Why versus what (Murd Letter #3)

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 third post in the series.

Murd,

Thanks for getting back to me so fast! I was caught off guard by quickly you responded. The truth is, when you sent your response, I was actually still processing what I wrote; I was still trying to figure out what I discovered about myself through those 1,151 words. This normal for me. Even beyond our letters, I often do not know what I know nor feel what I feel until I find the words to capture it. This process of self-discovery causes me to reflect on what I write long after I write it.

Looking back on my last letter, I find it tantalizingly interesting that I shared my enthusiasm for abolitionist teaching with you…on the eve of the day that our nation celebrates its independence. The timing!

I’m so happy you’re making progress with your reading list! There is so much being thrown at us these days, it can be hard to dedicate time to some form of anti-racist work and not feel like we’re missing out on something else. Hats off to you. When you get around to reading We Want to do More than Survive, please let me know. And speaking of Crest of the Peacock, I’m about halfway through it. It’s super dope! Can’t wait to talk to you about both.

I really appreciated your thoughts on “fighting while we learn” and being “slow and measured.” Similar to you, I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive ideals. True learning, when done honestly and openly, is in itself an action. You’re changing yourself, and this takes time. In Me and White Supremacy, Layla F. Saad talks about exploring and unpacking white supremacy on the individual level and allowing this personal work to cause “a ripple effect of actionable change of how white supremacy is upheld out there.” She goes on to say that white supremacy is “a system that has been designed to keep you asleep and unaware of what having that privilege, protection, and power has meant for people who do not look like you.” Dismantling white supremacy requires action, no doubt, but it must be done “from the inside out, one person, one family, one business, and one community at a time.”

In case you’re wondering, Me and White Supremacy is marked as “Always Available” as an NYPL ebook. Maybe later this summer we read it together and check in with each other on the writing aspect of the book? I don’t think we have to finish it by the end of summer — maybe we use it as an excuse to continue writing each other after the school year begins? :-)

On a related note, earlier today I was reading a recent statement from TODOS on antiracist mathematics. Near the end, it talks about math teachers rushing to find lessons and activities that focus on matters of racial justice, like those found in Rethinking Mathematics. It emphasizes the importance of these types of actions, but also states that “if we as teachers simply take an activity and implement it in our classrooms without first doing the self-reflective work to understand how we all are impacted by racial trauma, then we may not be able to engage with the lesson in ways that are positively impactful for students.”

I have found that I’ve only been able to take meaningful anti-racist action in my classroom after I’ve done a considerable amount of racial soul searching and personal research. Of course, there came a time when I had to dive in, like I did with the graph of incarcerated Americans, but that happened only after I confronted my own racist patterns through reading, writing, and learning from other teachers (like Wendy Menard and Jose Vilson). Hell, these outward-facing letters I’m writing you are in themselves anti-racist actions that are the direct result of the personal work that I’ve done and continue to do. I would have never felt the need to write these public letters had I not first started seriously interrogating my whiteness.

Come to think of it, all of my racial soul searching enables me to continually discover my why when it comes to anti-racist action. And knowing my why makes my what (the actions I take) more clear and more impactful. Whatever anti-racist actions I do end up taking undoubtably then lead to more racial soul searching, more revision of my why, which then informs more anti-racist action. And so it goes.

Taking action is surely doable — I can implement anti-racist lessons all I want, for example — but without identifying my why, these actions can actually do more harm than good. In a sense, without doing the dirty work of reckoning with my purpose, my actions are hollow. This is akin to being an ally versus being a coconspirator in the fight for racial justice. It takes time to get to the heart of the matter, but when you do, you don’t have to push yourself to act. You are pulled. I would do good to remember this.

You mentioned your (lack of) transformation as a teacher. Sometimes I think about the end of my teaching career. I wonder about the moment that I step away from the classroom. Will I have regrets? Will I have closure? Will I look back and wonder what it would have been like to _______? (fill in the blank) Did I do right by my students or did I do what the system said I had to? What drives my work in and out of the classroom are those questions. Whatever school I’m at, whoever my students are, I want to make sure that I have left everything on the table during the previous 30 years. If there’s a big idea that I’ve been toying with, if there’s a way to reimagine my teaching, if there’s something that others think is crazy, I want to ensure that I try it. I may fail, but at least I tried and can look back and smile at my efforts. (And probably learn something important about myself in the process.)

Blowing up my teaching or going after a radical idea every few years involves huge risks — especially when you’re part of a school system that is constantly changing. But with the end in mind, I find those risks are absolutely worth taking. With that being said, I wonder what the next “big” thing is for you. I guess we’ll see.

Talk soon.

Finding my why,
Brian

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