A New Year, a New Black Lives Matter Conversation
The first time I tried teaching explicitly about racism was in 2014. That was my second year back in the classroom after a hiatus. The school year began about a month after Mike Brown was murdered by Officer Darren Wilson, igniting the Ferguson uprising. The previous year I had done a unit on the Civil Rights movement, and I'd done various lessons and units on Black history before that. But the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement pushed me to talk about racism more directly.
This week I started a unit of study on Black Lives Matter and I'm noticing the ways I feel different about it than previous years. This year I'm teaching remotely which will change our learning in many ways, some still unforeseen. One major feature of remote teaching is the fact that there is almost always at least another adult in the "room." I rarely see them, but I know that family members are often within earshot. This is my first time teaching about race and racism with families present. It's a good challenge I think, but I'd be lying if I said it didn't make me nervous.
As I've mentioned before, I'm also in a new community this year. My new school has a much more proactive approach to social justice in the classroom. I'm on a team with three women of color, including two Black women. While I've been on multiracial teaching teams before, in the past some of my colleagues have been reluctant to talk about race with the kids. It is a big change to be able to collaborate with and learn from other teachers on this work.
I'm also teaching in a community that is very racially and ethnically diverse. One thing this means is that for the first time in my teaching career I have multiple white students.
In recent years I have been doing a lot of work on my own understanding of whiteness and my white identity. I have had to push through a lot of shame. It has taken a lot of work for me to see myself as valuable and worthy of participation in multiracial, justice oriented community. I am wondering how to help white kids with this journey at a much earlier age.
In other words, I'm trying to be the white teacher I wish I'd had. I know better than I used to that I won't be perfect. I know also that it's not my job to lead this work singlehandedly (which is another reason why I'm grateful to be in the new school community I'm in). I'm also wondering what do white kids growing up in New York City in 2021 need that's different than a white kid growing up in Santa Rosa in 1995. With all that in mind, I think that there are a lot features of white supremacy and whiteness that have remained remarkably resilient and consistent over time. I think there is a lot I can offer to the conversation as a white teacher who is learning to hate white supremacy while loving myself.
The overall climate for this learning feels more intense this year too. We are a week removed from the attack on the Capitol. Four years of Trump has meant four years of steadily growing overt white supremacy. Combine this with the ongoing racial justice uprisings following George Floyd's death and covid19... I feel exhausted and anxious in a way that leaves a lot less mental bandwidth for my teaching. I imagine my students feel similarly.
After six years of trying to teach about race and racism, and learning about how my whiteness affects me as a person and teacher I have a new understanding of this conversation this year. The attack on the Capitol crystalized for me that this conversation can't only be about Black resistance. It needs to help kids understand white supremacy and whiteness.
I also have a clearer sense of how this conversation impacts students of color and Black students in particular. This conversation can feel exciting for me as a white person, because I'm inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and the possibilities for change. But for teachers and students of color I know it can be exhausting. I am more aware of the ways this conversation has different demands and opportunities forrr white students and BIPOC students.
I don't know where this conversation will go. I know it's just as urgent as ever. In some ways I feel more comfortable messing up than ever. Oddly enough this feels like a sign of how much I've learned.
I am less interested in performative anti-racist teaching. I'm more focused on how to give each student what they really need from this learning. And I know better than before that I'm only one participant in a lifelong journey.