In education we are used to cycling. We are used to the pendulum swings from traditional to creative, from rote to inquiry, from the basics to critical thinking. We see the pendulum swinging and for many, we reach for it as a cat would a swinging ball of yarn. This is about compliance. To get noticed, to be promoted, to be considered, we comply into what has become fashionable.
But once again I go back to bell hooks’ words that have guided my career in education from the moment I picked up her book in a Chelsea independent bookstore all those years ago:
To educate as the practice of freedom is a way of teaching that anyone can learn. That learning process comes easiest to those of us who teach who also believe that there is an aspect of our vocation that is sacred; who believe that our work is not merely to share information but to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students. To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin. ~bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, p 13
For those of us who educate as the practice of freedom, the swinging balls of yarn are of no interest. For those of us educate in this way, this work is not about trendy, or sexy, or the pendulum — this work is about a lifelong commitment, our reason for being, our life’s purpose. We are not interested in compliance. We are interested in how what you say either aligns to our commitment to antiracism, anti-oppression and disrupting the white supremacist structures or if it doesn’t. We think critically about your terms, your language, your coded explanations for maintaining the status quo, your new ways to pathologize, diminish, codify and name. We watch to see if you listen, if you humble yourself or if you speak to prove your allegiance to the next great thing.
Well the thing now is antiracism. The thing now is to prove we are not racists. And how do we do that? We learn the language. But learning the language without the willingness to learn the meaning of the words, the actions tied to the words, the history of the words, the history of the struggle, is to appropriate language as your new mask, your new ball of yarn, your new way to prove you should be considered for promotion, for a place at the table while at the same time you demonize those who spoke the words before you. You try to silence us. You move us out and to the margins but what you don’t know is that we know the margins well and everyone we respect, admire, is also standing there and we are holding hands.
I recall the talk of “White privilege” and watching how many White people would cringe, cross their arms, deny the truth of the privilege we all hold. Claim their own space of oppression — but with the refusal to also see their privilege. The knapsack is firmly held on our backs but then we are told, no, this is not about crayon or bandaid colours. This far deeper than that.
Then many accepted this truth. They began with “I am White and I know I have privilege”, like the admission of this truth would somehow protect them from all other words. But then came “White Fragility” and the aggression came out, and the tears and the irony of this was not lost on me. But then there is criticism of this too. We are told there is NOTHING FRAGILE ABOUT WHITENESS. Bettina Love ends this article by writing, “If anti-racism is going to be more than a slogan, then white people must follow the lead of these activists and educators and stop believing they are too fragile to work toward ending racism.”
So I challenge you to see White supremacy in our education system: in our books, in our teaching, in our algorithms, in our assessment of multilingual learns, in our pathologizing of behaviours, in our pushing out, in our discipline practices, in how we respond to hate, in the ways in which we define and uphold certain types of leadership, in how we communicate with and about the families we serve, in our classrooms, in our announcements, in our colonial practices, in our performance of equity and inclusivity rather than disruption and deconstruction of the structures that we perpetuate through our surface commitment to speak words and not take action.
Recognize to speak the words of antiracism and anti-oppression are performative without disruption. Recognize that we have fallen into the trap of what Paul C. Gorski calls “pacing for privilege” because we aren’t just ready yet and we can’t push that hard yet and I am trying to build relationships so I can’t disrupt yet.
If relationships aren’t build in truth, courage, solidarity, and humility, then these are not relationships. These are social connections built on fear, power, and authority. These are not relationships. Say it again. These are not relationships. I think I have always known this truth for I can see if you are authentic immediately; I just didn’t have the words for it or understand the depth of it until I had the privilege of working with and learning from my friend, Pamala Agawa. I continue to learn from her on what it means to be in relationship.
Know that even if your intention, as a White person, is to let go of your power and privilege, that it is still intact. This process of dismantling begins with ourselves and it is a lifelong commitment to constantly embrace the feedback, the truth, the disruption that is bestowed upon us. Recognize that critical feedback is a gift.
I humbly accept the gifts of the teachings I have received from friends, colleagues, writers, activists and with those teachings I challenge myself and hold myself to account to never be complacent, never stop learning, never stop undoing, never stop risking to speak truth to power.
We must realize the risk is worth speaking truth for if we don’t speak truth, what is our worth?