“I never learned about race in school:” unlearning the lies of silence

with respect and gratitude for my students and my co-teacher Marcus Campbell

 What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society. If a society succeeds in this, that society is about to perish. The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it–at no matter what risk.  This is the only hope society has. This is the only way societies change.

  • James Baldwin

It is December, and I just finished reading this semester’s batch of students’ racial autobiographies.  Another three hundred pages of traveling alongside young people as they revisit childhood friendships and separations and peel through layers of assumptions, reactions, and values.

In this teacher preparation class, I soak up the school memories and the questions about priorities that emerge when students have time to reflect.  I see Jean, Ron, Molly, and the rest of my students, honoring what was in their hearts when they were small:  who am I to you?  who gets to say what is true?  I listen to them mourning the child they were, who sat in classroom after classroom, hour after hour, day after day, year after year, without being known, without knowing themselves.  I witness my Black student Terra’s genius in naming the feeling of being unwelcome in the moment that it’s impacting her, and confronting her white peers who yet again have pushed her away.

I am moved, frustrated, elated, angry, galvanized.  Where do I go with all these feelings my students’ words have stirred in me?

Because as I read, reflect, write responses, I am experiencing a bit of what they experienced.

As a lifelong teacher, I have read millions of pages of young people’s stories, thoughts, wonderings, and worries. At a 9th grade retreat I sat in the back of the room with Devon as he entered high school, listening to his new classmates’ narratives of their struggles and joys. Devon affirmed each student with a short, shining rap that exuded respect.  I read Marisol’s poem about caring for her father, drunk, abusive, and brilliant; she expressed in images of glass and wood how her 16 year-old life is thick with contradictions.  Each student I taught has become part of me; I feel their spoken and written words, their journeys, their faces, etched into me at a cellular level.

My students have politicized me. My Asian-American student Leslie’s conversations and reading and reflection lead her to the conclusion that her education failed her: it withheld the tools to build a healthy vision of the future.  In her racial autobiography, she notes that her schools could have helped her find and draw and compare maps for navigating the most important relationships in her life — but instead, the school structures and instruction funneled her attention to tests and grades.  She is angry with herself for allowing herself to be duped. Over and over and over:

In school, all the classes were supposedly unbiased and fact-based, so there was no arguing against what was taught, since it was the “truth”. Confederates were the enemy, Martin Luther King was the leader of the whole civil rights movement, suffrage solved all problems, we were justified in fighting in Vietnam. As a scientist, facts are the end all be all, and to be told that my lessons were statements of past facts meant I never even thought to think critically about the history of the American people or the current state of our society. I wonder if that is the reason why I did not understand my personal identity as a person of color, but as the White identity I developed growing up. It strikes me as ironic that my high school – meant to be one of the best in the Capital Region — was one that initiated no discussion on diversity and identity, let alone social justice. A high school that in making history “uncolored” and “unbiased” (which in all honesty, can it ever be?), completely stripped its students of awareness and critical thinking.

As I follow Leslie’s analytical process, I’m angry, too.  No, I’m enraged.  I know from my own experience that self-blame will keep her in a cage of confusion, instead of identifying the system that has manufactured the lies and the silence, and targeting it, to break free.

In her racial autobiography, Terra demands that teachers take responsibility for our complicity with toxic hypocrisy: when we profess values we don’t enact, it’s worse than not teaching them.  “Critical thinking” that lives only on paper, in limited contexts, sucks the life out of truth.

