Not talking about racism is not a solution. How do we have this conversation and how do we unravel assumptions about racism? Even if you don’t have the expertise we can create safe space for the conversation. How do we get started and move forward? How can these talks bring us together?
The Heinemann Fellows recently hosted a panel about racism in education facilitated by Heinemann authors Sara Ahmed, Sonja Cherry-Paul and Cornelius Minor. After the panel we sat down, alongside Heinemann General Manager Vicki Boyd, to talk about what racism looks like and how do we breakup the assumptions we make about racism.
Sonja: One way that we can define racism is going beyond this notion of racism being simply conscious hate. That it is individual acts of hatred or bullying. But to think about racism systemically and the ways in which it really is the fog over all of our lives, and making a list of those things. For me, as an educator, racism looks like certain people's stories being included in curriculum and in texts that we read, while others are being omitted. Racism looks like telling children of color or teaching children of color to celebrate and honor men, white men in particular, throughout history who were racist and oppressors. Racism looks like teaching children that race doesn't matter when in fact race does matter, to borrow from Dr. Cornell West.
When we teach kids these sort of canned narratives that race doesn't matter, we're all the same, we're all equal, there really needs to be a paradigm shift where we're teaching our children race does matter in this society. It shouldn't, but it does. And for some of your peers and for some citizens, they're having a very different experience because of the color of their skin. In our household, we see that as unjust and unfair and we are pushing back against that, but it's important for you to know that as you are going to school and celebrating the uniqueness's of your peers. That racism is real and it does matter in this society because there are people who make it matter. I wish that was the narrative that parents were taking in their homes and then teachers can pick up in schools, in developmentally appropriate ways to help kids understand this.
Brett: Cornelius, you talked about how we need to dismantle the assumptions of racism. We typically think of it as acts of violence or acts of hate. At one point, I can't remember who said it, somebody said, "There's an insistence of innocence among white people." And you helped us think through the systems in place that allow racism to continue, the systems in place that are racism. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Cornelius: Yeah. I'm really into the idea that systems can be examined and we can look at them and take them apart and add parts to it. When I say system, I'm looking specifically at the rules, the policies, the procedures, the customs that govern a specific place. When I look at racism, just to give it some historical context. Racism is the ideology that justified the trans Atlantic slave trade. It is human nature to be or really if you look at Newtonian physics, it's natural to at rest or in motion. It's natural to be at stasis. So when something is not quite balanced, something is wrong. We always want to move towards balance. When something is wrong you have to justify why the thing is wrong.
When you think about trans Atlantic slave trade, that was a vast wrong. So those people in power had to figure out ways to justify, how can this thing be wrong without outrage. This invention that there are these people called black, or there are people who are brown, and those people are less then us. That ideology, pervasive, pervasive, pervasive, but what happens is, that ideology, it infiltrates systems like schools, like health care, like government. So what happens when you take an ideology like racism and apply it to an institution like school, what ends up happening is that institution produces unequal outcomes for specific sub sets of people. Specifically black and brown children. Given the equal investment of time, energy, love, black and brown children net less of a gain from education or from school then their white peers because this system is in place that guarantees that will be the outcome.
When I thing about them, what are the constituent parts of the system, the constituent parts might be things like school discipline or what counts as work. In some schools, if only writing counts as work, the kids that are culturally predisposed to speaking are locked out of success within that system. That happens consistently over time. Even though there is no ill will or ill intent in that situation, because of the very mechanism of what is success and what is not success is set up against me. I can never do well within that system.
What happens is, the kid who is predisposed to speaking culturally nets less in that system. Then we point at that kid and say there's something wrong with you. There's a deficit there, when really it's the system that didn't allow that kid opportunities to be successful in the way that are really important to that kids' particular culture or that kids' particular racial or ethnic back ground.
Sonja: I think it's also important to point out that the whole notion of schooling, in terms of you were talking about intention. The whole intention of schooling was to never include black and brown children. To always exclude them and to make sure that they didn't have access to education. To see what you're describing playing out in schools doesn't surprise me. In fact, I feel that we often try to give people credit and say but we have the best intentions, when in fact, the intentions were not the best. They aren't the best and they were never the best.
When we think about what racism is, it's this whole architect of schooling which was never, ever designed to include brown and black bodies from the beginning. I feel like there needs to be an incredible over haul and transformation of schooling, in order for everyone's talents to be noticed and for everyone to have the ability to be successful.
Brett: Cornelius, I want to go back to a story that I've heard you tell a couple of times regarding your wife and the call center that she works at. I'd like you to share that story and connect that to this conversation and it's importance.
