This week on the Heinemann Podcast we’re learning about the importance of personal identity work in education. To understand this work better, and its impact on teachers, we’re handing this week’s podcast over to Heinemann Fellow, Minjung Pai.
Min teaches fifth and sixth grade in Los Angeles, California. She is committed to equity, inclusion, and progressive education. Min believes that collaboration is at the core of teaching – that working together with students, parents, and teachers can make a significant, powerful, and lasting impact. Min is currently in her first year as a Heinemann Fellow. Here’s Min with more on her project...
Min: Teaching necessitates knowing and understanding one's self, going beyond knowing child development and curriculum. All teachers should do their own personal identity work in order to be effective. Equity work is best teaching practices. Equity work is not about being an expert, a good or bad person, some magical skills, or an innate ability. It is concrete, explicit and intentional work, and needs to be done consistently. This is what I'm trying to address through my action research project as a part of the Heinemann Fellowship program. In the first half of this podcast, I talk with Monique Marshall, a social studies teacher at Wildwood School in Los Angeles. She's also a much sought after workshop presenter. Her workshops focus specifically on diversity, equity, and inclusion work with young children. Monique's presentation topics range from challenging gender stereotypes, inspiring activism, creating multicultural curriculum, building partnerships across difference, relationship building between public and private schools, and designing a K-5 student diversity group.
She's also a mother of two teenagers, an activist and organizer, and identifies as multi-racial. Together, we explore the question of what personal identity work is, and share how it has impacted our teaching.
Min: Thank you so much for doing this. You're a teacher that I have long admired for all the work that you do inside the classroom and outside the classroom. I've told you that you're my total teacher crush.
Monique: Aw, thank you.
Min: But I guess I wanted to start off by just asking you what do you think personal identity work is?
Monique: Personal identity work period, or in the classroom? Just personal identity work?
Monique: Everything. How many hours do I have? So, I think there's something that I did not learn directly as an undergraduate education major, or really even in graduate school, was that a big piece of teaching was me. I didn't really learn, I didn't really understand until I was in the classroom, and even when I was in the classroom, it took some time to get it, that everything about who I was bringing was impacting the learning of the students in front of me, and that then the students were impacting me. So, there was this relationship that was happening, and I was oblivious about my role in being intentional around understanding who it was that I was bringing into the classroom. So, I think really, I've been teaching for 30 years, and I think that for me, understanding my own identity as I was in my undergraduate education, was when I started to become aware of my own racial identity. I identify as a bi-racial woman, but at that point I had no language for my own racial identity.
I had grown up in a colorblind, white world, and people see me and see a person of color. That is not exactly how I saw myself, and I just had no words. Most white folks, I just didn't have a lot of words around identity, or my own identity, so what was cool was I can see now the trajectory of how my own identity formation impacted what I then brought into my classroom. Sometimes without thinking and sometimes with a lot of thinking. So, I remember early on in my teaching career, it was my first year being my own head teacher self, and I remember thinking, "Who am I?" I think every new teacher probably has this question, especially if you've been a teacher in training in some way. If you've been a student teacher, or someone's assistant teacher. I had pulled all the strategies, all my learnings from books, and classes, and then the people that I had been around that I had been learning from.
I pulled all of that into myself and out of my mouth would come the things that George said, the things that Lisa said, and I remember going home and asking myself, "Who am I? Who am I?" So, I imagined that that initial, "Who am I?" Question happens to most everyone in the classroom, because you're trying to figure out how do you do this thing called teaching? From there, I started just letting myself be me, and some of the first times I think I opened the door to, "Oh, this is actually a piece of me that I didn't learn from anyone else, and I feel like it needs to be part of my classroom. Why haven't I brought this part of me?" The first one that was really obvious to me was song. Identify someone who loves to sing, and in my teacher training, no one ever taught me that teachers sing. The only teachers that sing are the music teacher.
