Sunday, January 15, 2017

Forgiving Black People

Recently, Black people treated me really badly, partly because I was White, to the point that I had panic attacks and could not work anymore.  I lost my classroom, income, dignity, and my sense of worth as a teacher.  I felt confused, misunderstood, betrayed, and angry.  The layers of hurt are something I probably will have to work through for a while. 

I think I didn’t realize the depth of the hurt until recently, when I found myself suddenly distrusting all the dear Black friends in my life. I suddenly suspected that they didn’t like me, that they found me condescending at best, or racist, at worst. 

It was a moment when I understood the collateral damage of racism in a fresh way. 

I looked at my Black friends and ascribed to them the qualities of other people who looked like them, but other people who had very different characters than my friends do.  I judged them, out of hurt and anger, based on the color of their skin, and not on the contents of their characters.  And it’s possible some people wouldn’t blame me. 

A few things occur to me at this realization.  The first, and possibly most obvious, is that I have a small inkling of what people of color might go through on a daily basis.  I even think about the people who hurt me so badly, both emotionally and economically.  They looked at me and saw a White woman, not unlike so many others they had probably encountered in their lifetimes, and treated me as such. 

Their response to me was based on a deep mistrust of White people that they have most likely developed in order to survive. 

This was the observation that my friend Michelle texted to me when I frantically sent her messages on the day I was charged with racism.  She was kind enough to work through some of the emotions with me, although this was, no doubt, additional and unnecessary emotional labor that was forced upon her as a Black woman. 

The second thought that I had is that I think there is a great cost to calling oneself an “ally,” and sometimes this might even come in the form of collateral damage.  I think about the story (possibly partly fictionalized in the movie Malcolm X) of the White woman who wanted to help the movement and was angrily turned away by Malcolm X, who wanted nothing to do with the “White devil” at that time.  This must have been devastatingly confusing for the White woman, although we are not meant to pity her in the context of the movement of Black self-actualization. 

It is too much to ask of my Black brothers and sisters to feel sorry for me.  My pain and suffering are small compared to the historical and current systemic marginalization of Black people, as well as other people of color, non-native English speakers, immigrants, etc.

More specifically, my persecution came about because I was outspoken about “race,” racism, and other injustices institutionalized in the school system. 

This is not to say I went about it in the best way every time, but my agenda and curriculum were explicitly anti-racist and culturally relevant to Black and Latino kids (although I also kept in mind the small percentage of White kids).  The pushback I received was most likely because these topics are not seen as the domain of White people, but also because this kind of curriculum can be done so badly most of the time (i.e. the 90’s when culturally relevant pedagogy meant every lesson got turned into a rap song). 

All that to say, it occurs to me that Black, Latino, and Native peoples get huge pushback every day from all levels of the system when they attempt to talk about issues of social justice.  People get passed over for promotion, they lose jobs, and sometimes they get beaten, arrested, or lose their lives. 

White “allies” have also suffered at the hands of the institution. Perhaps it’s only confusing when the opposition comes at the hands of those who I would imagine might support me in the work, namely, Black people. 

I think about this on the eve of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, even as his contemporary, Rep. John Lewis is scorned and mocked by the president-elect on Twitter.  I think about the movement that has existed since before the beginning of this nation, as Black, Latino, and Native peoples have struggled to get free, and sometimes White people helped (but most times they didn’t).

A small part of being a White person who works with people of color to get free probably has to be learning to forgive being part of the collateral damage.  It has always involved learning to see people as people, and not as a just a part of a supposed monolithic group.  That is, some people who are Black hurt me, but not all Black people will hurt me.  Sadly, I imagine the same generalization can’t be made by Black people about White people.

The other aspect that I understand more deeply is my responsibility as a White person to show compassion for other White folks who find themselves part of the collateral damage of racism.  I know I didn’t fully empathize before with the attempts to say “not all White people” or the angry retorts about “reverse racism.”  