Terra connects the educational theory she read in our class to her own school experience:

My school was not known for individualism. It was known for scholarship and discipline. It was clearly known that people who worked there had power and authority over what we did, how we talked, what we wore, and when we were allowed to do things. It was a very clear power imbalance between teachers and students. It didn’t help that the teachers were white and 99% of the students were Black. When I think about my experience now, I get so angry because these white teachers who claimed to care about us so much didn’t care to remove this imbalance of power. I don’t think it’s unintentional that my white classmates say they loved to learn and were taught to question ideas and form their sense of self, and my school did not. Yet somehow, I became one of those roses that grew out of the crack, and so did many of my classmates. However, it seemed like my white teachers in high school did not know how to cater to students who defeated all odds; instead, it seemed like they wanted to stunt our growth by holding on to their power.  In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire acknowledged that some teachers have a “banking” concept of education where students receive, file, and store deposits of education, and they don’t develop critical consciousness or critically consider reality. This is the framework of my high school, which is probably why our teachers always complained that we needed to be critical thinkers in our papers, but did not implement it in the curriculum. That’s why most of us did not know how to do that.

I am struck by my students’ sense of betrayal.  The people appointed to be their guides colluded in a cover-up that suffocated independent thought and real feeling.  Their intentions were good, but the teachers did real harm when they refused to question the systems they were perpetuating.  The vast majority of my students say their teachers helped to create a culture of competition, obedience, and worry.  And disempowerment, as my Latino student Rudy points out:

My high school suffered from high [turnover] rates – as much as 25% of teachers every year. Every year, I was disappointed to return to my school only to find out some of my favorite new teachers had moved on to better-paying jobs farther out to the suburbs. It was devastating. It was a symptom of many problems my community faced, including lack of funding and, in my opinion, collective action. There’s no doubt students cared about the negligent care our schools received. But action was rare, for we merely brushed off our hopes due to what seemed like a system unlikely to ever change. Our teachers came and went, and we cherished those who stayed. I now question the intentionality of those who left quickly; were we just a careless step to launch your career? I think it’s important to realize that when a teacher enters a school, they’re also entering a community. They adopt a responsibility to work alongside the community, especially disenfranchised communities.

Rudy urges us to learn and share the skills of collective action that address the systematic disinvestment in African-American and Latino communities and the violent neglect of schools in low-income neighborhoods.  The tools of change – becoming conscious individually and powerful collectively — are in the community, not outside of it.  It can be scary for my students to question the authority they were educated to obey, but when they focus on following the leadership of people in marginalized communities, they learn resistance practices that strengthen and heal.

Teaching is not science or history; it is not writing; it is not the transactions of the classroom.  It is a relationship.  Rudy is calling for teachers to use their heads and their hearts, to take seriously the students before them.  This means shaking up the lies and hypocrisy; it means challenging the silence around the history and perpetuation of white supremacy and learning how to create a counternarrative: “work alongside the community.”



Recovering from “the anesthesia of power:” Conflict and healing in dialogue

For as we begin to recognize our deepest feelings, we begin to give up, of necessity, being satisfied with suffering and self-negation, and with the numbness which so often seems like their only alternative in our society.  Our acts against oppression become integral with self, motivated and empowered from within.

  • Audre Lorde

“You don’t buy it, do you?” I said to my co-teacher. “Nope.” I was smiling anxiously.  He was not smiling. “And I do. I’m trying to train myself not to, but I still do.” We had just showed a video that highlighted a racial conflict, and a student had blamed it on “white entitlement.”  My co-teacher asked our class, “where do you think entitlement comes from?”  The first response to his question came from Leann, a 23 year-old white woman: “Ignorance.” In the video, we saw that a white woman’s words were causing pain to First Nations people.  I believed, and Leann believed, that the white woman didn’t know she was causing pain.  My co-teacher did not believe this.

This difference created an opening for me to explore how racist complicity can form and spread within and between white people.  I am a white female teacher, and my co-teacher is a Black male.  By analyzing my own response to a moment in my teaching through the lens of what Mab Segrest calls an “anesthetic aesthetic,” I want to learn about emotions and historical consciousness in anti-racist pedagogy.  I center this inquiry around a graduate education classroom discussion of a moment of conflict, where strong emotions, rooted in histories of trauma, re-shape a context that is raced white.  We were considering the video of an interchange in a context that may register as neutral to a white audience, but that evokes a history of oppression to First Nations people in the space.

