Who’s anti-racist?

I’d been sitting at my “desk” – aka a table that we quickly repurposed into a desk for the now months-long COVID19 work-from-home set-up – for way too long. It’s not quite high enough to be a work space, and when I really settle in, I end up aching more or less everywhere. A quick stretch didn’t do nearly enough to help, so I decided to go for a long walk. After all, those student projects weren’t going anywhere, the day was beautiful, and I had an errand to run: I was picking up the book Unsettling Canada from a local independent bookstore. Colinda Clyne is leading a book group about it on her podcast “Anti-Racist Educator Reads” (listen live Wednesdays at 7:30pm ET), and I was eager to get reading.

I tucked my headphones into my ears and queued up my podcasts. I was finishing up Episode 147,  “Why White Students Need Multicultural and Social Justice Education” where Jennifer Gonzalez interviews Dr. Sheldon Eakins Cult of Pedagogy podcast. I love her podcast in general, and this episode had already given me some food for thought. When this one finished, I already had Brene Brown’s interview with Austin Channing Brown from her podcast Unlocking Us

The day was warm and sunny, and I relished taking a break when I needed one rather than living by the dictates of the school bell. I meandered out of my (rich, largely white) neighbourhood and into the next (richer and possibly whiter), pausing to take pictures of flowers and giving friendly nods to many people. I noticed some Black Lives Matter signs stuck to various poles and a few chalked sidewalks reading, End White Silence and other slogans. “Wow!” I thought,  impressed to see these in this neighbourhood. That’s great! If someone had stopped me on the street, shoved a microphone in my face and said, “Tell us, how are you feeling right now?” I probably would have said “content.”

I probably would not have said “self-congratulatory” or “complacent” but… the virtue signaling is everywhere: “local independent bookstore,” the book title, the podcast, the book title, the other podcast, and the other one. No one reading this doesn’t know exactly what kind of white woman I am.

As I neared the bookstore, I noticed a gray-haired white woman putting a sign up on a telephone pole. Her body was pressed against the pole, as she held a sign in one hand and tried to unfurl the wrapping tape with the other. It wasn’t working. She moved her hand and I saw the words: Black Lives Matter. Pleased to be part of this, I crossed the street and offered to help. “Thanks,” she muttered, not looking at me, “It’s hard to get this tape to stick to the wood.”

At that moment, I recognized her. We had been friendly when our children were babies, spent some time together in a moms’ group and shared a few playdates. When I went back to work, she stayed home and eventually we lost touch. Actually, that’s not quite truthful. As I followed her on social media, I was overwhelmed by her activism on *everything.* I found her exhausting, even shrill, and I suspect she found me ridiculously naive. Her partner wrote angry opinion pieces in the local paper; she wrote screeds on Facebook. I finally unfollowed her when I realized that just seeing her name was making me anxious. She seemed angry at every injustice, and I couldn’t handle it.

She didn’t look at me as I held the paper – she was still fighting with the tape and had colored chalk under her arm – and I quickly turned my face away: I didn’t want her to recognize me. I couldn’t bear the thought of the conversation we might have. She got the tape to stick, I made some comment like “Good luck”  and walked away. Suddenly the Black Lives Matter signs all over the neighbourhood didn’t look so appealing. I found myself thinking, “It’s not even her neighbourhood,” though the truth is that I no longer know where she lives. 

I realized how sweaty I was. It was actually quite hot and the sun was really bright. Why did I decide to go out at midday? I wondered. I noticed more chalked sidewalks, more signs. My stomach clenched. I am NOT like her, I thought. I do not want to be like her. I kept walking towards the store as my mind churned.

What does it mean to be anti-racist? I am reading and listening and talking. I’ve read a lot already but I feel like my reading list gets longer daily. I am learning and learning and learning, but what am I doing? Should I, too, be putting up signs and chalking up sidewalks? Should I be shouting this from the rooftops? Should I be angry? 

One of my black students recently told me that her mom keeps her home when she’s really angry so that she doesn’t get into trouble. Angry black women get in trouble, get arrested, get mocked, get turned into memes. An angry black woman putting up Black Lives Matter signs in that neighbourhood, well… I actually don’t know what would happen because I can’t even imagine it. Maybe I should be using my white privilege to be more vocal, to put up signs and scream about this issue. Maybe when my old acquaintance wrote End White Silence she meant me. In fact, she probably did.

