An educator confronts the failures of an education system that breeds white supremacy, and offers concrete tips for teachers who seek to challenge it.
By Xian Franzinger Barrett
This article first appeared on AlterNet
White supremacy did not appear as a surprise guest to this weekend’s events. It is a plague that permeates every aspect of our shared society. At the same time as it threatens to strip people of color — especially Black — of their lives and freedom, it corrodes the logic, reason and future of our society as a whole. White supremacy is also a deeply embedded feature of our education system even as it runs counter to the values we claim to hold in pursuit of education.
In response to this weekend’s deadly white supremacist rallies and violence in Charlottesville, there was a shared outrage among educators on social media. I saw a range of reactions. There were a lot of folks — especially white — saying: “How could this happen in America?” And there were a lot of folks — especially folks of color — saying: “We’ve been telling you that this is happening in America.” What many of us shared was a conviction that the events in Charlottesville couldn’t go unchallenged.
In considering effective responses while looking at the sea of hateful white faces in the media of the event, I wondered: “Who grew this hate? Who planted it? Who nurtured it? Who protected it from exposure to education and love?” With an eye to education, I asked: “What schools failed to educate these white supremacists? Who were their teachers? Who taught this hate?”
As teachers, our job is not solely to pour mathematics, science, language arts or any other content knowledge into the heads of our students. It is our duty to our profession, to our society and to the students to lovingly teach them to learn and grow beautifully as complete humans. The fact that the violent white supremacists in Charlottesville moved through dozens of classrooms that taught English, Social Studies, Math, Science and other subjects while nurturing or enhancing their white supremacist ideals is an indictment of our daily practice. It says that their institutions may have effectively served math facts or essay writing, but it was with a side of white supremacy.
This may seem too harsh on my colleagues at predominantly white schools. Let me be clear: first, this is not about blame. I write out of deep urgency that we address the cultural and systemic failures in our school system that are promoting white supremacy. I ask you to consider how it is that we’ve grown accustomed to narratives regarding the failings of segregated schools that serve students of color, but not the schools that educated those who defend and promote that segregation.
So what do we do?
As we walk into our classrooms in the coming weeks, here are a number of concrete actions every educator can take to address the evil that was on display in Charlottesville. Some of these suggestions deal with Charlottesville specifically, but most will help educators address the longer term systemic challenges in our classrooms that foster white supremacy and other oppression.
Recognize that humanity and radical anti-racism is our curriculum for every subject. We should address events like Charlottesville and especially their root causes within our classes, and not just humanities. The irony that fields like mathematics and science claim to be neutral on social issues while at the same time exhibiting demographic differences that are mathematically impossible in a neutral system should be lost on no one. From the first day of class, we must demonstrate to students that the classroom is a space to bring all challenges and dilemmas they face, and that our curriculum will support them to build the skill and power to address those needs. Resources: Rethinking Schools has materials across all fields of student and age ranges. Teaching Tolerance has materials that focus on humanities, but can be adapted for any subject. To teach responsively to events like Charlottesville, the curated hashtag #CharlottesvilleCurriculum should be helpful.
Audit our own classrooms, schools and communities and then take action. We must assess and analyze the climate in every level of our school districts. We cannot effectively teach if we are unaware of how issues of race and oppression already exist in our spaces. For some of us, this may be difficult and expose feelings of guilt or helplessness. That is not the purpose of this work. What is, is. It’s better for us to know and understand reality than to be fearful that it might be exposed. Once we are familiar with what is happening in our classrooms, then we have the opportunity to see if it aligns with our values and make it so. Resources: We can investigate questions like the following: What is the racial breakdown of students, teachers and administrators in the school? How about the union leadership? How is discipline handled at the school, what is the racial/ability breakdown of those affected and is it from a carceral or restorative model? How do students interact in your own classroom and how does demographic impact participation and voice? Let’s examine all of these questions and more across intersectional lens of identity (race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ability, religious background, age, etc.)
Prioritize voices of color in every classroom. In all environments including within predominantly white institutions, it’s vital that we as educators counter the priority on white male voices in education. As I’ve written before, there are many educators who read almost exclusively white (and in some cases white male) voices in their own pursuits of knowledge. Most white students will have next to zero access to authors of color outside of the school environment. This not only limits their exposure to brilliant work, but contributes to a white supremacist mindset that voices (and the lives) of people of color do not matter. Resources: We Need Diverse Books, contact experts of color on various topics to address students (compensating whenever possible) Note: Do not spotlight individual students of color to be experts on issues related to our identity without our consent. (Yes, this happens a ton, no, I don’t want to speak for 1.5 billion+ Chinese people, and please stop doing this.)
Teach media literacy. Students must be equipped to read media for bias and develop their own understandings of news and events counter to a white supremacist narrative. The framing of black liberation groups as the equivalent to white terrorist organizations by the media is a cornerstone to the development of white supremacist movements in the U.S. Additionally, the inability to critically assess sources both in traditional and social media aides white supremacists groups in their recruitment. Resources: Critical Media Project
Create classrooms that students feel safe to share in, but are not conducive for the spread of hatred (we don’t get to debate each other’s humanity). Many classrooms either attempt to be “neutral” by ignoring politics for sterile content or allow open debate which usually focuses on whether the oppression or dehumanization of marginalized peoples is a good or bad thing. The former tends to softly side with the general white supremacy in American curricula, culture and assessments while the latter is not really a free exchange of ideas but rather an endorsement for students to use social inequities to bludgeon the victims of that inequity. Resources: Both the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance and GLSEN have incredible resources for developing classroom safe spaces.
Reject narratives of achievement and growth that embrace the tools and values of white supremacy. Much of our current definitions of achievement, growth and success tend to privilege culturally biased content knowledge while ignoring deep deficiencies in empathy and affinity for others. When we teach students to value a culturally biased test or we praise those who received far more resources without questioning that inequity, we are signaling to them that they deserve the visible benefits that inequities give them (or in the case of students of color, we deserve the oppression that those inequities represent). Resources: “Internalizing the Myth of Meritocracy”
Reach beyond our current spaces to learn and grow. The fundamental segregation of our national school system means that many white students are educated in predominantly white spaces by almost exclusively white teachers. In these environments, it’s challenging for white educators to access anti-racist pedagogical resources and conversations. Resources: #Educolor
I hope that by implementing these tactics, we can erode the scourge of white supremacy that permeates many of our classrooms, schools and communities. Education has had a history of fortifying white supremacy in our nation’s past and present, but with our work, it can be the means to eradicating it in our nation’s future.
Photo credit: Joe Brusky/Overpass Light Brigade
Xian Franzinger Barrett is a part-time Special Education Teacher and part-time stay-at-home parent who previously taught Writing, Sexual Education, Law, History, and Japanese Language and Cultures in the Chicago Public Schools, He has received numerous teaching awards, including being selected as a 2009-2010 U.S. Department of Education Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow. He is a founding member of EduColor.