Recently I had a long exchange of messages with a concerned party about the Teacher Leader scholarships that we are offering for Summer Institutes. This person, who has a long track record of commitment to racial justice and anti-racist education and social action, and whose work I personally admire, expressed concern that an unintended consequence of the scholarship was to perpetuate a common, yet misguided and harmful practice among white people hoping to grow in their ability to be allies in the fight to dismantle systemic racism.
It is all too common for whites to ask or expect people of color to educate us about race, racism, white privilege, or any other topics we desire to learn about. This is, obviously, a very misguided and harmful practice, and it is indicative of the depth of the inherited racism that white people, even well-meaning ones, perpetuate. It, to me, indicates that the white person, regardless of their good intentions, is still assuming that they have the right to assume a stance of “power over”, of assuming that white people can simply extract labor and information from people of color, just by virtue of wanting to learn.
This exchange shook me deeply, and in the past two days, I have undertaken a lot of reflection and discussion. This was all happening against the tragic backdrop of the brutal murder of yet another Black American, George Floyd, and the widespread anguish, demonstrations, vigils, actions, and public displays of anger boiling over in the fiery streets of Minneapolis and across the nation and world.
Part of that reflection has been the difference between my life as an individual and my role as the leader of an organization.
As an individual, I have long been committed to anti-racist work. As a young girl, I attended an all-white private school and had very few personal interactions with anyone whose skin was not pretty much the same shade as mine, and so when race slowly dawned on me, it was an abstract concept. Fiction helped. Fiction has been shown to increase our empathy. Reading nonfiction and learning history helped. But since the history lessons at my all-white school transmitted a very, very white-centric, racist narrative, that part was slow going. There were not a lot of ways that I knew of to learn from other people.
My world, and the world for many kids of my generation (I was born in 1976) and in my social milieu (I was born in Macon, GA), was not designed for curious white girls to have many opportunities to interact with people who weren’t white, or to even have many opportunities to formally explore racism, or even to learn a non-white-supremacist version of history or explanations for current events. Those around me did not seem to share my perspective. I learned about reparations. I learned about affirmative action. These seemed like good ideas to me, and still do. But those around me, almost monolithically, vehemently opposed such ideas. I grew up feeling like an outsider in many ways, and my dawning , growing realization that racism is pervasive, that our entire society was built on a foundation of theft, murder, slavery, torture, and forced, exploited labor was a source of personal pain and wonderment, and loneliness. Deep loneliness.
My personal life has been a journey of climbing out of this social prison cell – in no way comparable to an actual prison cell, in which a disproportionate number of people of color, and especially Black Americans, are now confined due to the deep, pervasive systemic racism upon which our prison-industrial complex is built.
In no way will I ever congratulate myself for a “good job” or “getting there” or “being a good white person” because no matter what, I know I will never eradicate the nasty, seething, ugly programming that I picked up like breathing in air, from the shameful and horrific legacy that my fellow white supremacists laid down, of unspeakable suffering and loss for non-Europeans, and of unwarranted privilege and power for those who descended from European ancestry, rich and poor alike.
I have so far to go. I would dare say that all whites have so far to go. I would even dare say that we probably will never “get there.” The best we can do is DO NO HARM. The best we can do is STEP ASIDE. The best we can do is MAKE SPACE. And the space we can make would seem to be in direct proportion to the amount of power and influence we have to share.
Thus, for those white people who have more influence and more power, such as those who lead schools, departments, classrooms, conferences, Facebook groups, state organizations, national organizations…and cities, counties, school boards, nations…for whites like that, the work is especially urgent.
So, this work, for many of us whites, is taking on a new level of urgency in these times, as we see the effects of racism writ large in the death toll from the COVID-19 crisis, in the state-sanctioned brutality and murder and the deep suffering and pain it causes, and in the widening economic gaps that disproportionately affect communities of color.
Let us not forget that these communities began our neoliberal rush to enrich the super-wealthy at everyone else’s expense ALREADY way, way behind the starting line due to centuries of theft of land and life and labor, disenfranchisement, terrorism, and the policies that made these practices not just legal but part of the very fabric of the economy.
And in this ever more urgent work, those of us who hold power, influence, and economic resources must make a swift, decisive, and deeply-engineered course correction. We must step aside, even in our own organizations, and even in our own life’s work, to make space, to bring on new leaders, to build stronger teams. Lip service is not enough.
Pretty words are not enough. Surface-level changes are not enough. The deep, pervasive, life-threatening violence that whites have collectively visited upon our fellow human beings was not built on lip service, words, and surface-level policies. It is deep, it is the verey water we swim in, the very food we eat, the very land we walk on, the very air we breathe. It was built into us when the sperm and egg that made us met, and it has been replicated in every division since. I just replicated billions of cells infected by racism as I typed that last paragraph. You, white reader, replicated billions of your own as you read it. And you, dear reader of color, I would suspect that you know, tragically, and at great cost to you and your loved ones, how whites are replicating, replicating racism with every thought, every cell, every innocent-looking baby. I cannot know if that is how it feels. I can only imagine. It’s probably worse than I imagine, and that is why it is so urgent.
The reason for the scholarship program is to start a major course correction for the company I began, blithely, and without much thought to racial justice, in 2011. Perhaps there are better ways to do this course correction. I’m sure there are. If you have ideas, please share them. I’m all ears. In fact, the seed of this scholarship was planted by a commenter of color who, last year, made a comment on a post we sent out about the Institutes, saying that the price made it obvious that they were intended to exclude, not INCLUDE. I did not do a course correction then. It took me a little bit to internalize it.
My hope is to grow the company on the contributions and power of people of color, to construct a pathway for those who are interested in the work we are doing, and whose perspectives will help us to grow into, as Bernie Sanders says, a multi-generational, multi-racial coalition of empowered educators who are developing resources and trainings and leadership that is actively anti-racist.
For many scholarship recipients, attending Summer Institutes will be all they wish to do. That’s great! They will leave with resources, knowledge, and information. They will not be asked to participate “as a person of color” or to educate others about race. I am fiercely committed to making the experience about their learning and growth, NOT about the learning and growth of white participants. The scholarships are being awarded with no strings attached, to all who apply.
Why aren’t they free? I thought about making them free. But I chose to make then 75% off instead, because when people pay something, it creates a different dynamic. At least that’s how I see it. Maybe that’s my white perspective talking. If that’s how it seems to you, I would appreciate your sharing your perspective on that.
The proceeds of the scholarship tuition will fund the ability to bring on more collaborators of color to our team. We will be able to pay people to write texts, develop curriculum materials, offer professional development, and weigh in, in a substantive way, to the direction we navigate in this major course correction.It is my sincere desire to produce actively anti-racist materials, texts, and training opportunities, and to build a high-functioning leadership team that is a lot less white-centric than the one I have built so far.
So, yes, I suppose you could say that I am asking my colleagues and friends of color to help me. And maybe you see this differently, but I see that when an ORGANIZATION needs to make a SWIFT and SUBSTANTIVE course correction, by hiring, training, and collaborating with colleague of color, that is a different situation from Teacher Tina or Teacher Sally expecting others to do the work for them. This is Literacy Education Services, LLC, DBA CI Liftoff and DBA The World Language Proficiency Project, inviting leaders of color to do the work WITH us. To take on roles that only they can fill.
After two intense days of self-examination against a background of intense national anguish and pain, in an already-intense time of crisis and pain, this. is my thinking, as an individual person, as a businesswoman, and as an educator. I look forward to hearing others’ thoughts. Thank you for reading this far. Please leave a comment if you have thoughts to share.