“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.”

 

Advertisements

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.