Note: Starting at the top of this year, I invited folks to ask me questions that I would answer. I view my “answers” as points in informed discussion rather than “look no further. All you need is HERE” responses – particularly on things that are less about me personally and specifically. Which is not to say I don’t mean or stand behind my answers. ‘Cause I do.
Question: “What can I do to support civil rights as a white, hetero woman? How could I use my position as an educator to provide a safe space for all, despite my unconscious bias (which I’ve been working on, btw)?” -Casey
So important that a teacher asked this b/c too many teacher friends/”friends” conduct themselves as if they’re finished on this front or as if whatever contrived diversity/cultural awareness class/ training they’re required to sit through or collection of Black/ brown/lgbtq/disabled/etcetera-ness in their personal lives has them covered. It’s not something that can be finished and likely whatever “training” they’re giving is woefully inadequate.
I’d like to re-iterate my disclaimer that what I offer here is not the totality of the answers to your questions. Okay. So let’s get into it.
1. Listen and learn. Before you can support people you need to know how to support them. A lot of people make the mistake of jumping in to be an “ally” (a word I admit I’ve grown a certain distaste for) without taking the time to know the people they claim to be in alliance with or know what it means to there for them. There is often a wealth of media in different formats about marginalized groups and – importantly – BY those people. Even if it’s not popular or mainstream, it is there. I try to get as close to the source as possible because people often try to speak on behalf/over other people’s experiences, but no one can tell you about the experiences of a culture/sub-culture better than the people in that group.
There’s fiction, nonfiction, documentaries (ay, PBS, Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube will hook you up), music, art, clothing, inventions, policies, language, games, social media – so much material, so many artifacts of life. Get to know what people love, what moves them, what unique challenges they face, how they express their experience. See that there are many contrasting and competing perspectives within groups. Pay attention to how they’re represented in media/society and by whom. (Representation is kind of a big deal with minorities/marginalized groups.) And there’s also the fact that these are real people in the world you can interact with if they allow and to the extent of their boundaries. And pay attention to how (or if) people in majority groups interact with/about people in marginalized groups – even indirectly. As you’re listening and learning and figuring out how to support…
2. Don’t try to play White Savior/Super Ally (aka Don’t Leigh Ann Tuohy or Rosie O’Donnell). I have personally felt the disappointment when it seems like people are looking to earn an ally patch for their letter jackets to show off instead of trying to grow in being a decent human being to other human beings.
While I think it’s healthy for us to acknowledge the good in life and celebrate our goodness toward each other, I think it’s trash for someone to go the “I’ve done x, y, and z for YOU people/THOSE people” route or be offended when they don’t get praise/accolades/handsome rewards for saying the same thing “for” a group that group has been saying forever while being ignored and abused. I say this not only because I’ve heard many a tale about folks being aggravated by that attitude but also because I’ve personally had it served to me. I send it back to the kitchen. Did not order. Do not want. Ever.
3. When you make a mistake, own it. Notice I said “when” and not “if” – because you WILL screw up. Maybe you’ll misgender someone. Maybe you’ll use ableist language. Maybe you’ll play Good Blacks vs Bad Blacks in which you pick 1 or a couple of Black people you agree with on something then use them as a weapon to reprimand the BAD Blacks and tell them how to Black better or less offensively. (Cause you catch more non-Black flies with GOOD, respectable Black honey or something…)
Whatever it is, admit it. If somebody says something you said/did was transphobic, don’t try to justify it can’t possibly be transphobic from you because your 4th cousin who you adore is transgender and you just love her to the moon. Think “Hey, maybe I WAS doing something transphobic. Gotta fix that.” If a Black person tells you something is anti-black, don’t take an informal survey of other people’s opinions as to whether or not you’re “a racist.” Just own it and do better. We often get defensive about our awesomeness and open-mindedness (Dude, what are you talking about?? I’m SUPER TOLERANT! I hug fat disabled pansexual nonbinary dark-skinned AfroLatin@ Jainist people all the time!) to the detriment of our awesomeness and open-mindedness. I’ve had to catch myself on things like “Whoa. I misgendered that trans person. My bad. Let me correct myself.” A lot of times you don’t even have to make a big deal out of it to check yourself so long as you don’t screw up really, really big-like.
4. Remember there are SYSTEMS of oppression at play. None of us alive invented them, but we do perpetuate them. Even us “good” people who never owned a slave or beat up a gay person or don’t call women whores for being sexual blah blah. You don’t have to inherit a plantation to be part of and benefit (to have privilege) in a system(s) that has Black people disproportionately on the receiving end of a lot of terrible stuff – unfair housing, gentrification, police/vigilante brutality, harsher prison sentencing, under/unemployment, poverty, disparities in health/healthcare, trans women murders, and food insecurity – for example. So when you see people cry out things like “Reverse racism!” and “Stop talking about race and and racism will stop!” and “I’m a MENINIST!”, etc….
…it spotlights an ignorance to pervasive, deeply ingrained issues in our society and perhaps a lack of willingness to be a part of the solution to any of it. There are intersecting SYSTEMS of oppression (based on race, gender/gender presentation, sexuality, socioeconomic class, and so on) to dismantle. And often people’s identities exist and lives happen in those intersections.