Cornelius: I have the most amazing wife on the planet. She spends a few evenings a week at a sexual violence call center. You pretty much wait by the phone all night. People call in. We don't really talk about it because it's a confidentiality thing, so I don't know what she does all night. When she volunteered there, people would call in and she would work people through problems, through crisis's. It was a night time thing, so she would come home very, very early in the morning. There was one specific morning that she came home and she was distressed. Usually she never wakes me up. She just comes and it's a thing that I acknowledge, but we don't really talk about it because we can't.
This one particular night, she said to me, "You know Cornelius, I really need you to talk to your guy friends about sexual violence. And I need you to talk to them specifically about rape." That just struck me as an odd request early in the morning. I just was like, "You know, it's not a guy thing. Why is this something I need to bring to my circle of guy friends?" She looked at me and was like, "Cornelius, in this community you are an influential athlete. You're a teacher. A lot of people look at you. And sexual violence is not a women problem. Women didn't create it. Women do not benefit from it, so it is a man problem. Men perpetuate it, men created it. Men benefit. If you're not talking to your guy friends about this, then you are complicit in sexual violence." That just really struck me, as her husband, as a man.
When thing about then, and I transfer that to the conversation around race, that racism isn't something that was created by people of color. It isn't something that is perpetuated by people of color. It isn't something that people of color benefit from. When I think about solutions to racism, people of color can't be the only folks doing the work. It has to be white folks doing the work. If I look at it again, like sexual violence, it has to be men standing up, speaking out and not allowing it to exist in our friendships and in our communities. And the same applies to racism, it has to be white folks saying that this has no place in my community.
Brett: Sara, I want to bring you into this conversation. We have to get uncomfortable with these conversations. We have to live in that uncomfortable place. Help us figure out or talk us through that uncomfortable place we need to get to.
Sara: I think one of the things that we have to face first, is there is a lot of truths. There's a powerful and palpable silence about race and racism. We're silent because we don't know where to start. We've heard an educator say we only get through 50 percent of the conversation and don't know where to go. I think that there's a multitude of things that get in the way. But one of those ways to just begin a difficult conversation is to say "I know my truths. I know my experience as truth, but I have to be accepting and understanding and listening to the experience of others. Also take those as truth." Your lived experience is also a truth, just as mine is. And until we can even do that, we won't get passed a lot of that barrier, or a lot of that silence.
Brett: Not doing anything is a choice of doing nothing. To not have those conversations because out of fear that we'll say the wrong thing, especially when white people have that fear and they're sitting there and they're struggling with what to say, how to have that conversation. Choosing not to have those conversations is a choice to do nothing. I want to preface this with a quote that I've heard both you and Sonja say, "Just because I'm this person, that doesn't make me the diversity expert." I think that's really important for all people to understand.
Sara: I think I can name that because it's something that I struggle with. If you're on a panel, or you're being asked by a school or someone to come and talk to us about race. Sara, can you come talk to our staff about race? I often question why that is. I don't always understand it because I'm brown, it does not make me a diversity expert. It doesn't make me an expert on race. I have lived experiences, but really what I hope I can bring is the fact that I'm becoming increasingly more comfortable with the discomfort of having these conversations. I will come to your school as that. To help support everyone having those conversations but, not the expert because I'm brown.
Sonja: I think it's another way to sort of shift the responsibility of dismantling racism on the people who are affected by racism. Two years ago there was an incident in my school and I reported to my super intendant who happens to be white. His response to me, in written format, was "I'm sure that was awful for you. Why don't you go and tell the high school students how that made you feel?" My response was, "No. The onus is not on me because I happen to be the black person in this district." This incident related to name calling and using the N word.
I felt like this is something we need to tackle as a community not individual, that one individual who happens to be African American should go speak out against it. That was one of the reasons why I started a committee called the Race Matters Committee, in my district, where I just got a couple of colleagues who could come together and talk about that incident and also other issues that had been happening in our district. I just saw really clearly that I needed to surround myself with allies because I really felt like I was going to have to quit my job and leave my district because it felt so isolating. This is your problem, Sonja. You go handle it.
I think the onus is on all of us to do this work. We need to make sure that brown and black voices are heard and that they are at the center of that. But we also need white folks to educate themselves and to learn what they need to do to partner with everyone around them to tackle this problem and not just rely on the people who happen to be affected by it.
