My school colleague Stephanie Murdock and I are writing letters to each other and publishing them on our blogs. We are both white math teachers leaning on one another to improve the antiracist stance that we take in our lives, classrooms, and school. This is the fifth post in the series.
Thanks for another thoughtful letter. I’m pumped that you’re willing and able to keep writing. A lot is going to be tugging at us in the coming months and making a commitment this far out can be daunting, so thanks. Outside of using prompts from White Supremacy and Me, I’m already imagining themes and structures we could use in our future letters. Let me not get ahead of myself though!
I share in your disappointment about not doing much to affect policy change. But, if we’re fair, aren’t you always the one pushing the word “yet” to your students and our department as a means of honoring the journey, inspiring change, and acknowledging what’s going to be? I don’t know how to solve linear systems yet. I haven’t learned how to factor by grouping yet. We haven’t accomplished that yet. You see where I’m going with this Murd? Wouldn’t it be appropriate that you (and I) say that we haven’t changed any policies yet? That we haven’t affected any outcomes yet?
Despite the wordplay or possible euphemism that I just pulled off in that last paragraph, I do appreciate your unsettled feelings. White people — like myself — tend to use empty conversations and book clubs as a means of dealing with racial guilt and shame. These things help us feel better while also ensuring that we look good in front of others. (To be honest, our letters are part of this.) Despite having the talks and saying we’ve changed, our thoughts always creep towards to next top story. (I see this happening in our school right now.) Our priorities reflect this, we say we’re busy, and return to assuming that our “good intentions” are enough. Thus, racist ideas persist because we’re not steadfast and intentional about moving beyond the conversations into action and personal sacrifice.
That’s why I respect your sentiments so much. Ongoing critical reflection — having conversations, calling other White people out, participating in antiracist book clubs, writing about it all — must happen, but this reflection must be accompanied by action that interrupts racism and dismantles racist policy in all of it’s insidious forms. Even if the change you seek hasn’t happened yet, constantly reminding yourself of that is in itself a means of attacking White Supremacy. Don’t kill yourself. This reminds me of your third letter.
For the record: I’m blown away by how you’re using photos to document your journey (and your babygirl’s too). Wow. How encouraging will it be to look back years from now and see your history, literally day-by-day. I know you have bigger aspirations for doing it, but still, that’s pretty cool.
Reading your three “Why” questions reminded me that I sometimes feel that I would be better-suited — and more impactful — serving White students. Isn’t it White kids that need antiracist teachers the most? Or at least teachers who are struggling to be antiracist? I can’t help but think that having a White teacher authentically coconstruct a classroom that decenters Whiteness as something powerful and vital for White students. Besides, racism is a White problem. If I’m serious about this work, why not start there — where it really needs to happen? (Note to you and myself: I will turn this paragraph into a future blogpost; it’s got substance.)
Speaking of coconstructing a classroom, I just finished rereading Christopher Emdin’s For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…, in which Emdin talks a lot about broadening the scope how teachers in urban schools traditionally see the classroom and their students. An overarching theme is the value in teachers and students coconstructing the classroom experience from the ground up and how teachers, at their very core, should view themselves as colearners. It gave me a lot to think about. I plan on experimenting with some things from the book in my classroom this year. As I made my way through it, I supplemented my reading by watching several of Emdin’s talks. If you get around to reading the book, I’d recommend doing this as it helped his ideas jump off the page.
By the way, I managed to squeak out a post on the notion of teaching as a form a protest, which I hinted at in my last letter. Coincidentally, it was inspired by Emdin and a piece he wrote for The Atlantic.
I’ll close with an idea that just came to me. It’s for the math department at our school. As a means of promoting mathematicians that are not White men, what if we collectively showcased mathematicians and their contributions to mathematics with our students? I have done this in ways that could be improved and I know you have too, but what if we injected the creative juices of our entire department into this initiative and see what we could come up with? Maybe this entails all of us merely agreeing to “unveil” an agreed upon mathematician and their bio every other Friday in our classes? Maybe we create a space in the hallway (assuming we’re not remote) to honor these mathematicians, their story, and where they’re from? Maybe we install a map in hallway to help? There must be great ways to finesse something like this. What do you think? Would it fly with the department?
That’s all for now. This letter feels a tad shorter than my previous ones…maybe that’s a good thing. :-)
In the spirit of yet,
P.S. I was digging your sentiments near the end of your letter about your daughter and being a White teacher of Black and Brown students. It made me think: what is the role of White teachers who teach majority students of color when it comes to antiracism? There is a lot baked into that question that’s worth exploring. And I think Emdin’s book helped me better understand how I might begin answering it. That’s something else for us to think about.