5. As an educator get familiar with issues in education. Things like school-to-prison pipeline, inequality in education, gender biases in education/the classroom, the effects of “colorblind” education policies, lgbtq rights/discrimination in schools. Pay attention to policies, rewards, and punishments and see how they affect students (and which students to what degrees) and what good/harm they do. Watch how other educators interact with/about students and issues. Do you hear other teachers making offhand comments like “All this race stuff…”? Do you see teachers using misogynistic or bigoted language? Does your school or do other teachers avoid promoting or try to silence certain conversations to “keep the peace”?
Talk to other educators (even ones you don’t work with) about these phenomena, things you observe, things they might be able to make you aware to look for, and resources/references. Ask people – in real life, on social media, etc. – “Does anyone want to talk about [issue]?" Talk to folks who are in the know and in the care about what you would like to see in your continuing education/training. Pay attention as people offer resources about issues in education/culture that help them inform their praxis. Listen to different stories people – adults and kids, friends, family, strangers – are willing to share about their educational experiences, what they got/get out of it, what they’d like to get out of it/wished they got out of it. Use this treasure trove of wisdom to inform how you build your educational environment, interact with students, and guide their interactions with others.
6. Challenge. Keep challenging yourself and your biases. Even in private moments when maybe you have a split-second reaction to something from another group or culture, ask yourself "Hmm. Why did I do that? What was happening with me there?” Note where you need to improve as well as your progress. (Refer back to #1 and #2 as needed.) AND…so important… challenge those around you and their biases. Expose them to new perspectives/ideas, call them out on their bull, let them know where you stand. This doesn’t have to be in the form of some dramatic Shonda Rhimes-ian monologue or scathing read.
(But if it is sometimes… Vine or .gifset or it didn’t happen. No, just kidding. Maybe.)
Slip into spaces others can’t get with your stealthy “non-threatening” cishet whiteness and help people around you get the hell over themselves. And help make spaces more accessible.
7. Respect boundaries. Marginalized people are dealing with living through the issues mentioned above while trying to undo years, lifetimes, generations of gaslighting about who they are while just trying to navigate the world as living, breathing humans. Having been a human for a few decades, I suspect you know sometimes being a human is a lot. Sometimes you don’t want to deal with other humans. Or as a woman you don’t want to engage with men on something. Or as a Black person you don’t want to engage with white people and/or non-Black people (or some Black people) on a subject. Or as an LGBTQ person you don’t want to use up precious energy to educate cis/het people about your identities or “this gay thing” they saw. Or a myriad of things. Sometimes you just want eat your veggie burrito in peace or tick away the time until 5 pm or binge watch your Netflix and search for tv show gifs without having to give 1,000 words on demand on West Africa, the Southern US, theology, political ideologies of group z, toxicity in white mainstream feminism, etc. Sometimes you can’t be all cerebral and eloquent and shit.
I’m an inquisitive person and if there’s something I don’t know that stimulates my interest, I’ll follow the breadcrumbs to more knowing, maybe ask questions. But I always have to keep in mind to do that in ways that don’t treat people of other (or even the same/similar) identities as products here for my consumption – especially to demand answers/information when there’s so much out there and our blessed and highly favored friend Google and its cousins the in-app/site search bars are there for us. So, I try to avoid the pompous (and sometimes triggering) approach that I’ve seen before to say the onus is on marginalized people to prove their validity or change the minds of people in positions of privilege who sit and demand you convince/move them – again, AS GOOGLE LIVES. (I’ve had this “the onus is on…” conversation before with a young teacher. This and other conversations rife with misogyny, rape culture, sexual/gender bigotry, anti-Blackness, etc. made me worry about the educational welfare of this person’s students.) People of marginalized identities don’t exist to chaperone privileged identities through their own biases and isms and cultural illiteracy at will. So I’m always navigating with consideration for these dynamic boundaries – including my own. Something to keep in mind.
8. Support organizations/community organizers/individuals/creators who are playing active roles in addressing the issues previously mentioned – housing, poverty, health disparities, food security, police brutality, unemployment, cultural illiteracy, etc. As you get into learning about these issues, you’ll see people often share ways to support them – through buying merchandise, crowdfunding worthwhile ventures, participating as requested, getting out of the way as needed. Buy from minority owned businesses. Engage respectfully with and buy media by non cishet white people. Enjoy it, respect it, share it (again, respectfully). Don’t Columbus it, though. Don’t appropriate.
9. Here are some of my related tags on both blogs:
Welp. I think I’ve done ok here.
2/22/2015: I’m adding in some more resources for record here since yesterday’s online conversation. I’m sure at a point (soon) this list will just grow into it’s own post. But for now…
These are from Amy, educator+world traveler+explorer of various fruit:
- Paulo Freire – Pedagogy of the Oppressed (like, yeah. You gotta.)
- bell hooks – Teaching to Transgression (bell. of course)
- Jonathan Kozol – Savage Inequalities
- A Suresh Canagarajah – Resisting Linguistic Imperialism in English Teaching
- Paul Gorski – essay “Good Intentions are Not Enough"
- Mike Rose – Lives on the Boundary
- Ellen Cushman – The Struggle and the Tools
Here are a few books from me:
- Brenda J. Allen – Difference Matters: Communicating Social Identity
- bell hooks – where we stand: class matters
- Catherine Ellis and Stephen Drury Smith (editors) – Say It Plain: A Century of Great African American Speeches
- M.K. Asante, Jr. – It’s Bigger Than Hip-Hop: The Rise of the Post-Hip-Hop Generation
- Juana Bordas – Salsa, Soul, and Spirit: Leadership for a Multicultural Age
And a link to my list of documentaries on BADSHOI.