An Open Letter to My Fellow White Educators
This post is by Anya Rosenberg, 4th Grade Teacher, High Tech Elementary North County.
I believe that it is of the utmost importance to acknowledge my own positionality in this work with transparency and openness. My identity as a white, cis-gendered female, Jewish American means that I can only speak from my own personal experiences and beliefs. Being raised in a family of Holocaust survivors, justice and injustice had life and death consequences for me and my family from a young age. I look at our country's racial injustice in the same light, and believe that educators are in a strong position to support our students toward liberation. In the same vein, if we act as though the classroom is a political-free place, we further the oppression that is experienced by our students of color and become further implicated in the systems we may be principally opposed to. I speak directly to other white educators here because these ideas are not new for educators of color.
My fourth grade students have a lot of questions about race. "Is it disrespectful to use the term 'black'?" "Why did slavery happen?" "Why did segregation happen?" and "Why is race such a big deal?" In our first community circle about race, students avoided using racial identifiers like "black"and "white"because they weren't sure if talking about race is, in fact, racist. Like many white adults in our country, many of my students have absorbed the idea that race is a taboo subject that one should avoid so as not to offend someone or to have one's own worldview challenged.
I shared with my students on this day that talking about race is not racist and instead something we absolutely must do. I shared that for some of us, it can be uncomfortable, while for many of us in the room, it may feel deeply validating. The next time we engaged in one of these "brave conversations" a few days later, stories of experiencing, seeing, and hearing about racism poured out of almost every student in the room. Despite not yet feeling confident about the language to use, students' stories dissolved the air of apprehension in the room, and for those 45 minutes, 22 9-year-olds engaged in a raw and honest conversation that ended in one student saying, "we don't care about lunch, we want to keep talking!"
Moments like these strengthen my conviction that we, as educators, are uniquely positioned to support our students in their pursuit of lasting social change and racial justice. I believe that in order to create classrooms that strive for a better and more just world, we need to create microcosms of these worlds in our own educational spaces. We need to become clear and unrelentingly committed to what "equity" and "social justice" means when teaching within an oppressive system. Unfortunately, the terms "equity" and "social justice" have become such popular catch-phrases in education that we often forget to think critically about these terms in a larger societal context.
As white teachers, it is our responsibility to become comfortable talking about race and white supremacy with our students. Our classrooms can and should be sites for social justice education and should truly embody principles of equity, but we must first be clear about what these terms mean. David Miller, a political theorist, defines social justice as, "a set of social and political institutions that will ensure the just distribution of benefits and costs throughout society. While many teachers claim to "care about social justice," many of us don't truly know what it means or what it looks like on a tangible level. To me, social justice education and principles of equity do not just mean giving every student what they need to succeed and talking about the Civil Rights Movement. Instead, social justice education demands an unrelenting commitment to working alongside our students to challenge and dismantle the oppressive structures in our schools, communities, and society as a whole. If we consider our classrooms and schools as institutions, we must ensure that we shift the power structures withinour classrooms and school networks, and question which voices and experiences we amplify—both within the content and with the voices that are most readily heard and uplifted. If we are truly striving to give every student what they need to succeed, I believe we must take a societal and global view and think about equity as intertwined with dismantling systems of oppression.
On a curricular level, we must critically examine the creation and systemic privileging of whiteness. In these conversations, we should also center the experiences and resilient histories of people of color in order to begin to create classrooms that will confront the unjust distribution of resources in society and challenge the status quo. These conversations must lead students to plan and implement action for racial and social justice so that students develop their identities as agents and activists for institutional change.
To do this work properly, we need to develop emotional resilience, a capacity intrinsic to being a person of color in our society. To develop this resilience, we must become deeply critical of our white fragility and our shared inability to acknowledge how race has benefitted us and shaped our lived experiences. We must commit ourselves, day after day, to examine our complicity in systems of racism and white supremacy in our schools, our communities, our neighborhoods, and our lives. We can't turn away when the work gets hard. This critical work takes commitment and fierce love. Above all, it takes a willingness to surrender our own egos and conceptions of ourselves in order to take a critical eye to our own lived experience. I borrow from Jeffrey Duncan-Andrade's idea of critical hope when embarking on dismantling systems of oppression with our students. Duncan-Andrade posits that,"audacious hope stares down the painful path; and despite the overwhelming odds against us making it down that path to change, we make the journey again and again. There is no other choice. Acceptance of this fact allows us to find the courage and the commitment to cajole our students to join us on that journey. This makes us better people as it makes us better teachers, and it models for our students that the painful path is the hopeful path."