When Broaching 'Uncomfortable' Topics, Check Your Educator Privilege
About a year ago, I wrote a piece on why I thought To Kill a Mockingbird was a powerful book to teach in the wake of it getting banned from a school district in Mississippi. It was from my own personal perspective and while I still stand by my argument, I wish I had painted a fuller picture of what I actually meant.
Frankly, what I wrote was just a roundabout and flowery way of saying what I actually wanted to say: We have to stop ignoring topics because we're scared of white fragility and making those who are in power "uncomfortable."
Of course, I didn't clearly state that, which is my fault. When I wrote what I did, I was thinking of the school district banning it (which is majority white), writing as someone who isn't Black and who doesn't have Black students (to my knowledge—none have identified themselves that way). My students, and many others, need to learn this history and be made to feel uncomfortable about it. More than a few come to class saying that racism doesn't exist anymore. That's why To Kill A Mockingbird is a text that I think is useful for my students in our context.
That's not the entirety of the picture, of course. The feedback I got about the book's imperfections (which I agree with and followed up on) were certainly important to note. More important, though, was feedback from educators, particularly Black educators or folks who teach in majority Black communities, that this book was a too-imperfect reminder of generations of injustices and horrific language, and that their students are better served with other texts.
And I fully agree. At the end of the day, a teacher's job is to provide the best and healthiest education for their students. That requires knowing them and their context well enough to trust where you can and should push them, and knowing when we need to create spaces of radical healing and support.
It also means checking our own privilege and power as an educator. As teachers, we already need to navigate the tricky lines of hierarchal power being in our classrooms gives us. This understanding needs to be heightened if we're not from the community we teach in, and/or we are coming to the table with much more traditional forms of privilege (race, gender, socioeconomic status, sexuailty, etc) than our students are.
So, when we're deciding to make our students uncomfortable or bring up difficult topics, it's important to ask some questions:
- Should I be the one doing this? Is my guidance the voice that we should center on?
- Is this the best way to enter this conversation?
- Do I need to bring in support or guidance to ensure that this conversation is structured in a way that's useful for our students?
I have long advocated that teachers should have difficult conversations and face controversial topics around social justice and education head on. I still fully believe that, and I also acknowledge that those are really conversations that need to be properly prepared for and executed.
That doesn't mean we don't have those conversations; it means we need to consider whose voice we center and how. For example, it might be better that I bring in someone from the community we're discussing to lead the conversation instead of doing it on my own. Or, it might mean that we set up some very, very careful guidelines for discussion, explore important context, and ensure time to consider unheard viewpoints while we study the text. OR it might mean just choosing a different text altogether, because my students actually need to have a different conversation right now.
Since I'm not Black, I can't imagine what it's like to grow up with the n-word, with all its difficulties and complexities, being thrown around. I don't deal with the generational trauma of slavery and segregation. I would never presume that I was the best person to lead a conversation around it nor do I have the answers on how it should be discussed—particularly if I were teaching Black students. That doesn't mean I couldn't do it, but I better do the research and self-work to ensure that what I'm doing is actually helping my students grow and not further burying them in more layers of systemic and societal oppression.
As educators, many of us want to try and change the world with the education we give our students. That's a noble hope, though we need to be careful of where that intention leads us. We don't change the world by believing ourselves to be conduits of knowledge that we flood our students with. We change things by creating a space where our students can learn and know that they have knowledge to give as well. We change things by empowering our students to ask difficult questions of the world, themselves, and of us as teachers. We change things by caring, deeply and radically, for the students we teach, and centering everything we do around that care.
Photo by NeONBRAND