Last year, in my first post for this series, I asked, how do we show up?
What does it mean to “show up” in anti-racist work? What does it mean to “show up” in educational spaces—educational spaces which (of all places) should be inherently anti-racist but are often not?
One year later, I’m still asking the same questions.
Part of me hates that I am even writing this post. I want to write about the joy of being who I am and the joy of loving the people I love. I want to write and imagine worlds, as shea martin has said, outside the confines of Whiteness. I want to write about giving my boys haircuts yesterday in our backyard, as streams of sunshine filtered through tree branches that sheltered us.
But here we are.
In my inbox yesterday was an email newsletter from an educational consultant I subscribe to. This educator, a white male, has more than 250K followers on social media. I subscribed to his newsletter many years ago and have almost hit “unsubscribe” many times since then. Part of me was curious: how long could these newsletters go without addressing race and racism in our schools? How long could these newsletters go without addressing teachers’ and schools’ role in perpetuating racist policies and practices? How often could these emails discuss innovative technologies for distance learning but fail to address how these technologies can be weaponized against people of color?
And At A Time Like This, to borrow the words of Sherri Spelic, surely this week’s email would say something, anything?
I opened the latest newsletter. Starts with a meme (this is not promising). Scrolled through. Paragraphs and paragraphs of personal and professional insights I’m being invited to consider.
How long could these emails go on?
I am no longer waiting.
Some of you might be wondering who this educational consultant is. Some of you might be relieved that it’s not you, because you’re not White or male or have 250K+ followers on social media. And some of you might look at the video of Amy Cooper posted last week and feel confident that you would never call the police on a Black man out in the park one morning who just wanted to watch birds. That you wouldn’t leverage that type of institutional power against people of color.
And yet. Isn’t that what happens every single day in schools?
How many times has the curriculum we’ve selected exclude, marginalize, and misrepresent the experiences of Indigenous, Black, and people of color? Curriculum is a form of institutional power. How many times have we relied on a traditionally White canon of literature because we believe that that’s what’s “best” for kids, without pausing to reflect on which kids we’re really talking about? Without reflecting on who gets to define what “best” is: whose standards and for what purpose? Without interrogating our own personal reading preferences?
Discipline is a form of institutional power. Even if you don’t think you discriminate against students of color, it’s highly likely your school and colleagues do (you can look up your school and district here). Have you wondered about this? Have you asked why? Grading and testing are also forms of institutional power, and like curriculum and discipline, they too have been leveraged against students of color by individual teachers, administrators, and politicians. And if you are unable to connect individual actions and inactions, decisions and non-decisions, to what is happening in the world right now, then of course you’re asking yourself, “How can this be happening in 2020?”
See, it doesn’t matter who the educational consultant with thousands of followers is. Because there is the same silence from every corner of our field: teachers, administrators, unions, consultants, academics, school boards, and so on. People in positions of power who have not publicly* and consistently spoken out to 1) acknowledge the historical and continuing racial terrorism that Black communities and communities of color face, and 2) directly and explicitly take antiracist action in whatever ways they can against this violence. I say this not to dismiss the efforts that I know many individuals are making. Rather, I say this as an observation that I have seen more inaction than action, more silence than speaking, more resignation than resistance.
When the pandemic first struck, I was at a loss for how I was feeling. The only word I could come up with was grief.
Grief is what happens when you lose something you care about. I was grieving the loss of my students and our time together in our classroom. I was grieving the fellowship that comes from spending time in-person together, day in and day out. I was grieving loss of community. For my students, I was grieving the experiences they lost, especially for seniors who would not get to end high school the way they thought they would. And although my family has been fortunate, I was also grieving for those who have lost loved ones during this pandemic, for losses that should not have to be shouldered alone in a time of social distancing.
But I also realize that to be antiracist is to be in a constant state of grief.
As I have journeyed to become an antiracist educator and human being, I have grieved the loss of relationships, personal and professional, which have changed as I changed. I have grieved the loss of who I thought I was, of what I thought I knew, of the society I thought I lived in, of the people I thought I knew, of the benefit of the doubt I’d given to too many. I struggle with this grief.
And I grieve for us as a society, because each day this pandemic makes clear how there are far too many people who would put our collective health at risk for the sake of their individual freedoms. “[S]ome Americans,” Dr. Kendi recently wrote in The Atlantic, “want to live in a society that frees them, as individuals, by subjugating the community… I want to live in a society that frees me, as an individual, by freeing my community.” I want to live in that society, too.
And I can’t help wonder how my actions as an individual teacher and our policies in schools prioritize individualism over community. How many structures and systems do we have that reinforce competition over cooperation? Is it any wonder, then, what we’re seeing during this pandemic?
In recent days, perhaps pushed finally to some breaking point, I have seen more educators, especially White educators, speak out who hadn’t before. While the optimist in me wants to see this as a sign of hope, the skeptic in me is cautious. You’ve been burned before, she whispers.
But I’ve realized that to be antiracist is to also choose hope.
I’ve just learned to find my hope elsewhere.
Every day, when I get to work with young people who are able to speak their own truths and seek to make a difference in their communities, I am sustained in hope. I am sustained in hope when I can be in community with other educators of color in a healing space, a space that doesn’t require me to explain why something is racist. When I can show up authentically and imperfect and be held accountable by people who love me and want me to be the best version of myself. When I help my own children process the world in a way that supports them in becoming antiracist Asian Americans who would not mistake White adjacency for acceptance. As a mother, I do not want to raise my children to be complicit in a system that harms others. As teachers, I believe our charge is the same.
And I am sustained in hope in this space, in this #31DaysIBPOC project, in the voices of these powerful IBPOC educators, in their sheer excellence and wisdom. This project has reminded me of what it means to work towards collective freedom. To roll up your sleeves and get to work on behalf of others. My first role models may have been my mother and aunties, but my friends and colleagues, and especially the women of color in my life, have taught me what it means to be antiracist—even when it was not their responsibility to do so. Because their liberation is tied to mine and mine to theirs. They have loved me through mistakes I have made even when it cost them their time and maybe even some of their heart. They have shown me what power rooted in communities of care and love can look and feel like.
Because of them, I can imagine what it might look like, at least for a few moments every day, to exist not under the grind of competition and individualism, but to live with an ethos of compassion and community. What if we could reimagine schools with this ethos, and under the guidance and wisdom that has always existed in communities of color?
To my fellow #31DaysIBPOC writers: I hear you, I see you, I express deep gratitude to each of you—and I honor you.
My #31DaysIBPOC co-organizer and dear friend Dr. Parker urged us last year to “do something different.” Look at the world around you. Interrogate yourself and your complicity. Examine your practices. Question policies. Speak publicly and often. Demand better. Do something different.
Otherwise it’s just more of the same feel-good newsletters.
* Private messages expressing agreement and solidarity are often not useful. When White people express only private messages of solidarity but remain largely silent in groups and in public, this silence becomes an act of complicity by failing to challenge acts of racism directly. Consider, too, the burden on a person of color who receives a private message of support: what do you expect them to do with your feelings of guilt, shame, or anguish? Absolution? Recognition? To say it’s okay that you didn’t speak out? To be thankful that at least you agree privately? Whose comfort do you center when you choose to stay silent in public?
This blog post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Challenge, a month-long movement to feature the voices of indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars. Please CLICK HERE to read the othe posts this month and last year’s archive.