Common Mistakes When Approaching Race in Schools… What Should We Do Instead?

Race is one aspect of human identity that changes reflecting the politics and science of the times. Now more than ever students are identifying as mixed-race or do not identify with any race category at all. The latter is especially true for Hispanics, according to a recent Census bureau research. Racial categories, which have been included on every U.S. census since the first one in 1790 have changed from decade to decade. The biggest mistake teachers make when trying to approach the topic of race is not to recognize that race is a social construct. The actual genetic difference between individual human beings is only about 0.1%. The second mistake teachers make is not seeing variation within racialized groups. Teachers do their best when they design learning experiences that reveal the multifaceted and complex nature of human identity and offer ample opportunities for students to teach others about their unique cultural experience.

According to Sonia Nieto, a leading scholar on this topic, culture is extremely dynamic, multifaceted, embedded in context, influenced by social, economic and political factors, socially constructed, learned and dialectical. Further, she suggests that culture is not a given, but a human creation, dependent on particular geographical, temporal and socio-political contexts and therefore vulnerable to issues of power and control.[i] Understanding the interrelationship between culture, learning and how students construct knowledge is important, especially now when we fall into the trap of reducing students to fixed, racialized identities when in fact, a student’s culture is the total expression of his or her humanity—that which includes race, ethnicity, country of origin, gender, sexual orientation but that which also includes other parts of who we are that are not always apparent, such as how we express ourselves through language and art, what religion we identify with if at all, how we communicate love, how we understand relationships and power in society and how we perceive, interpret and integrate historical events.

Culture and learning are connected, however fluid. Advances in the modern learning sciences have revealed that our brains are constantly shaped and reshaped by the interaction with the surrounding environment.[ii] Social experiences and human interactions that engender fear, trauma, stress, hate, shame, embarrassment, low self-esteem impact brain functioning and cognition. These experiences are endemic and indicative of oppression. Our country grapples with a long history of racism and inequality, therefore it is important for teachers to learn to pay attention to their own mindset and behavior. The goal is to reduce stress, build trust and create an inclusive environment with love and acceptance so learning can occur. In order to do this work artfully, proactive teachers adopt a practice to foster critical consciousness. Critical consciousness is awareness of the intersection of factors that contribute to a person’s identity, a person’s sense of well-being and their readiness to learn.

Three strategies to develop critical consciousness are a) take time for self-reflection and meditation, b) engage in intergroup dialogues on culture and class c) analyze human rights movements and d) participate in imagery-based learning activities to strengthen your brain’s ability to see the world with novelty (Siegel, 2007).

In my forthcoming book, Mindfulness and Social Justice in Practice: A Guide for Educators and Professional Learning Communities (Routledge, May, 2019), I provide teachers and school leaders with numerous strategies and tools for developing critical consciousness infusing mindfulness and social justice pedagogy.

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[i] Nieto, S. (2008) Culture and education. In Yearbook for the National Society for the Study of Education. Blackwell Publishing

[ii] Rose, D et al. (2011/12) The Universal Design for Learning Framework to Support Culturally Diverse Learners, Journal of Education

The Weight or Weightlessness of Courageous Conversations

The heaviness of a small segment of dark brown bodies at the end of a long color line that curves around the room going from dark skin to medium to light. Two outliers insert themselves and evocatively defy the trend. They are motivated by something else; the unexpected psyche of an individual who defies the very notion of a ‘fixed’ color line. For them, notions of color remained equivocal and complex. Even after interrogation, there was an explanation, defensiveness, squeamishness. How do you identify yourself? Is your experience the same as the others on your side? The answer remained surprisingly yes…and no. I wondered, Is there a space in our consciousness that defies color?

It reminded me of the label ‘trans-gender’ or ‘trans-racial.’ I think about the many youth who are creating new labels that for them communicate a desire to transcend the narrow-minded materialism of the body form. Are they giving rise to a new, boundless human consciousness?

