A Policy Lens for Teaching Students about Racism

Several weeks ago a reader wrote me a question in regards to my pointers on teaching about race in the classroom: “Do you think it’s acceptable to incorporate anti-racist parts of our history with other events and people who, while maybe not anti-racist, were neutral on the matter? For example, teaching kids about the racism towards Chinese railroad workers in the mid 19th century and celebrating their accomplishments as well as the good that their work brought to our country?”

I think that this is a great question and the first comment that I would make is that I am absolutely not trying to come across as an unequivocal expert on the matter. We are all unique as teachers and I’m sharing my professional opinion as someone with 10 years in multicultural education here when I say that we absolutely should teach about the Chinese railroad workers in a way that shares our appreciation for what they accomplished, thus building up esteem and gratitude for their contributions, while also talking about how they were mistreated and – and this is the new trend – by directly discussing the governmental policies on immigration and housing and voting rights that impacted them. This is because in anti-racism work nowadays, we focus on policies and not just interpersonal racism, which is what people call microaggressions and hate.

Case in point, Ibram X. Kendi is a renowned scholar of anti-racism and one of the proponents of an anti-racism movement marked by policy consciousness; he advocates for teaching children to discuss policy from a very young age. His books are excellent, and may come off a bit radical, but are definitely worth a read. The book of his that is coming to mind as a write this is his recent book Antiracist Baby, which argues that we absolutely must teach children to recognize rather than ignore racial difference and that we should teach children that policies and not people are the problem.

Kendi teaches us, and I agree, that our silence is what causes us so many problems now. Kendi himself has a 4 year old. As an expert on race and father of a Black child, he has not only studied but has also personally seen how racist ideas take hold of the imaginations of children as early as two years old.

In fact, I remember one professional development presentation I attended several years ago featuring a clip of children under 5 reaching for White babies no matter what their actual race or ethnicity was – all of the children wanted to play with the White doll.

What messages must the children have already internalized about their own skin color if they automatically defaulted to the White baby doll?

In the words of Kendi, “If you claim to be color-blind, you deny what’s right in front of you.”

I recently spoke with a professor who said that it was problematic that so many educators see themselves as activists, because it silences debate and coerces people into a grade based on if they are speaking liberal orthodoxy. This is definitely worth considering. However, given our nation’s constitution and also our valuing of equality and freedom, the fact that we have a history of so many racist policies in the U.S. that were passed without dissent reflects the failure of our educational system to teach civics in a way that honors the dignity and rights of all. We must do better. There is no neutrality, antiracist educators would say. We’re not activists – we’re realists.

On a more practical level, what it comes down to is what you view the purpose of education to be in the first place – so my advice to my reader would be to act in your integrity as regards what you think the purpose of your teaching ultimately is. We are works in progress as educators. Find a book group and discuss civil rights literature and become more comfortable talking about race.

In a later post I will discuss the colonial aspects of education and try to defend the views of antiracist educators, but for now I will say that we are heading for a clash of peace studies and ethnic studies – the people debating at the feet of monuments about whether they should be torn down or stay up often were taught history in radically different ways. There is not a shared pool of meaning anymore, and I worry about the direction public discourse is taking as a result. What I continue to ponder is how far decolonial and antiracist policies will lead to anarchy and violence. However, the opposite, which is the White supremacy we have now, must not go on. Email me at erinmichael@seahurstlearns.com with your thoughts.

Ms. Rectenwald Retires

After many years teaching at Del Dayo Elementary School in Carmichael, California, my mom Betsy Rectenwald is retiring this year. The picture above features Mom, myself, and my late Grandma Cornelia, who was also a lifetime educator. Just as Mom learned from her mom, so I learned from her.

A colleague wrote her of her gratitude and this touched Mom deeply – never underestimate the power of a letter of gratitude as a beloved teacher retires:

“I will never forget what you did for students who were the most marginalized. No one could have done what you did…and I know it was hell, but you did it because you never throw anyone away! You changed an entire grade levels outlook and way of supporting each other, and gave them a chance.  But remember all the students that didn’t require your Blood Sweat and Tears, that just soaked up your passion and love and insight, and knowledge! The life long skills and love of learning they will always have – because you instilled it in them. And you have been such a soldier…an advocate for your kids no matter what. We had a big discussion a few years ago during MTSS about a student who remains on our radar because you would not let it go, or stand by and quietly watch a student be neglected or forgotten. You are inspirational to me and I’m so glad I’ve gotten to work with you.”

