Category Archives: Letters to Murdock

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

The resiliency of white supremacy, abolitionist teaching, some personal history, and more (Murd 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,
Brian

On being white, teaching math, and seeking racial discomfort (Murd Letter #1)

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 first post in the series.

Dear Murd,

Thanks for writing me! I was moved by your letter and would LOVE to be your penpal for the summer. I too have many budding thoughts and feelings that need exploring when it comes to racial injustice. They seem to be growing in breadth and depth with no sign on slowing down. Letting them breath in these letters is exactly what I need. Let’s write to find meaning, to learn from each other, and to be better white teachers.

I feel your hesitancy to wrestle with issues of social justice in your classroom. I hear you. The parallel you made to solving a tricky math problem — the need to dive in without knowing how it will end — was interesting. Knowing you as well as I do, this makes sense. I also find it challenging to bring in anti-racist, culturally-responsive topics into the classroom. This work is incredibly complex and delicate, so out of fear, it is natural to wait until the time is right. And being held hostage by the Regents doesn’t help matters. Instead of discussing the alarming rates at which black and brown bodies are incarcerated when compared to white bodies, for example, New York State would rather us focus on cell phone plans and the cost of t-shirts. Doing anything with a social or emotional conscience requires that we break the rules. By doing so, we have to take risks that may hurt our students in June or earn us a reprimand from our supervisor. This makes it tough.

As a white math teacher, when I actually am bold enough to voluntarily bring up race in my classroom, I often feel that I need to know exactly what I’m going to say and how I’m going to say it. I have to control the conversation. There’s a need to not offend any of my students, yes, but there’s also my subconscious need to protect my image (read: my white privilege). This disappoints me.

I’m realizing, much like you, that by waiting until we — the white people — feel comfortable to discuss and act on matters of racial injustice, we only perpetuate centuries of white supremacy. All I’m doing is affirming my white status while sustaining the resentment that our country has towards black and brown people. As a math teacher, just because I have a mandated curriculum that pretends that racism doesn’t exist, it doesn’t mean I am exempt from speaking out and acting upon anti-racist ideals in the classroom. In fact, as an adult who students admire, appreciate, and rely on so heavily for direction, I feel I have more of a responsibility to lean into my white vulnerability, shoulder the burdens of our racist society, and seek out math that illuminates and fights racism. If nothing else, I owe it to my kids.

But this is deeply personal work that extends far beyond what I do with students. Unlike factoring a polynomial, I can’t leave it at school if I choose to. My whiteness lives in and around me all the time. It’s with me at my dinner table. It’s with me when I read the newspaper. It’s with me when I parent my children. Yet, despite how it blankets my life, I have been socialized not to see it. I have been conditioned to ignore the racist perspectives I hold and actions I have taken. Uncovering its reach and ramifications will take a lifetime. This is humbling.

To this end, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to put myself in positions where I experience racial discomfort. (Writing this letter helped me realize this just now since it is making me uncomfortable.) I know I need it, but figuring out how to do it without being completely overwhelmed and shutting down is tricky. I am social, but I don’t have many friends, so I think our school and my teaching will be huge parts of my racial growth. This seems fitting for a lot reasons, but this letter is getting pretty long, so I’ll cut it short.

I’ll close with some wonderings. I feel that white teachers, like ourselves, at times need exclusively white spaces to discuss racism. I’m not sure most white people can truly confront their racial vulnerabilities and own racism when black or brown people are present. I wonder, would this fly with admin? What would other white teachers think about these white spaces? What about teachers of color, how would they feel? Also, I have a tendency to be pointed and somewhat expressive when it comes to matters of race — specifically whiteness. How do I make other white teachers feel? Should I care if they’re uncomfortable? Should I care if they’re upset with me? Isn’t this how black people have felt since 1619? Isn’t it about time that we white people began to feel racially anxious?

Look forward to hearing back. :-)

Yours Truly,
Brian