Alternatively, the outliers on our side of the color line who were seemingly ‘white,’ could have been in denial or exercising privilege. Dr. Lori Watson explained, the color-line is not the entirety of our experience, but it is critical that we isolate race so we can understand it and intervene in the inequities that exist in society.

Across the color-line, I see three white women standing side by side. One is squirming, the other crying and the third—the younger of the three— is standing confident, firm, wide-eyed. The latter, we learn is angry at her colleagues’ surprise at what we are witnessing. We were all grateful she chose to express voice, like many others. Three white bodies, the same and yet different. Three brown bodies, the same and yet different. And yet, we were grouped accordingly based on a survey of our experience in the world.

Some of the comments that ensued were, We don’t want pity, we want understanding. We want voice. We want to bring our whole selves to work. I’m tired of carrying the weight of this experience. One added, I have never experienced functioning in a predominantly white organization.

I was thinking, now what? What do I want to see? What is my expectation moving forward?

I want each individual regardless of racial, cultural or ethnic background to get paid equitably for their service and have an equitable scope of work. I want each individual to have equal access to leadership positions and to be developed in that direction, especially those who come from underrepresented groups. The real lever for transformation is the redistribution of power across the color-line. Access to leadership, job-security, adequate pay and a well-balanced scope of work allows individuals not only to thrive in society but to engage in making decisions that matter. Such as policy, company norms and processes, strategic planning and importantly, managing and allocating money. It also involves hiring and retention which is crucial to the integration of new perspectives, capacity building and sustainability.

I am not saying that awareness of race and racism and inequities don’t matter. Or that equity of voice in a meeting does not matter, or bringing one’s ‘whole self’ to work is not a fundamental human need called Belonging. However, in order for us to walk the path we must value all human beings both in awareness and acts. Adequate and fair compensation. Allies across the organization who communicate safety and job-security. Ongoing investment in an individual’s professional advancement. Access to real decision-making on issues that matter. These are demonstrations of equity that have the power to shape a new practice in education so that our children will inherit a place that values all life and is committed to the sustainability of our collective humanity.

It has been a heavy two days. Yet, I am beginning to feel light and hopeful as I sit and write in my hotel room in San Francisco just before getting ready to return back to New York City. I wanted to take a moment to share —Courageous Conversations are important. Moving beyond diversity is important. Learning our history is important like— who knew Rosa Parks was a trained activist surrounded and supported by the NAACP community who had a long-term Civil Rights strategy? How much of our history has been modified or deleted denying our right to truth?

On a more personal note, I will say I felt enormous pride and gratitude for standing amongst my people. Latinos, Asians, Arabs and Others often get lost in the conversation. We get lost with each other, in confusion or by being passed over or coopted. We are a diverse and rich community. Let’s look at each other more.

I didn’t want to attend the conference, I confess. I get emotionally, physically and spiritually fatigued by the topic. But, a colleague wisely pointed out that when we receive an invitation to such an event, it is not just an invitation for your Self. It is an invitation for you, your forefathers, your ancestors— who without your presence remains voiceless and unrepresented.

So, yes. In the end I moved from action and thinking to the emotional quadrant. I got teary eyed and sensitive standing alongside my brothers and sisters. Real action, compensation and retribution for a people’s suffering are all important. But so is standing up publicly and holding hands with your friends, colleagues, family and ancestry. It is because of your willingness to embrace these rare, very present moments that we have the power to touch many lives that span and blend and even by death transcend the color-line.

 

 

Setting the Tone After Charlottesville

There is a candle light vigil in Charlottesville now. Instead of violence and the obscenity of a rare vitriolic war dance reminiscent of our tribal past, there are hundreds of human beings standing together holding tiny flames of light, side by side in peace, standing for peace, quietly and gently, taking a stand for love, for brotherhood, for unity, for everything that keeps us together. If you haven’t yet, watch the video clip and narrow your eyelids. It will appear to be a sea of moving lights, angels, stars or spirits. This is the vision that keeps us waking up in the morning and sending off our fragile children to public schools in neighborhoods across the country where they will be in the vulnerable care of other human beings that are not family at all, but who have chosen a life of service.

