After the election of the current occupant of the White House, I wrote a post in which I discussed my feelings about it. In the comments on that post, you’ll see a commenter chastise me for bringing my politics into my own blog. Well, the fact is that teaching is political. We all have a positionality and a bias. We have lived our experiences and interpreted them subjectively through the lens of our positionality and bias. Other people do not share those same experiences. However, when people’s lives are at stake, it’s wrong to be silent. It’s just flat wrong.
I was actually raised (or I should say my mother attempted to raise me) to believe that discussing politics was tacky or crass. No joke. Obviously, the teachings did not stick. Nor did the casual racist attitudes of my family. And fighting the racism in which I was brought up takes daily work. I still make mistakes all the time. Racism is so deeply embedded in the fabric of our society. The biggest mistake I think I make on a regular basis is not speaking up to my family or old friends when they say racist things. It’s something I am working on trying to change, but being a bystander in these moments comes from a place of fear, and several years of therapy are helping me grapple with this fear, but it is embedded very deeply in my psyche. Freezing or fleeing are responses to trauma that I have relied on as a coping mechanism. I do it because when I was small, I could not fight.
Fighting does not come naturally to me. I really have to push myself to do it. Even challenging people is very hard for me to do. I struggle with how to do it and have had to learn all kinds of techniques for approaching it. I absolutely fear confrontation. However, I have also realized as I have become older that confrontation and facing these fears are necessary sometimes. Now is one of those times.
I am struggling with how to say what I want to say, so bear with me. This post will likely not be polished. This post will likely ramble.
Racism is wrong. It is just wrong. There is no place for it in our world. It is holding us back as a species. When I think of all we could accomplish in this world if we didn’t spend so much time fighting each other over things that don’t matter, I feel so angry.
Racism is also the lived experience of people of color. And believe it or not, it hurts the people who are racist as well. It twists them and makes them go against concepts they would otherwise believe it—Christian charity, kindness, and love, for example. When you can dehumanize a group of people, when you can see them as the other or as less than human, it is so much easier to devalue their lives. That is what we have done for centuries in this country. We have said over and over that Black lives do not matter. Black lives DO matter. Of course all lives matter, but it is Black lives that are in peril because of systemic, structural racism that our country was founded on. If you don’t believe me, go beyond Jefferson’s writings in the Declaration of Independence (did you realize a passage about Great Britain inciting slaves against the Colonists was struck?) and read his Notes on the State of Virginia, in which he says,
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? Add to these, flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form, their own judgment in favour of the whites, declared by their preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the Oranootan for the black women over those of his own species. The circumstance of superior beauty, is thought worthy attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other domestic animals; why not in that of man? Besides those of colour, figure, and hair, there are other physical distinctions proving a difference of race. They have less hair on the face and body. They secrete less by the kidnies, and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odour. This greater degree of transpiration renders them more tolerant of heat, and less so of cold, than the whites. Perhaps too a difference of structure in the pulmonary apparatus, which a late ingenious* experimentalist has discovered to be the principal regulator of animal heat, may have disabled them from extricating, in the act of inspiration, so much of that fluid from the outer air, or obliged them in expiration, to part with more of it.
Or how about this?
Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry. Love is the peculiar œstrum of the poet. Their love is ardent, but it kindles the senses only, not the imagination. Religion indeed has produced a Phyllis Whately [Phillis Wheatley]; but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism. The heroes of the Dunciad are to her, as Hercules to the author of that poem.
This man enslaved his own children.
My perspective is that people struggle with absolutes. Either the founders of this country were brilliant men who conceived of a radical idea about a new government, or they were horrible White supremacists who wanted to preserve their way of life. Actually, yes, they were both. Being able to hold these contradictions in your head at the same time is the essence of critical thinking, and it is sorely lacking in this country right now. There is no reason why we shouldn’t have learned about Jefferson the man with all his contradictions and problematic aspects in addition to Jefferson the statesman.
Let me be absolutely clear. When I teach my students, I teach this full picture. This includes the inclusion of a variety of voices that our curriculum has traditionally excluded. I am not going to apologize for doing that. I think it’s a moral imperative. I think teachers who DO not do that need to do some hard thinking about why they are silencing certain perspectives. Take a look at Langston Hughes’s poem “Let America Be America Again.” This poem is not new.
There is actually a logical fallacy called “appeal to tradition” or argumentum ad antiquitatem. The crux of this appeal is that we should not change things because we have always done it that way, so therefore, it’s the best way. While there is nothing wrong with tradition, there is something wrong with clinging to practices and beliefs because they have been held a long time. One of the worst accusations I have heard politicians level at one another is “waffling.” You used to believe something else, and now you don’t anymore, so that must mean that you don’t stand for anything. No, it means that you changed your mind. Or to quote Taylor Mali, “That changing your mind is one of the best ways / of finding out whether or not you still have one.”
I have changed my mind many times as a result of new learning, and changing our minds is something we need to do to save ourselves from the sicknesses in this country. Educating ourselves is critical. We live in a country in which a police officer knelt on George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds. Three other officers stood by and did nothing. Police officers murdered Tamir Rice in the park for playing cops and robbers with a toy gun, an activity many White children engage in without being in danger of their lives. Trayvon Martin was walking home to his father’s house from a store with a package of Skittles and an Arizona Iced Tea, and because a racist man didn’t recognize him and saw only his hoodie and skin, he felt like it was okay to kill him. And he escaped penalty. How many more? I could offer a list.
Dreasjon “Sean” Reed
The sad fact is that I could go on an on and on with that list. I don’t have to worry if my son leaves the house that he won’t come back. I don’t have to talk to him about how to comport himself with police officers so he can avoid being killed. That’s it. Bottom line. Meanwhile, my friends send their beautiful Black sons into the world knowing the world fears and despises them.
Look at your own child, if you have one. Can you fathom being able to do that? For God’s sake, put yourself in someone else’s shoes and learn some empathy. You can’t sympathize with the feeling because it is not your experience, but unless you can try to picture what that experience must be like, we are lost.
And the leadership we have in this country right now demonstrates a frightening lack of empathy. I do not think the current resident of the White House is capable of empathy. That means he doesn’t care about you, either. He is completely morally bankrupt and incapable of any feelings that are not rooted in self-interest.
Make no mistake about where I stand. Black Lives Matter. We are a sick country, and we have always been sick. We are also a country with some pretty wonderful ideals, if we could ever manage to live up to them. As 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.” America can be both great and terrible. But it cannot become better unless we have an honest reckoning with systemic racism. As Baldwin also said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
This is a wholly inadequate response to what is happening in our country, but it’s only the start. I’m going to work on doing better. Racism is a cancer. We don’t eradicate cancer by pretending it doesn’t exist. Eradicating cancer takes extreme measures. I’m going to work on learning more. I am going to try to be braver and confront racism and injustice.