The reality is that being lumped into one big group of people hurts really bad, and as a White person, I didn’t know what that felt like before.  It’s not reverse racism, and it doesn’t help to say “not all White people” (because #mostWhitepeople), but at the same time, when someone treats you based on the color of your skin and not who you are as a person, it really sucks.  And I think it’s okay for White people to get in a little White people huddle and feel sad about that for a minute. 

But then, I think it’s important to get back into the work again, to open up our hearts to love (and get hurt) again.   

Monday, January 9, 2017

Thoughts from a tired urban teacher: School funding remix

I haven't written much about what is going on with my work situation, mostly because the school district has a clause about employees writing anything defamatory. Suffice to say, I am caught in a process that has left me without income at the moment, although not unemployed.

I look back on this past year and I am so grateful to the people who donated money, books, and sent well-wishes to me as I began teaching in an open-enrollment high school close to my house. I began with many big dreams. I painted the classroom, with my husband's help, of course. I set up comfy chairs and a book corner. I had lamps and an essential oil diffuser. I was energized.

I got slowly beat down by many different forces.

When I decided to work at the high school, I did so because I wanted to prove people wrong about the kids. I didn't have an illusions about the rest of the issues that plague "urban" schools. But I seriously resisted the narrative that the school was a "war zone," or that the kids were going to all be "bad." Even the students said that about themselves.

The kids I taught were troubled sometimes, as teenagers are. They had different challenges that they faced due to socioeconomic conditions. Many of them had lost a family member to violence or accidental death. They had difficult school experiences that sometimes made them more frustrated with learning than I would have expected.

But they were good kids. The kids that showed up to school every day were kids that stayed off the streets at night because they didn't want to get caught in any trouble. Many of them had jobs that kept them up late at night. Some of them got their younger siblings ready for school in the morning. They kept showing up to school because it was a priority and because school was a safe space for them. That is a testament to the administrators and teachers who worked very hard for the kids.

In the end, I am glad to say that I did prove people "wrong" about the kids and about the school.

It's not a bad school with bad kids.

The school has issues that go beyond the kids. For example, it is one of the only open-enrollment schools still left in the district. So if a student needs to enroll in school at the last minute, they only have two options for high school.

Secondly, magnet schools and "choice" schools in the district have GPA and behavior requirements that allow them to "weed out" the students that they don't want in the school. County schools can do the same thing, and city charter schools have a similar reputation. This means that the kids that end up at the open-enrollment school are often the kids with the most issues, for whatever reason.

Finally, a huge issue that I recently began to understand has to do with Title I money. Title I is derived from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and "provides financial assistance to local educational agencies (LEAs) and schools with high numbers or high percentages of children from low-income families to help ensure that all children meet challenging state academic standards" (U.S. Department of Education).

This seems like a boon to a struggling school, since most districts exist on the basis of property taxes, and St. Louis city has perpetual and complicated issues with supplying an adequate property tax base. Most schools in this district receive Title money, although some more than others. However, Title I money is extremely limited in its usage.

For example, Title I money comes with restrictions on student-teacher ratios. If there are too many teachers in the building based on the current enrollment, the district gets money taken away. This has resulted in the practice of the district doing a "census" at week 5 of the school year, and then moving "extra" teachers from building to building in a crazy game of chess until the ratios are balanced so that the district doesn't lose money.

Another consequence of this one stipulation about student-teacher ratios is that the district is not able to add more teachers to classes where students are struggling the most. We know that a smaller class size is a huge factor in helping students learn, and yet the funding scheme would essentially penalizes this reform measure.

Title I money can also only be used on certain subjects. Beyond basic supplies, schools that rely heavily on Title money for books can only use it for subjects such as math, science, and English. In other words, anything that isn't tested doesn't receive funds. Social studies, music, art, world languages, and physical education (to name only some subjects) are still left without class sets of books and other necessary materials.

The lack of funding for schools is a systemic issue. A local school district is seriously restricted when it depends largely on Federal money, and has no promise of a growing local tax base. I'm hoping that our city is somehow able to address this issue in the future.