We Have Work To Do: Undoing Racism

This week began with a professional day for faculty and staff. Our theme was Identity, Privilege and Race provoked by the recent months of turmoil surrounding the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

There were readings, resources and a deal of playfulness. And most important – conversation.

When one of those readings – What White Children Need to Know about Race by Eli Michael and Eleonora Bartoli  was posted on our PDS Facebook page it had an unprecedented (for our page) reach of almost 10,000.

Screen Shot 2014-12-28 at 6.51.11 AMPeople, it seems, are hungry for guidance.


You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.

                                                                  – Atticus Finch to Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird

The Danger of a Single Story  

Our lives, our cultures, are composed of many overlapping stories. Novelist Chimamanda Adichie tells the story of how she found her authentic cultural voice — and warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding.

The grand jury decisions in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and the subsequent events including the cold blooded murder of two NYPD officers have dominated news stories that have become increasingly ugly in the last two weeks.

Headlines, opinions, editorials and debates about race, bias and the role of the police have brought more tensions and divides to the surface.

Many people have had their faith in justice challenged. Others have had their lack of faith and fears confirmed. We have been shown communities that do not trust the police to be unbiased, seen the consequences of irrational hatred turn murderous and watched the necessary link between elected officials and those paid to keep us safe shredded.

We are all are sad at the personal tragedies for the families directly affected by these deaths. And all of us worry about how to make things better, how to heal the wounds and move to a place of greater trust and safety for everyone.

As I think about my personal reactions to those deaths and their aftermath I am acutely aware that this represents a choice for me. I do not live with that fear and anxiety that so many – quite rationally – must. Accidents of birth have given me many unearned privileges to which so many others do not have access. I can also stop worrying about it all whenever I choose because it is not my daily reality.

As is clear from the reactions and commentary – we all see the world differently. As educators we know that knowledge comes from experience. And it is those experiences that shape the lenses through which we see the world quite differently.  And it is in sharing those experiences that the mutual respect and understanding  can begin.

We like to believe that we are all born with an equal set of rights and privileges. In that sense we are all the same and have equal opportunity. But we also know that the different ways we experience the world reveal to us us that we do not all have the same privileges and advantages. This is the difference between equality and equity.  The biases, privileges and disadvantages that come from these differences (of background, ethnicity, religion, sex, and all the rest) that make up our individual identity mean that we live quite separate and uniquely shaped lives. The same events are interpreted in myriad ways because of who we are.

So how to move beyond all the anger and sadness in a time of such mistrust? What do we – as educators – do to help ourselves and our students understand the complexities.

If we want to understand what this actually means we need to take extra steps to do what Atticus Finch advised Scout and heed the warnings of Chimamanda Adichie.

Finding common ground to discuss these issues is as hard as it ever was. But the effort must be made. And perhaps it begins with a shared vision of something better. Our mission calls for educated global citizens and that citizenship begins at home.

In thinking about what it means to be a global citizen I am influenced by this definition from Oxfam (UK):

A global citizen:

  •   is aware of the wider world and has a sense of their own role as a world citizen,
  •   respects and values diversity,
  •   has an understanding of how the world works economically, politically, socially, culturally, technologically and environmentally,
  •   is outraged by social injustice,
  •   is willing to act to make the world a more equitable and sustainable place,
  •   participates in and contributes to the community at a range of levels from the local to the global.

Works for me. How about you?

We work with young people and that is where the hope and optimism are. As well as our obligation and responsibilities.

In 2015 let us find the heart and the energy to tackle some of these apparently intractable issues. It’s tempting to just wish it all went away and left us in peace to do our jobs of educating children.  But of course – uncomfortable as it at times – it IS our work.

It is my hope that our work on Monday is a small step forward in tackling the work of educating global citizens. This step begins with who we are what we know so we can together develop ways forward for ourselves and the families and children we serve.

It starts with empathy and with the understanding that the road will not always be smooth or straightforward. There is not one story about what it means to be an American let alone a global citizen!

So – it starts with us as adults. And then we can begin to think more deeply about how to work with our students on these important issues not only in occasional and random conversations but also in systemic and enduring ways. (It’s a bit like the airline safety admonition to adjust your own oxygen mask before assisting others.)

Recent events provide what are sometimes rather glibly called “teachable moments”. Let’s figure out how to take advantage of them.

And so, on to next steps.

And since I wrote those words we have yet another challenge to our grip on reason with the appalling massacre in Paris. I don’t imagine there is anything of use that my words can add. “Je Suis Charlie” indeed although few I would hope choose to engage in such inflammatory provocations free though they are to do so.  And also “Je Suis Ahmed” – the muslim police officer killed while protecting the rights of the cartoonists to mock his faith – by people one of whom (at least according to NPR News on Thursday) is reported  to have been radicalized by the torture photographs from Abu Ghraib.

And so the chain – that began where? – continues.

The courage is to step up and say: Stop. Enough. This stops with me/ us. We all have the ability to do that in our daily conversation and interactions. What are the values that matter here and how are they best protected?

To declare we are for social justice is easy when we don’t consider how complicated social justice almost always is.

We all have work to do.

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