A Lesson in Freedom for Me

Joe Truss tweeted “Let’s be clear: students of COLOR, immigrants, and poor folks are most left out of the literate society. LITERACY is LIBERATION. What are we going to do about it?” To which I responded, “Have you read @CarlaShalaby’s #Troublemakers? Great read for reflecting on the question.” To which, he asked me to tell him about it.

Thus, this blog post is my inspired response. I listened to the audiobook, so forgive any quotes that are not perfectly transcribed. All the quotes below are from Carla Shalaby’s beautifully written, life-changing Troublemakers: Lessons in Freedom from Young Children at School. Her book paints a portrait of a few elementary-aged students who are considered troublemakers as well as walking us through their interactions at school and at home.

I read Troublemakers as a part of Dr. Val Brown’s #Cleartheair book chat on Twitter. This book was simply breathtaking for me, literally. From the beginning, Shalaby acknowledges the reasons why enslaved people were not allowed to learn to read or write and discusses the power that exists from being literate and being able to organize. She caused me to ponder on my own time as an English teacher, and I so wished I had had my hands on Troublemakers before I started teaching. While I believe that I strived to inspire interest in social justice and that I gave students tools to question at least the media, I did not treat my subject as a life-or-death, freedom-or-oppression subject. To have done so would have been nothing short of revolutionary, especially considering the statistics Shalaby reminds you of related to the trajectory of a student’s life if they are not on-level reading by third grade.

In short, she considers school as a place for students “to practice freedom,” a place where children can “lift up their voices… to say what they need.” She sees students who are considered troublemakers as canaries in a coal mine who can point to poison in the air. However, considering the educational reality for many of us, “marginalization is the punishment for not conforming to the mainstream.” We are comfortable with “changing children instead of changing the classroom demands” and “incarcerating people from whom we could learn the most.” It makes me think about three of my former students who died in such violent ways; I wonder if I could have impacted their path had I shifted the goal of my subject so that it was not just reading and writing, but reading and writing to be free.

She calls us out for hypocrisy in many ways, but two things really stood out for me:

  1. How can we claim that education is the great equalizer when there are places in the country where school conditions are extremely filthy and underfunded and under(fill-in-the-blank)? She states that the fact that “these children are required by law to attend these schools is perhaps the clearest and most concrete evidence I can offer of our collective national commitment to throw away lives, particularly the lives of poor young people of color. A nation committed to the insistence that only some lives matter.”
  2. How can we claim that we love working with children when “It is increasingly routine and shockingly acceptable to drug the fragile developing brains and bodies of young children into compliance and docility[?]”

While these were two questions that bubbled up for me, there are a hundred other questions I could pose to acknowledge the hypocrisy of the American education system.

She challenges us to move away from the idea that “Good students sit still, and they listen. They follow directions. They conform. They take orders. They adhere to the standards of childhood as a marginal social position and to whiteness as the ideal.” And to acknowledge that exclusion has a “well-documented ineffectiveness to curb the behavior.” She does this through detailed observations of a few students in class and at home. As I walked through the stories with Shalaby, I could see myself as a student in the children, but I also pictured former students and wondered how I could have approached them differently if I had viewed their “behavior issues” as a canary in a coal mine, to determine what I needed to change.

While I cannot undo anything about my past teaching experience, I have been working to convince anyone I can to read Troublemakers because, for me, it was truly a lesson in freedom.

White Fragility: A Book Review

A part of evolving into an anti-racist that I had not anticipated was realizing how much I would have to do to unlearn the internalized racism my country socialized me to walk with. With that in mind, I want to write about a book by Robin DiAngelo titled, White Fragility, which I read as a part of Dr. Val Brown’s #Cleartheair book chat on Twitter, a book that I think could help educators unlearn some stuff, too. What follows is a Facebook post that I wrote extended here as a blog post. I also apologize in advance if I misquoted DiAngelo at all as these were the quotes I took down when I first listened to the audiobook.

Throughout White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo writes with a measured, matter-of-fact tone even when delivering gut-wrenching statements like this: “I believe that the white collective fundamentally hates blackness for what it reminds us of, that we are capable and guilty of perpetrating immeasurable harms, that our gains come from the subjugation of others.” The way it is written, she is speaking from the point of view of a white progressive woman who is speaking to other white progressive people. To them, she acknowledges that whiteness is a social construct, “a fiction…, an agreed upon myth that has empirical grit because of its effect, not its essence… it is a category of identity that is most useful when its very existence is denied. That’s its twisted genius.”

She forces readers to think about the harmful effects of housing segregation on our inability to really know people across racial lines. This idea makes me think particularly about educators who assert the fact that they have worked mostly in majority-black schools means they are immune to exhibiting racism and prejudice.  I wonder if reading this book would help poke holes in that logic. The fact is that we were all “raised in a society that taught [us] there was no loss in the absence of people of color, that their absence was a good and desirable thing to be sought and maintained, while simultaneously denying that fact.” Thus, in the case of those afore-mentioned educators who work with black children, it is likely that is where their interaction with black people stops.

Beyond thinking about historical legacies of race relations in the US, DiAngelo helps us to think about their implications on our ability to have meaningful discussions about race. She says that we have to be brave in our conversations about race, that “niceness is not courageous” and that “telling me to treat everyone the same is not enough to override… socialization.” For white readers, she goes in depth with particular reactions to conversations about race that make dialogue impossible and “pushes [people of color] back into silence.” She looks at the reasons why it is so difficult to talk to white people about race, particularly that it comes down to misunderstanding what racism even is. She says, “For most whites, racism is like murder. The concept exists, but someone has to commit it in order for it to happen. This limited view of such a multi-layered syndrome cultivates the sinister nature of racism, and in fact, perpetuates racist phenomena rather than eradicate them.” Throughout the book, she offers ways to move away from this incomplete understanding of racism.

