To even begin to attack our destructive and punitive educational system, pedagogies that promote social justice must have teeth.
I recently discovered abolitionist teaching, which has been pioneered by Bettina Love, and have dedicated two posts to unpacking my learnings of it. The first post, this one, focuses on Bettina’s book We Want to do More than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom. In the second post, I reflected on the panel discussion she was on recently, Abolitionist Teaching and the Future of our Schools.
Before I read We Want to do More than Survive, I had never heard of abolitionist teaching. Bettina has pioneered the term to represent a radical approach to teaching and schooling, an approach where teachers draw on the imagination, ingenuity, rebellious spirit, healing, determination, and subversiveness of abolitionists to provide educational freedom for our black and brown students.
Pointed and an unapologetic call to action, Bettina packed a lot into 200 pages. She went straight for the jugular. At its heart, the book is a call to action. It was about understanding and embracing the sweet struggle that comes with abolishing an educational system that is steeped in white supremacy. A system that is inherently racist and sexist. Leaning into the history of slavery, she draws parallels to the US school system and current events to push us not to reform schools, but to reimagine them and, in many instances, burn them down and start over completely.
I found her juxtaposition between slavery and schooling incredibly powerful. It’s exactly what I needed. The truth is, as I read and found myself highlighting passage after passage after passage, I felt her book changing me. As a white, heterosexual male, Bettina was helping me peel back my thick, resistant layers of privilege and understand how this privilege reveals itself in my classroom and school…and triggered an urge in me to begin dismantling it. I’ve been doing work to understand (my) whiteness for while, but Bettina somehow struck a chord that no other book, professional development, or conversation had before. For the first time in my career, she encouraged me to freedom dream.
It was a truly outstanding book — something I know will be a resource for me in the years ahead. To keep myself accountable as well as documenting how I’m evolving, I combed through my many highlights and decided to post some here. It also seems fitting to post direct quotes from Bettina instead summarizing and paraphrasing them because of the impact they had on me. She found the precise words to match my thoughts and feelings on educational justice, some of which I never knew I had.
- Education is one of the primary tools used to maintain White supremacy and anti-immigrant hate. Teachers entering the field of education must know this history, acknowledge this history, and understand why it matters in the present-day context of education, White rage, and dark suffering. (p. 23)
- Schools are mirrors of our society; educational justice cannot and will not happen in a vacuum or with pedagogies that undergird the educational survival complex. We need pedagogies that support social movements. I hear teachers say all the time, “I close my classroom door and teach.” This strategy helps teachers survive the disempowering and stressful environment, irrelevant curriculums, and bureaucratic mess of education, but it does not change the field or the context in which youth are being disposed of; it may just prolong the inevitable. (p. 40)
- [On her first Black teacher, Mrs. Johnson] Mrs. Johnson did not just love her students, she fundamentally believed that we mattered. She made us believe that our lives were entangled with hers and that caring for us meant caring for herself….Mrs. Johnson taught as if the fate of her and her children was tied to ours. (pp. 47-48)
- The writer bell hooks argues that loving Blackness is an act of political resistance because we all have internalized racism, regardless of the color of our skin, which operates to devalue Blackness, but she argues that Black people need to love themselves not in spite of their Blackness but because of their Blackness. (pp. 49-50)
- Too often we think the work of fighting oppression is just intellectual. The real work is personal, emotional, spiritual, and communal. It is explicit, with a deep and intense understanding that loving Blackness is an act of political resistance, and therefore it is the fundamental aspect to teaching dark kids. (p. 51)
- I had to learn despite school, not because of it. School mattered because it provided the testing ground in which I learned ways to resist and navigate racism, the low expectations, the stereotypes, the spirit-murdering, all the forms of dark suffering, gender suffering, queer suffering, religious suffering, and class suffering. (p. 52)
- Antiracist teaching is not just about acknowledging that racism exists but about consciously committing to the struggle of fighting for racial justice, and it is fundamental to abolitionist teaching. Antiracist educators seek to understand the everyday experiences of dark people living, enduring, and resisting White supremacy and White rage. (p. 53)