“Stop talking!”

On June 30, during Canada Day festivities, First Nations women leaders held a press conference, to demand that the government prioritize its investigation into the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women.  Indigenous leaders emphasize that extreme violence targeting Indigenous women meets with public indifference, continuing the legacy of settler colonialism and ongoing systemic racism.  In the news clip that we showed in class, a white female reporter asks, “How can he be blamed? You don’t think anything he’s doing is helping the situation? Is he [Justin Trudeau] an improvement over Stephen Harper?”

The Elders leading the press conference quiet the reporter: “you don’t know how to communicate;” and demand that she change her tone.  One of the leaders, Ms. Jocelyn Wabano-Iahtail, reminds the assembled reporters that they are guests in this space and they must speak with respect.  She observes that racist behaviors in the room are continuous with a history of racism in the Americas: “You haven’t changed, because you haven’t started your own healing journeys!”  A white male reporter speaks up, promising to speak respectfully.  His question: Are things better now than under Stephen Harper?

Ms. Wabano-Iahtail observes that the reporters are playing out the customary patterns of white fragility: the white man defends the white woman’s right to her question. “Who,” she asks, “defends our rights? 524 years of genocide; who has stood up for us?”

The reporters continue to push for a narrative of progress.  They don’t acknowledge the wracking pain of the people in the space with them, who have seen their daughters killed and their mothers and grandmothers for generation after generation erased, belittled, colonized.  The trauma of oppression is present in this room, active in this moment.  The Elders cut off the reporters: “No! Stop talking! This press conference is over!”

Ignorance as oppression

After watching the video of this anguishing interchange, our class processed what we had seen and heard, taking note of the importance of tone and place and historic relations between white people and Indigenous people in North America.  Students had just read Paulo Freire’s book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and they were paying close attention to humanization and dehumanization, both within the press conference and within themselves as they watched.

We sought to discuss the people, words, and history in the video with respect, conscious that we were watching the video out of context.  We were trying to counter the conventional emotional distance of the classroom with our personal responses of outrage and love.  Expressing strong emotion in a setting like a university classroom, where the unspoken norm is coldly intellectual can feel awkward, unnatural.  But Ms. Wabano-Iahtail’s rebuke to the reporters made us realize that a response that avoided touching the historic and present trauma of the First Nations community would be racist.  She traced out a boundary that had been invisible to the white reporters, and that forced us as listeners to pause and reflect.

When students broke into small discussion groups, I checked in with my co-teacher about Leann’s comment that entitlement comes from ignorance. The video had been upsetting; it had reminded him of other press conferences he had watched on TV over the years, where Black people on either side of the microphone had been publically disrespected.  These memories had been painful.  Then, when hurtful behavior was ascribed to ignorance, no one had spoken up to challenge what this really meant.

Though we start our class with readings that help us talk about the difference between intent and impact, I, like many of my white students, am still ready to see racist attitudes as emerging from ignorance.  “I’m not sure how to get through this block,” I said to my co-teacher. “My default response is still to assume ignorance.” I have acted, spoken, and thought out of ignorance countless times.  I have made a habit of dismissing the impact of other white people’s behavior by calling it unaware.

From thinking to thinking-and-feeling

I am learning to resist the gravitational pull of my assumptions.  This means fighting my natural response; it means believing others’ experience more than my own judgment.  Since my mind doesn’t want to do this, I have to tell it that it doesn’t really know.  An emotional lurch quickens the process. Conflict, grief, anger – the feelings that are hardest to face fling me past my limits.

It’s only when I force myself to listen to the pain of a person like Ms. Wabano-Iahtail, when I force myself to remember the historical, generational, lifelong, constant trauma that Latina/o, African American, Native American, Asian American, and Middle Eastern people carry, that I’m able to shift my perspective and realize that attributing racist acts to ignorance has the impact of minimizing their suffering.  The Indigenous Elders’ repeated command, “Stop!” helped me to stop.