I highly recommended White Fragility if:

  • you are white
  • you want to engage in conversations about race and racism with other adults or colleagues
  • you are a POC who has tried to confront white people or POCs about race or racism and was met with resistance or denial
  • you are a white person who, when confronted with conversations about race or racism, have countered with any variations of the following:
    • Italians or Irish weren’t always white.
    • Just treat people right.
    • Just love people.
    • Racism is taught at home.
    • I have a [insert relative or friend] who’s [insert non-White descriptor].
    • Racists are mean.
    • I grew up poor and had a hard life.
    • Share examples of a POC who accomplished the thing (I.e., Obama or Oprah or a rapper or Ben Carson or an athlete)
    • Well, there’s no White Entertainment Television or White History Month

In the end, DiAngelo states that “Racism hurts, even kills, people of color 24/7… so consider racism as a matter of life and death, as it is for people of color, and do your homework.” Therefore, educators should remember that “When we are mired in guilt, we are narcissistic and ineffective.” So instead of walking in defensiveness, consider walking in awareness and reading White Fragility.

(And/or watch all things DiAngelo.)

Hoodies & Hair

Since Treyvon Martin was murdered, the hoodie has become, for me, a complicated emblem. When George Zimmerman killed him, I watched the world around me put a dead teenager’s character on trial despite his innocence. I watched the world focus on a conversation about self-defense. In my visit to The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in the summer of 2018, many of the anecdotes included about why black men were lynched were due to accusations from white people, who like George Zimmerman, were claiming some form of self-protection. It reinforced what we see now, and what we saw in 2012; the line self-defense really only applies when you are “protecting” yourself from a black person.

The implications for this death and many others plays out in a variety of interactions with black students. From parents giving “the talk” to school dress code guidelines, we see how the hoodie, and anything associated with black culture, has been criminalized or ostracized.

At a visit to a school recently, I walked around campus and through classrooms with a black principal. This day was one of the very few cold days in St. Pete. As such, students were wearing hoodies and jackets and blankets to stay warm. I watched this principal address three or so black boys about wearing their hoods up. The way she did it was lovingly, no yelling or derision. I did appreciate that, but my issue was that I watched many other students who were not black boys with their hoods up walk by without comment or corrections from the principal. Was the case that this woman, who I know has a passion for equity for black children, only saw the black boys’ hoodies? Was it a bias issue? What it a protection issue?

This question of the hoodie is really bigger than just the hoodie, of course; it extends to dress code at large. In many ways, dress code ends up being racial, from what we even notice to what we codify into our school expectations.

At one school where I was a staff developer, I had to deal with a teacher who relished writing students up for tardies and dress code. One of the most memorable moments in dealing with him was when two students- a white girl and a black girl- walked by him. They were both wearing the exact same, low-cut dress, but the only student he stopped and wrote up was the black girl. Even in my own time as a teacher, I really only remember regularly harping about dress code to black students.

Other facets of the dress code that seem to disproportionately impact black students are things pertaining to hair. While India Arie asserts that “I am not my hair,” there are countless stories of black hair being criminalized or marginalized. Over the summer when I posted the link to this video on Facebook, a school administrator posted this question, “This is very informative. How would you respond to a student who refuses to remove her sleep bonnet or go to class because her hair isn’t done?” It led to an interesting discussion that include the following responses such as “if the student came to school and the bonnet isn’t impacting anyone’s ability to learn, why does it matter? Why punish kids for showing up?” and “This is a legit struggle for a good administrator. It is the tension between your teachers wanting you to be the ultimate cop and your heart wanting to be the impactful teacher.”

In the end, the comment I most identified with was this: “I think I hear each of you saying building positive relationships with our students (earning the right to be heard) is far more productive than enforcing arbitrary dress codes. This from a person who has spent a lot of years negotiating a balance on this topic. Let’s get them in class, engage them in meaningful learning and then talk about appropriate dress for school. How many times is our very first greeting ‘you are not appropriate.’ Then we get angry because they are not ‘motivated’ to learn.” It resonated with me because it acknowledges that, at the end of the day, our first commitment in our work is to students, and sometimes that means bucking an unfair system.

And as I was finalizing this post, a video went viral of a student athlete who was forced to cut off his dreads to compete in a wrestling match. Many of the tweets of this video focused on the student’s sportsmanship or the fact that he won the match, but I watched this video with a lot of heartache. It is so evident how sad he is about what is happening. The fact that so many allowed this to happen and did not stand up to the ref on behalf of the student really shows the epitome of the evil of these misconceptions. In the end, the spectators must have agreed with the ref on some level that blackness is inherently wrong or unacceptable, and that his locs had to go.

I need ya’ll to just let our babies be, let our babies live their fullest possible life.

Below are some resources to check out:

The Journey Begins

It’s time I start doing something with this obsession of mine.

When I think about the purpose of this blog, I think about it as a vehicle for me to share all the things that I am learning. A lot of it I wish I learned (or thought about) when I was still in the classroom.

If you like learning and thinking and growing and want to do better by your students (and the people of color with whom you interact), subscribe.