So, I started singing in my classroom. I started allowing myself singing with children, and immediately something about my classroom changed, because I was bringing this little piece of myself that came in now everywhere. It was a musical space that changed the actual tenor of the room. My next memory of bringing something different that nobody taught me outside of myself, was around diversity work. I remember asking the person that I was working under, asking him, "I don't know. When do we talk about people? I feel like there's a great animal study that we do, and there's a great land study that we do. Then, we study the Native people, but it's not until December and those people are long ago and far away." He was like, "Well Monique, just do it. Just do it. Bring it into the classroom. Find a time and do it."
So, I started that people study. He said, "Make it something regular. Give it a time and place," and that people study that was on Fridays for 45 minutes, I named it the People Study because it was the only thing I could think of, and it stuck because it was about people. It became a place for me to explore my own identity, and also a place for students. As I was sharing pieces of myself, students started sharing pieces of themselves. So, we were able to talk about race. I'll never forget this one. I was teaching eight and nine year olds, and I was talking about how I didn't have language for my own racial identity until I was really an adult. I was showing them the inside of my hand and saying, "My mom is white. She's lighter than the inside of my hand, and my dad is black," and I showed them the outside of my hand and I said, "And he's darker than the outside of my hand." Then I turned my hand and said, "This blending in between is me, and I identify as biracial," and right away there was another kid in the class that went, "Me too."
Even funnier than that, there was a black girl in the class that was sitting directly across from me that said, "Wait everybody, I see it. I see it. Look, look, look, on Monique's left side she's lighter, and on her right side she's darker," and everybody is staring at me and looking at me. White kids, and black kids, and Asian kids, it's all normalized. You can look at your teacher and she that she's got some line down the middle of her that only eight year olds and nine year olds can see, that's showing her biracial identity. I just remember sitting there trying not to laugh and asking them, "Wow, do you really see that?" And saying to them, "It might be because the light is coming through the window on this side," and I turned my face. Anyway, I remember that moment because it was when I allowed myself to really explore out loud with the students, my own identity and the, "Me too," piece of I knew that when I was the same age as that eight year old I didn't have a "me too." I didn't have somebody that I could connect with that way.
To be someone like the white kids that were really allowed to inspect me, and to really think about, "Gosh, how does that work? How does biracial identity work?"
Min: What was the grade level when you did this?
Monique: Eight and nine year olds.
Min: Eight and nine year olds.
Monique: Yeah, yeah. I don't know if it was that same class or the next year, but there was another black child who, when I told a similar story about my mother and my father he said, "Oh, gross." Because I had done my own work, I didn't take it personally. I just leaned forward and I said, "You know, Terry, what are you thinking? What's gross?" He was like, "White people and black people can make a baby?" In his world, that did not happen. He was not aware that there was such a thing as biracial identity or biracial people. In his family, all he knew was that black people were with black people, and I guess white people were with white people but gross, they don't go together. So again, that moment, allowing him space to process through that and think about then, what does that mean about him and what does that mean about his family? Really opened new doors, also for me as a teacher, as to wow. There are a lot of things going on in the minds of our young people that we don't even know are there.
I would have never known that he thought that was gross, and it's really important to help him unpack that. Otherwise, what's gonna happen as he gets older? How is he going to reshape those thoughts? To me, my own identity development as I've grown and continue to grow, it only deepens my whole toolbox as a teacher. I mean, I feel like it's not selfish work where I just get to sit around and think about myself, but I don't know, just the more I discover, the more I put out, and the more willing I am to share aspects of my own identity, the more willing kids are. I actually want to pause there because I think I would identify as an extrovert. I don't mean to say that to be a good teacher you have to spill your guts in front of kids, and you have to tell all the stories about your background. I don't think you do at all.
I think there are lots of ways to engage young people in thinking about identity, and even if I shared none of my own personal stories, or it was too hard for me, or it wasn't my style or whatever, as long as I had done my work I feel that I would have a way to help the young people in my classroom access themselves. Whether it's through stories that I read out loud, or through other people that I bring in, I definitely don't want people to walk away thinking, "Oh well. I can't do that because I'm not comfortable talking about myself." I don't think it has to be about you, and it's never really about you.
Min: And it is, because you're the one who's doing the teaching.
