All posts by Dana Huff

English Department Chair/English teacher, doctoral candidate at Northeastern University, reader, writer, bread baker, sometime soapmaker, amateur foodie. Wife and mom of three.

A Reflection on Completing the 21-Day Racial Equity Challenge (But Not the Work)

When my colleagues and I started our 21-Day Racial Equity  Habit Building Challenge ©, we watched this poem by Norma Johnson—”A Poem for my White Friends: I Didn’t Tell You.” I wanted to return to it to see how it struck me after three weeks of reflection and learning.

The thing I hear most in Johnson’s voice is her exhaustion, the sense of knowing there is no way her White friends can truly understand and empathize with her. This post on Buzzfeed with photographs of people holding up signs of microaggressions they often hear is a good example of the kind of tired Norma Johnson is talking about. It makes me sad. It makes me want to be a better friend. It makes me want to be a better ally, accomplice, and co-conspirator.

Part of what makes it difficult to talk to White people about racism is that they are not affected by it, certainly not in the same way as BIPOC. Racism definitely harms White people in many ways (honestly Google how racism hurts White people and look at a few things), but it can be hard for many White people to acknowledge and understand there is a system at work because many White people feel like they worked hard and maybe didn’t have certain advantages, so everyone should just be able to do it (whatever “it” is). Honestly, this is an opinion I held in the past because I did have a hard time. I didn’t have a hard time because of my race, though. That’s the difference.

As I have said recently, I believe the path to becoming antiracist is like an asymptote. I will strive toward it for the rest of my life (understanding that I will never be fully antiracist) because I think that kind of love for myself and for my fellow human beings is worth striving for. People are not perfect, but we still strive to be better and to do great work. Since I started working on unlearning racism several years back, I am so much happier. I have deep, rich relationships with wonderful people that I might have missed out on due to fear or prejudice. I am so much less afraid. I feel a greater understanding—not only of the society I live in, but also of my role in it. I’m also frustrated a lot of the time because I know the pain people cling to because of racism. As James Baldwin says in his phenomenal book The Fire Next Time: “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.” I think Baldwin is right that deep pain lies underneath hatred. We don’t have to live with that hatred, and we don’t have to live with that pain.

If you are interested in learning more about equity and justice, I encourage you to try the 21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge ©.  The only things you have to lose are ignorance, pain, and fear.

Representation

Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop coined the term “windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors” as a metaphor for what media representation means. In case you haven’t encountered the metaphor, watch this quick video in which Dr. Sims Bishop explains the metaphor.

The reason why representation is important is captured so well in this infographic created by David Huyck in collaboration with Sarah Park Dahlen and licensed for distribution under a Creative Commons License. If you click on the picture, you can see a larger version.

This infographic is based on statistics compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Education. As you can see, if you are an animal, you have a better shot at being represented in a children’s book published in 2018 than if you are American Indian/First Nations/Native, or Latinx, or Asian Pacific Islander/Asian Pacific American, or African/African American combined. Also, as you can see, if you are a White child, you have lots of representation.

What does it mean not to represented in books? It means you grow up feeling like books are not for you. They are not about you. The same goes for movies and other media. I watched this video in which people of diverse Indigenous backgrounds reacted to Native representations in film.

As you can see, Indigenous people do not have many mirrors in film, either. At one point, one of the people featured in this video remarks on the importance of representation behind the camera in addition to in front of it. He is talking about the film Smoke Signals, based on the work of Sherman Alexie. Brian Young wrote an op-ed in Time that explains why representation is important both for Native viewers (as a mirror) and White viewers (as a window)—otherwise stereotypes persist.

I have personally experienced the level of ignorance that results from one’s only exposure to a culture being what one sees in movies. During my orientation week freshman year in 2006, many of my classmates, when they discovered my Navajo heritage, seemed to think I lived in a teepee and hunted buffalo in the plains on horseback. (For the record, Navajos are primarily farmers and shepherds. Our traditional houses, hogans, are used mainly for ceremonial purposes. We drive cars to get to places. So, no.)

Further, they wanted to know why I didn’t wear any feathers or have long, black hair. I was shocked by how little my fellow students knew about Native Americans, and how much they based their perception of me and my heritage on what they had seen in westerns.

