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.)