Monique: Oh, and that's the other piece too. It took me years to really think about what it meant for me as a person of color, or me as a woman, or me as a straight woman. All of my identities in the classroom, it took me years to really turn that around and over and think, "Ooh, how would this sound different, look different, come out differently if it was someone who was gay, someone who was white, someone who was male?" Again, nobody ever taught me that in my schooling.
Min: Yeah, it's really the stories that you're sharing about beginning teacher ... using other people's words, other people's strategies, other people's pedagogy and then one day realizing just sharing that one part of yourself really resonates with me. I'm wondering if it resonates with other teachers because for me, just beginning my teaching, I felt like I had to be "professional." So, if I'm professional, I'm not their friends, I'm their teacher. I shouldn't share my entire self and to me, that was a real contrast to what I wanted my students to do, because I wanted my students to bring their full selves in because only when they do that can they really access learning and take risks to grow and challenge themselves. So that's why for me, that personal identity work is so important to teachers because if I don't understand myself, how can I teach my students to understand themselves?
I realized as I was teaching, there'll be certain subject areas that I would avoid talking about because I didn't really understand how to have that conversation. I didn't have that capacity yet. I didn't have the language and so then my students are learning to avoid those topics, too. Then once I started attending Affinity Group meetings, once I started studying different dimensions of self and target, non-target, and all of a sudden I have this toolbox of language where I might not be, like you were saying, being me, me, me. This is my story, my story. I was still modeling and teaching my students how to understand the world around them by understanding what their perspectives are too, by understanding themselves. I guess I'm wondering, what do you think about personal identity work in terms of, is it something teachers need to do? Because, it can be a really sensitive subject. I feel as though there are a lot of teachers out there that are still where I started from. Where, "This is just my job. Why are you asking me these really personal question about myself?"
Where it can be really emotional, hard, extremely uncomfortable, maybe at times feel unsafe. Where it's a job, I come to the classroom, I teach my lessons, I should be able to leave. What would you say to those folks about that personal identity work that needs to be done?
Monique: Well, it's funny. I think there's scary stuff for all of us, but I guess the first thing I was thinking when you were talking was about that, "I want to be professional," piece, that was my first thought, is that it could be easy to push this way because it feels like that's not really a professional way of being. I want to operate in such a way that I'm respected, whatever. Then the first thing that popped into my head, I was like, "Who's professional? What is our model of professional? Who are we trying to be?" Then I thought, "Well, as teachers of color, our identities matter. As teachers of color, are we anxious about showing all of the layers of ourselves, or as teachers that identify in any non-target group, are we protecting whatever piece of ourselves under a layer of being professional," which maybe means being a white professional. What I've learned or I think I know about what it means to be a professional from most of the people that I've seen in authority, who are mostly white, is that what I'm learning and what I'm afraid of, and using as a buffer?
If I'm a white teacher or a man, or someone in a non-target position, what's my reason for being afraid to be, maybe, fully authentic, my fully authentic self? Maybe pieces of it have to do with the parts of my non-target identity that I've never really practiced exploring before, so I just don't know that it's a thing. I don't know that my maleness has anything to explore because I've never had to think about it. Maybe it's just simply that, but also maybe it feels not "professional" for me as a man or for me in some position of power because there's been some set up. Basically, I've not been allowed to really fully be myself either. It's kind of like we're all trapped. Everyone is trapped, and so someone's got to open the door and say, "No, look. Actually, your most professional self is your fullest, truest self, and it doesn't mean that you have to do things that are like screaming, ranting, raving." I don't know, what's not professional. I can't even think of ... I guess I've never worried too much about profession being, yeah. I don't know.
Anyway, I think there's something to that. There's something to then, and then that wasn't real clear, but I feel like there's something about the where we start out and how I try as a teacher to be respected by people in my community.
Min: Oh, it was full on internalized whiteness for me. That was completely it. I labeled it as professionalism, but again, doing that personal identity work and packing it, and looking at oppression, at the four levels of institutional, cultural, individual, interpersonal, and really interrogating that, I realized me internalizing whiteness was not necessarily changing myself. It was more hiding myself and compartmentalizing myself. So you sniffed that right out. You're exactly right.