When I asked my students last year if they had ever read any books by Native writers for school, only one student said he had. He had read Sherman Alexie’s novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.  Our class read Tommy Orange’s brilliant novel There There, and I asked them about their reading because Tommy Orange is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, and I wondered what their previous experience might have been. In addition to this novel, we also viewed the third episode of a documentary called We Shall Remain which is part of PBS’s American Experience series. This episode centers on the Native occupation of Pine Ridge Reservation in the 1970s and the activism of the members of the American Indian Movement.

This is Tommy Orange’s digital story “Ghost Dance.”

Tommy Orange worked for a time for the Center for Digital Storytelling, now known as StoryCenter. Tommy Orange has said in interviews that his character, Dene Oxendene, is probably most like him. Like Dene, Orange wanted to preserve the stories of Native people through interviews (he has said he never finished this project). Reading the novel, I sensed this storytelling background, and I believe you can see a bit of the beginning of There There in the film, too.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discusses the problem with lack of representation much more eloquently than I can.

My challenge to you is to do a simple audit. Look at the media you consume yourself. Who creates it? Who is represented in it and how? Look at the books your children have. Do they have mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors? If you’re a teacher, look at your curriculum. Make sure the students in your classes have those windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors, too.

I asked my AP Lit classes this year when was the first time you remember seeing yourself reflected in a book? When was the first time you read about a character who shared your background, at least? Remember, mostly seniors in high school take AP Lit.

One student thought for a minute, sat back in his chair, rubbed his chin, and said, “I don’t think I have.”

The previous year, I think we were discussing a similar topic, and one student mentioned that she had been able to read a book written by an author from the country where her parents immigrated from, but that the book was “weird,” and she resented the representation of her family’s country of origin. Because her classmates only had a “single story” of people from her background, she felt like reading the book had probably done more damage than if she had read no books written about people from her family’s country of origin.

Representation in media means groups of people are not monoliths. But it’s also driven by capitalism, at least in the United States. I am encouraged by the list of books I’ve seen on the New York Times Bestseller Lists over the last few weeks because it gives me hope that the art of a more diverse group of people may actually be supported by the gatekeepers in film, books, and other media. It’s important for people of all backgrounds to have mirrors in media, but the windows in media can become sliding glass doors that allow consumers to enter a story and gain empathy—a trait sorely lacking at this moment in history (maybe even always sorely lacking). Windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors may also be the most powerful weapon against ignorance.

I, Too, Sing America

On this 4th of July, Independence Day in the United States, I wanted to share a few thoughts. First, Langston Hughes’s response to Walt Whitman.

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

Tomorrow,
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
Then.

Besides,
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.

Langston Hughes wrote other poems advocating for America to live up to its stated ideals. James Baldwin said, “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” He also said, “American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.”

Frederick Douglass wrote the powerful speech, “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?” NPR released a video of his descendants reading excerpts from the speech.

Rapper and Hamilton star Daveed Diggs performed this remix of Douglass’s speech that was created by artists W. Kamau Bell, Safia Elhillo, Idris Goodwin, Nate Marshall, Angel Nafis, Danez Smith, Pharoahe Monche, Carmonghne Felix, and Lauren A. Whitehead.

My husband and I watched Hamilton last night (like a lot of of the rest of the country), and I thought Aja Romano’s article at Vox offered a really nuanced critique of the musical. I definitely encourage you to read this article, whether you’re a fan of the musical or not.

Daveed Diggs plays Thomas Jefferson in Hamilton. Thomas Jefferson was a brilliant mind, the architect of some of the United States’ most glorious ideals; he wrote the Declaration of Independence and served as the third President of the United States. He also owned people, and DNA evidence is fairly conclusive on the fact that he fathered children with Sally Hemings, a woman he enslaved (and who was actually his sister-in-law, as his wife’s father was also her father), and held his own children in slavery until his death. He also wrote the following about Black people (you can read the whole text at this link; spellings are his original):

Whether the black of the negro resides in the reticular membrane between the skin and scarfskin, or in the scarf-skin itself; whether it proceeds from the colour of the blood, the colour of the bile, or from that of some other secretion, the difference is fixed in nature, and is as real as if its seat and cause were better known to us. And is this difference of no importance? Is it not the foundation of a greater or less share of beauty in the two races? Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of colour in the one, preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immoveable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race? … Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.