When I stop and push myself through a slower thinking-and-feeling process, I realize that people who come from historically targeted backgrounds have inherited a pain that flares acutely when it meets racism.  When the racism is denied, questioned, or ignored, the pain spreads.  In the press conference my class watched, the focus was on the excruciating issue of violence against Indigenous women, and the government’s inadequate response. The reporter’s question about whether matters had improved under Justin Trudeau’s government passed over the trauma the Native leaders were feeling, voicing, and acting on, regarding this issue and related matters of residential schools, the Indian Act, and so many other ways in which the genocidal history of white supremacy has continued to impact First Nations people in Canada.  As I think this through, I begin to hear the disrespect in the reporter’s question, the dehumanization it allows and perpetuates.  This takes me a long time.

The colonialist mentality, a Black student in our class pointed out, still dominates, prescribing not only policy but interchanges like the one we were watching.  “I don’t know if it sounded this way to you,” he said, “but to my ears it sounded like the reporters were saying, ‘haven’t we done enough for you?’”

I recognized it once he said it, but I hadn’t articulated it. I had watched the news clip many times by the time I showed it in class, and I felt troubled and confused.  Moments like this make me question my own responses.  How did my student hear a colonialist message that I didn’t? Why is my co-teacher pained by watching scenes like this in a way that I am not?  Why do I accept ignorance as justification for racist behavior?  Why am I ok with my own confusion? What’s wrong with me?

Amnesia, anesthesia, contradiction

In her essay “Of Soul and White Folk,” Mab Segrest talks about the “anesthetic aesthetic” that blocks dominant culture people from pain, awareness of their own responsibility in systemic violence, and their own consciousness.  She studies the emotional atrophy of slave-owning white people, as an example of white numbness in the face of violence against people of color.  “Necessary to the slave system was the masters’ blocked sensation of its pain, an aesthetic that left him insensible not only to the fellow human beings he enslaves, but to the testimony of his senses that might have contradicted ideologies of slavery.”

Inner contradiction, denial, and systemic violence blunt our feeling capacities and our health: “the affective void from which feelings and perceptions have been blocked in oneself and cast onto Others is the space where addictions arise.”  The damage of disconnection and distance, Segrest says, isn’t just direct, physical, or historical. It is hardwired in white people like me and there is much in white supremacy culture that maintains it.

Recovering our human connectedness through focused inner work and outer action helps us to heal ourselves and our world. “Action expands perceptions because it shifts and enlarges our point of view and our capacity and motivation to process bigger chunks of reality.”  Though we have inherited a destructive disease, white people can reverse the racism that “encodes itself in our consciousness, closing the doors of our perception.”  We become more whole as we sit with the pain that we have for so long pushed away.  We can reclaim our souls, planting our mental and social processes within the affective life of feeling, respect, and mutual responsibility.



#Nobannowall vs. #Buildthewall: Rethinking conflict in school

What does it mean to teach civil dialogue today, when the leaders of democratic society aren’t modeling it? When many children of immigrants are living in terror of deportation ripping their families apart? When students in cafeterias and on athletic fields across the country have adopted “build a wall!” as a handy taunt, and often teachers and parents don’t know how to respond? When we lack the language of social responsibility and trust in human community?

In many schools, administrators have attempted to protect students and teachers from confusion and conflict by prohibiting political discussion, declaring schools safe zones from controversy. So, the place where students are educated for thinking through hard things, for exchange across differences, comparing, interpreting, re-evaluating, questioning, is not the place where they are processing the complex ideas and events that the world around them presents.