Monique: It's so interesting, right? Because then you ask yourself, okay, so what are white people afraid of? I think there's some training that we're all humans or somehow trained to think we need to be a certain way, and then there is that piece of it's really hard to see what you can't see. To be the fish, you don't see the water. So then when someone asks you to inspect the water that you're swimming in you're like, "What? Why? What's the point? What a waste of time," so I know that there's that piece too. I think the last part of your question, a long time ago, when you were asking what would you say to someone who was pushing back against unpacking identity because it's tough work and it can be emotional, and can I just do my job in the classroom and go home? I would say that sometimes it feels hard to do that. It feels hard and maybe it's hard to understand why it's important around all aspects of identity, but I think the easiest one to understand is your identity as a learner.
I've been thinking about that a lot. I need to unpack how I learn because the way that I learn tends to be the way that I teach. I'm really process oriented, I'm not very linear. I really like stories. I really like to put my hands on things. I really like to understand things deeply. If you just tell me, "This is how it is," it doesn't stick with me. I need to understand it. I need to sit with thing for a long time. I need to mull things over, and turn them around and around, and I realize that is totally how I teach. That's my go-to. That's how I teach. Years ago when I wasn't really looking at my own identity, I also wasn't looking at my identity as a learner. I wasn't thinking, "Oh actually, I would be a more effective teacher if I was very aware that this is how I was going at the teaching thing because actually, I learn really well this way."
That kid over there might really need some linear help or maybe that kid over there doesn't want to process through the thing, or it's actually much more difficult for them, or this is gonna be a stretch. Maybe I need to work on whatever those things are. The better I understand myself as a learner, the better teacher I am. The more professional I am. The more clearly I can craft lessons. I can think from multiple perspectives because I understand myself, and I understand my go-to is this, and then I understand that there are options. If I'm not thinking about myself or my own identity, then I'm not being the best teacher that I can be in a really clear learning style way. So, I take that learning about self and I think well teachers, our main goals, I believe my main goal is to work with other people.
Usually they happen to be younger than me, but not always. Work with other people that are called students, and to engage with them in a way that they will be hungry to know things, and be interested, and help them to continue to be interested in learning and knowing things in the world. How can I do that if I'm not aware of how I am impacting those students? How can I do that well? So I guess to the person that says, "Can't I just do my job, teach the math, the social studies, whatever the thing are and leave?" You can do that. I think you can do that, but I don't think it's professional. I don't think you're actually doing the job as best as you can. I would not be doing my best work that way, and so I can do that. Well, actually I don't know if I can. I might quit.
It would be so sad for me, but yeah. It wouldn't be my best work.
Min: Thank you.
Monique: Thank you.
Min: That was amazing.
Monique: That was fun. That was fun.
Min: I learn from you every time we have a conversation.
Min: I appreciate it.
Monique: That's good teaching and learning. There's no one student or one teacher.
Min: Reciprocal learning.
Monique: That's right.
Monique: Thank you, Min.
Min: Thank you Monique.
Min: Next, I speak with Jason David. He taught high school humanities, and currently works with Facing History and Ourselves. Jason identifies as a white anti-racist and co-founded AWARE-LA, a white anti-racist affinity group space which has also grown into a grassroots, all volunteer organization that includes a summer institute and an action wing. We explore what personal identity work means and about the role of Affinity Groups. Affinity Groups are spaces in which folks who share a specific identity can have honest dialogue and be in community. With trained facilitators, Affinity Groups are safe spaces to do honest, healthy, and explicit work that is necessary to personal identity work. Jason and I talk specifically about Affinity Groups based on race.
Min: Hi, Jason.
Jason: Hi, Min.
Min: Thank you so much for doing this. I think you were the first white anti-racist that I met in real life, and I heard speak. Your story resonated with me so much, so thank you for that. That was mainly the reason why I wanted to have this podcast with you. The first question is, what do you think personal identity work is?