Brett: You're also said too, it's important to not lose sight of racism and constantly attach other things to it, where it then gets lost and forgotten. Can you talk a little bit about how important that is but also the responsibility of the community to support in that work?
Sonja: Right. I work in a district that's predominantly white teachers and white students. I've noticed that when ever we come around to have a purposeful conversation around diversity, specifically race and racism, it sort of segways into sexism or disabilities and learning challenges and what I've called the safe zones for the people in my district. The one thing that always falls to the wayside is racism. I think it is very challenging for people to have these conversations. For a litany of reasons, they're afraid they're going to say the wrong thing or they are just woefully unprepared to have these conversations, so they don't. They feel the best thing to do is say nothing. That to in fact, engage in these conversations is somehow polarizing and divisive, so it's best that we don't talk about this at all. Again, it was important for me to say, "No, There's going to be a committee and we're just going to specifically focus on race and racism."
Brett: I want talk about some things that we can do as educators, but before I go there, I feel that it's important that we need to go back and examine white privilege. It's a tough phrase to say. It's a tough idea to get out there and have conversations around. One thing,
Sonja, you've taught me is we sometimes will attach privilege to economics. That is an element of white privilege as well. How can we have these conversations about white privilege in a way where they're open, they're honest, we are uncomfortable but we're moving forward in our knowledge and we're not sitting in ignorance around it?
Sonja: I think one of the best ways to talk about white privilege is to say aside from economics, now that's a very real privilege, we can't pretend that it doesn't exist. We can certainly just look at our neighborhoods and we can look at the schools and we can compare them to other schools. If we just push that to the side, what are all of the other ways in which privilege lives? The privilege of being able to go to a library and find a book that has a character on the cover that looks like you. A book that has a story that is about you or as simple as watching a commercial and finding a product to shampoo your hair. To learn about that from watching TV, which is not an experience that I have. I have to take other measures to find out about different products for my hair, as a black woman. I don't have the privilege of just watching network TV and just seeing a commercial that is talking about people like me, who have hair like me.
In all these big and small ways, this is what privilege is. Probably in recent times, the most read piece of writing on privilege by Peggy McIntosh, but there've been a lot of brown and black folks talking about privilege for years. We should probably go back and figure out who they are. That's an entry point for some people, where she talks about unpacking her invisible knapsack. Being able to find a Band-Aid that looks like your flesh color. I've been seeing a lot of discussions about ballet dancers now that we have Misty Copeland in the spot light. There are brown and black people who are trying to create companies where the point shoes, even, are coming in different skin tones. Because historically, there's just one and it doesn't look like mine.
I think we could have these really obvious conversations about privilege that would then help people, help raise their consciousness. It's not just about economics. Again, economics is a big part of it but it's all of these other ways that I think people don't think about.
Brett: I want to add something that I heard today, in our conversations. It costs white people nothing to speak up. I felt that was an incredibly powerful statement. I don't remember who said it or at what point it came up but that really struck me as important.
Cornelius: It's exciting too because a lot of times we assume that these conversations have to be hard. One of the things that I always want to recognize is that one of the things that solidifies friendships is shared struggle. I'm sitting next to Vicki here, I like legit love her. I think a lot of that is rooted in the times that we spent together, we've talked about really meaningful things. To look at these conversations as hard conversations is one thing, but to look at these conversations that are going to solidify friendships, to look at these conversations that are going to strengthen professional bonds, to look at these conversations and say these are conversations that are going to sharpen my abilities to teach kids, I think that's the win.
That, no, it's not going to be a difficult conversation for the sake of a difficult conversation. This is going to be a difficult conversation that makes me feel really excited about being around my boss. Or this is going to be a difficult conversation. When we think about difficulty, I'm a skateboarder, you do a difficult thing because it's going to pay off. You don't just do a difficult thing for the sake of doing a difficult thing. I look at a set of stairs and I'm like, "I'm going to jump down those stairs because somebody's going to think I'm cool."
I think that's important. That this doesn't always have to be heavy, dark storm clouds. This can be something I'm going to engage in this thing with my colleague because I love her. Or I'm going to engage in this thing with my colleague because I think that we can be better colleagues to each other, if we do this hard thing together. Always just putting humanity at the center of all of this. That, yes, I'm going to do this hard thing, but this hard thing is going to have real social pay off in terms of how effectively I'm able to reach all students and then collegial pay off, in how well I'm able to work with my team.
Sonja: I think because it's hard, we tend to shy away from it but just with skateboarding and doing that really cool jump, it gets easier the more practice you have. We can get better at having these conversations about race and racism. They can be more fluid. But the way for that to happen is not to not have them.