When I was in high school in the 80’s, those of my classmates who knew about the wars in Central America said the U.S. was right to support death squads to prevent the rise of Communism.  I knew refugees from Central America who had fled the death squads, and I didn’t know how to disagree with my classmates without disliking them.  I needed to dig into questions of U.S. policy, ethics, and human rights with my teachers and peers, not to change anyone’s position or solidify my own, but to recognize that these questions mattered.  Instead, we continued learning equations and reading Shakespeare; my teachers’ silence on political issues told me that these issues didn’t matter to the school.  I looked outside of school for the hard conversations I needed to have to feel I was engaging with real life.  I wish my school had encouraged us to question authority, to challenge our assumptions, to engage complexity.

When we simply avoid controversial discussions, we drive complexity underground temporarily, ensuring that it will burst out in moments and contexts of stress.  Abandoning students to handle these hard moments without adult support and guidance is unethical.

Yet, controversy also has the potential to generate better thinking and learning.  Controversy creates a powerful filter: everything shifts when it surfaces in a room, whether in the form of a direct lesson on immigration policy or because a hallway snub has spilled over into the classroom. When people sense the possibility of a controversy, they become more alert, more focused.  The air becomes a little electric.  There is potential in these moments for deep, true learning:

Despite its sometimes uncomfortable presence, conflict is both unavoidable and potentially beneficial. Controversial discussion adds energy and motivation to the classroom; heightens awareness and increases student engagement, and gives us as instructors opportunities to encourage the development of critical thinking skills and potentially new solutions to societal issues (Landis, ed., 2008, p. 32: this and other helpful resources can be found at this link: Conflict/Civil discourse/Controversial issues: Teaching Resources).

In the classroom, conflict is often ignored or pushed down: it threatens to push things out of control.  Teachers worry, “What if I don’t have a good answer, a helpful response?  What if I fall in this pit that has suddenly appeared? What if I can’t climb out, let alone help my students out of it?!”

There’s an opportunity here for adults to recognize we don’t have the answers, to embrace the process of growing. We can model something very authentic for students – not just how do we make sense of things, but how do we deal with the things we can’t make sense of?

Sometimes it’s ok that we don’t know. Students often have the answers we are seeking, if we listen.

The other day I was at a gathering of Midwestern educators, discussing social justice education in today’s fraught political context.  Olivia, a high school Junior, described a project she leads, raising awareness about Syria and supporting refugees.  Together with student leaders of the Latino Students’ Club and the Muslim Students’ Club, she organized a lunchtime discussion for any high school students who wanted to come.  The event was called “#NoBanNoWall.”  A teacher listening to her presentation asked Olivia, “what about students who support a wall? How did they feel about this discussion?” Olivia answered, “I kept my focus on my own reasons for being there, for having the discussion; I kept what I said ‘I-centered.’”

Olivia’s response may come across as self-absorbed.  But to me, and I think to the other teachers in the room, her words illuminated a sturdy path through difficult territory.  By keeping focused on her own goals for the dialogue, Olivia overcame a common pitfall in controversial discussions: the attempt to convince, correct, change another person.  For Olivia, the goal of the dialogue was the dialogue itself.  Her intention was that people would have a chance to explore and express what they feel and hear what others feel.  It wasn’t to convert anyone.

This, I think, is civil dialogue: in Olivia’s telling of it, the discussion of a charged subject was an opportunity to be more conscious, to notice her own responses to others, and reflect.  I want to stress the humility inherent in this frame.  Olivia was not trying to change others, but to see how she might evolve herself as she listened to others.  The more difference in the room, the greater the opportunity for her own growth.  She came out of the dialogue with new perspectives and deeper commitments.

I am continually humbled by the complex range of feelings and stories that unfold when people lean in and explore their differences.  I believe that democratic life is never so real and powerful as when people are engaged in conversations across differences.  Tension, conflict, and discomfort are vital opportunities: they have the capacity to separate people, but when understood in a context of relational learning, they can heighten consciousness.  Engaging difference jars complacency and provokes hard questions.

The frame for dialogue matters.  If communication is seen only as a way to make a point or effect a desired result, the possibilities for relationship and change are limited.  If the dialogue is understood as the goal in itself; if people can welcome difference as a source of community power and as an opportunity for personal learning, limits fall away.  People who feel encouraged to explore what is important to them and who they are have access to richer thinking and stronger human connections.

