As the political protests unfold in response to the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, I reflect on my role in the anti-racism movement. I am a white mother of young children and educator (formally a social studies teacher). Although social justice issues pushed me to major in history and social studies education, I certainly am not an expert on race relations in the United States. I know that I cannot begin a dialogue on a topic that I do not understand firsthand. I know that I cannot teach a topic and do it justice from only my lens. While recognizing these challenges and my own implicit bias, I like to focus on what I can control and structure. I can read, listen, empathize, and learn. I can structure lessons that share the voices of those often unheard. From a social studies teacher’s perspective, I remember people steering clear of “current events” or contentious issues in fear of upsetting students and parents. I also remember being told not to share my opinion because it will sway students and that isn’t my job. If we think about these two statements, do we believe in this? Every year, I would wrestle with these ideas in my head. I never wanted to create problems, to incite fighting, or have students or parents think I was promoting a political agenda. But at the same time, the whole reason I chose to be a social studies teacher was because of activism, because of empathy, because I learned about voices often marginalized throughout history, and because I was genuinely interested in the hard truths of people’s stories. How could I take that away from my students with a textbook explanation of the Civil Rights Movement or any other event in history? With that being said, I knew I would have to frame lessons with students so that they respectfully debated and discussed issues. I would also have to provide them with varying first hand-accounts on the same topic so that they could create an educated argument. But, I couldn’t help but see that students gained knowledge from me modeling my understanding of an event based off of multiple voices. I hope that students also gained something from seeing my opinion change due to the issue at hand or more information presented to me and that I didn’t hold tight to a certain opinion because of partisan beliefs. How can we turn away from this and avoid the conversation? If we do, are we also being complicit to the systemic racism that has continued throughout time? And importantly, how do we ignite the activism in students to move even further on these issues and start changing the course of history? When grappling with these questions, even outside of my classroom, as an administrator, I turn to colleagues to continue the dialogue. One of them, is my inspiring colleague, Florence, who teaches AP seminar. – Jessica
First off, thank you for bringing up this subject — I think in these times it’s really important for white women especially to begin speaking up about racism, implicit bias, and our civic responsibility to be not ‘tolerant’ or informed or aware, but we emphatically need to be anti-racist. We need to do the work. For years we have been asleep at the wheel, and I am ashamed by what I don’t know because I never took the time to find out. I am also ashamed of my ‘fragility’ even as I only begin to learn not only what ‘white fragility’ means, but also to what extent I embody it. I am a 58 year-old white female high school English teacher who never expected to experience so many new synapses of understanding the way I am now, yet every day brings a new enlightening for me, and a new frustration at how I could have been so blinded for all of these years. I am painfully aware of the necessity for me to learn about the intersectionality of feminism and race, and also to understand and learn how I have been complicit in the marginalization of women of color. I could weep for the work that I need to do.
However, with this new-found despair on my part comes a gigantic well of hope. To answer your seemingly rhetorical question, Jessica, I remember being told never to state/share my opinion with the students for a whole host of reasons; I have never understood that, and I have never abided that maxim. In fact, I would like to know, truthfully, where it originated because, well, I just don’t buy it. I have been sharing my opinion with my students — sometimes explicitly, sometimes a bit more subtly, but my students know where I stand if not by my words or the timbre of my voice, they will know by the pause as I speak, as I collect myself while swallowing the lump in my throat as we discuss our collective history of race in the United States and the latest iteration of black oppression. I hope in allowing them to see my honesty and vulnerability that they feel empowered to speak their minds and state their opinions — and they do! — all the while listening to each other respectfully and learning the rules of civil discourse and the necessity of our rights to hold our own opinions and beliefs. And as down as I have felt about my own inadequacies here, I have never been more proud or impressed by my students. I believe the confluence of the Covid-19 shutdown — our imposed ‘slowing down’ — and yet another police atrocity that captured the slow, eight-plus minute death of George Floyd, the collective social conscience of young people is being activated, and they are being loud on social media and loud in their attendance at marches and protest. And they are fierce. The English teacher in me keeps returning to the Orwell 1984 mantra, ‘If there was hope, it must lie in the proles.’ Well, Millennials and Gen Z-ers have to be our proles. The coalescence of time on our hands and the graphic images of ubiquitous police brutality and the teachable moments emanating from black and brown communities is changing our collective perspective – yes, changing our opinions, and making us all a bit more indignant and audacious. So, do we share our opinions with our students? I say, How can we not? – Florence
Yes! And importantly, this doesn’t mean vilifying other groups of people. Anti-racism isn’t political. Like Florence, my emotions about the topic have changed too. Moving from feeling overwhelmed and embarrassed to determined and hopeful has been the sentiment of many. Although I couldn’t participate in the #leadlap discussion with Traci Browder and Dawn Harris, I have followed it and plan to partake in the future so I can engage in the dialogue with others. I, too, feel the emotional shifts during this time and am ready to commit to the hard work. And we can’t burnout. Once the protests end and the conversations may no longer be primarily about anti-racism, we still must listen, learn, read, and seek understanding. I, now, am hopeful. – Jessica
Aren’t we all just so knotted up in taking defensive stances? Standing up for one group or belief does not in any way cast a net of dispersion upon the entirety of another group. If we could break the ‘herd’ down to the human, I do believe we could effect change. We tend to reach our opinion and then dig in, and then for us to change our minds would mean the admission of defeat, right? Once egos become involved, all bets are off! The pattern of doubling down on thoughts and opinions is basic and psychologists can probably pinpoint specifically what level of development that self-protection mechanism kicks in, but only when we lay down those defensive arms and listen to other people’s opinions do we really grow as compassionate, empathetic humans. George Bernard Shaw stated “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” Everyone wants change; no one wants to live in a stagnant world. And I think we all are driven to make the world a better place for all people. We as teachers feel this way and so do our students. I think if we could be quiet listeners, a bit more self-reflective — which sometimes takes extraordinary personal courage to do — that could be the beginning of real change. ~ Florence