The resiliency of white supremacy, abolitionist teaching, some personal history, and more (Murdock Letter #2)

My school colleague Stephanie Murdock and I are writing letters to each other this summer and publishing them on our blogs. We are both white math teachers leaning on one another to improve the anti-racist stance that we take in our lives, classrooms, and school. This is the second post in the series.

Hey Murd-

Straight up, I want to tell you that your last letter empowered me. The quote at the end was an arrow piercing my white shield. It helped me see that my hesitancy to offend our white colleagues was just my white privilege showing itself in a new way; the quote revealed the latent white supremacy that drove my feelings. It reminded me that I must stay vigilant if I’m ever going to have the opportunity to undo the work of my white ancestors. It let me know that this moment — and every moment — is a matter of life and death. It’s urgent. That I can’t hesitate to right this wrong anymore. Realizing all this made me grateful to be on this journey with you, write these letters, and work to understand — and interrupt — our white privilege.

Come to think of it, I’m realizing a lot about white supremacy lately. Like how it will do everything to preserve itself. That’s what it was doing when I was hesitant about offending our white colleagues. Just like the air we breathe, white supremacy will find a way back into us. It’s incredibly resilient. It certainly has a stranglehold on me. In the near future, just like we’re writing each other, I want to write a letter (or letters) to my whiteness. There are a lot of things it needs to hear.

Anyways…I would have written you sooner, but I have spent the good part of the last few weeks learning about abolitionist teaching. If you don’t already know, abolitionist teaching is a model that calls for teachers to fight for the educational freedom of black and brown students in ways that mirror the work of nineteenth-century abolitionists. It’s a call to radicalize teachers with freedom dreaming and grassroots action to create classrooms and schools that enable students of color to thrive — not just survive. I learned about this concept from reading We Want to do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom by Bettina Love. Recently, Love was part of a panel discussion that focused on abolitionist teaching.

You know, every few years something hits me that changes everything I do and why do it. Ten years ago it was flipping (and unflipping) my classroom. Four years after that it was standards-based grading. Three years after that is was non-thematic units and problem-based learning. Now, it’s abolitionist teaching. Learning to adopt this anti-racist model of teaching while leaning into the perspectives of black queer women is going to cause a major shift in my practice in the years ahead. It’s going to change everything for me, I just know it.

Reading about your past made me think of mine. Racially, we have had somewhat different upbringings. I was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio and was surrounded by black and brown kids my whole life. I had tons of cross-racial relationships and all of my best friends growing up were black or latinx. Despite this, my mom (I never knew my father), who was an incredible parent, was silent when it came to race. Naturally, I followed suit. Coming up, outside of being called “white boy” and “blanco” by friends, race never crossed my mind. She grew up in the city, too, and we were surrounded by all of the incredible black and latinx culture, yet I was raised to be colorblind; my mom implicitly taught me not to acknowledge our racialized society. Maybe my schools tried to do a better job, but I don’t remember. But had mostly white teachers anyway, so I doubt it. This all resulted in my never being aware of the unearned privileges that came with being born white, privileges that my black and brown friends would never have despite their best efforts. This stings because this mindset stayed with me well into adulthood and for a good part of my teaching career. I wonder who I would be today had things been different. I wonder if I would have done anything about it. I’m not confident that I would have.

In terms of the mission statement for RSJ, I’m not sure. I think I made something up in the moment because we were being forced to. It didn’t feel natural coming up with a statement because there were — and still are — so many unasked questions for the members of our group. One of my biggest fears is that we rush to find solutions that are answering the wrong questions. We teachers are conditioned to be results-driven and want answers fast, but because of the deep-seated biases we carry into this work, prudence and self-reflection is crucial. Not that I should be the one to designate what they are, but I think that certain readings should be mandatory for white people in RSJ (not unlike what the 1619 Project + Math initiative does). It’ll help norm expectations for our group. I’d rather work slowly and methodically to abolish our racist, sexist, ableist structures than to rush and slap a fresh coat of anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-ableist paint on them. In fact, I don’t think developing a mission statement for RSJ should be a goal at all. When it does come time to formalize this work, instead of developing a mission statement for RSJ, we need to rethink the mission statement of our school. This work is all-encompassing. I know that is easier said than done, and there will be many who roll their eyes and insist on its good intentions, but our mission statement wasn’t developed through an anti-racist lens. In my eyes, that makes it inherently racist. It must go.

No, you’re not steamrolling. You’re being anti-racist. In a world steeped in racist ideas and policies, anti-racism is going to stand out. It’s definitely showing and I appreciate your insistence on change. You have inspired me. With that being said, as your partner in crime, I’m trying to be mindful of how often I center myself and my whiteness on this journey. Besides, that’s whole point: for us to get out of the way. This includes how much I care about being viewed as anti-racist. For it’s not about me, it’s about understanding the black experience and dismantling racist structures. In being a white male with an ego, checking myself is especially important, and something I’m constantly working on. I want no sympathy.

I feel like I’ve already traveled so far with these letters, yet this is only the second one. That makes me smile. There’s so much more to be said, but I’ll stop here. Till next time.

Freedom Dreaming,

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