Engaging difficult discussions, we are challenged to be more intentional and focused than in routine communication.  We slow down and learn to be more attuned to non-verbal dimensions of the conversation: we learn from our own bodies’ responses and we remember to breathe.  This deep engagement can make the most difficult conversations restorative.


Political Medicine

I smell like campfire. Like a child who carries around the blanket that smells like Mom, every day I put on a scarf or a sweater that smells like Standing Rock.  It keeps me warm; the smell helps me feel whole in a time when my rage and grief threaten my sanity.

The Lakota Sioux people who invited me to their fire in the Oceti Camp on the Standing Rock Reservation also shared with me their history and their prayers. They reminded me that they have survived the horror of the white conquest, and they have preserved the medicine that has kept them alive. At Standing Rock, they share that medicine.  It is in the sacred words, in respect and trust and kindness between people.  It is in protection for Grandmother Earth and all Her children.  The medicine is carried along on the currents of humility. At Standing Rock, I saw how humility moves and buoys up, it nourishes and transports. Like the water.

“We need to!;” “We must!” are the rallying cries I’m accustomed to.  Urgent, direct.  On the frontlines of the DAPL, that’s not what I heard.  The air and the ground resonated with the Protectors’ prayers of thanks and blessings. For now I’ll end with the prayer I heard throughout my days in Standing Rock. May the knowledge that we all are related hold us together in our struggles to protect the sacredness of all life.

Aho Mitakuye Oyasin: All my relations

All my relations. I honor you in this circle of life with me today. I am grateful for this opportunity to acknowledge you in this prayer…

To the Creator, for the ultimate gift of life, I thank you.

To the mineral nation that has built and maintained my bones and all foundations of life experience, I thank you.

To the plant nation that sustains my organs and body and gives me healing herbs for sickness, I thank you.

To the animal nation that feeds me from your own flesh and offers your loyal companionship in this walk of life, I thank you.

To the human nation that shares my path as a soul upon the sacred wheel of Earthly life, I thank you.

To the Spirit nation that guides me invisibly through the ups and downs of life and for carrying the torch of light through the Ages. I thank you.

To the Four Winds of Change and Growth, I thank you.

You are all my relations, my relatives, without whom I would not live. We are in the circle of life together, co-existing, co-dependent, co-creating our destiny. One, not more important than the other. One nation evolving from the other and yet each dependent upon the one above and the one below. All of us a part of the Great Mystery.

Thank you for this Life.

Just Numbers

 Their hope bursts out of a system designed to thwart it.

                                                        –Program Notes, Just Numbers

Darius pokes his head around the corner to make sure the coast is clear.  He holds his breath, all senses on alert.  Is there graffiti warning him of new territorial shifts? Not this morning.  He sprints to the bus, gets on it safely, and can breathe while the bus takes him across the city and drops him off a few blocks away from his school.  He gets off and skirts dangerous territory, passes under an overpass where new tags are going up.  The taggers look at him but don’t follow him.  Darius survives another morning commute.

And gets to school 5 minutes late.  He is sent to the principal, and to detention.

It doesn’t take a whole lot of brains to understand that a child whose commute is anything like this is not in a state to learn.  And that rather than sitting that child in detention, or in a test, or test prep, we adults need to offer healing now and community safety long term.  Once our children are safe, we can turn our attention to education.

Darius’ story is one of six that, along with impressive ensemble poetry, make up Just Numbers, the new Chicago Slam Works play.  Why do adults need to watch other adults performing a play from kids’ perspectives?  Because we aren’t listening to the kids’ voices.  Students are hidden from public view in their schools, in segregated neighborhoods.  But over and over the students in the play remind us: they aren’t blind; they see exactly what’s going on.  They see they are pawns in a game of powerful players whose rhetoric of student achievement masks self-serving economic and political machinations.  Students’ actual lives, interactions, and thoughts are presented against a background of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s speeches on education policy, which sound distant, irrelevant, and offensively glib.

