Well these have been an eventful few weeks. I have struggled to write in both time and ability to articulate. What meaningful thoughts could I possibly add to the current dialog? My shared grief over the graphic footage of yet more police shootings of black men as well as the tragedy in Dallas for me were aligned with my own private grief as well as the hectic start of a new school year (I work at a year round school).
In a ritual that I imagine is familiar to most families, we are in the process of sorting through the accumulated belongings of my grandparents. My grandfather passed last November at 98 and my 97-year-old grandmother is now in a nursing home. It is a bittersweet process full of sadness, joy, and existential questions, sometimes with unsettling answers (along with a large helping of dust and mold on the side).
As I sorted through my grandparent’s life experiences, I reflected on the wide gulf between our perspectives. Could I ever truly understand a worldview and mindset formed in a context that was so different from my own? Could they ever truly understand me? I saw the connection of this question to the content I would be teaching soon. As my AP Art History students study prehistoric art, how will I help them understand how different our modern worldviews are from prehistoric humans, while not underestimating the fundamental similarities that still shape us?
In the same way that we find it hard to build a bridge across these gaps, it is a struggle to understand the perspective of those of a different race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. Some understandings are just inscrutable by those on the outside. Some shoes simply cannot be walked in. As I pondered, theme of connection seemed to be thread tying together these disjointed experiences.
Humans seek connection with other humans. Those who don’t find it often turn to violence and rage (isn’t every mass shooter described as a “kind of a loner”?). Those who find connection and lose it are grief stricken. The abused continue to tolerate their abusers in avoid the loss of connection to them. If we often struggle to connect with people with whom we share DNA (and physical resemblance) simply because we are a few decades removed, what hope do we have as teachers walking into diverse classrooms? Yet, teachers and students often do create deep connections with each other and with their peers across the widest gulfs.
As Black Lives Matter movement has shaped and encouraged the greater discourse about systemic racism, the issue of white fragility comes to the surface. White fragility is certainly an accurate description of a real phenomenon. However, narratives of white fragility tend to focus on adults, not students; corporate settings, not schools; and ignores in how white fragility is manifest differently based on class differences. As the mostly white teaching force works in increasingly diverse schools, we face a daunting challenge—how do we help students understand and come to terms with their place and role within systems of power and oppression while also developing the agency and desire of all students to create a more socially just society?
Or to put it more simply, how do we help all students (and possibly ourselves) make sense of the truth and reality of inequity in our society and give them the tools to help create more equal society? It is complex challenge made more difficult by the dynamics of power within our districts, schools, and classrooms.
Part of white fragility manifests itself in the fear and sadness over lost connection. Admitting that there are gaps we cannot cross means throwing the whole notion of connection in question. That is scary on a deeply psychological level. For some, being vocally anti-racist or supportive of LGBTQ rights appears to risks existing connections while also appearing to deny the ability to forge new ones. Evolutionarily speaking, fairness and justice have an uphill battle against the human desire to belong. This is powerfully evident to those of use who work in school settings. It is root of all bullying behavior.
One of the most challenging ideas that Paulo Freire presented is that the oppressor is also hurt by the process of oppression: “the oppressor, is himself dehumanized because he dehumanizes others.”(Notice neither he nor I suggest that they are more hurt by it, nor that it is the job of the oppressed to comfort them, simply that systems of oppression are dehumanizing to all).
As educators, we must find a balance. No, we cannot simply ignore all “this stuff” and “focus on the curriculum”—that is the answer that perpetuates the inequity. Education is fundamentally political in nature, denying this fact is naive and misguided. No, there is no room in our schools for race neutral, kumbaya, “can’t we all just get along” nonsense. We cannot deny reality. At the same time, we also cannot we entertain hopelessness.
As Freire puts it: “in place of immobilist fatalism, I propose critical optimism…I recognize reality. I recognize the obstacles, but I refuse to resign to silence or to be reduced to a soft, ashamed, skeptical echo of the dominant discourse.” Yes, teachers are human and most fail to recognize and understand our privilege at times. We will make mistakes and missteps as we navigate the racial, social, and political crosscurrents of our diverse classrooms and schools. We should take those opportunities to listen and learn, but we should not choose to be silent simply because our efforts are imperfect.
As we reflect on the coming year (or for some of us, face our students now) Paulo Freire charges each of us with these responsibilities to our students:
- “…to unveil opportunities for hope, regardless of the obstacles”
- to accept the political and directive nature of education
- to express respect for differences in ideas and positions
- to respect the students, never manipulating them
- to be tolerant, open, forthright, and critical, teaching is not simply the “transmission of knowledge concerning the object or concerning the topic”
- to teach so that students can learn to learn “…the reason-for, the “why” of the object or the content.”
- to challenge students with a regard to their certitudes so that they seek convincing arguments in defense of the why
Let’s all take his words to heart. Let us focus on the challenge of forging deep connections that do not deny the reality of our differences. We all have done it before, we can do it again.