Mom helped spark a love of learning and a passion for knowledge paired with ethical decision making in all of her students, and I was one of her first ones. She will continue to do so with the reading and writing business she has started, PenMove. Congrats, Mom! Love, Erin.

Pivoting Rather than Retreating in the Work

I’m not gonna lie. Today hurt real bad. I’ve been writing about anti-racism and anti-oppression work a long time, and have been an anti-racist practitioner in the classroom for longer. I’ve trained people in restorative justice. I’ve consulted with school districts, universities and businesses. I study a lot, break bread with multi-cultural communities and have read White Fragility well enough to know that when I’m called out then I should stay quiet and take in the feedback rather than continue to perpetrate harm. But today hurt. A fellow-White woman involved in the work called me out, and I reflected and determined that I didn’t agree with her assessment and that I, furthermore found it controlling. Then I was publicly shamed for my faux pas on an email chain.

“I defer to his lived experience and apologize for the harm. I’m still marching tomorrow,” I wrote.

But then I thought, will I really walk? is protest necessary now that I’ve been publicly humiliated?

I went for a walk to process. My husband’s out of town and I was kind of relieved he couldn’t ask me, “What’s wrong?” as I ruminated when he tried to talk to me.

I was offended. I had been publicly called out and reprimanded by civil rights activists as opposed to the white institutions I usually rail against in my work for justice and recognition of BIPOC (Black, indigenous, and people of color)*. Multiple people copied in the email and told not to contact the person of color I had reached out to to partner with because he felt harassed.

I am an assertive woman and knew in my training that I had to honor his lived experience. But, honestly, I was really frustrated. I didn’t feel heard or listened to. I had insights, didn’t they know that?

I went for a walk to process. I thought about how I should just stop being so invested in justice and civil rights. That everything was being accomplished right now without me and so I could just go back to being comfortable again.

I thought to myself, “There’s no structural racism – I’ve been brainwashed to think that there is. BIPOC are crazy!”

Deeper my mind went down the rabbit hole, and yet at the same time I thought to myself, “–and, yet,..”

I had studied whiteness enough to know that the thoughts I was having was typical of white fragility. And I had thought that I had been immune to it with all of my studying. Clearly I could not go back to the relationship that had been ended over email with ten people on it calling me out. The connection was gone.

What do I do with all of this emotion? My friend “betrayed” me. She had said I had been inappropriate in making my comment.

ME! Who does this for a living.

But then I realized the powerful time we are in. I thought to myself, “I don’t want to be someone who is racist and yet says, ‘I marched with Dr. King.'” As if that cleared me of responsibility as a White person in this society.

On my walk I encountered a person of color and they didn’t make eye contact with me. They seemed afraid. “Yep, it’s real. Racism is real.” I’m “White” – I “belong” in my predominantly White neighborhood. Ahmaud was killed for jogging in such a neighborhood as this. A unarmed Black man innocently jogging, killed by two White people, and it was filmed by another White person.

I still didn’t agree with the feedback and that I was publicly insulted. I trained in restorative justice, why wouldn’t they apply that methodology with me? And yet the relationship was irrevocably broken.

Now what?

What I realized was that I had to write about it and to publish it now while it was still fresh and it still stung. Before I could find a liberatory narrative for myself to forge on ahead. Right now is the time that needs my words, because right now is the time when people will be inclined to throw in the towel because people are taking it “too far” or they’re called out and disagree.

There are probably many people like me right now.

White and passionate. And yet we are dismissed for not following the script. Especially right now. We can’t even offer solidarity without having somehow “offended.” I’ve studied enough to know that the offense is real when people say that they feel harassed.**

I am going to the protest tomorrow, alone now that I don’t have the community since my husband’s out of town. But I will be going nonetheless.