Why can’t we start every morning with a candle light vigil, like the one we see in Charlottesville tonight?

I have been thinking deeply about how we should respond to hate in our schools. What do our children need and what do we need for ourselves, as teachers and school leaders, in order to provide safe, nurturing spaces for children and young adults to learn and grow with a sense of moral clarity and shared responsibility for our planet.

I have come up with only one answer. Respond with love, love first and last, always love. But what does that mean in schools and communities when we are focused on instruction and our minds are fragmented and divided, thinking professionally and like academics on the one hand and on the other, navigating the strong undercurrent of our social, emotional and spiritual selves; bombarded with thoughts, images, sensations of fear, rage, confusion, guilt, sorrow, despair and disgust? We have been so over-exposed to hate in the form of racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, homophobia, the idolization of wealth and so on, that we are challenged with settling our hearts and minds.

What would happen if we stood together every morning as One to remind ourselves of the deep regard we have for life, our deeply threaded lives, our peace, our shared community? Like taking the time to honor the crossing guard who takes special care as she ushers our children safely from one side of the street to the other. Or the school nurse who creates a nook in her office to heal an unexpected tummy ache, or the dean who chooses to practice a restorative justice technique by listening first instead of adding more harm to harm by yelling. What would happen if we chose to stand together at the start of every school day with a candle light vigil, like the one we see in Charlottesville tonight?

We’d look around and realize just how much we entrust our lives and our children’s lives to strangers every day, strangers who have been adorned (by some magical twist of fate) with a variety of colorful wardrobes— some black, some white, some brown, some olive, some old, some new, some gay. We’d see how some of our divine costumes cover our heads and others hang down, below our buttocks low. We’d see how we are all dressed up in some way or another as Christians, atheists, Muslims, Jews, or Yogi. Perhaps we’d realize that strangely, we have all been expertly designed just a little too tall or too short, or big boned or lanky, male, female or “I’m not sure yet, really.”

So, it really is a miracle that with such a wide variety of garments covering our true souls, that we still choose to send our children out into schools, into the hands of all these uniquely adorned strangers, who we hope will embrace them with warm, loving and capable arms. These are the strangers we rely on to drive the bus safely, open the doors gracefully, sweep and mop the floors daily, read to children, teach them literature, music and social studies, remove pesticides from their fruit, wipe their tables clean, pick up their lost jackets, carefully lay out scissors and crayons, fill out the litany of healthcare forms, write letters of reference, organize a much deserved after school party.

What would happen if we could no longer entrust our children to all these uniquely costumed strangers who make up the fabric of our schools and society? What if, out of hate, fear or frustration—we began to assume, by default, that our children, some children perhaps, would most likely be mistreated or misplaced?

We can refuse to engage with the practice of hate. We can choose to channel our energy into creating loving, kind spaces overflowing with the social, emotional, spiritual and intellectual practice of love and authentic relationships. We can settle our minds and our hearts around a common ground, one rooted in shared responsibility, a reverence for all human life and community.

Every thought that is hate, say, “No.” and gently push it away.

Every word that is hate, gently and kindly say, “No.” And then consider how to replace it. Choose the words you want to fully integrate into your thought space and the thought space of the children and adults in your midst. This does not mean you need to bury your head in the sand when someone speaks hateful things, it means to be mindful of the impact of that speech on your thought space and know when it is time to walk away and, then, how will you replenish your thinking well?

Disentangle yourself from toxic relationships and teams that do not infuse your work and your spirit with love, inspiration, goodness, peace and well-being. If you cannot transform them, walk away.

Be mindful of your energy. Every action we take, every investment of our time and energy must be strategically determined. What do we value? Is this a loving action, for yourself and for others? How does this activity better our school, our community? How am I, how are we working for the benefit of our common good? If you are not sure— stay still and quiet and wait.

How would our schools and communities change if we started every morning with a candle vigil, like the one we see in Charlottesville tonight? What would it say to the world about who we really are, about the nature of our spirit and our belief in our ability to create an egalitarian society?

Set the tone and the rest will follow.