Sunday, July 16, 2017

You Can Be an Astronaut, but You Can't Be Black

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” It’s a question I always imagined every kindergarten student hearing.

“I want to be a doctor!” declares Sally. 

“I want to be a teacher!” exclaims Johnny.

"I want to be an astronaut!” shouts Bobbie.

The possibilities are thought to be endless for middle-class white students, particularly boys. 

“That’s great! You can do it. You can be anything you want to be!,” our teachers and parents replied. In the United States, you can do anything you want to do if you just put your mind to it. 

It’s almost embarrassing to admit that I never really stopped to consider what those conversations might have been like in other households. In families where parents had not experienced the sense that this was anything resembling a land of opportunity, where their most salient experiences with carving out some degree of financial safety and success more often had to do with what sorts of demeaning labor richer people were willing to offer them money for than fulfilling their potential. 

How do parents and teachers who’ve suffered incredible trauma at the hands of oppressive systems guide their young people who begin to sense that it may not be as simple as asking the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

In my family and in my schools, it was always about encouraging whatever idea I had at the moment. Although I don’t remember ever seriously thinking I would consider a career path apart from teaching, I had a profound sense that I would hear affirming comments from all of my supporting adults if those ideas ever arose. 

Our American ethos is based on individual determinism. You do you. Whatever you want to do, that’s what you should do. Now, it is probably true that middle and high-income white children growing up in the United States are probably exposed to the reality that this encouragement doesn’t exist for every student all over the world. The way we’ve taught history in public schools for sometime has often emphasized American exceptionalism. We do seem to have an awareness that this is not quite what it’s like for children in all parts of the world. But rarer is the white child who understands that this unconditional support of a child’s career aspirations is not available to a great many children in the US.

One of the elements of white consciousness that may be most crippling when it comes to inter-racial dialogue is an almost total lack of opportunity to see outside of ourselves, to see outside of ways we’ve been brought up, to suppose that what we are and the way we think are mostly natural functions of the human condition rather than constructs that are built in us as we marinate in the comfortable surroundings of white, patriarchal culture. 

As a result, I think we white folks often approach the world with an expectation not only that we have a right to be whatever we want, but also an assumption that everyone else thinks that way too. One place we see that play out in school is when white educators attempt to encourage students from diverse backgrounds to do well in school as if all of those students were in school primarily for themselves. A great many students from all backgrounds see their purpose in school primarily as fulfilling a responsibility to bring honor and/or strength to their family rather than to their individual name. 

Because it is difficult in a culture that worships white identity for white folks to see outside of our habits of thought, we often engage with people from different backgrounds in ways that are confusing and often harmful due to our blindness of other ways of thinking and knowing. And I’m afraid that our overwhelming sense of ability, that we can do anything, also translates into a false belief in our capacity to know, understand, and be like other people.

We very often hear white folks who want to be allies to people of color and other marginalized identities whitesplaining a situation. I imagine that a white person explaining the plight of a person whose identity they’ve never experienced is among the more obnoxious of white behaviors. It seems also rooted in a white overemphasis on intellect and intellectualizing human issues that simply cannot be gotten at through white analysis. 

In this way, I believe we find that many of us not only wrongfully assume that everyone has the freedom to ignore external factors in the name of pursuing a future that their individual ego guides them toward, but we also come to believe that our ability to become anything extends beyond the realm of career.

For us white folks, we sometimes imagine that being black, Asian, Hispanic, or Pacific Islander is just another sort of identity we’re free to pursue. We intellectualize what it means to exist in those identities and ignore and are ignorant of the lived experience of that identity in our world. Some of us literally claim to be black (Rachel Dolezal), while others misappropriate culture or dominate conversations about race with our analysis. 

Undergirding this form of white consciousness, I believe, is a subconscious desire to distance oneself from whiteness. A sense exists that there is something harmful with whiteness and, rather than reckon with what that is or how we participate in it, we’d sooner remove ourselves from it. Rather than naming our light-skinned privilege, many of us would sooner to choose to identify as French or Irish. We come to a conscious or unconscious sense that we, as white people, are not okay. And I believe that underneath this sense of not okayness is tremendous white shame.

We should distinguish between guilt and shame. Guilt is about a negative feeling we have for something we’ve done, and it can often be healthy when we’ve done harmful things. Shame, on the other hand, is never healthy. It is a sense that there is something inherently wrong or unlovable about us as people. White shame, the sense that there is something inherently wrong or evil about white people, is a terribly harmful orientation for a white person to take on. I believe it very often serves as the fuel for many harmful white behaviors, such as cultural appropriation and saviorism. 

