I started this post about a month ago, just after the violence that erupted at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in August. At the time I was grappling with some personal struggles and I was able to find neither the words nor the will to finish it, unsure of how to tie all the pieces together. I’m not certain that I’ve done that now, but in the spirit of Speaking Up and the belief in Better Late Than Never I post it in the hopes that it may reinvigorate the conversation and reignite inspired action, for myself as well as perhaps for you.
I’ve found myself identifying with my Teacher Self a lot lately, and not just because it’s Back-to-School time in the U.S. Much like the maternal instinct that, even as a non-mom, I experience in my own way as an auntie, so too there’s a teacher instinct that grows the longer you’re in the classroom. It’s made me, year by year, ever more protective of my students, and over time, all students. It’s what urges me to speak up in uncomfortable situations, when I feel like the student experience isn’t being respected or fully understood, when student safety or wholeness doesn’t actually feel like it’s really being prioritized.
I’m about to start my 17th year in education, and while I’ve always been a stand for the way kids treat each OTHER, it took me a while to be that stand with fellow adults. I’ve always been clear and firm with my students about the power of our words and our responsibility to use them kindly and thoughtfully, modeling and embodying ways to do so even when tempers flare and feelings bruise. A safe environment in my classroom has always been non-negotiable. However, when I first started teaching, if I overheard an adult saying something that didn’t sit right with me or align with my beliefs about children and learning, I was very quick to discount my feelings. I doubted myself, assuming that I was misunderstanding the situation or jumping to some naive, inexperienced reaction. The old Who am I to… battleax would swing away at my resolve. I have a pretty healthy sense of self-esteem, yet still the doubt crept in and I often stayed quiet. I’d leave the room or change the subject, withdrawing my presence and attention as a way to withdraw my support without stepping on toes or hastily jumping to possibly false conclusions.
The path from where I started to where I am now regarding ways I speak up for and about students in particular and people in general has been layered and complex. You may not agree with the reasons. Heck, I may not agree with them anymore. But they are a part of my history of experience related to how I speak my mind, and part of the point is that we each have our own histories of experience we bring with us, act from, and grow through.
Regarding change in the USA, I know it’s been a long time coming. I know that race relations have gotten so bad in this country that it feels as if the only answer is BIG action. That it seems like the time has passed for small actions to count for much. That emergency status is beyond emergent here.
And I agree that BIG change MUST happen, that it’s everyone’s responsibility to do their part, and that most of us can probably increase what we take ownership of as being “our part.”
I believe that it’s time for those who have been silent to speak, and for everyone to listen. That perhaps the only path to the other side, where all rights really are protected and all lives really are valued, is one cobbled together with the voiceprints of those who didn’t even realize they were condoning by not condemning as well as the voiceprints of those whose stories haven’t been told or told properly, fully or accurately. That the path is paved with both testimonies and witnessings, with speaking and listening, by being seen and heard as well as by seeing and hearing those around you – even when you disagree with them on a bone-deep, fundamental level.
And I’ve noticed a way that this is backfiring lately.
People who’ve been silent (or have been perceived as being silent) have been called to speak up. And miracle of miracle, some of them actually are! But what happens next gets tricky. I’ve seen many be judged, shamed, and criticized for what they’ve said or how they’ve said it. For using the wrong words. For not fully understand the situation. For not articulating themselves well. For saying too little too late. For daring to say anything at all. In essence, I’ve seen them be criticized for being on the path, often by the people who invited them to hop on said path in the first place.
Now, I’m not saying that they’re owed anything just because they finally spoke up. And I’m not saying that they shouldn’t be accountable for the weight of their words. Not. At. All. Of course misunderstandings need to be clarified and statements that wound must be addressed, regardless of intention. But to expect perfection right out of the gates just isn’t realistic or decent, and aside from that, it doesn’t get anyone what they want anyway.
