When The Student Is The Teacher

Two to three months of not running due to injury now feels like two to three years as I seek to return to my previous level of mediocrity. On Saturday’s long run, I found myself eavesdropping in the back of the pack as two friends commiserated about how markedly their respective work cultures have changed. In simplest terms, an underlying “whose most ‘woke’ competition” has broken out in both their workplaces. 

The diversity leaders are attempting to teach their colleagues to respect differences, accept everyone’s social identities, and subvert traditional power dynamics. The participants are learning not to say how they really feel, lest they unwittingly stray from the liberal progressive path laid out before them.

Because the diversity leaders are focused on outcomes and not process, they’re plodding ahead completely unaware of the “go along to get along” self censorship that their work is whipping up. A phenomenon that makes meaningful change nearly impossible. 

As a long-time discussion leader, I’ve gotten very good at understanding this dynamic. And disassembling and reassembling it in my classrooms. But as an educator and fallible human being, I’ll never get that challenging work just right. At best, it’s always two steps forward and one back. Just like last week in one of my undergraduate classes. I flailed around a bit and then a student had the courage, and made the time, to enlighten me. 

In class, I suggested that as a country maybe we needed to recognize our limits and take some time to lower the temperature on conversations about politics and race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. “Pass the ball backwards” I suggested, before advancing up the pitch again.

My student gave me permission to share most of what he wrote me shortly after class ended. His fourth paragraph makes me think I did not communicate my message as clearly as I could have, but that does not take away at all from his overarching message:

“My takeaway from the conversation was that in the end, politics are simply politics, and one’s views reflect their level of education. This does apply in certain situations, but it is not applicable to basic human rights. As a white cishet (cisgender heterosexual) man, you do not experience these issues and therefore need to do more work to understand them. An important thing to remember is that the burden of your education on an issue does not fall onto those affected by it. As we have discussed in this class, most educators are white. I have had a very slim number of queer educators as well. Because of this, existing in these spaces made for white cishet people is exhausting. I am constantly expected to perform and have these conversations for people to convince them that I should be allowed to exist. Fighting constantly to be permitted to simply exist takes a heavy toll and as an ally in a privileged position it is your responsibility to do research and educate yourself on these topics rather than expect minorities to do the labor of educating you because for those minorities, those conversations can be dangerous.

As a white cishet man, you can have these conversations with certainty that you are safe. As a queer AFAB (assigned female at birth) person these discussions can put me at serious risk.

Furthermore, you need to understand how much more drastic this is with our current administration. Almost immediately after Trump came into office in 2017, his administration removed the official pages on civil rights and LGBTQ+ rights from the official White House website. Earlier this year, the Trump administration removed nondiscrimination protections in healthcare for LGBTQ+ people. Even more recently, with Amy Coney Barrett’s appointment to the Supreme Court, there has been new potential for marriage equality to be taken away. This is only an incredibly short list of ways that the Trump administration has directly impacted my rights. These conversations are so sensitive and are not as simple as disagreeing. If I meet someone who disagrees with my basic human rights, I am meeting someone who thinks that I do not deserve healthcare as a trans person and as an AFAB person. In a more extreme situation, as is with our vice president Mike Pence, someone disagreeing with me could mean that they believe I should be in a conversion therapy camp or worse. I do not have the privilege of agreeing to disagree because that disagreement can mean the loss of my life.

The human rights that do exist in our country today did not come from accepting or dismissing bigotry. The Americans with Disabilities (ADA) Act of 1990 came to be because of disabled people protesting and restricting access to federal buildings, public transport, and other such things. The civil rights movement consisted of endless protests, sitting in the front of busses, and countless other acts. Women’s suffrage was fought for with protests and marches. Child labor laws came to be because of people fighting for children’s rights and safety. In Martin Luther King Jr.’s words, a riot is the language of the unheard. The expectation to be silent and accept mistreatment in hopes that we will be kindly gifted our rights and safety is ridiculous. This is why these conversations are not as simple as disagreement. I cannot sit and agree to disagree with someone’s opinion if their opinion is that I do not deserve basic human decency and rights.