It may seem somewhat counter-intuitive, but for white folks who are working from this lens, I think we very often have to begin our work by acknowledging the ways white supremacy has worked to disembowel our own humanity. We too have been oppressed. We too have been victims of white supremacy. While our cultural practices and behaviors have, at times, been horrendous, they are born out of harmful conditioning that infests our minds rather than an inherent evil within the basic nature of our being. When we can come to hold ourselves with the sort of love and care we’re mostly taught should be offered to others, when we can see our own wounds, then we can finally open our eyes to the largeness and depth of the wounds our culture inflicts on others and work to undo those practices. 

In this process, we learn that while it may be within our grasp to become an astronaut, we can never be or understand what it’s like to be another race in the United States. We can and should try to imagine the experience, but to attempt to take on another’s culture is a fundamentally different prospect, one that is terribly damaging. The primary challenge in the work of undoing racism and prejudice is not understanding other people’s cultures. It’s understanding our own. When we begin to make real progress in that, we will be an in real position to help. 

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Dear White Educators

Dear White Educators,

I struggle with you. I struggle with me. I struggle with how, if, and when to write us this letter. There is no perfect time, no perfect medium, and no perfect collection of words.

And yet, we are out of time. Long have been. The time is now, as it was five hundred years ago.

So here it is...

For a very long time, a tragically long time, the idea of white shame did not resonate with me.

I am lucky enough to have a mother who raised me to understand that my white male identity gave me tremendous unearned privilege in our society. In school, I learned some of the history of marginalized peoples, and I sympathized. So when it came to me and the possibility of my white shame, I felt confident that, having long "understood" the realities of oppression, I should have none to grapple with.

After all, I am kind to people who are different than me. I have friends and colleagues of color. What shame should I really have to process?

It is at this point that I must confess to you that when I was nine years old, I called one of my classmates a nigger.

It was the fall of 1992. My family had just moved from New Mexico to Tennessee, and Mr. Powell's fourth-grade class was the first time I met and made black friends.

Mr. Powell was a quiet and stern man who was missing two fingers. His missing appendages and the fact that he never smiled encouraged our obedience.

It was early one morning when my friends and I were sitting together and joking around before class began. One of my friends told us the story of his bus ride to school.

"The bus driver says to me that I have to sit down and be quiet. You know what I told him? I told him, 'You be quiet, honkie!'"

All of us laughed, two of us black and two of us white.

Having only recently been introduced to the N word by my friends in what I interpreted as playful ways, I thought I'd try to fit in by responding, "Well you know what I would have said? I would have said, 'You stop talking and be quiet, nigger!'"

Just before that sentence fell out of my mouth and into the world, the chatter among the rest of the class inexplicably died, and a void of silence was created such that everyone could hear exactly what I had said.

My friends 'OOOoooed' and laughed for a moment, but then became deathly still. They saw the look that came over Mr. Powell's face, who looked directly at me with a sternness I didn't know that even he possessed.

More than two decades later, I find myself thinking about my role in struggling through our country's very complicated history of racial oppression. I have been struggling toward some sort of voice that works to counter racism, but I often also find myself questioning how exactly to fashion that voice when it comes from a white male.

Along the way, I've fallen over and over again into a harmful trap. It's a trap that I'm afraid many white people fall into as they begin to gain an emerging level of consciousness regarding our race problem. The trap I'm talking about is that of buying into a discourse of charity that, in the words of Lise Vaugeois, valorizes the giver while maintaining the inferior position of the receiver.

It is at this point that I must confess that I have spent a great deal of time trying to help people of color in ways that, in actuality, only served to perpetuate my privilege and their oppression.

My decision to move to Washington, DC, a city I was not from and had never lived in, to teach at the age of 26 strikes me now as a corollary to that of calling a black classmate a nigger at the age of nine. I did both believing they would help me fit in with people of color, and both, because of my ignorance of the experiences of those around me, had the potential to do harm to others.

I recently had a dream in which I was a lawyer in a courtroom arguing before a judge about whether a statement before us was racist. (Forgive the strangeness. It was, after all, a dream.) I argued passionately that the statement in question was racist. I remember that the lawyer on the opposing side was white, although the identities of the jury and the judge were unclear.

In reflecting on the dream, I realized that this is something that I do often. I regularly attempt to point out injustice, particularly institutionalized racism. But upon further reflection, I noticed something disturbing. I most often spend my time calling out racial injustices when I'm in the presence of people of color, as if they need to hear about such things from me.

The question becomes, Why? Why do I do this more often around people of color and less often around white people?

I can rationalize it in a way that makes me feel good. I can imagine that I know people of color will be more willing to listen to talk of oppression, and that white people are less likely to accept it. But isn't that why I should be talking about race and racism around white people more often rather than less?

I can equally look at it from another perspective. There's a good chance that my talk of race and racism around people of color serves a desire I have to distance myself from other white people. The attempt to distance comes from a refusal to see ourselves in others, and I have to admit that I find myself doing that often. It was in this realization that I had my first inklings as to the existence of my white shame.