Jason: Yeah, I think at the most basic level, personal identity work is asking the question of, who am I, and why does that matter? What are the different ways in which I show up in the world? All the way ranging from what are my likes and dislikes? What are my early experiences? What are my foundational experiences, to what groups do I belong to? Social group membership, that tends to be a more tricky place because I think that's the arena of inclusion and exclusion. Who are my people? Where do I feel connected in those connections? Who's left out? Where have I felt left out? That process, and I think it ultimately leads and should lead to some deep interrogation of, what are my values? What are my core beliefs? What's my worldview, and what's my perspective?
I think those are critically important as human beings, but definitely as teachers, because so much of that shapes our interactions.
Min: I guess that leads me to my second question which would be, what kind of personal identity work have you done, and then how has it impacted your pedagogy?
Jason: So, I was thrust onto the work of personal identity exploration through an amazing summer camp when I was young. I didn't even know really what I was signing up for. I knew I was interested in social justice. I knew I had a vague desire for community, but a best friend of mine when I was 17 said I had to come on this seven day retreat between my Junior and Senior years, and it was seven days of dialogue about identity, and about positionality, and about systems of oppression and advantage. It was like jumping off the edge of a cliff. It was a deep, deep dive and it was powerful and scary, but I was navigated through it by really thoughtful, trustworthy adults who knew how important this work was. I learned in that seven days probably more than I learned in all my years of schooling. I had real and honest conversations across difference, around some of the places that were scariest to think about and name, and then I had really powerful capacity building conversations and intra-group experiences.
Being in a room full of white people talking about institutional racism and privilege, talking about how painful it was to see the experience of people of color, to hear about their experiences of racism, and then think about what are our experiences of whiteness or of privilege. That led me to do ongoing work in my life around creating spaces for that ongoing identity work around whiteness, to create an Affinity Group for white people to come together on a monthly basis and talk about what does it mean to be white and how are we navigating the world in that way? I know I felt a pretty deep sense of alienation the more that I started to question these things, and so even in the most selfish respect, I wanted a community where other people might be able to relate to that experience and make me feel like I had a home in which I could be conscious and aware of whiteness, and not dismiss it.
Min: Before we go into the teacher pedagogy, I was just thinking as you were sharing your story, and I'm coming to realize when I say personal identity work, I mean it includes all the different aspects of my identity, all the different dimensions of self. I feel myself coming always back to race, and I feel myself wanting my white colleagues and people of color colleagues to really delve into race as a foundational piece of that personal identity work. I'm hearing for you that that was a huge part of your personal identity work, and I'm wondering what your view is on that. Why do you think that race component is so huge in personal identity work?
Jason: It's interesting because I've also done a lot of work around gender. I've participated in a couple different men's groups, people who are identified as male. Some of them have been male and gender nonconforming with a specific look at toxic masculinity or patriarchy. We read Bell Hooks, the Wilted Chains which is her foundational piece where she actually looks at masculinity, and he spells out all of the costs to men of living in a sexist world, that it's not just about the benefits and the privileges. Those exist, those need to be accounted for, but that in fact we're dehumanized in this work as well. It's interesting because the more that I've done work around race, I've realized that there are those parallels. I actually feel dehumanized by living in a racist, white supremacist society. I feel like I reclaim my humanity the more that I spend time thinking about this, and talking about it, and creating and building a new kind of white anti-racist culture that I hope can be available to more and more white people.
Especially white students, young people growing up, because I didn't have those options as easily available. Then I go back to thinking about what was it like when I first started this journey, and I was scared. I was actually terrified on some deep, psychic level because I had internalized so deeply a sense of racism as bad people. To be racist was to be a bad person, in essence. I thought of myself as a good person, and to have that break apart would feel like a huge loss. So, it took a great deal of risk to I think be willing to step into that fear. Then once I did that, I realized it's more complex than that. It's not about good and bad people. It's about all white people. It's about even the most liberal, the most radical, the most progressive, the most good natured, intending to do well white people, still having to wrestle and grapple with the ways we've internalized negative stereotypes, the ways we've internalized white supremacist culture ideals, and that privilege is ultimately a function of living in a system that wants us to be separated.