Chicago Public School students are very clear about what they need: safety, health, parents who can be present for them, who are not forced to work multiple jobs, who are not in prison, killed, or deported, and teachers who will not be replaced next year or next week.  And in the classroom: an education that respects students’ intelligence and humanity.

In case white parents in Chicago – half of whose children don’t go to CPS — don’t understand why teachers voted to go on strike next week, this play offers a point-by-point lesson: from the questionable funding, operating, and staffing of charter schools, to the high-stakes testing forced on Black and Brown children.


This is not public education.  Public education means that all children are valued, that people hold accountable the system, its architects and decision-makers, not individual teachers and students.  Many Americans have bought into the education reform emphasis on test scores, but the world’s most successful education system rejects testing — and calls out the testing profiteers.  Finnish education minister Pasi Sahlsberg insists: a successful public education system is based on equity of quality education.  It values informal learning and emphasizes reciprocal trust between students, teachers, parents, and administrators.  “Measuring of what matters in school is difficult, if not impossible. It is character and mind that matter… not being among winners in knowledge tests.”

Public education requires that the voices of people in schools – students, teachers, and parents – are at the center of decision-making about schools, both in the classroom and in the district.  Not bankers, realtors, and politicians.  Let’s act like a public: let’s listen to public school students and teachers, take seriously their stories, their questions, and their ideas, and demand that our leaders stop treating them like “just numbers.”

“Invisible Borders:” Walking Tour of Istanbul

And before long, the music, the views rushing past the window, my father’s voice and the narrow cobblestone streets all merged into one, and it seemed to me that while we would never find answers to these fundamental questions, it was good for us to ask them anyway.
–Orhan Pamuk


Istanbul is known to be the crossroads of the world.  In visiting the city, I am curious about how different groups have lived together there in different eras and conditions.  How do people compose their community life in day-to-day relationships, regardless of how news headlines and history texts portray them?  How do they create the “in-between” space that Maxine Greene describes as the key to public life, “where people speak in terms of ‘who,’ not ‘what’ they are”?

These questions take shape around borders: How do borders sustain respect? How do they abuse human dignity? I know a little bit about the waves of conflicts and oppression, the written laws and unwritten customs used by Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities – and many languages, cultures, and other subgroups within and across these communities – to co-exist over the course of Istanbul’s history.  And the news shows people all over the world engaging in a range of collective behaviors, from nationalist xenophobia to democratic inclusion to indifference.

The scale of these views is too large for me.  I am looking for small, local processes of relationship building across differences.  Neighborhoods are where people are listening and learning and growing side-by-side, day-by-day, in many contexts over time and across countries.  But media and politics tend to ignore these local spaces and the knowledge and struggles of their residents.

My daughter is studying in Istanbul; she arranged for us to take a walking tour of a few intersecting neighborhoods of Istanbul: Fener, Balat, Dramond, and Edernekape.  The tour focused on demographic and architectural changes, but the subtext is, “how do people live with another across class, ethnic, religious, and cultural differences?” We spent about an hour in each neighborhood, covering a few blocks and several “invisible borders.”


Our guide, Gaye, lives in the neighborhood we are walking through.  She describes her view of neighborhoods: spaces where people want to be in relationships with other people, where they experience otherness as a rich resource, not as a threat.   She, along with a team of students and professors at the university, is developing what they call “active anthropology,” engaging people from different communities in asking questions about identity, social change, and culture.  In contrast to widespread media attention to ethnic conflict, the anthropologists are interested in “how we’re nourished by intersocial relations between different groups in a place.”  They wonder if the increasing societal emphasis on private life is “a deliberate plan to create distance between people.” These neighborhood researchers demonstrate “intersocial” commitments in the way they approach us.  Gaye urges us to ask questions, “not because I’ll have answers, but so we can all learn from what you are asking about.”