As regards to community, I will build a new one with new relationships and dig down deeper into those connections with people that my Whiteness hasn’t offended. I will learn what I can from today so as to be a little better in the future in my walk as an anti-racist White woman.

I will pivot rather than retreat. Racism is a psychological process, and I experienced it in myself today. I can’t go back to complacency even if I can’t go back to what was once my community. I have no choice but to pivot rather than retreat.


6/12/2020 endnote:

*I just read this article and it clarifies why BIPOC (used above), is a new but problematic term: https://www.nytimes.com/article/what-is-bipoc.html


6/26/2020 endnote:

**I just encountered this article, “How to not be a “Karen”: Managing the tensions of antiracist allyship” from June 19th, 2020 that brilliantly addresses what I should have done: https://medium.com/@yara_mekawi/how-to-not-be-a-karen-managing-the-tensions-of-antiracist-allyship-6f02f5514c4b

Curriculum Violence

There was a classroom I was observing several months ago where the teacher showed a film on Black experience in Latin America and it actually featured people of African descent picking cotton. This was a painful moment for the African American students in the room, and it was unnoticed by the Latina teacher in the room. As a white person, I experienced another layer of complexity in terms of how to intervene and to tell the teacher that one of her students was visibly upset due to the material of the film.

And yet I stepped in. It wasn’t pretty. The teacher was very offended that I had said anything as a white person. I think that this is a very difficult issue and that teacher training doesn’t always teach about the nuances of talking about race in environments where there is not caucusing or “safe spaces” but where students are still harmed by the material in the classroom. And I touched on this in another post on Brene Brown several weeks ago, where I praised her for being aware of subjectivity as we try to change the way things objectively are.

Think to yourself what you would have done differently and send me an email about this at erinmichael@seahurstlearns.com .

The Legacy COVID-19? Compassionate Educational Frameworks (Here’s Hoping!)

I have been thinking about one of the last schools where I taught and realizing: what teachers are going through now, is what many students go through on a daily basis. Lack of job security, lack of structure, lack of routine, lack of control. In some cases, lack of rent, and the threat of having nowhere to sleep as spouses are laid off and people crowd food closets. And it brings home the need to support people in poverty regularly and from structural support and not just handouts. A lot of the people we teach in “rough” schools are struggling because of structural injustice, so it only seems fair. And what about compassion instead of the school to prison pipeline?

What is going on now is a wake up call to people who believe in meritocracy. If anything is clear now it is that we only have compassion for people when we realize the humanity of those at the top who seem to have earned their invincibility when really they have often only inherited it or gained their status at the expense of others. I have had homeless children in my classroom. And only when homelessness poses a threat in the time of pandemic – when we realize that many have no shelter with which to follow the law of “shelter in place” – only at times such as these, is the lack of housing something that needs remedied. We are now housing homeless people in hotels.

Many of my former students had technology at home. But many others did not. Many others brought phones to school that did not work only to have one to hold so that it seemed like they had the money to afford the technology that some of their peers had.

On the other side of things, teachers are often judged extremely harshly and now we are realizing how hard their jobs are. Parents are realizing that not everyone can teach, and their children’s behaviors seem at time unmanageable. Let alone what parents of students with special needs are experiencing as they try to work from home while tending to their child.

What I hope comes out of this are more compassionate educational frameworks as opposed to the industrial model of education that Dewey created in his extensive work with privileged students (note: he did not work with students in poverty). Our educational values have prioritized the needs of a select few, and our educational system has been created to sort, select and exclude. Here’s to a compassionate educational model in the decade of the 2020’s.

Loving Brene…

What do I love about Brene Brown?

She doesn’t believe in objectivity without the embracing of one’s subjectivity.

I think that once we realize that we are embroiled in the controversial topics facing education today rather than casual – or formal – observers of them, we can begin to heal and transform the world. You have to be in the ring, reflect there, and then – only then – can you transform the face of education. Her research is even more effective in the time of COVID-19. The need to have empathy, to be courageous and to bounce back “rising strong” is exactly what this world needs.

Culturally Responsive? Or the White Racial Frame?