To close this email, I want to reiterate that I do not mean this to seem like I am telling you exactly what you need to think or believe. My main objective with this is to hopefully bring you more perspective on why this mindset could be harmful. If you wish to discuss any of this further, I would be glad to discuss it over email. I appreciate you having a class environment in which I feel comfortable bringing up these issues and having this conversation.”

My second reply to him:

“Follow up question. Or more accurately, I’d like to practice active reading/listening to see if I understand correctly. Are you saying that some people (or maybe many people since 73m voted for T) are irredeemable and therefore personal safety has to take priority over dialogue? If so, I better understand why because of your thoughtful explanation of your lived experience. But as an educator working with students across the political spectrum, it’s difficult for me to conclude that.”

And his reply to my reply:

“I wouldn’t necessarily say that people are irredeemable, but more so that people that choose to not listen to minorities cannot be educated by them regardless of how much effort those minorities put into the conversation. The burden of those conversations can’t fall on the people affected by it because those people are being silenced, and therefore it becomes nearly impossible to change bigoted people’s mindset unless more privileged people educate themselves and use their voices.”

Obviously, I can’t tell my speedy running friends not to self-censor themselves, but my student has convinced me that opting out until “cooler heads prevail” isn’t an option for me. That doesn’t mean I have a failsafe roadmap on how to proceed. All I know for sure is I have to remain open to being taught by my students, and other people whose life experiences are markedly different than mine, and continue “getting more comfortable being uncomfortable”.

 

Weekend Required Reading

1. Defund police dogs.

2. The Trump Administration Says Diversity Training Can Be Harmful. What Does the Research Say? Make it voluntary and invest sufficient time. I remember how resistant some of my Southern white colleagues were to it at the North Carolina college I taught at. The starting point was an acknowledgement that “We’re all racist”. Or for them, I should say, the non-starting point.

3. How Hatred Came To Dominate American Politics. Our hatred creates serious opportunity costs. Instead of thinking about and planning for 2025, the current administration is fixated on 2015 and Hillary Clinton’s emails. Meanwhile, other countries are investing in infrastructure, social safety nets, and trade partnerships.

4. Dr. Dobson’s Open Letter To Christians Regarding The Election. If Dr. Dobson is a Christian, I need a different term to describe my religious worldview. He claims the Presidential candidate that is much stronger on “racial unity” also brings “more wisdom in handling the pandemic”. Can you guess which candidate that is? Then again, his audience is 800,000, the humble blog’s is a little less than that.

5. This is what I’m currently watching. Starts fast.

6. Magnus Carlsen extends his winning streak to 125 games.

How Does a Racist Become School Superintendent?

I really do not understand.

Given United States history, after the National Football League Houston Texans’ loss Sunday, it’s no surprise at all that a white fan said, “You can’t count on a black quarterback.”

But it’s surprising and sad that the fan is a school superintendent of a Texas school district with 1,020 children. Also, that when criticized, one of his first instincts was to rationalize his racist thought by saying he was referring to the statistical success of black NFL quarterbacks. “Over the history of the NFL,” the superintendent said, “they have had limited success.”

Oh, okay then, you’re just making an objective statement of fact. If there’s no problem though, why did the superintendent add that he hopes none of the district’s students saw the post?

Is it because the brown and black students and their families might view it as further evidence that equal educational opportunity is a mirage when the top educational official, the one responsible for hiring principals, determining curriculum, and setting the overall tone, doesn’t truly trust them or their guardians?

Educational leadership requires school janitors, office staff, teacher aides, teachers, principals, and superintendents to understand that. . .

  • the history of the United States has resulted in a still lingering institutional racism which makes it more difficult for students/people of color to succeed
  • people routinely succumb to negative assumptions about people of color, including students, based upon woefully, inadequate firsthand experience in diverse communities
  • educators have to be extra conscious of holding historically marginalized students in unconditional positive regard trusting they are en route to becoming young adults that will powerfully defy people’s negative, and too often, racist assumptions
  • students are equals in every way, including intellectually, some just require more support than others to achieve their particular academic and personal objectives

How the hell does a person who doesn’t think you can trust quarterbacks with particular skin pigmentation ever succeed in becoming a teacher, let alone a school building leader and then superintendent? Time after time he was vetted and deemed the best candidate for the job. What does that say about the quality of public schooling in Texas?