He goes on like that at length, but you get the gist. It’s extraordinarily racist. Clint Smith has an excellent poem “Letter to Five of the Presidents Who Owned Slaves While They Were in Office”:

I think many people have difficulty with an expression of patriotism that includes critique. I see a lot of “love it or leave it.” Why can’t you love it and want it to be better, too?

Update, 3:14 PM: My husband made me aware of Drew Gardner’s American Descendants project from Smithsonian Magazine. I found the picture of Shannon LaNier, the descendant of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, really striking. He has his ancestor’s brow. You can see it. I would include the picture here, but I’m not sure if that’s allowable under copyright, so I urge you to check it out on the site I linked. They also have a really interesting video about how Shannon LaNier’s portrait was created and another featuring a conversation between descendants of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Frederick Douglass.

 

White Fragility is the Beginning

I want to elevate a really good thread by Dr. Chanequa on Twitter today. You will want to click through and read it all. It’s good.

I have seen a lot of pushback against White Fragility on Twitter quite a bit recently. I read the book some time back and found it helpful. At the same time, I could understand the criticism of elevating a White woman’s voice over those of BIPOC on the topic of racism. So I decided to sit the argument out and just listen. What I appreciated about Dr. Chanequa’s thread is that she understands there is nuance. The book is helpful, but no one should think they can read only one book and understand racism. It’s important for us to read different books. It’s a problem if we stop with Robin DiAngelo or Dr. Ibram X. Kendi. To do so means we adopt one or two people as official spokespeople. Dr. Chanequa says it better:

Jennifer Binis put it like this:

I loved Jennifer’s analogy of reading White Fragility as reaching level 2 on the rubric—and no one should be shooting for level 2.

Honestly? If you are starting to engage in the work of unlearning racism and becoming anti-racist, just understand it’s life’s work. If you are starting to feel like you’ve arrived, it’s probably a good time to do some reflection. I like to use the asymptote analogy for a lot of things I teach. I think working toward becoming anti-racist might be a bit like an asymptote.

Here’s an example for you visual learners (from the Math Blog).

You can see how the curved line gets closer and closer to the asymptote, but it doesn’t ever cross it. It doesn’t ever reach it.

I think asymptotes are a great metaphor for learning in general. There is always more to learn on a given subject. However, I think it’s particularly true of cultural competency of all kinds, including learning about racism.

Don’t be discouraged, however. It’s important work, and I firmly believe one of the reasons we are here in this life is to keep learning.

The Problem with Textbooks

One really interesting activity I did in my Curriculum Theory course last year was to analyze a curriculum artifact. My department doesn’t use textbooks, but I really wanted to analyze a textbook after reading Michael Apple’s 1985 article “The Culture and Commerce of the Textbook.” I highly recommend this article, by the way. I found it fascinating, especially as it seems we are still discussing some of the issues Apple identified 35 years ago. This CBS This Morning segment on textbooks includes a really interesting statement near the end regarding the fact that textbook companies can make changes to texts to make them more accurate, but it’s up to the schools to adopt the standards and texts.

Apple (1985) argues that the textbook is one of the main means through which “legitimate knowledge,” which he defines as “the ‘cultural capital’ of the dominant classes and class segments” (p. 148), is transmitted. This becomes problematic because the market and production methods affect textbook production, and the textbook production industry is decentralized and caught between the tensions of profitable sales and obligations for transmitting knowledge (Apple, 1985). As a result, large markets, particularly in conservative areas of the country, sometimes drive the content of textbooks because these more conservative school districts will not purchase materials that challenge the ideological or political beliefs of those in power in these districts (Apple, 1985).

Textbooks can make things easier for teachers. There are handy questions for discussion in the teacher’s edition. You can assign questions after readings (if that’s your thing). But relying on them means that students often don’t get the whole story because what goes into a textbook is very political. At the time when the article was written, admittedly a long time ago, the top twenty publishers sold the vast majority of textbooks, and most of the people making editorial decisions about the content of textbooks were White men (Apple, 1985). I would imagine that it’s still true, but I’d have to do a bit more research to find out.