“Cultural responsiveness” is a term that gets thrown around a lot and I have to say that sometimes I wonder if this doesn’t come across as patronizing to people of culturally or socioeconomically diverse backgrounds. I feel like it might if we talk about cultural responsiveness only when it comes to interacting with people of color or under-served students and this as if everyone was White except “those people” with whom we interact. The white racial frame pervades the way that we talk about social justice in social justice education, which perhaps makes it awkward for people who are not White to talk about education in ways that are not objectifying to them.

COVID-19 and kids… What if we cared this much about the environment?

I had a disturbing thought yesterday: what if people care more about this than the world we’re leaving for our kids because, unlike global warming, this impacts older decision makers and the economy and the lives of the elderly. I’m glad that we’re having the response that we’re having – this is, indeed, an emergency. A bipartisan one at that. Maybe we can learn from this disaster in the future and get on board with protecting our children as much as we want to protect our middle-aged and our elderly. Here’s hoping.

W.E.B. du Bois and Booker T. Washington

I am reading The Souls of Black Folk, which was published in 1903 by W.E.B. du Bois. I am learning a lot, and I am also remembering how he came across for me when I was a student learning about him when I was in fifth grade. I will share that with you now, though it is something that I won’t imagine being popular. I share in hopes that others will see the inner logic of a white child’s notion of race in middle class white suburbia in the 90’s.

In short, W.E.B. du Bois came across as radical and unapproachable – and he was undeniably himself and not to be tamed. Tamed. That is an offensive term in this context and I use it with care and share this mental experience to show how I had been socialized as a white person by the time I was 11 years old.

There was a sense that he couldn’t be managed or controlled and that he was himself and therefore dangerous for it. I wanted to ignore him – and yet I could not, no matter how hard I tried in my 11 year old mind.

“At least all black people aren’t like that,” I told myself as a student in Ms. Baldwin’s fifth grade class.

In retrospect, I think that I was threatened by his need not to be defined by mainstream society. In the same school year we learned the concept of the melting pot, – that America is a melting pot. And so perhaps it was this coming together of the melting pot ideology and W.E.B. du Bois didn’t fit into it. He didn’t want to fit into it. Having studied race since then, I think that by mainstream society I meant white culture. And perhaps the white supremacist aspects of it that I did not even know I had learned. And that my family had not consciously taught me.

When I looked at Booker T. Washington I was relieved. I mattered again.

This may be upsetting to read, but it also true. That was how I experienced race as a fifth grader in “colorblind” America. And it’s why I am committed to being an anti-racist practitioner and trainer.

A Best Read of 2019: “Ethnographic Thinking: From Method to Mindset,” by Jay Hasbrouck

This book was written for business by a local author and it was at my favorite local bookstore (Three Trees Books in Seahurst, WA) and it really helped me navigate difficult conversations around race, ethnicity and organizational change in 2019 (the book itself was published in 2018).

A lot of the challenge for me over the years has been getting organizations to not only understand intellectually what their problem is – namely a lack of diversity, particularly in leadership positions – but to actually to do something about it that will make a difference. Namely, how to get people to make those qualitative changes that yield the coveted quantitative increases in the number of “diverse” folks who choose to stay once they’ve been recruited. It’s not just hiring that matters. It’s retention. It’s people’s actual quality of life and sense of belonging and contribution to the places the work, study, worship and lead.

The book is about bringing the myriad represented cultures in all their wholeness, to bear in the organization’s culture, their offerings, and their voice and tone guides. From a holistic as opposed to a reductive perspective; to do this, the book draws on the field of ethnography. Ethnographic thinking, Hasbrouck teaches, is not as a method that is obsessed with metrics and big data, but as a mindset – one that we cultivate while reading this amazing book, written from the perspective of a talented anthropologist and ethnographer.

What I particularly appreciated about this book was that, when I applied it to race, it had the effect of centering, on a conceptual as well as a concrete level, the bodies and lives and minds people who are otherwise objectified in our desire to attain more diversity.

I got a lot more buy in with the organizations with which I consult after reading it, because it was prioritizing business and led to a robust shared pool of meaning for practitioners of all backgrounds to come together for the public good – without sacrificing the bottom line.