But that doesn’t feel right either. If I am to accuse myself of anything, I suspect that I am far more apt to be complaisant than complacent. I know I need to raise my voice, to be less fearful of others’ displeasure, but surely that doesn’t undo my efforts toward anti-racism. My thoughts are going in circles, and I find myself wanting to enumerate the “things I’m doing” as if to prove my anti-racism to… to whom? To myself? To her? No. That won’t do. My mind, relieved, jumps to vilify her: she *is* shrill; she *is*… what? Wrong? My thoughts circle again.

Then Ibram X. Kendi’s voice fills my ears – I had realized I wasn’t concentrating and switched to a podcast episode I’d already heard: “the heartbeat of anti-racism is confession, is admission, is acknowledgment, is the willingness to be vulnerable.” This. This I can do. This is the heart of what I am trying to do with my students, how I try to de-center myself, to listen, to believe them. And when my students tell me about the racism they experience… ah, there’s my anger. I feel it now. The urgency I feel comes from their lives, their truths.

I am still walking. I can make myself vulnerable in my relationships with my colleagues, my friends and others, too. I can admit my mistakes and learn from them. I can be relentless. I can share what I learn, act on my beliefs. I can keep learning. My paradigm has shifted, and I can share that shift. There is space enough in anti-racism for her way and mine – there has to be – because in the end, we all need to be anti-racist.

Many thanks to twowritingteachers.org for the space they create for so many voices.

21 thoughts on “Who’s anti-racist?

  1. Thanks for this incredibly raw and honest post, Amanda.

    Some of the work I’m doing right now is talking with Isabelle. For instance, just yesterday I changed the way I talked about slavery by using the words “enslaved Africans” rather than “slaves.” (It reflects the learning I’ve been doing from others.)

    I feel like the work we do with our own kids is critical. Talking with our young children will help them to develop an anti-racist attitude and stance. If we do this, then we’re helping the next generation to go stronger.

    BTW: You’re the second person who has mentioned Dr. Sheldon Eakins today. Gotta check out the podcast you mentioned.

    Like

    1. I love that you’re talking to Isabelle about this. We’re talking to Eric & Thomas, too. We’ve even started listening to Jason Reynolds read Stamped – one chapter every few nights. I am encouraged by how shocking they find it all – and they have friends of many races here in Ottawa – but I know how insidious racism is… I’m also on the lookout for books with non-white main characters who are not suffering but rather just being people. It’s made our reading lives much more interesting!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I share these complicated thoughts, although I am pretty vocal and likely to write a response to a racist FB post. Still, I’m struggling with my own advocacy and what that should look like as a retired educator. I’d say for teachers returning to school this fall the real test of being antiracist will be in what you do in your building and district. I didn’t realize when I was a high school student that the speech I gave decrying the racism in standardized testing would morph into a paradigm of refusing to teach to the test that I’d follow my entire career, and I shared my unsolicited opinion w/ many colleagues over the years. I didn’t know at the time that too is a form of antiracist advocacy. Elizabeth Ellington write about our sphere of influence in her post today. That’s where we all need to start and continue working to be the best antiracist see can be.

    Like

    1. I love reading about the different ways you act and speak up; you inspire me. I am definitely becoming more vocal as I get older (I’m finding aging as a woman very freeing), but I got serious pushback during this school year (which I have not written about because I cannot for the life of me figure out how to write it without publicly taking down various people in positions of power over me – grr). I found myself hurting & angry & uncertain for a few months. I’m back now – no shock there! – but still often feel that my classroom advocacy is tiny compared to what I want to do. And next year I won’t be teaching my favourite “I hate English” group because of that same administrator disaster. Ah well, the “academic” kids probably need me just as much – Elisabeth’s sphere of influence is exactly on point.

      Like

  3. I’ve had similar thoughts and feelings recently. I’ve felt pressure to post something on social media… because it seems to be the thing to do. My husband reminds me there are other ways to do this work of being antiracist. I’m also trying to learn and begin conversations with colleagues and family. Thanks for sharing this.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know all about the social media pressure. I’ve tried retweeting things but even that feels performative. I’ve read & learned a lot in the past two years, but I still feel completely new to this. Anti-racism can’t just be a passing fad, something to post for a few weeks & then move on… We’ll still be here even when the signs have come down.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Perhaps you will allow me to share a thought from a long-time friend on this issue of “white silence.” We had an extensive talk about all the “stuff” that is happening right now, and I shared with her that I was advising people to stay quiet and listen rather than talk. She shared that is exactly NOT the thing to do! Totally stunned me–I asked her what exactly should I be doing? She shared that we needed to willingly speak up, particularly to white friends/relatives/colleagues. She challenged me to step into the issue rather than stepping back from the issue. Probably her most poignant comment: “We are tired of talking to white people about things they should already know or could find out with a Google search!” So yes, we can use caution about when and how we speak. But maybe we need to speak more willingly, particularly among white people, about our views on the subject. Maybe we need to rely on the reading and conversation and common sense knowledge that we have thus far to inform our commentary. Just a thought!