- Measuring dark students’ grit while removing no institutional barriers is education’s version of The Hunger Games. It is adults overseeing which dark children can beat the odds, odds put in place and maintained by an oppressive system. (p. 73)
- Teachers need to be taught how to question Whiteness and White supremacy, how to check and deal with their White emotions of guilt and anger, and how these all impact their classrooms. Only after unpacking and interrogating Whiteness, White teachers—and, really, all teachers—must unpack how Whiteness functions in their lives; then they can stand in solidarity with their students’ communities for social change. (p. 75)
- Abolitionist teaching is not sustainable without joy. Dark students have to enter the classroom knowing that their full selves are celebrated. Not just their culture, language, sexuality, or current circumstances but their entire selves, past, present, and future. Their ancestors, their family members, their friends, their religion, their music, their dress, their language, the ways they express their gender and sexuality, and their communities must all be embraced and loved….Teachers who understand Black joy enter the classroom knowing that dark students knowing their history, falling in love with their history, and finding their voice are more important than grades. Good grades do not equal joy. (pp. 120-121)
- White folx can also embrace Black joy by helping, advocating for, and wanting Black folx to win. Recognizing and acknowledging White privilege is cute, but what does it mean without action? Dismantling White privilege is giving something up so Black folx can win….By winning, I mean White folx ensuring that people of color are being paid equally or more than their White peers. White teachers demanding that schools hire more teachers of color. Silencing your White voice so dark folx’ voices can be heard. White folx bringing dark folx in on all decision-making and dark folx having equal or more weight, and not just on issues about injustice or education but on issues that impact all of us, regardless of the color of our skin. (p.121)
- The great Audre Lorde said, “The true focus of revolutionary change is never merely the oppressive situations which we seek to escape, but that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us.” Abolitionist teaching asks us to question the piece of the oppressor that lives in all of us. (p. 122)
- My goal as an educator, teaching overwhelmingly White students, is to get White students to question how they are going to teach children of color with a limited understanding of who these children are, where these children come from, their history, why and how they matter to the world, who loves them, why they should love Blackness, why they should want to see dark children win, how to support their quest to thrive, and how it is intentional that future teachers know so little about dark students. (p. 126)
- Few teacher education programs require their students to take classes in African studies, African American studies, Latinx studies, Caribbean studies, Chicana/o studies, American studies, and/or Native American studies. Teachers of all backgrounds walk into classrooms never studying the history or the culture of the children they are going to teach. So, how can teachers be culturally relevant when they have not studied culture? (p.128)
- If teachers studied and understood Black culture, per se, they would know that the culture is filled with self-expression, complex language shifting abilities, creativity, self-advocacy, focus play (i.e., hand clap games), memory, and improvisation. Let me stop here to say: Black folx improv not because we do not understand the structure, but because we know the structure so well….Without examining culture, educators will turn to stereotypes instead of rich examples that explain dark life and provide context to their lived realities. (pp. 128-129)
- Another facet of the teacher education gap is White students’ limited interactions with people of color, which perpetuates the myths about people of color. Many White students believe that their hard work is one of the major reasons they landed at a top university; or that their parents’ decision to live in an all-White neighborhood had nothing to do with race, racism, or enclaves established by White rage; and that their privilege—if they recognize it—will not have any impact on their students, because they “love kids,” “want to make a difference,” and/or “have wanted to be a teacher since they were little girls playing school with their dolls.” How can you love something you know so little about? (p. 130)
- To be a Black mother is to be America’s punching bag, as you morph into a shield and take every blow for your family, especially your Black children, that will be thrown by America’s White rage. (p. 150)
- Being an abolitionist means you are ready to lose something, you are ready to let go of your privilege, you are ready to be in solidarity with dark people by recognizing your Whiteness in dark spaces, recognizing how it can take up space if unchecked, using your Whiteness in White spaces to advocate for and with dark people. And you understand that your White privilege allows you to take risks that dark people cannot take in the fight for educational justice. (p. 159)