In 2015 a student at Pearland High School near Houston found his textbook described enslaved people forcibly removed from Africa as “workers” (Isensee, 2015). Apple (1985) questions “Who determines what this ‘public’ [that publishers respond to] is?” (p. 157), which is a question that I have as well. I would argue that, as Apple (1985) implies, the “public” whose “needs” publishers respond to is probably White, middle- to upper-class, and largely privileged in other ways (such as cis-gender, heterosexual, Christian, etc.) and thus are more likely to see themselves and stories of people like them reflected in textbooks. Texas is one of the largest textbook markets in the country, and textbook companies want Texas school systems to adopt their books, as seen in the CBS video.

Apple (1985) suggests that researchers should undertake a “grounded ethnographic investigation that follows a curriculum artifact such as a textbook from its writing to its selling (and then to its use)” (p. 159), and I think this would be well worth our time as educators to do. When I get a chance to do some digging, I’d like to find out if anyone has done it since Apple wrote this article in 1985.

In case you are wondering how my curriculum artifact analysis turned out—the world history textbook I analyzed devotes twenty pages to the history of the entire continent of Africa (Gainty & Ward, 2011). Gloria Ladson-Billings (1995) maintains that culturally relevant curriculum, including learning about topics that affirm students’ identities, will help students, particularly students of color, experience more success in school. The small amount of space devoted to learning about African history may communicate to students, particularly African-American students, that this history is not important or not worthy of study.

To be fair, the book is meant to accompany a larger textbook that I didn’t examine, and I also did not analyze the balance of coverage of societies on other continents in the book, mainly because the main crux of the assignment was to examine the curriculum artifact’s strengths and weaknesses, and in order to make the assignment manageable, I zeroed in on one lesson in the book. In my analysis, I found one strength is that the text asked students to analyze images. Students should learn how to analyze images critically, as this form of media is one of the most common communication methods in the age of Instagram and Twitter and is also not often considered important in schools. Another strength of the textbook is the use of storytelling (from the Epic of Sundiata) to capture a culture. As Geneva Gay (2002) explains, many cultures, including African American, Native American, Asian, and Latino cultures, use storytelling in their communication; thus, learning about a culture through its stories contributes to a more culturally responsive learning experience.

In terms of weaknesses, I felt the questions following the image and the passage are somewhat low level. Asking students to “describe [the] structure” (Gainty & Ward, 2011, p. 225) or “wedding ceremony” (Gainty & Ward, 2011, p. 223) are simple comprehension questions that do not ask students to draw inferences, interpret, or analyze or synthesize information. Even most of the comparative questions on p. 223 of the book are fairly low-level questions on Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001).

The book really does not adequately explore African history. According to Gay (2002) “culturally responsive teaching” involves “using the cultural characteristics, experiences, and perspectives of ethnically diverse students for teaching them more effectively,” and while she posits that “academic knowledge and skills are situated in the lived experiences and frames of reference of students,” it also stands to reason that the cultural history of those students is as important as their lived experiences (p. 106). Students, particularly African-American students, using this text are not learning much about African history from a text that purports to cover world history. Ladson-Billings (1998) argues that “the official school curriculum [is] a culturally specific artifact designed to maintain a White supremacist master script” (p. 18), and the space devoted to exploring African history in this text certainly supports her argument. This omission is particularly glaring in light of the text’s fairly recent publication date of 2011.

I definitely think teachers who have to use textbooks should do such an analysis of their text. In fact, I don’t think it’s a bad idea to focus narrowly on one issue that you want to make sure students learn thoroughly. For example, it seems to me that a lot of people don’t understand the actual causes of the Civil War, as evidenced in the CBS video, and if you teach American history (or even American literature), see what your textbook says, and if it’s inadequate or misleading, make sure students know that.

In fact, I’d be willing to bet students would be interested to know the textbooks they use are not politically neutral. What if you asked students to analyze the way a topic is presented. Whose point of view is centered? Whose is missing? Why?

References

Anderson, L. W. & Krathwohl, D. R. (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: A revision of Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives. New York: Longman

Apple, M. W. (1985). The culture and commerce of the textbook. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 17(2), 147-162.

Gainty, D. & Ward, W. D. (2011). Sources of world societies (2nd ed., Vol. I). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

Gay, G. (2002). Preparing for culturally responsive teaching. Journal of Teacher Education, 53(20), 106-116.