The framing question she has for our group of western visitors, mostly university exchange students, have to do with patterns of gentrification: Would you choose to respect the historical quality of the neighborhood or to respect people’s daily lives and choices – including their self-interested changes to the historical buildings of the neighborhood? Pointing out historical markers like “jumba windows” of the Ottoman period, she emphasizes that homeowners may or may not preserve such features when they remodel.

Gaye is studying gentrification in this particular community because in Istanbul, “Usually gentrification happens too quickly to track.  Here it’s happening slowly enough that we can watch it as it unfolds.”  She classifies two types of gentrifiers: Type A gentrifiers, who are investors, and isolate themselves from the neighborhood with fences, bars on the windows, and general absence. Type B gentrifiers are the hipsters, who seek out relationships with neighbors, sensitive to problems in the neighborhood.

Gaye puts herself in the Type B camp.  She originally comes from a neighborhood across the river on the Asian side.  She tells a little story about learning the language of neighborhood life: “Women express themselves with cleaning.  There’s a discourse of laundry in this neighborhood. Ropes strung between buildings are used to express connection and conflict. I wanted to hang laundry and arrived at my window at the same time as a woman on other side of the street.  She glared. I smiled a little, she smiled a little, gradually, smiling more and more.  We silently came to an understanding and shared the rope.” Gaye shows us how she “reads” the streetscape, including doors and windows, empty space, sounds, and, of course, people.

She describes what happened when scores of Syrian refugee families came into the neighborhood recently.  She took part in a community response: people in the neighborhood rented flats for the refugee families, taught them Turkish, provided food and other supplies. But the refugee families sold the food, left the flats.  The activists researched – what went wrong?


I feel ambivalent.  I appreciate Gaye’s team’s deep interest in neighborhood relationships and their creative intellectual work.  At the same time, I think their research stance carries dangers: they are experimenting and intellectualizing, a response that seems irresponsible in relation to the vulnerability of the people in their neighborhood living through humanitarian crises.  On the other hand, is it less irresponsible to do nothing?

As a place-based educator, I am fascinated by these university researchers’ “active anthropology.” I’m also disturbed by it.  I won’t assume that gentrification in Istanbul works the same way that it does in Chicago and other U.S. cities, where the influx of wealthy, trendy folk assaults the integrity of lower income neighborhoods.  But, like American gentrifiers, the Turkish gentrifiers don’t seem to demonstrate the self-reflectiveness that is necessary when people of privilege enter into more vulnerable communities.

Gaye is exploring her own conditions, the neighborhood she is over time making herself part of. She is studying gentrification from within.  Her focus is still, though, on the other, on other people, on buildings, on streetscapes, not on herself: her reactions, people’s reactions to her.  Without such reflection, her study is incomplete and likely to unintentionally perpetuate an “othering” approach.

Even though they’re on the lookout for othering, the team’s faith in their anthropological method may block them from doing the kind of self-examination necessary to interrupt objectification.  Without examining their own prejudices at every turn, they are perpetuating stereotypes.  Gaye’s research questions can sound like veiled accusations: “Why did you sell the rice we gave you?” “Why did you leave the apartment we put you in?” “Why aren’t the Syrian men working?” “What could change this problem?”  She doesn’t hear the power she wields in her voice, her stance, her freedom of movement, and without being alert to this, she is likely to alienate the neighbors who are most different from her, the ones she is most interested in connecting with.

If the enterprise of peaceful co-existence subordinates local knowledge to common understanding, it will always be the more powerful who set the terms and maintain order.  So, local knowledge is always threatened, never fully respected.  As an outsider to a community, who wants to learn how to be in relationship with people in it, I am wondering if there is a way I can hold awareness of the danger I as an outsider pose within my respect for the community.  Does attention to the ways local knowledge is threatened, including my own gaze and narrative as an outsider, make my relationship in another community more possible – or less so?