It took sustained work to go there and to get there, and to be in that place now. It still feels scary at times. I still worry about making mistakes. I fear the loss of relationships sometimes around, will my own racist mistakes cost me friendships or deep relationships? It's a deep existential fear, but so I understand why for white people it feels so loaded. Why it feels so confusing, especially when we're told that colorblindness is actually a value and an asset. That that's what it means to live true to Martin Luther King's admonition of judging people by the content of their character and not the color of their skin. We've embraced that as a society. It's woven into the entire social fabric, without the substance of what it would take to get there.
There's also a lot of illiteracy, I think, amongst white people on how to even read, and talk, and understand race. If we've ever been in a position of having to learn stuff, it feels really difficult and there's a lot of fear of failure that I think comes up.
Min: So, you're a history teacher. How has doing all of this work impacted your pedagogy?
Jason: Yeah, I mean, I think that one piece of it is you have to know yourself, I think, to be able to ask critical questions about what you're imparting as information to other people. You know, if I didn't ask these critical questions, I read a ton of great literature, I've learned about important historical figures and important historical moments that just speak to me on so many levels. A lot of them are rooted around whiteness. A lot of them are white authors, stories with white characters. Historical moments that lift up white figures. There are ways in which I might feel like yeah, that makes sense to me. I want other people to know that. How do I start to ask myself the questions of what might be missing? How do I think about who's in my classroom and what stories they need to hear? How do I understand what is an actual accurate, historical interpretation of this country or the world? Those are different piece that start to inform my pedagogical structure in the classroom.
How do I understand that I'm actually not the greatest expert or authority in the room? My students are. How do I start to dismantle some of that thinking? That has been through personal identity work. That's been understanding the ways in which whiteness, or maleness, or my class privilege, or some of these elements have convinced me. They always tell me I have something to say. I've got something smart to say, or that I might be the expert. I need to sometimes move myself off the stage and create the room for my students to talk and learn from their own experiences, and bring their own assets into the classrooms. I don't know that I would know to do that if I wasn't asking these critical questions, having community help me think about that in that reflective way.
Min: So I know that I've heard, and perhaps you have heard, teachers who just don't want to go there. Meaning that deep emotional place that I know I had to go to, and go to when I do personal identity work, and omit the academia. Where it's I can study the systems, I can study the history as if it's separate from the individual, and I can teach the systems and the history as something separate from me. So then the teachers will ask, "Why do I have to do this? Why do I have to get emotional at my job? It's my job. It's not my personal life. My personal life is something separate." What would you say to those teachers?
Jason: Yeah, I think that there is a huge educational industry that produces lots and lots of materials and resources. Some of it really, really good. I work for an organization that produces incredible educational units, courses of study, pedagogical approaches, and they can all be implemented and you can implement them on your own, or you can get help in implementing them. Carrying them out in effective ways, in the dynamic of a classroom, in a synergy of all the different identities that are showing up in a room, all the experiences especially around exclusion or around inclusion, thinking about where we reflect ourselves in this work and what comes up and what questions get raised. I don't see how we can be effective teachers if we're not doing that deep, capacity building, internal work that often gets thought of as personal or emotional. That is what we do to be these superhuman beings that we have to be to be educators and to do a good job of it. To be able to recognize when we don't know the answer to a question, and we need to model to students.
"In fact, I need to look that up," or, "Does anyone else have thoughts or ideas?" Or, to model for students when somethings happening in our world and our environment, and we're not just gonna dismiss it because we're afraid to open up the emotions, or we're not sure where it's gonna go. We have to be courageous and brave to help navigate those conversations for our students to make sense of the world. I think that all goes back to capacity building. One of the things that I do appreciate about the work that I do in my current job with basing history on ourselves, is that when we run a PD, we intentionally create this space for adult learners. We say this isn't just to model what you're gonna do in your classroom. We're not just gonna give you an outline. We're actually gonna do this learning ourselves. We're gonna challenge our assumptions. We're gonna go through these lessons just the way our students would because we have to remember what it's like to be learners in that moment.
