be faced with a reality about yourself that you may not have encountered previously. I encourage you to push past it if you truly want to support the dismantling of racism. If you’re wondering where to start, here are a few ideas…
Recognize that dismantling racism is tough work and along the way, you may be offended, surprised, shocked, angry, etc. It is all okay and part of the process.
Notice more. Notice when you find yourself feeling indifferent about another black body lost to violence. Notice when you ask the question, “well what happened before the video was turned on.” Notice the nonchalant attitude regarding genocide in this country and abroad. Notice when you are dismissive with some students over others and which ones they are. Notice and interrogate. Ask yourself about the indifference, the dismissive attitude, and don’t stop asking until you reach some answers.
Educate yourself…for real this time. We have to realize that the system of oppression that we call education in this country was not designed to educate the masses but to further classify and label. It was constructed to elevate the dominant white culture as superior while all others were inferior with a few token exceptions. Read books and engage in conversations with those of diverse thought and race. Listen to the formerly untold stories of those who have been vilified. Take some time to build an understanding of accurate history and why this country looks as it does. A few books to consider reading include:
Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria: Beverly Daniel Tatum
Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain: Zaretta L. Hammond
They Came Before Columbus: Ivan Van Sertima
Just Mercy: Bryan Stevenson
Racism can end but it requires the role of everyone. Doing nothing is no longer an option. That too has costly implications. I send you love, peace, and the courage needed to forge forward.
In Solidarity and Love,