I used to think that white shame was probably an issue for some white people, but as someone who received a progressive education and had a mother who called out oppression for me at every turn, I thought, "White shame? I guess, but I don't have any of that."

Not true.

If I didn't have white shame, I wouldn't spend so much of my time attempting to distance myself from whites who haven't yet come to terms with their place, their history, or their privilege. I realize that my shame is an insidious form of shame. It's the shame that hides, unconsciously, in the mind of the self-righteous individual who doesn't realize that his demons are waiting anxiously to be wrestled.

And so I come back to interrogate my dream. While my subconscious still likens me to a litigator in the trial of racism, I must confront the reality that that is not my place. I am not the lawyer, not the judge, nor the jury. In this metaphor, I stand most appropriately in the shoes of the accused. I am the accused not because of any conscious malice on my part, but because of the body I inhabit and the identity that's been cultivated within it over years of social conditioning.

At some point in time, all of us have to sit down and take inventory. We have to clear the smoke from the mirror and really look at ourselves. In this difficult process, we come to realize that as we come to accept ourselves, we also must learn to accept that much of who we are is rooted, like it or not, in the roles society has created for us. To deny this is fantasy.

For you see,

         "All the world's a stage,
          And all men and all women are merely players:
          they have their exits and their entrances;
          and one man in his time plays many parts,..."

Nobody else can play your role. I do not get to run from or deny my whiteness. It is one of the many parts of my role for which I am responsible to play in this life. No, I did not have a choice, but that does not alleviate me from facing a socially constructed identity for my public life that history demands I own.

It's true that I can try to feel better about using the N word when I was young by remembering that I didn't know what I was saying. But it is also true that ignorance is capable of just as much harm as intentional violence.

Moreover, whether I choose to identify as white or not, others will continue to identify me in that way. As a result, I have and will continue to benefit consciously or unconsciously in ways that have and will continue to harm others.

In my inner life, my spiritual life, there may be space for aspects of my public identity to fall away. In my public life, however, this is not an option. I must learn to own this identity that I've grown into.

Part of the work here means involving myself in the never-ending task of identifying and acknowledging the many ways that unconscious bias inherent in our language and institutions affects our behavior. As Verna Myers said, "We were all outside when the contamination came down." The roots of our dysfunction are incredibly deep and extend back centuries.

In a sober assessment of his own whiteness, Abe Lateiner suggests that, for white people, there will never be some final conscious awakening in which we're capable of seeing all of the delusions we've lived with since the dawn of white supremacy.

Lateiner writes,
"As I embody the understanding that I am always going to be delusional, I can accept that I am not in a position to make demands about the road to freedom. I've lived for my first 30 years of life unaware of the existence of my own velvet restraints, and I'm only just now beginning to create a vision of my own freedom."
At this point in my journey, the deconstruction of my own privilege is most pressing in the classroom, particularly as a humanities teacher. The space I inhabit with students is most obviously the space where the things that happen will quite directly serve to liberate or oppress.

And so the question finally becomes: How does a white male in the United States work in public schools with students of color day after day? How do I deconstruct my privilege to create space for colleagues of color to have their voice heard? How do I honor my students perspectives on complex issues without attempting to whitesplain the situation? How can I be an ally to families of color who yearn for equitable schools that provide their students with an excellent education?

In my struggle to deconstruct my privilege, I experiment with ways to bring all voices into classroom discussions around delicate subjects. I search constantly for books and professional learning opportunities offered by experts of color. I search for the courage to be vulnerable in speaking often about systems of oppression and owning my identity in the healthiest way I know how, most importantly with other white people.

After I made my racist comment that morning in fourth grade, Mr. Powell made me sit in time-out for fifteen minutes. I remember being confused and scared. And I remember having the distinct sense that I should never use that word again. But without many desperately needed follow-up conversations to help me begin to grapple with race, I'm afraid my growth in this area was stunted.

When I think back to my young white body sitting in that fourth-grade desk confused about what had just happened, yearning for a stronger sense of clarity, I wonder if that is not who, underneath it all, I still am, who many of us still are.

In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell writes of the infantile unconscious:
"We carry it within ourselves forever. All the ogres and secret helpers of our nursery are there, all the magic of childhood. And more important, all the life-potentialities that we never managed to bring to adult realization, those other portions of ourself, are there; for such golden seeds do not die. If only a portion of that lost totality could be dredged up into the light of day, we should experience a marvelous expansion of our powers, a vivid renewal of life."
In writing of the work of Werner Erhard, Peter Block says of personal change in his book Community:
"The way this [personal change] happens is by changing our relationship with our past. We do this by realizing, through a process of reflection and rethinking how we have not completed our past and unintentionally keep bringing it into the future. The shift happens when we pay close attention to the constraints of our listening and accept the fact that our stories are our limitation. This ultimately creates an opening for a new future to occur."
Our dysfunction is in our unwillingness to reconcile our story. We are either unaware of our past, or we refuse to look at it. In either case, we are unable to own our identity, live in fantasy perpetuated by delusion, and neglect those golden seeds.