Isensee, L. (2015). Why calling slaves ‘workers’ is more than an editing error. NPR, https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2015/10/23/ 450826208/why-calling-slaves-workers-is-more-than-an-editing-error

Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). Toward a theory of culturally relevant pedagogy. American Educational Research Journal, 32(3), 465-491.

Ladson-Billings, G. (1998). Just what is critical race theory and what’s it doing in a nice field like education? International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 11(1), 7-24.

People Are Not Mascots

This evening I listened to episode 3 of the All My Relations podcast because I was interested in hearing what the hosts and guests had to say on the subject of Native mascots.

I want to be unequivocal: I can’t believe we are still discussing the appropriateness of Native mascots. When we studied Native history and literature in my Social Justice this year, the subject of Native mascots was popular among my students as a writing topic. One of my students used this resource from the American Psychological Association (APA) to reinforce her argument that Native mascots harm the self-esteem of Native children, which is the topic of All My Relations podcast guest Dr. Fryberg’s research. All of my students who wrote on this topic agreed that the name of the Washington football team is offensive, which is made abundantly clear in this podcast. This fact is underscored by the fact that many reporters and news outlets will not use the team’s name in reporting. Including the team’s own home city paper’s editorial board at The Washington Post.

I think the video in this tweet presents the issue from another point of view. If this man’s shirt makes you angry or you find it “disrespectful,” but do not find Native mascots offensive, you should think about why.

I was surprised to learn from my students that the Florida State Seminoles have a relationship with the Seminole Tribe, so even though the issue of Native mascots may seem clear to me, it’s definitely complicated. The National Congress of American Indians opposed the use of Native mascots. The organization’s website includes this video that further supports the reasoning that the podcast’s hosts and guests used:

One important point made in the podcast is that “data gives us power.” The harm caused by Native mascots is clear in the data. Another takeaway from the podcast is the importance of representation among researchers. I appreciate also the emphasis on “utility framing”—explaining why learning is important for the community. I understood this argument as another way to say “relevance.” I also really connected to the goal of making schools “identity-safe places” for all students. Here is a link to guest Amanda Blackhorse’s website No More Native Mascots.

If your school or city team has a Native mascot, what are you doing about it?

Update, 7/2/2020: In a turn of events I couldn’t have predicted, this issue became a hot news story the day after I wrote this post when FedEx, which sponsors the stadium where the Washington football team plays, asked the team to change its name. In addition, Nike has apparently pulled all the Washington football team apparel for sale from its store. Honestly, if this issue starts to hurt the team’s bottom line, I predict we will see a name change. I’m really happy to see companies like FedEx and Nike taking these steps. FedEx’s next step should be to sever ties with the team if they don’t change the name.

Intergroup Anxiety

This video about intergroup anxiety was really interesting to me. I have found myself in the position described in the video of trying so hard to be fair that I overcompensate by acting weird. Once when I was at a conference, I was so awkward when placed in a discussion group with two women I didn’t know, I had trouble looking at one of the women. I couldn’t figure out why, and I am still not sure. She called me on it, and I felt awful for days. (I have since learned this is a typical White fragility reaction.) I usually bank on people ignoring my awkwardness. She definitely thought it had to do with her race, but I have reflected on this incident now for some six years, and I don’t think that it was race, but she was right that there was something else about her that did make me anxious, and I don’t know what it was. The only thing I congratulate myself on when I think about it is at least I didn’t cry and make it about my feelings. And I did try harder after that. Maybe too hard, in order to overcompensate.

By the way, I know that avoiding eye-contact isn’t always anxiety. I recently spoke to a teenager on the autism spectrum who said he can either focus on what someone is saying, or he can look them in the eye, but he cannot do both because it takes too much concentration to do both. I have seen this at times in my own daughter, who is also on the autism spectrum.

One of the biggest issues I have with anybody when I’m feeling awkward is maintaining culturally appropriate eye contact, and then I start to become anxious about realizing I’m not maintaining eye contact. I sort of go outside my body and start criticizing myself for being so awkward that I find it even harder to be present in the conversation.

That was a bit of a tangent, but an important one. It isn’t that I disagree with the video’s argument that having difficulty with eye contact can be a sign of intergroup anxiety, but it could also be something else, and we should keep that in mind when reading body language. I don’t think we can assume that everyone naturally feels comfortable in social situations and knows what behaviors are expected. Not that I’m on the “assume good intentions” train because we can’t discount the impact, but maybe we shouldn’t assume bad intentions (although I do understand that impulse, particularly if you have bad experiences). At the end of the video, L. Song Richardson says she likes to give people “more of an opportunity to demonstrate who they are.”

