25 March 2014

I'm Not Racist, But...

I tend to look at equity through a different lens these days. Our work with small schools is driven by a need for equity---for teachers, for students, and for communities. The effort to be effective with data means applying a critical lens to implications of what we collect, who collects it, and why. But these are not conversations a lot of (white) people want to have. It's an uncomfortable space, although that's no reason not to engage.

So, with that in mind, I've been tracking a variety of short conversations over the past week.

Part One: Strangers on a Train
I rode Amtrak to the ASCD conference. There is a wine tasting each afternoon and I decided to join a table with a woman who had immigrated from Mexico three years ago, and her father, who was visiting from Mexico City. One of the things they commented on was the Amtrak crew, which was comprised of several different races. They said that where they were from, that wouldn't happen. "It's not that we're racist," they said, "it's just that we don't mix."

I've been thinking about that comment. Is racism a universal construct...or can it differ by culture? If so, what are the implications for how we address racism in our classrooms and institutions? Are there varying degrees of racism---can one be "a little bit racist" unlike being "a little bit pregnant"? I haven't a clue what the answers are, but they've been interesting to kick around in my head. What do you think?

Part Two: Stories from the Field
Purchase a copy from Heinemann
One of the more interesting sessions I attended was presented by Sonia Nieto. She shared what she's learned from interviews with teachers for her recent book: Finding Joy in Teaching Students of Diverse Backgrounds.

Nieto states that there is not a single pathway to being a culturally responsive teacher...no list of best practices that will transform a classroom. While she didn't provide any particular supporting evidence for her statement, I suspect that it has to do with the very nature of diversity itself. Classrooms are a complex mix of personalities, curriculum, and teaching and learning.

Based on her interviews, Nieto shared some insight into how these teachers keep their passions aflame for the work they do. I didn't capture them all, but here are a few:
  1. Teaching is an act of love: empathy, solidarity, respect, and expectations. This includes getting kids to goals.
  2. Teaching is an ethical act. You not only have the right, but the responsibility to teach ALL kids.
  3. Teachers are learners. Look for diverse experiences to engage with.
  4. Teaching is political work. We must be advocates.
Nieto made some powerful statements---ones that will stick with me for a long time. First, if you believe that all students have the right to dream...we must do better. And secondly, from a quote from one of the teachers she interviewed, "Don't wait for kids to be who you want them to be before you teach them. They're ready to learn now. Put your 'stuff' away and work."

Part Three: Distractions
Do we look for bright shiny things to distract ourselves from the conversations we really need to be having in education?

Tweet by Teresa Bunner: Because we don't want to talk about race or racism. We want to talk about tech. Much more "fun"/safer.

I saw this a lot this year at ASCD, which was rather disappointing. The reason why this conference has been so brilliant in the past is simply because it isn't ISTE. It's a conference for everyone---people in all walks of education, in all stages of their career, and with all levels of interest. We don't need more silicon-based pablum from the iPad crowd. ISTE already provides a venue for that. We need leadership and focus here on what's best for all students...not just those with their nose to the screen.

Part Four: The Exhibit Hall
I took a tour through the exhibit hall, specifically looking for data tools. (You can read more about what I found here.) I mention it here, not because what I found was racist...but because it applies to a different facet of diversity: disability. As I chatted with one of the vendors, I asked them how they checked on accessibility. Their answer: "We don't." Seriously? You design a web-based tool to sell to schools and districts and do absolutely no work to make your product accessible to everyone. I'm not sure how this is okay. If anything, the web should make content and tools better for all...not just usable by some. Not that they had a product worth mentioning to begin with, but I certainly won't be endorsing it to any school district I work with now.

A colleague at work simply says "Get over it." when someone suggests that discussions about race are hard. It's another way of saying "Put your 'stuff' away." And maybe this is how we need to provide a pointed, but gentle, reminder to those we work with. Whatever the answers are, we won't find them until we at least try to ask the questions.

1 comment:

Jenny said...

I'm reminded of the Avenue Q song, "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist." I think that's true. No one is completely free of racial bias. The thing that matters, then, is one who copes with it. Being willing to look inward, discuss outward, and be open is what will help us move forward.