I think that there's so much that happens in our fast paced world that makes us think that we can shortcut and just go right to the toolkits. Even with stuff like culturally relevant teaching, there's lots of great models and frameworks. Core to that work of being able to do it effectively is that self-reflection work, is that recognizing that when we think about race, we're all racialized beings. Not just those who typically get racialized in our mainstream discourse, or those who are negatively impacted. Even for those of us who are white, who have advantages and unearned benefits of it, we've been racialized and we have to recognize those because it's gonna skew our perspectives and our lenses of how we even implement all that curriculum.
Min: I have to talk to you about one last thing, especially since you're one of the founders of AWARE-LA, and you create these Affinity Group spaces for white anti-racists. I know for me, the first time I participated in the people of color Affinity Group, it was just relief to have that space with people of color, and to be able to have that dialogue. I've heard from white colleagues how taken aback that they were the first time they encountered it. "It's divisive. Why are you separating us? It just seems wrong." Why do you think it's so important to have that white anti-racist Affinity Group?
Jason: One, I really understand why people are thrown off by it. It seems like segregation. I mean, we studied the civil rights movement. We understand how much effort, and risk, and sacrifice it took to create integrated spaces, so why would we separate? I think that too often the misnomers around that and the superficial resistance to it get in the way of thinking beyond those layers to say, "What is the purpose of this? How does this actually help us move towards our goals of building a multi-racial, multi-cultural community, and developing real projects, ideas, solutions to create equity on our campuses?" For me, it's about the most basic reason is that I, as a white person, cannot keep going to people of color to educate me about racism. I will get to the point where I'll realize I don't know my own experience. I'm the fish in water, and I can't tell what the water is, so how do I find someone who can help me deconstruct that?
When I ask people of color to continuously do that education for me, I'm placing an additional burden on them as they are already navigating a world that is racist and that is constantly facing an onslaught of micro-aggressions and racial assaults on a daily basis. So one, an Affinity Group for white people is a space to actually educate ourselves and take responsibility in that way. The other piece is that I do think that there needs to be a deliberate movement for white people of creating an anti-racist identity. I think that if we aren't proactive informing that identity, if we believe that we're just gonna be non-racists by not overtly participating in racism, we're diluting ourselves and we're actually engaging in passive forms of racism. To not do anything allows the status quo to continue. Beverly Danielle Tatum uses the metaphor of a people at the airport. That's how privilege functions. If I'm just gonna stand on there thinking, "Well, I'm not gonna move with the flow. I'm not gonna actively take advantage of this," I'm still getting moved from one direction to the next and that's how privilege functions.
So really, the option of doing something about it is to move in the opposite direction, to do something to challenge the status quo, and I think an Affinity Group helps us build the skills for doing that work. I know a lot of white people who wish that they could interrupt someone in their family when they make a racist comment, or a friend, or who wishes they can engage in building real alliances with people of color to do really challenging work in their workplaces, their schools, their communities, and they're not sure how to start those conversations. We do role plays in AWARE all the time where it's like, let's actually practice what it's like to have this conversation, so that in real life we actually feel a little bit more ready to do that. To be able to take the action we want to take. Ultimately, I think at the end of the day what I've experienced is that people who invest in doing white anti-racist Affinity Group work are actually the ones who are ready to sit at the table with people of color and have a deeper, more nuanced, more honest conversation and to build more sustainable relationships to do this work.
Min: Thank you so much, Jason. I always learn something from you, just sitting in your workshop, so I'm so grateful to have this opportunity to have a deep conversation with you.
Jason: I'm so glad you're doing this work, and thank you for inviting me.
Min: Thank you.
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Minjung Pai is committed to equity, inclusion, and progressive education. She believes that collaboration is at the core of teaching – that working together with students, parents, and teachers can make a significant, powerful, and lasting impact. She is a member of the UCLA Writing Project Leadership Team where she helps serve writing teachers in the greater Los Angeles area. She presented multiple workshops at the National Association of Independent Schools People of Color Conference and served on the local planning committee in 2017. Currently, Minjung is the Group 6 Head Teacher (5th and 6th grades) at Westland School in Los Angeles, CA where she also serves on the Board of Trustees, the Diversity Leadership Team, and the Social Justice Anti-bias Curriculum Task Force.
Follow Minjung on Twitter @minfucious