Sonja: To have them more. In my work, I've been reading a lot of research. There was a study that said 75 percent of white families never or almost never talk to their children about race. When we just think about the intent behind that, what ever it is, if we just ask ourselves, is there any evidence that this assumption works? That our kids are going to be more tolerant and more accepting if we don't talk about race? Where is the evidence for that? It's certainly not true in 2017. It's not true in 2014. If we all just don't talk about it, we're going to have these children that grow up to be really amazing. That's not what they do. They grow up and they take these silences and they try to attach some sort of meaning to it, because they've been forced to work it out themselves.
Sara: Wouldn't you guys say, that really means too, that we don't have to have the answers when we approach the conversation, right? You can approach the conversation with humility. As a society, we're always looking to have the answer at the end of a conversation. But if we leave that conversation asking more questions, then democracy can evolve. We can progress in our democracy if we are asking more questions than having to be confident that we have the answers to everything.
Vicki: This is Vicki, the white person at the table who's feeling like I need to be a little braver and speak up. This is what it sounds like, a white person sounds like who's trying to find words and participate in these conversations. Just connecting to Sara, your observation that many of us are reluctant to speak up because we feel like we don't have the expertise. I think this is a particular hurdle for teachers, who really feel like they have to have the back ground knowledge and the authority, when we know as a publisher of progressive resources for teachers, that so much of the work is about creating a safe space for the conversation to happen. It's really important for the teacher to show up as a student too. It's okay. This is an opportunity for you to learn alongside your students.
I'm sitting here at this table and I've learned so much. Look for ways, like I'm doing in this conversation, to insert, to practice and acknowledge where you are. And make a commitment to moving from there, forward. One of the reasons I'm at this table is because as a publisher of professional resources for teachers, we recognize that we have a special obligation in this conversation. Looking at the kinds of books that we're putting out. Who are the children that are represented in the photographs in those books? How are we talking about children? How we representing all populations of children. Who are the teachers that get to be in these conversations?
We're also looking at the make up of our team, here at Heinemann, and we're wanting it to be more reflective of the broader array of humanity. We want to bring all of those perspective in house to inform everything that we do. It's a learning conversation for us. We feel our responsibility. We also understand that a lot of teachers perceive us as having a lot of authority. So we better study up and find some words.
Brett: Before we wrap this up, I want to give any of our listeners some next steps. Some strategies, some things they can do tomorrow or do today, depending on when they're listening. Sara, certainly something you said at one point. Read a book from an author that doesn't look like you. What other small steps can we do and how can those lead towards bigger steps?
Sara: I think that there's again this helplessness of looking to brown educators, educators of color, to say what resources do you have? We need those. My response is usually just read something by someone who doesn't look like you. Listen to another voice. That's just one take away these guys have.
Cornelius: There was a moment a few years ago, I don't know if you remember this Sara, I was really nervous. I had to teach this institute. Sara came on the first day of the institute and she just sat in my class so that I wouldn't be scared. She sat there. She sat there. She sat there. She left early and when she left, she left a Batman action figure on my desk. It was really perplexing because I didn't see her do it.
I'm in the middle of teaching this thing, that I'm really scared to teach. I go to the desk and there's a Batman figure. I just picked it up and I looked at it. I turned to the class and I said, "Who did this?" That was the first moment where I allowed myself to be vulnerable. I was carrying all this stress with me the whole morning but just asking a simple question and not knowing the answer, and not expecting to ever arrive at one.
If I were to give teachers any kind of next steps, it's be public about asking questions and don't expect to arrive at an answer. That it's totally okay to be vulnerable. It's totally okay to have a question and it's totally okay to not find the answer today. What was really interesting in the group when I held the Batman figure, we legitimately didn't know who did it, but everybody had these theories. It brought us all together. So the idea that you're not going to solve racism in a 45 minute class period, but people are going to have theories. People are going to have ideas and they're going to be together. I think that's really, really important.
Sonja: Yeah. I would say that racism, it's perpetuated by all who do not actively work to dismantle the system. One of things that happens a lot is, there are these emotions. Whether it's shame or frustration or anger, there is this idea that we shouldn't have those feelings. Let's instead be calm and patient and peaceful. Maybe it's the revolutionary in me, but I would like us to lean into those feelings of anger and frustration and shame and just confusion. Allow that to galvanize us to action toward dismantling the system. Let's not be afraid of it. Let's channel it and then act in ways that really help our kids and help ourselves and will help the world.