Those golden seeds have not died, though. Our capacity for change, for new possibility, never dies. That is our potential for salvation. The moment we realize the possibility, we have found the potential to change the world.

The shame will persist as long as it is ignored, as long as we refuse to own our identity and find healthier ways of being white and teaching our children to be white. The more I can come to terms with my own frailties and ugliness, the more I can acknowledge those things to others, and the more I find ways to create equal space for other identities, the closer I come to peace about who I am and what I do.

Education is not the work of technocrats. It is the work of rational, emotional, intuitive, and ethical beings committed to creating healthy communities for a healthy society. As such, we cannot imagine our role as educators to be limited to the aiding of students in acquiring information. We must also acknowledge the crucial role of the health of our own identities and the relationships those identities form with the students and communities in which we work.

If our own children are to be saved from the same miseducation we received, then we're going to have to take it upon ourselves as white people to put ourselves in the uncomfortable position of clearing the smoke from the mirror, of re-educating ourselves, and of removing the infestation of that unconscious bias in our minds and in the minds of our children. Our young people need that retelling of our story that could have served us all at a young age. It's time we own our role.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Preparing Innovative Change Agents for Justice

After spending yesterday in a district discussion about how to remake and rebrand our high school, I spent a lot of time thinking about what we should be preparing students for after high school.

Before I go further, I want to emphasize that I believe that school is not just about preparing students for the future. It's about helping them manage their now. I think we often get so caught up in a focus on the future that we do damage to the now, but that's for another blog post.

When we do think about the future of students, which is often, we talk in terms of creating equal educational outcomes that will prepare them for participation in the economy.

"How can we ensure they'll be able to compete in the real world?"

"What skills and knowledge do they need to have options when they go looking for jobs?"

Now, I acknowledge there is a shred of legitimacy to these discussions. But I find them to be extraordinarily problematic because they presume the purpose of an education for an individual is, ultimately, to make money. And that notion is based on the even more problematic notion that the larger purpose for education systems is primarily to create a highly-competitive economy.

Even if we were to accept participation in the economy as the highest aim of public education (which we shouldn't), the way we talk about preparing students for their wage-earning futures is wrapped in language about how they can be good workers and consumers.

We don't ask how our schools can help students think innovatively to identify and solve the pressing problems facing our world. We don't ask how they'll need to be prepared to be active citizens, researchers, creators of knowledge, or entrepreneurs.

It is for these reasons that the ideas of Yong Zhao and Ken Robinson resonate with me. Both propose that schools must be retooled to develop the skills, knowledge, habits, and dispositions necessary for a student to go into the world and play an active role in its creation and recreation. This seems to me an endeavor fundamental to the human condition.

Where I diverge from Zhao and Robinson is in their discussion of creating an entrepreneurial mindset.

Because entrepreneurs bring together the factors of production in order to make a profit, I actually don't think entrepreneurs are at all what we need.

I've heard Zhao mention that students, if they want to be successful, have to find ways to create things that other people want. He references Kim Kardashian as an example of a person who found a unique way to make a living. To be fair to Zhao, he is a hilarious guy with lots of great material, and he probably does not mean to spread the idea that following Kardashian's model is a healthy path forward for students.

However, I would go so far as to say that any entrepreneurial pursuit that seeks to provide a dopamine fix to that segment of our population privileged enough to afford excess with some form of thought-blocking entertainment (e.g. a new line of clothing, fashion accessory, or other luxury) and does not consider the environmental costs of the waste and social costs of the time that will necessarily be a byproduct is decidedly not what we want to produce in schools.

I agree with Robinson and Zhao that we desperately need to start talking to students with the understanding that they have it within them to change our world. Indeed, they are our greatest hope to change our world. Though, to do that, they're going to have to be even better at thinking outside the box than the entrepreneur.

The entrepreneur can rely on a traditional model for creating goods and services enshrined in our law. Create a business plan, apply for the license, find your capital, etc. But change agents for justice in our society are going to have to step outside even that model.

Change agents for justice are going to need a strong understanding of justice, freedom, love, community, democracy, and civic engagement. They're going to have to identify seemingly intractable social problems. These problems will be the type our economy normally doesn't create space for people to do work around because they don't typically appeal to individuals who want to spend their excess income. They're going to have to do the hard, hard work of identifying solutions to those problems, and then they're going to have to bring together the people and resources necessary to implement those solutions. Along the way, they'll learn lessons, and they'll need to share those lessons with future generations. Perhaps most challengingly, they'll need to find funding to make their solutions happen.

Start talking about students' futures like this in schools, and I bet a lot more people start participating in the conversation.