But What Can I Do? Recognizing Our Role in Ending Systemic Racism

David E. Kirkland shared a piece today about the power of teachers to change the world. As is the case whenever David shares his voice, it is eloquent, poignant and truthful.

David writes “For many Black males—myself included—classrooms bury potential, and good-intentioned teachers evict from the pliable imagination of young people a limitless real estate of fluid possibilities.” 

He goes on to say “However, this moment demands something greater than policy resolutions. By changing laws, we would find ourselves lucky to somehow change people’s behaviors. We need heart and mind solutions; we need to change how people think and feel. For that we turn to education. We turn to educators.”

I read Dr. Kirkland’s words and I was transported back to the young white teacher I was when I walked into my first classroom 26 years ago this month. If I read his words then, I would have been convicted, I would have been fired up. I would have believed with every ounce of my being that I was not that teacher who would evict the limitless possibilities from my students’ minds. But I know now that I likely did and continued to do so and, on some days still today, do so. Never with malice or intent. Never with forethought or decisiveness. But through not knowing. Through not understanding my privilege, not understanding what Gloria Ladson-Billings calls “culturally responsive pedagogy” and what Django Paris challenges us to see as “culturally sustaining pedagogy“.

Today, in light of more senseless murders, in light of rhetoric that attempts to cast these two black men as the “problem”, I find myself asking yet again, “But what can I do?” And then David’s words remind me, “Healing and humanizing classrooms matter most. They have the power to move our assumptions away from the stale and negative deficit assumptions that strip away Black humanity and toward those complex narratives of people that build humanity and nurture sensitivities toward that humanity in ways that abolish pre-existing internal and external contracts of bigotry and violence.” 

And, so, I share a few of the lessons I have learned on this journey to being an ally, to being the type of educator who convicts students with the limitless possibilities they possess and trying to create classrooms and learning communities which seek to drive away those negative assumptions. I am so far from having all of the answers. But my hope is perhaps through sharing some ideas, our classrooms which serve our young men and women, future police officers, educators and politicians will become the places where our students learn to change the world.

  1. Understand Your Own Biases and Prejudices:  We all have them. What many of us need to understand is that it doesn’t make us awful human beings. It makes us human beings. Our brains are wired to form patterns and beliefs over time. Those biases drive our actions. The problems arise when we do not raise these biases to our conscious level so we can counteract the negative ones through informed, conscious choice.   Harvard’s Project Implicit has a bias test you can take.  Our brains receive thousands of messages through images and media, the books we read, the music we listen to. Right now, too much of the rhetoric around the killings of black men in our country says “they were thugs” “you shouldn’t resist arrest” “he had a record”. Those messages subconsciously seep into our brains.  We must remain diligent in counteracting them in ourselves and in others.
  2. Be a Reflexive Practitioner, Not Just a Reflective Practitioner: Gillie Bolton in her book Reflective Practice: Writing and Professional Development explains reflective versus reflexive practice. Bolton explains that reflection is when we ask WHY? And then we seek the answers to that why through exploration of theories and texts and the wider sphere. Reflective practice means I change my pedagogy, my classroom configuration, the activities that I use in teaching. She defines reflexivity as finding ways to question our attitudes, theories in use, values, assumptions, prejudices and actions of habit. It is to understand a common phrase used in equity work “we don’t know what we don’t know” and to examine that which we do not know. Reflexive practice means I look to myself and my beliefs and how they are at play in my classroom. For me, reflexive practice has meant I have had to challenge and change how I conduct my practice. As a white teacher I have had to come to understand what David Kirkland and Jamila Lyiscott and Ernest Morell and many others have challenged us with – to find that pedagogical third space basing our classrooms on where our students ARE, not where we want them to be and seeking as educators ,who may not look like them and share their experiences, to truly understand them.
  3. Learn, Read, Listen: Who do you follow on Twitter? Facebook? What books and blogs do you read? If your timeline and reading list are filled with those who look like you, think like you and act like you, then expand your horizons. We can’t know what we don’t know if we aren’t open to it. If you are unsure where to start, try these names: Jamila Lyiscott, Yolanda Sealy-Ruiz, David E. Kirkland, Ernest Morrell, Pedro Noguera, Sonia Nieto, Jose Luis Vilson, Lisa Delpit, Gloria Ladson-Billings, Paul Gorski, Jeff Howard….and then find out who they follow, what they read. Look into organizations like Teaching Tolerance and the National Equity Project. Be open to the new ideas. Understand some of it will make you uncomfortable. Be uncomfortable.

This is not comprehensive. It’s a place to start. If you still want to know more, listen and learn from your students. Some of my greatest lessons have come from them. Much of what I have come to understand has come from the years I spent co-facilitating culturally sustaining pedagogy work with high school students. Our students have so much to teach us.

But what can I do? A lot. We just need to be willing to do it. Tamir and Eric and Alton and Sandra need us to. Their classmates need us to. Our world needs us to. Hearts and minds need us to.



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