As a teacher, I would never tell my kids it was safe to try, safe to learn and be in the learning, and then make them feel horrible for messing it up. If there’s something to learn, that means you don’t know it yet. That means it gets messy as you learn it. If it wasn’t messy, you wouldn’t need to learn it – you’d already mostly know it.
If you want to get from point C to point G, you’ve GOT to have reasonably-spaced stepping stones at points D, E, and F. And if you set someone up to join the path and then chastise them for not already knowing what they’re there to learn, you will quickly alienate that person. They’ll shut down. Not because they’re ignorant or selfish, but because they’re human. You will have lost that fledgling ally and the opportunity to make real change by engaging and educating that person.
Ironically, I use the word educating hesitantly here. Because in a lot of these scenarios, educating turns to preaching and gets bogged down in judgment that doesn’t allow others the space to work through a concept and come out on the other side. I don’t believe in education as a mono-directional bestowal of knowledge from teacher to student, but as a multi-directional creation of knowledge through shared understandings and discourse among teacher, students, and the world.
In her Facebook Live from August 15th (We need to keep talking about Charlottesville), Brené Brown says that the conversation around privilege has nothing to do with what people have earned or worked for, and everything to do with unearned rights, with “what we get that we have not earned.”
She explains that it’s not about how hard you worked, so saying that you don’t enjoy white privilege because you worked your tail off for everything you’ve gotten has no bearing on this conversation. To think it does, she shares, betrays a lack of understanding of what privilege is and how it works.
I believe that the conversation around speaking up has little to do with what should have been said already or said better and more to do with the act itself of saying something, of engaging, participating, doing. The act of listening. Of entering and staying in that uncomfortable, sticky space instead of retreating to ease or ignoring injustice.
I’m all for healthy discourse, constructive criticism, and courageous truth-telling. I’m all for the difficult conversations and really listening to other points of view, really expressing your truth and your responses to statements and beliefs.
But again, let’s revisit how teachers and educators create content and lessons for our classes, students, and participants. We think about what we want our students to be able to do and we break that down into bite-sized, manageable pieces. We visualize the journey to the end goal as a series of stepping stones on a path. If we remove the middle stones, the gap is too wide and the goal is out of reach, unreachable, never reached.
If we want people who haven’t ever or often participated in high stakes conversations to start participating, we need to allow for the stepping stones, to understand that the path will be shaky, and to guide them on the way.
It would be careless to talk about the aftermath of an attack at a white nationalist rally without mentioning color. But I believe the conversation expands beyond color lines. I think the voices we need to hear are both black and white. We need to hear the voices of the disenfranchised as well as the privileged, the ones eager to be heard and the ones scared to speak. Those that will inspire and lift up alongside those that will rage, enrage, irritate and offend. It’s time to hear the voices that will speak eloquently, fervently, with passion, proof, and positivity, as well as those that will clumsily blunder their way imperfectly through this space.
In the aforementioned Facebook Live, Brené Brown addresses the need for empathy and perspective-taking. She says our own unique perspective is a part of us, that it’s “soldered on,” not something we can just set down and replace with someone else’s for a bit. The solution she gives us then to understanding other people’s perspectives is this: “You believe people’s stories as they tell them to you. You believe, when people tell their story, and say this is my experience of what it was like…”
There are things that I as a white woman will never understand, everyday realities that just won’t factor into my experience because of the color of my skin. But I can listen to the stories of others. I can believe them when they tell me what it’s like to be them. I can let go of trying to defend, justify, or rationalize my own experience and really hear the stories of what those around me have lived. At our very core, we want right to prevail. All of us. If each one of us committed to stop trying to ease our collective conscience and convince everyone we’re good people, we could all start to truly recognize and witness the injustices that can no longer be tolerated, rationalized, or explained away. So that we may live out these wise words from Maya Angelou:
Do the best you can until you know better.
Then when you know better, do better.
If we want to contribute to a space that supports knowing better for ourselves and those around us, we need to do better at listening, witnessing, speaking, and standing, at letting go of judgment, guilt, shame, and blame. Then we can each act from that better place of knowing and really make the change we seek to see in the world.