Also important to note, the superintendent said that he has not faced any repercussions from the post as of Monday afternoon. No public rebuke. No suspension. No diversity training.

What are the odds the School Board provides the necessary leadership to right this wrong? My guess. About the same as The Texans tapping the superintendent to take over at quarterback.

Yes he’s old, pudgy, and slower than molasses, but very trustworthy.

Update.

Is Racism Curable?

What do we do with the Roseanne Barrs, Michael Richards, Donald Sterlings of the world? The race to condemn them and the impulse to ostracize them is understandable, but we shouldn’t expect either of those responses to help racists overcome racism.

Another way of asking the question is how do we create less racist communities? More specifically, can the obviously racist—the Roseanne Barrs, the Michael Richards, the Donald Sterlings of the world—be rehabilitated? Can they learn to tolerate cultural diversity, let alone appreciate, value, embrace it?

The educator in me believes so. An integral part of anti-racism work is found three-fourths of the way through yesterday’s New York Times essay, “Sex and Gender on the Christian Campus”.

Molly Worten explains that an increasing number of evangelical Christian college students are beginning to question their conservative parents’ and professors’ theological and political assumptions. For example, Ashley Brimmage at Biola University. Worten writes:

“Ms. Brimmage is not a typical Biola student, but she is not unusual either. There is a small but increasingly vocal progressive community on campus, including L.G.B.T. organizations. When Biola applied for an exemption from the Obama administration’s interpretation of Title IX in 2016, students protested.

I asked Ms. Brimmage how she came to her views on gender and racial justice. Did she encounter a new theological argument in a book or a class? ‘The biggest answer is relationships with others, not working through these things on paper,’ she said. Female mentors and friendships with gay and nonwhite students compelled her to revise her theology (almost half of Biola’s students are now nonwhite or international).

Ashley’s “biggest answer” jives with my experience of learning to embrace cultural pluralism and with my helping young adults learn to interact smartly and sensitively with diverse people. It’s about close, interpersonal relationships with people different than oneself. Only then do negative preconceived notions that are a byproduct of implicit biases begin fading away.

Yes, let’s take away racists’ public platforms which are privileges—whether television shows, comedy club gigs, or professional sports teams—but let’s not completely ostracize them; instead, let’s surround them with diverse people whose life stories are our best hope to begin changing their hearts and expanding their minds.

Can You Will Yourself to be More Humble?

Friday I found myself in a day long diversity training workshop. The first of six days spread throughout the academic year.

It was a good experience only in the sense it made me much more empathetic towards teachers who routinely complain about ill-conceived professional development.

Organized in small groups of four, we were repeatedly given two minutes to discuss complex questions and topics that required paragraph-long responses. But since there was only time for a sentence or two, I mentally checked-out. On top of that, the facilitators didn’t provide an overview for the day which proved frustrating.

We did lots of activities, but too often the purposes of each weren’t clear enough. Even more confounding was the fact that the sum of the activities did not equal more than the individual parts.

The whole experience was repeatedly described as a “training”. “Training” works well when talking about labradoodles learning to stop at street corners, but when it comes to human beings and human diversity, it masks the subject’s inherent complexity. In frustration I wrote to myself, “I don’t want to be trained. I would like to be more aware, more understanding, more caring when it comes to colleague’s and students’ whose life experiences are markedly different than my own.”

My biggest problem was thinking I knew more about the subject than the facilitators because I’ve been teaching in culturally diverse settings for most of three decades, I’ve read extensively on multiculturalism, taught multicultural education courses several times, and published essays on the challenges and rewards of multiculturalism.

Of course I have a lot more to learn, but the facilitator’s assumptions about how adults learn made it nearly impossible for me to benefit from their efforts. In short, they seemed to think adults learn through small group activity after small group activity.

I would have liked to have learned more about diversity and equity through extended, open, and honest conversation with people different than myself. As in a graduate seminar. I don’t know whether my fellow participants felt similarly. Or whether you would have. Maybe I’m an outlier, in which case, never mind.