Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Learning to be a White Anti-Racist Educator

I've already blogged about my experience at the CARLE Institute, which had a tremendous impact on the way I think about race and issues of racism, equity, and justice. Two months into the new school year, I wanted to record some of the ways in which CARLE has directly impacted my teaching and, by extension, my students.

One of my biggest takeaways from the program was the power of a white teacher naming her own race. It's been easy enough to incorporate this into my classroom. This year, as we read Esperanza Rising and discussed the racism Esperanza and her fellow Mexican farmers endure, I was careful to say, "As a white woman, I've never been made to feel like I'm less than simply because of the color of my skin." As CARLE promised, this simple sentence was powerful. While white students snapped to attention, listening more closely, my students of color gave me knowing nods or eagerly volunteered to share stories of when they themselves were victims of prejudice and stereotyping. This simple declaration, this small acknowledgement that I, as a white woman, have a race, opened up a conversation that I'd never had with my students in quite the same way.

More recently, as we learned about the Mexican Repatriation act, one white student asked me how government officials could just force people who looked or were suspected of being Mexican to leave their homes in the U.S. Rightfully so, she did not understand why people would behave so hatefully towards Mexican immigrants who were working hard and abiding by the law. I took this as opportunity to do a mini-version of an exercise we participated in at CARLE. I drew a line on the board and labeled it "Power Line." With my students leading the conversation, we spent a few minutes brainstorming what characteristics or traits would put someone above or below the power line.

They quickly picked up on the fact that white, educated, wealthy, Christian males have historically been dominant in most countries, but then something really amazing happened. I asked them to think about how different situations and circumstances might affect our place on the power line. Since we'd already established the power most white men are afforded, I asked, "Can a black woman rise above the power line?" In unison the class started shouting about Michelle Obama. It was such an amazing moment, and one that wouldn't have been possible 10 years ago.

I feel I've only just scratched the surface of these conversations with my students, but it's been incredibly striking, and rewarding, to see how eager they are for this opportunity. My 5th Graders seem hungry for frank discussions about race, gender, and sexual orientation, and I feel fortunate to have found my voice in leading this conversation with them.

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