As a follow-up to my last post about implicit bias, I suspect that if you seize opportunities to interact with people from a wide variety of backgrounds, you might come to feel much more comfortable around people who are not like you. This is critical work for teachers, just as understanding implicit bias is. As Richardson says, you might wind up doing harm to your students’ learning.

Understanding Implicit Bias

I watched Verna Myers’s TED Talk this evening.

Have you taken the Implicit Bias Test? If you do, be forewarned that you may discover things about yourself that you are not ready to deal with.

What I found really refreshing in Myers’s talk is that she offers a way to combat implicit bias: simply expose yourself more “awesome Black people” to “dissociate the association that happens automatically in [your] brain.” This actually works!

What tends to happen, however, is people reinforce negative biases by confirming their stereotypes. Myers says, “Biases are the stories we make up about people before we actually know who they are.” This is true in part because we do not have “authentic relationships” with people who are different from us.

Myers’s last piece of advice for changing our biases is “when we see something, we have to have the courage to say something, even to the people we love.” This last one is really hard for me personally, as I have written about previously, because I have a deep-seated fear of confrontation. I am, however, working aggressively to overcome this fear. Myers is right. I have replayed so many conversations I should have had in my head over the last few weeks.

If you’re interested in learning more about your biases, you can take the Implicit Bias Tests. There are several different ones. They are well worth your time for learning more about your own biases so that you can begin the work of combatting them. This is important work. I have been having a conversation over on LinkedIn with Jeannette Lee Parikh, who said today that the “teacher needs to be anti-racist. If you are a teacher, you need to get to work on understanding and combatting your biases because a wealth of research demonstrates the myriad ways that bias harms children.

Whiteness Has Meaning: Intersectionality and Double Consciousness

White Bred from Ross Tierney on Vimeo.

Today, I want to offer a few sources and a story that I think might help White people understand the meaning that being White has. I think a lot of White people tend to group people of other races together and not to see them as individuals. W. E. B. Du Bois refers to this tendency in his book The Souls of Black Folk, which had a profound impact on me when I read it in college nearly 30 years ago. In this book, Du Bois describes a feeling of “double consciousness” that he carries with him. On the one hand, he sees himself as he is, the individual he knows himself to be; however, he also always sees himself as others, specifically White people see him. He explains in an article for The Atlantic Monthly (now just The Atlantic) what this feels like:

It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,—this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self.

This video does a good job of unpacking how this idea manifests itself in racism:

 

Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” introduces the concept of White privilege. If you think about the ways in which the list of privileges is NOT true for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color), then you can begin to have an understanding of double consciousness.

White privilege can sometimes be hard to understand for people who experience hardship due to some other part of their identity. For example, this article unpacks understanding White privilege and poverty. I will share a true story here in order to unpack what I mean.

This happened when my son Dylan was a baby, so it was about sixteen years ago. We were barely hanging on financially because we both had to commute from our home in Gainesville to jobs in the Atlanta-area. We had one car that worked at any given time. We couldn’t afford to move, but we also couldn’t afford the 40-mile commute each day, either. One of the bills that didn’t get paid was auto insurance. One morning after I dropped off my younger children at their child care center, I was pulled over by a White police officer for some reason that I forget. He naturally found out that I didn’t have insurance when he ran my information. He impounded my car and gave me a ticket that I would have to pay off in installments over the course of many months. He told me point blank that if I hadn’t had my child in the car with me (my oldest daughter), he would have arrested me.

Obviously, this story is pretty embarrassing. I don’t like sharing it here because it still makes me feel shame, even though my biggest crime was not being able to afford to pay for auto insurance. The whole thing would have been different if I had money at the time. That’s a lack of privilege. But if I had been Black? Well, I am certain that he would have arrested me, even though I had my daughter with me.  And she would have gone into the custody of the Department of Family and Children’s Services. I am not sure what I would have done from there because if I couldn’t afford a ticket, I also couldn’t have afforded bail. Given that my oldest was in my custody after a divorce, I might even have lost custody of her. I might even have died.

