Leading the Way

This year’s People of Color Conference (whose hashtag is #PoCC14), sponsored by the National Association of Independent Schools, comes at a critical juncture in our country’s history. I woke up on the morning of December 5 to read a tweet from @racialicious telling about what a good time they were having. Reading through their timeline, I discovered many powerful thoughts and ideas posted the previous day, and vowed to follow their live tweeting of the keynote address, to be given by Dr. Derald Wing Sue. Dr. Sue is a noted expert on multicultural counseling, and has written and edited several books including Microaggressions and Marginality: Manifestation, Dynamics, and Impact.

As it happens, I have used Dr. Sue’s work in my own teaching. Two years ago, when I was teaching Life Skills 8, the students and I spent some time talking about prejudice of different types, how it operates in day-to-day life, and what can be done about it. We watched the video “Microaggressions in Everyday Life.” They learned that microaggressions typically happen when a well-intentioned person lacks knowledge of how specific expressions or behaviors might be experienced by a historically marginalized person. For example, if a girl likes math, telling her enthusiastically, “Wow, that’s great!” might actually be experienced by her as a microaggression, communicating the idea that it is surprising when a girl likes math. No offense was meant, but offense might still have been taken. Another approach might simply be to ask her what she likes best about it, which would still acknowledge and support her love of math without adding the element of surprise. Our class had some great discussions on the topic.

In reporting on Dr. Sue’s address to the #PoCC14, @racialicious wrote in part:

  • DWS: Master Narrative (White ppl talking); democratic society, post-racial, racism is thing of past, not responsible for past sins. #PoCC14
  • DWS: Master Narrative– Truth and justice will prevail, equal access is hallmark of society. #PoCC14
  • DWS: The Counter Narrative (POC narrative): Meritocracy is a myth, system rigged against POCs, white privilege exists, #PoCC14
  • DWS: The Counter Narrative: we are taught that some groups are lesser beings, no one is immune from inheriting biases from society #PoCC14
  • Master narrative is rehearsed in society, and taught in schools. Counter narrative is not. #PoCC14
  • DWS: The Master Narrative a) reassures whites they are good, b) prevents them from being conscious of biased conditioning. #PoCC14
  • DWS: c) Maintains their innocence and naivete, d) perpetuates the racial status quo. #PoCC14

All of this provides the context for microaggressions, which can lead students to question themselves under the daily assault (@racialicious).

So what should schools be doing? One obvious strategy is to present both the master and counter narratives. Whether we use that terminology or not, and of course maintaining respect for the full spectrum of political beliefs, we can certainly study and talk of varying visions of and for our country and how we self-define. We can also teach about microaggressions, how to respond to them, and how to respond if one has committed a microaggression and has it pointed out. In the videotape my students watched, Dr. Sue recommended people maintain constant vigilance, hold an awareness that different people may have different experiences of the same reality, not be defensive, remain open to discussion, and be an ally.

I have just begun reading If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson to my Humanities 7 class. As a multiracial high school couple falls more and more deeply into love, Ellie (who is white) learns more and more about how Miah (who is black) experiences the world and what that means for her view of our culture. I can not believe that students are not going to bring up the examples of Mike Brown and Eric Garner, though of course if they don’t, I can add questions into the mix that will at least get them thinking about the issues underlying those and countless other cases, in the process exploring their own thoughts on the master and counter narratives.

Chris Rock has observed that his daughters are “encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced.” If I compare my students (of all races) to my friends and me (of all races) at their age, they are certainly more aware and more accepting of diversity, if – to be fair – no less well intentioned. We are definitely making steady progress as a culture. Slow, but steady.

But slow.

The thing is, as Dr. Sue said, the master narrative can be used to justify inaction on the part of white people (@racialicious). Time and time again, we have raised our collective voices in national outrage at what is commonly perceived as injustice (many people across the political spectrum were stunned at the grand jury’s decision in the Eric Garner case), but time and time again, things eventually quiet down with no real change taking place.

That quite simply must not continue to happen.

Hopefully, my students will be among those leading the way. It would not surprise me one bit if they did.

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Filed under Current Events, In the Classroom, The Faculty Perspective

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