Everyone I know is asking some variety of the same question right now.
How do I contribute to healing, racial and otherwise, in a way that encompasses concrete action and personal examination?
I talked about listening in my last post, as part of my personal examination, and so I wanted to share with you three moments from our city’s peace rally this weekend. Despite my temptation to speed past what was being said when the ‘white fragility button’ was pushed, I found myself listening in a way I haven’t before. I was listening with the curiosity I used to bring to my students, and I am humbled and further curious about what I heard.
He had kind eyes and a clever sign with the iconic Stay Puff Marshmallow Man as a Klansman instead. This tall African American gentleman, clearly a practiced speaker, quickly put the crowd at ease with his warmth and humor. In the short time each speaker was allotted, he started drawing a parallel between reading levels and people’s willingness to deal with racism. In part I think he was trying to highlight the ridiculousness of people who still needed what he called “the Disney version” of our country’s history with racism–namely, slavery, Civil War, Martin Luther King Jr., the end. While his point made sense, as a teacher I started thinking about it literally.
When I first started teaching, I encountered reluctant readers with the firm sword of ‘they should learn to read for the intrinsic value of it.’ I had always been a reader, delighted in words. It didn’t make sense to me that others were not. In fact, it seemed insulting to bribe them with extra credit, candy, and all manners of ingenious bribes that teachers come up with over the years. I had to fall on that sword a lot of times (I mean a lot, a lot, a lot) and get my metaphorical guts everywhere, before I was willing to concede that some kids just weren’t there yet. They needed a ‘carrot.’
So what if that’s true of understanding and dismantling racism? Yes, we should stop being racist assholes because it is the right thing to do. I also know it is inherently and deeply unfair to ask or expect people who have dealt with it THEIR WHOLE LIVES to care about those who are truly backward in their thinking. And I am not suggesting that a Nazi, or someone else who wants you dead, deserves that. But there are others, like myself, who are genuinely motivated to move with heart and take responsibility, but we’re struggling with the ‘how,’ feeling it out as we go, hoping it will be enough. So could we have racism flashcards, like we do phonics flashcards for new readers? What would breaking down this complex reading look like?
And, what was my own ‘racism reading level?’ I put myself at about sixth grade, for those who are interested. Like most sixth grade readers, I can understand a plot, a few nuances, but if there’s not enough action, too many big words, too much description of the setting, or if I have to read aloud to my peers, I start getting sweaty and losing attention as I scan for the nearest exit. I want to read the hard books on this subject, but like a brand new English speaker I had once who carried around Harry Potter for the better part of a year and finally brought it back to me unread with tears in her eyes, they make me despair sometimes that I won’t ever get it.
Thank you, fellow tall friend, for giving me a metaphor I could wrap my brain around.
This lady scared me. She was beautiful, both steel and roots in one body, but she scared me like the black mothers of some of my students used to. I knew I better be on point and not waste her time with trifles. I could hide behind the label of teacher, or in this case rally attendee, but she wasn’t having it. She started speaking about multiple encounters she’d had with police brutality, and how even today some had warned her to not “say too much” before coming up to address this largely white, affluent audience. I had to grab Wonder Woman’s lasso to get my attention back, it was running out on her words so quickly. But then she came to a point that stunned me into complete attention–black people have always known what it is to be other, but now, under this administration, unless you are a white, male billionaire, everyone will soon know how this feels. “And what are you going to do then?”
Weirdly, I found myself excited by this point after the shock of it stopped me short. I started thinking that maybe this was EXACTLY WHAT WE NEEDED. Forced disenfranchisement. It is hard, and maybe impossible, to teach empathy as an intellectual exercise. What if we finally fucking felt it? What if we looked around to men and women of color and went, “Oh, you weren’t just being melodramatic”?
The American government does not love us. Institutions can not love us, because institutions are not people. They are meant, at their best, to be a representation of people’s hopes and values. They are concrete buildings, built on abstractions. Unfortunately, when we confuse institutions with people, we have a harder time trying to change them. I can’t be the only one on planet Earth that has struggled to correct this thinking, and there is still an inexplicable part of me that wants the institution to love me (probably because the rules for loving and relating to people seem much more vague and messy). When I left both organized religion and public education, I was an exemplary participant and cheerleader. Understanding that the institution did not love me was heartbreaking each time. However, doing so allowed me to realize how little I had settled for, the other possibilities that were present, and sadly, the opportunities I had lost to really be with the people inside these institutions.
The current administration is allowing sickness to surface on every level. Could the silver lining be that it reminds us of how much we need each other, of how similar we are, of how we are in charge of shaping institutions, not the other way around?
Thank you, brave warrior, for believing in our collective destiny enough to tell us the truth.
Upon leaving the rally, I walked past a mother and her two young sons. I overheard the following snippet of their conversation:
Son: “I’m glad they are saying all these things.”
Mother: “How come?”
Son: “Because maybe the bad people will hear them and change their minds about hating.”
And I saw the mother’s face. Overwhelmed with the myriad of conflicting emotions a moment of hope like that brings, she did what we’ve all done as adults. She gave the, “Awww, that’s sweet,” face. I’ve seen that face given to me, to artists, to children, to anyone really who holds a pure and simple emotion or belief fiercely. In response, he gave the face I’ve seen on children time and again, the face I myself have given in response to the distance created by condescension: “What? I’m not kidding, I’m not trying to be cute, or quirky, or entertaining.” What he said to his mother was true and completely possible in his eyes. There was zero conflict between his heart and the state of his words/actions.
After all these years, I can only believe that adults are jealous of this integrity, this harmony. And maybe it’s not the “real world” that kids or other dreamers live in, but if it is not “real”, why do we go to such great lengths to destroy it? Why do we make children learn the word ‘pretend’ in order to meet us where we’re at? Shouldn’t we protect any vessels that can shelter and grow hope this pure? Shouldn’t we chase this degree of alignment, integrity? I know that every time I unearth more of it for myself, I have more love for the people around me. We already save seeds against future disasters, so this is not a new concept.
Thank you, little seed, for hoping. I can’t honestly hope like you do yet, but I am working on it.
What could you hear today, if you were listening, that would help heal the world?