A Wake Up Call for White People
The past two weeks have been a time of widespread racial awakening for many white people, including teachers. I have had several friends say to me, “I feel terrible for not doing more earlier.” I am personally very familiar with this feeling of shame. Although I’ve been lucky to have been a part of anti-racist organizing since 2014, these past weeks have made me feel ashamed. I’ve felt that I haven’t done enough for racial justice, especially as a teacher.
Too many times I was silent for the sake of my own comfort. Click To Tweet
Too many times I was silent for the sake of my own comfort. Too many times I caused harm through acting out my own internalized white supremacy. Not to mention the years before 2014. Many times it was very easy for me to think and write critically about the role of white supremacy in classrooms including my own, but I struggled to put this critical thinking into practice.
In February, my school rolled out a new instructional plan to get our students ready for the state exams. We were told it was not test prep, but whatever we called it couldn’t change the reality. At this point in the year, I already felt frustrated and sad by the amount of testing we put our kids through. We used i-Ready, previous state exams, city performance tasks all in addition to curriculum-based assessments. I knew this shift was only going to further what Dr. Bettina Love would call the “spirit murdering” nature of our school’s instruction. I knew all this but voiced my objections with equivocation and deference. I knew all this but proceeded to teach my third graders solely using released exam questions. It felt wrong in my heart and was an injustice, but I failed to disrupt the harm.
A Lifelong Journey Ahead
And here we are now. So many white people are feeling called to speak up and show up for the fight for racial justice. I know showing up now does not absolve me of my past mistakes, but it does offer an antidote to my shame. This is important, because shame can often be paralyzing, self-indulgent, and counterproductive to the work of racial justice. The message I’ve shared with some of my white friends, and that I’m trying to remember myself, is that we have the rest of our lives to do this work.
It’s hard for me to say this. I want to believe that collective liberation, an end to white supremacy and patriarchy and all forms of oppression, is just around the corner. I want this so badly, especially in our schools. To imagine schools that truly affirm Black lives through restorative justice, teaching Black history, hiring Black teachers, and providing counselors instead of cops is a beautiful dream. But in reality, the struggle for freedom will likely last the rest of our lifetimes and beyond. What this means is that I have the rest of my life to continue learning anti-racism, unlearning white supremacy, and trying my best to show up in service of justice. I can’t undo my silence or complacency. I can’t take back microaggressions I made. But, I can hold onto them as reminders of my imperfection. And I can commit myself daily to repairing these harms by doing better.
Three Lessons from Dolores Huerta
As I think about this work, I am remembering three lessons I heard Dolores Huerta share in a speech at the Union Theological Seminary:
It’s a long journey, not a quick moment.
Don’t give up, mistakes are our best teachers.
Bring someone with you.
These lessons feel so important to remember now. I have had the tendency in the past to place life-or-death stakes on every decision and every challenge I face as a white person trying to engage in anti-racist work. That means every time I have failed, the failure has felt overwhelming. Remembering that anti-racist work is a long journey allows me some grace, and somehow makes me braver. By giving myself permission to be imperfect, I actually show up better than I did when I was trying (and failing) to be perfect. My goal is just to do better each time and continue stretching a little further into my discomfort.
As a teacher, I have tried hard to teach my students the value of mistakes. You’ll often hear us say “Mistakes help our brains grow,” in my third-grade classroom. When it comes to my own anti-racist practice, I have struggled to maintain this mindset. Because we view racism as a moral issue, failing in my anti-racist practice feels like failing as a human being. But without absolving myself of harm I cause, I am trying to remember two things. First, racism is systemic. It is an ideology that pervades our media and other institutions. Therefore, it makes sense that as a white person I perpetuate racism, in spite of my best intentions. Secondly, when I mess up, I have the opportunity to learn and do better. In fact, making mistakes is usually how humans learn.
White People Need Each Other
Dolores Huerta’s third lesson feels especially poignant now as so many people join the movement for racial justice in new ways or for the first time. Whether you’re brand new to this work, or have been doing it since birth, you can’t do it alone. Trying to do this work alone is antithetical to racial justice in a number of ways, not the least of which is that individualism is a characteristic of white supremacy culture. The truth is we need each other. And white people trying to be anti-racist really need each other.
We need to learn how to love and support one another, rather than distancing ourselves from each other. I’ve done this consciously and unconsciously. I thought talking about racism with friends and colleagues of color showed I was one of the good white people. But I learned, mostly because Black people in my life told me, that I needed to stay in a relationship with other white people.
I need to stay in these relationships so I could interrupt racist behavior when I witnessed it. But I’ve learned that I need other white people in my anti-racist work. Otherwise, I feel incredibly lonely and isolated. There are messy parts of my anti-racist journey that I cannot and should not share with Black people in my life. In order to honestly and vulnerably process these experiences, I need a community of white people working toward racial justice.
I have connected to this community through organizations in New York City like Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, Showing Up for Racial Justice, and through social media. It’s been especially helpful to connect with white teachers doing this work so that I can discuss the specific work of anti-racism in schools.
I don’t know what the weeks or months hold for our communities or our schools. Amidst the pain, sadness, and anger over the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Tony McDade, I am also feeling a sense of hope. The protests across our country have suddenly shifted our culture. We’re not taking cops for granted as a reality of our communities or our schools. Organizers in Minneapolis and elsewhere have been fighting for this vision for years, and it looks like victory is possible.
Whatever comes next, I know that there is a long journey ahead. That can feel daunting, but if we let ourselves, we can also feel excited. We get to dedicate our lives to justice. For white people, this work is nothing less than a chance to reclaim our full humanity. That feels so beautiful I want to rush toward it.
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