Tomorrow is the first day back after a busy summer. I’ve prepped my lessons for the first two weeks, I’ve reviewed the submissions from the summer assignment I gave to the incoming inaugural class of AP Computer Science Principles (thank you, Steph Reilly – I’ve been playing Flappy Bird all afternoon!), and planned out my second attempt to do Clothesline Math (my #1TMCThing from 2017). As much I hate to see summer go, I feel ready. I’ll be groaning by the end of the week, but I’m ready.
So I sat down to do some of my #ClearTheAir reading for this week’s chat – I’m up to Chapter 5 in White Fragility. I liked the title, and its computer science connotation – The Good/Bad Binary. And on the second page of the chapter, I was stopped completely in my mental tracks. In the midst of the many true and important things that Robin Diangelo has written in this book, truths that we need to hear, reflect and ACT on, here in Chapter 5 is the essence of it all, for me.
Diangelo points out (rightly so) that many of us ascribe to this binary, and thus (finding ourselves not racist, and therefore good) manage to excuse ourselves from reflecting on our role in a system that benefits white people to the detriment of people of color. When confronted by the fact that we do in fact participate in racism by virtue of the privilege we may receive as we move through a society based on white supremacy, we feel as if we have received “a deep moral blow – a kind of character assassination.” (p. 72) The titular fragility springs into action, and we become so engaged in defending ourselves, “deflecting the charge”, that we ignore the deeper work that we need to do in acknowledging that we reap the rewards of the racism inherent in American society throughout our lives.
My favorite part of the Seeing White podcast was the conversations between Chenjerai Kuminyika and John Biewen at the end of the episodes; they always managed to distill the big ideas from the story, and leave me with even more questions than the thought-provoking and eye-opening history recounted therein. In a conversation summarizing one the late episodes, they pointed out that even if there weren’t overtly ‘bad’ racists in America, even if individual people did not commit acts of hate against people of color, there would still be racism, because it is cemented into our institutions. If we think that we have cleansed ourselves of our biases and prejudices, and that we have done all the work we need to do, nothing will change for the better. And I think Diangelo has gotten at this deep truth with the Good/Bad Binary.
I feel like I was meant to read this passage this evening; as I return to school after a summer of listening, reading, and reflecting, my personal and professional goals are to speak out in spaces where it is sorely needed (my school and department), and to create spaces in which all of my students can have their voices heard. I am grateful for the supremely articulate way in which Diangelo addresses these ideas; their deep resonance for me lets me know I have work of my own to do.
This may be the most difficult post I have written, but I am committed to writing it, because, as Marian Dingle pointed out to me, the silence she noted after Danny Martin’s talk ‘Taking a Knee in the Mathematics Classroom: Moving from Equity and Discourse to Protest and Refusal” at NCTM Annual two weeks ago was disturbing.
I heard Dr. Martin speak on Friday, April 27, about 36 hours after the rousing keynote by Dr. Chris Emdin. I was mentally prepared for the keynote, because I watched his talk at SXSWedu last year, and I’ve read For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood..and the Rest of Y’All Too. I had read a brief article or two of Dr. Martin’s as well, but his articulate and academic writing, while powerful and moving, didn’t quite compare with the live
‘Pentecostal ‘preaching’ showmanship of Dr. Emdin. That all changed when I heard him speak. The subject of his talk – the mathematics education that Black children currently receive versus the mathematics education that they should receive – was both radical and logical. His language and examples were clear, compelling, and perhaps revolutionary.
I was deeply moved by everything Dr. Martin said, despite the fact that I may have no place in his vision. And I am not bothered by this (I think).
Dr. Martin’s talk addressed the brilliance of black children that goes unacknowledged, undermined, even attacked in our [mathematics] classrooms, and the violence and dehumanization on so many levels in [mathematics] education, which is rooted in both anti-Blackness and white supremacy. He asserted repeatedly (and correctly) that efforts at reform and discourses around equity in mathematics education manage to sustain themselves despite their failure to “respond to Black oppression and dehumanization” [quoting his slides] and ultimately preserve the status quo.
And he thus called for Protest and Refusal in the form of a Black Liberatory Mathematics education: ” the framing and practice of mathematics education that allows Black learners to flourish in their humanity and brilliance, unfettered by whiteness, white supremacy, and anti-blackness.” Dr. Martin outlined a Black Liberatory Mathematics education as follows:
“A Black Liberatory Mathematics education prioritizes liberation over integration and freedom. This form of mathematics education is skeptical of liberal notions of inclusion and equity, appeals to democracy and citizenship, neoliberal multiculturalism, and refuses all forms of systemic violence against Black learners. The freedom to participate, integrate, and be included into anti-Black spaces characterized by systemic violence is not freedom.
A Black Liberatory Mathematics education is designed and directed first and foremost by liberation-seeking Black people including parents, caregivers, community members, Black teachers and Black students.”
Dr. Martin pointed out that the fight for civil rights left behind a nation that remains segregated, with multitudes of black children living in poverty, and where life expectancy of African Americans has actually declined. He is committed thus, to a struggle not for civil rights, but for the “infinitely more important struggle for human rights”, and to an educational system that addresses the needs and brilliance of black children, as defined by their community.
I’m not going to paraphrase (or quote) more of his talk – I recommend you watch it yourself. It will be time well spent.
What he said resonated so powerfully with me – things I have seen in the schools in which I have worked, what I have read and observed in the media, what I hear people say – our system – the system of which I am a part, the system which gave my own [white] children a wonderful education – does not serve Black children equitably on so many levels. They are done ‘soft violence’ in terms of curricular tracking and reduced course offerings, and more overt violence in our discipline systems and routine treatment by deans and school security. So, yes, the answer may be Dr. Martin’s Black Liberatory Mathematics education. And the system he described – by and for Black people – does not include a role for me.
I knew this as I listened to him, and the inner [white] voice that kept asking, “but what about me? What can I do? How can I help?” needed to be silenced, and reminded, that this was not for me or about me. The first question from the audience at the conclusion of his talk was just that, “What can we do?” This question was not asked by a white person, interestingly enough.
Dr. Martin said, “Step 0: Hear me.”
So I am hearing, with, as he suggested, open ears and an open heart. I am reflecting on my piece in this complicated puzzle – an educational system which only serves some people well. To be honest, I’m not really concerned about my role in his vision, because I know it’s not about me, and I know that the way things are – well – it stinks for a lot of kids. I can’t be more articulate than that right now, but I know this to be true in my heart. Dr. Martin also said – and this continues to echo in my mind – “There is no road to justice. Justice is right here, right now.” (Again my apologies for poor paraphrasing)
I think that well-meaning white educators hearing this talk might feel bewildered, and at a loss with this vision that doesn’t necessarily include them or ‘need their help.’ But I think this is exactly the point. With a son about to enter school, Dr. Martin spoke about his decreasing level of trust with a system that provides neither democracy nor citizenship for all of its constituents. I have to honor this hugely intelligent man’s perspective and vision for Black children because he speaks things that I am sadly certain are accurate.
So, step 0: hear him. You can watch the video of his talk here.