A lot of assumptions would have been made about me because of my race. As ashamed as I was about being in that position of poverty, and considering how I internalized feeling like a failure, I can only imagine how much worse I would have felt if my race had been a factor. I have no way of knowing, actually, because I’m White. I don’t even like to think about it because as bad as that incident was, it could have been so much worse. That’s White privilege.

Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” to describe the layers of oppression that exist when multiple traditionally marginalized identities converge in one person. Crenshaw explains the term in the TED Talk below. Please watch it until the end. I promise it’s worth the 19 minutes.

Intersectionality is why I say that my experience being pulled over would have had a different result if I had been Black. If I had been Black, the racism road would have intersected with the gender road and the poverty road to create a wreck that might have changed the trajectory of my life. I’m not trying to make an excuse for not having auto insurance. Yes, I should have had it. But I don’t think I should have been arrested or lost my life for it. To be clear, I hadn’t caused anyone harm as a result of being uninsured (aside from myself)—I was not pulled over because I had caused an accident. It’s been a while ago, but I don’t think I was doing anything unsafe, though it is true that I did use to drive a little too fast when I was late. I don’t think I should even have been punished as severely as I was—what if, instead of giving me a ticket that would result in a fine I could not pay, that officer had shown compassion and directed me to some social services that could have helped me secure the insurance I needed?

But I know that the punishment I would have received would have been much greater if I had been Black. At best, I would have gone to jail. At worst, I could be dead.

As Kimberlé Crenshaw says, “If we can’t see a problem, we can’t fix a problem.”

See it.

#SayHerName

An Apology to My Students

I didn’t post yesterday for the 21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge © because I needed to sit with something and think about it. Then I needed to decide what to do. Actually, I knew what to do, but I also knew it would be difficult, and I needed to figure out how to say what I needed to say.

I have taught books by White writers that include the n-word in their books in the past, specifically To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, both of which I mistakenly believed were antiracist. However, what both books have in common is that the Black characters serve as plot devices for White characters to learn about racism and injustice. Both of these books were in the curriculum I taught. I wasn’t made to teach either book and had the power to remove both of them and chose not to. I really regret those choices. I could have been teaching actual antiracist texts.

Another choice I regret is how I handled the language in both books. Some time back, my argument wouldn’t have been too much different from the argument cited here by Cait Hutsell, although, to be fair to my former self, I would have justified it by its inclusion in the text rather than some idea that I was “ban[ning] words from human discourse”:

Cait is right, of course. It was Cait’s tweet that prompted me to sit and think about my actions. Cait’s tweet was retweeted by several other people I follow who added their thoughts to the tweet, and they helped me figure out what I needed to do. Mary Worrell’s tweet in response to a thread by shea martin on failed allyship of another kind helped me figure out what I needed to do.

So, I am here to acknowledge publicly that I believe my actions in how I taught these novels were harmful. I explained to students that the word would appear in the novel. In my early years, I justified reading the word aloud because it was in the text. Later on, I confronted the word head-on at the beginning of our text study. We read the poem “Incident” by Countee Cullen and Gloria Naylor’s essay “The Meaning of a Word.” We also watched news clips about Huckleberry Finn‘s place in the curriculum. While this frontloading centered the voices of Black writers and their experience with the word, my next step was in the wrong direction. I asked the students how they wanted to handle the word when we read passages aloud. It’s wrong to put that on students, and it’s something I recognized because, in more recent years, I have simply said we are not going to say the word—I don’t care if it’s in the text.

I wish I could say I reached this understanding many years ago, but I didn’t, and my ignorance caused harm. Even if it’s true that I have not used that word outside of reading it in a text, I shouldn’t have even done that. I apologize to my former students. I’m sorry that my Black students experienced the racial trauma of hearing the word. I’m sorry that my White students took away from my lessons that using that word as long as it was in a text was okay.

I want to thank all the Twitter educators for making me reflect seriously on this harmful practice. You have my promise that I have changed my approach to texts entirely—actually to the point that I will no longer teach White writers who use that word in their writing (we can have arguments about realism all you want; you know why they used it).

I would urge my fellow White teachers to contemplate their practice on reading this word aloud, too. If you’re doing it, stop.

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As a side note, on Thursday, this blog turned 15 years old, and I let the day pass by without remarking on it. Thanks to those of you who choose to read and engage.