I buckled under the pressure

“Hold up y’all, let me turn off my camera to help me get through this…”

That’s what I said yesterday at the start of my school’s faculty meeting. My heart was racing, my palms were sweaty, my words were stumbling out of my mouth. I was losing my composure and drenched in self-consciousness. My anxiety and the physiological reactions that arrived with it were the result of my measly attempt to frame the white affinity space that all my white colleagues had just entered into on Zoom. There was about 20 of them and I was doing the introduction before we headed into breakout rooms where the real dialogue was to happen with facilitators from Morningside Center.

As a school, it was our second attempt at racial affinity groups, with the first being two weeks ago. These are not opt-in affinity spaces; the sessions are built into our day and everyone was asked to participate. It is a bold move and I’m thankful that my school has taken it (see below). Outside of being on the equity team who helped think it through, I didn’t have a huge hand in the first one. Morningside facilitated from start to finish. They were the face of the session.

Affinity spaces aren’t new to me. Last spring, when our school underwent an racial and social “awakening” of sorts, I advocated for them. At the time, I was still learning the rationale behind them, but I spoke up and heavily endorsed them. If the white staff members were were going to have honest and open reflections about racism and how it shows up in our lives and our school, then we had to make space for them to do this together — absent of folks of color. At the same time, and more importantly, people of color needed space to collectively process, share, and cope with their experiences with racism — absent of white folks. Cross-racial dialogue was also necessary, but hosting affinity sessions had to go hand-in-hand with them.

While I publicly vouched for racial affinity groups, I had never actually been part of one myself. That changed in the fall when I attended the Using Affinity Spaces in Schools training facilitated by Joe Truss and Jen Benkovitz. The six-hour training was informative and helpful, so I signed up for their five-month course this spring with white educators from all over the country. It was outstanding. As I was taking the course, I jumped at the opportunity to co-facilitate Math for America’s first-ever white antiracist affinity group. I knew I didn’t know what I was doing, but my co-facilitator and I knew there was a need for it. We’re halfway through the four sessions and it’s been pretty good so far.

Given these recent experiences, going into yesterday, I had gained a lot of momentum when it came to racial affinity groups. Over the last year, I attended multiple all-white, antiracist spaces, had transformative moments in them, and even co-facilitated a couple of them. As a white person, I believed in them and could definitely speak to their purpose first-hand.

So why was I struggling mightily to do a five-minute introduction to a white affinity space at my school? Why did I essentially freeze up and feel the need to turn off my camera to save face and help me get through it? All I had to do was explain the “why” behind our presence in a deliberately all-white space and the logic behind us being separate from folks of color. After that the breakout rooms would be open and I would be participant just like everyone else.

I think a big reason for my anxiety yesterday came from the immense respect I have for my colleagues — both the white folks and people of color. Academically, the work they do for our students is incredible. The truth is, since I’ve arrived there five years ago, I’ve never felt like I’ve lived up to the standards that they set for themselves and our students. Speaking to them was different than speaking with the white people I met through Joe and Jen and also different from when I co-facilitated at Math for America because 1) this was not an opt-in space and 2) I knew these people. They were my people. Despite never feeling like I’ve fit into my school’s traditional, fiercely individualistic culture, it was something I belonged to. These weren’t strangers or loose acquaintances — they were my teammates. It was personal now. It was harder.

I say all that to say that when I found myself staring out into their sea of whiteness, it intimidated me. I knew many of them didn’t want to be there and, of all people at our school, who was I to say that they needed to be? Who was I to push them racially? They’ve done miraculous things with our kids and I am probably the least skillful and most emotional teacher on staff. I felt small.

Looking out at them was like watching huge wave of privilege and reputation rise up right before me. It’s shameful to admit now, but their gazes forced me to run for cover by turning off my camera and stumbling over my words. Being a avid reader of all things racism, white supremacy, and Black culture, I had the racist history of our country and school system behind me…and I still buckled under a mere five minutes of pressure that was induced by whiteness. The self-imposed tension to appear racially intelligent to white colleagues who I admire and create meaningful change in a community that I don’t fit into was too much for me. I centered myself and the resistance instead of antiracism. I am not proud of this.

In addition, I also think I built myself up too much. It was five minutes which I thought, egotistically, required me to save the world from racism. I thought too deeply about it and pre-planned too much of what I was going to say. In the end, I found myself not living up to my own expectations once I opened my mouth. I cracked. I am far better when I’m nimble in my thoughts and actions, intuitively and authentically bouncing from one sentiment to another — especially when I have knowledge of whatever and whoever is in front of me.

After a few moments of expressionless, hollowed-out meanderings about the need for affinity spaces, I did manage to turn my camera back on. At some point, before I opened up the breakouts, I remember acknowledging my vulnerability and thanking everyone for tolerating it. I muttered something about affinity spaces being unnatural and my behavior was evidence of it. It was awkward. Entering my own breakout, I felt flushed and did my best to silence my white fragility and fully engage for the rest of the workshop. After we finished, I was exhausted and incredibly embarrassed.

I’m ashamed to hit publish on any of this, but know I have to. I’m even more ashamed to see my colleagues on Monday, especially my colleagues of color, who will never know what happened. But by hitting publish, I hope to better own it and use it as a moment of growth. It’s my truth.


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