    Like

    1. Tom, I think you’ve really nailed the tension I feel: I know I need to listen & learn more; I also know I need to speak & act. Finding the balance is where I struggle. I have also joined/started several book clubs & I know that there’s a frustration that when black people are in pain, white people join a book club. BUT I have taken and am taking action – it’s just that my sphere of influence seems awfully small.

      Like

  5. Wonderful post, Amanda–deeply thoughtful, intentionally crafted, full of all the questions we need to be considering. To be honest, I need for white people to feel urgent. Every time my son leaves our house, every time he doesn’t have his white parents on either side of him, it feels like he is so incredibly at risk. A child shouldn’t be in danger of being killed when he’s walking home from the store with candy. A child shouldn’t be in danger of being killed when he’s sitting on the playground. A child shouldn’t be in danger of being killed when he’s sleeping in his bed. There has to be urgency. That said, I don’t think urgent necessarily means loud. It’s great to hang up a sign, but that costs very little (for most people) in terms of personal inconvenience and discomfort, and what we really need to be doing are the things that cause inconvenience and discomfort–pushing back hard on the policies and practices of our schools and workplaces that lead to inequity, speaking up with colleagues, friends, and family when it’s uncomfortable to do so, organizing together to refuse to do things that we know harm kids. And of course there is all the direct action we can take with our students in terms of curriculum, pedagogy, discipline practices. That said, as you know I wrestle all the time with “am I doing enough? Do I need to be saying more?” It’s hard. Thanks for this post.

    Like

    1. One of the most salient points in this outstanding post is the quote from Kendi. The rage-against-the-machine approach is exhausting and can wear out even the most committed person. Yes, we are well past the point of needing to say more and do more, but confession and repentance and reflection are valuable to understanding how to do that. Calling out others in a tone of self-righteousness without the critical reflection can prove really unproductive. Not to mention how easy it is to do in our social media lives. No matter how “progressive” I want to believe that I am, there is still much awareness and work that I need to do.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Thank you for seeing me, Elisabeth. Yes, this post was intentionally crafted (I’m sneaky like that) and yes, I’m struggling with how much of this work is visible vs invisible. Posting on social media, putting up signs… that’s easy & public. Working with and for my students, speaking up in staff meetings and to administration, changing my pedagogy, changing my mind… these things are less visible, but they are hard won and important. Still… am I doing enough? The question is ever-present.

      Like

  6. I suspect that I am far more apt to be complaisant than complacent. I know I need to raise my voice, to be less fearful of others’ displeasure,
    I’m jealous of the line, Amanda. This walk you were on feels like the walk I’ve been on. I’m reading again. I’m reading a lot. Just finished White Fragility and want to shout that everyone should read it…but more importantly I want to shout at myself “Now do something constructive.” Part of me is read ing to understand better, but I know that part of me is reading because it’s easier than acting. My family decided we would start splitting time between our long-time church (which has very woke leadership but is also very white) and a more diverse church that is much more “activist” in its approach. Robin Deangelo suggests asking yourself what is keeping you from being more constructive, and for me, it’s my insulated existence and my unwillingness to speak up with my casual friends and colleagues.
    Thanks for taking me on this tortuous walk, that sometimes feels torturous. The writing of it feels so true.

    Like

    1. I find it all challenging. This walk really happened, but it also feels like the walk I’ve been taking over and over for a while. I keep wondering if I’m doing enough – and I keep arriving at the realization that it will never be enough. My sphere of influence is small, but I am learning to speak up and to take action where I can. Each time I do it, I am able to do more the next time. I am learning, one tortuous step at a time.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I feel perpetually stuck there, too. Talking regularly with Melanie has helped. We are accountability partners and push each other to do things that we might not have the nerve to do otherwise. I’m willing to be your accountability partner, too…

      Like

  7. There’s so much to think about from your post! And, I’ve been doing a lot of that lately…thinking…afraid to say the wrong words. Clearly, I need to do more. Thank you for sharing~

    Like

    1. Thanks. The more I learn, talk, think, do the better I get at doing more. And I feel lucky that I get to learn with my students – who call me out with humour and love. School is a great place for me to learn.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s