In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, I’m outraged, angry, and devastated. I’m also white—I’m an educator and I’m a clinician. I know my experience of reading about attacks on Black lives can only be understood and processed through my own lens, as is true for all of us. I also know that my role as a white ally is to continue to do my own deeply personal work to increase my own awareness of racism and oppression and work to hold other white folks accountable to do the same. So, here’s my attempt to push this work forward by writing a post that discusses how white educators can begin to decolonize education in their daily work and to push anti-racist ideas into practice.
For almost a decade, I worked to mentor Boston Public School students through an organization that utilized critical race theory. The organization used Torie Weiston-Serdan’s model of Critical Mentoring to support students from low-income backgrounds on their journey to be the first in their families to attend college in the US. In this article, I’m drawing from the wisdom, theories, and frameworks Torie imparted; many of my own pitfalls; the relationships I’ve had with my students, friends, and colleagues; and my own winding journey through allyism and anti-racism. To be clear, I am by no means an expert—I still (and will always) work every day to become a stronger ally and become more aware.
How to Be an Anti-Racist Ally in Education
To start, I want to share a few things that I have learned on my journey and might be helpful to keep in mind as white educators and humans in our world.
Your experience is different from your colleagues and students of color.
Whether you are an avid protestor or a quiet participant, our whiteness allows us to receive this news, feel from varying degrees of distance, and eventually, carry on. We have the privilege to consider racism when it occurs to us or is convenient. We often don’t even notice our privilege sweeping away our attention, back to work, our daily routines, our family lives, while this is not the case for our colleagues and students of color who are forced to process microaggressions, discrimination, and the complexities of oppression every day of their lives.
You have privilege. You hold power.
Yes, even if you grew up poor or had an adverse upbringing. Racial privilege is the reality that the color of your skin grants you safety, access, and opportunity that is advantageous to you. Not sure what that means? Start by learning about redlining, the racist history of our education system, and the history of policing in the US. We all need to heal those parts of our upbringing—no matter how complex or traumatic they may be—and it is important, even still, to understand that our racial privilege provides us with advantages in our world. While our own pain and trauma can give us an ability to empathize and relate to stories outside our own, the lived experience of oppression and racism is something we will only ever be able to understand through our privileged lens. Our job, as white allies, is to fine-tune our lens of power and privilege in the world, learn how to use our privilege strategically and responsibly, and work to deconstruct it in pursuit of equity and inclusion.
You won’t always get it right.
But over time, your relationship with getting it wrong will change. Perfectionism is our enemy. It is at the root of much fragility we experience when we engage in anti-racism work. In fact, the deeper you engage, the more you’ll notice all of the ways your voice, language, and actions or non-action have an impact on people of color. Our work, as white educators, is about understanding the root of why we get things wrong—why we misspeak or misunderstand context, how we assert power in harmful ways, and how our silence itself causes harm—and learning to do so with openness and a growth mindset. It can help to process the times we “get it wrong” with self-compassion, a willingness to authentically apologize, and a commitment to learn and grow.
When you get it wrong, it’s usually at the expense of people of color.
There is a difference between our intentions and the impact we ultimately have. It is important that we notice the fall out of our behaviors. For example, how did my speaking up silence the perspective of people of color in the room? How did my need for safety and fear of difference create isolation and danger for people of color? How did my silence leave the emotional burden to be carried by my friends of color? The more you engage and actively develop this skill set, the more you will learn how to align your intentions with the impact you have.
Talk about power and privilege openly.
Make it a part of your everyday language. Call out the moments you notice your privilege and explicitly state the ways you are using your privilege in service of justice and inclusion. Name the moments you are uncovering blind spots. It can sound like, “I know I have the privilege to express myself without ramifications from our leaders, I’d like to volunteer to raise this issue for us,” or “As your teacher, I know I hold power in this classroom. I want this to be a class where you can express yourself and co-create our time together. We can do that by…” or “I’m realizing that my privilege has shielded me from experiencing the world in that way… “
You have to feel your way through it.
It is so important that we do our own work—read, listen to podcasts, relearn history through a more honest lens—but it’s also important to know that you can’t simply read yourself to awareness. Many of us regurgitate facts, language, and moments in history aiming to cast a shield of protection around us—“If I say the right words, it will protect me from feeling that I’m still learning too.” At some point, you have to drop into your heart and feel your way through it too. As educators, we know that the root of all deep learning is the connection between our cognitive ability and our emotions. The same is true for your work as an ally.
You cannot circumvent the hard.
The process of unlearning and relearning yourself and the world around you is hard. Understanding yourself and the world around you through the lens of power and privilege is painful, confusing, and never-ending. It’s also a road that once you start down, it’s nearly impossible to turn around and find your way back to your previous state of ignorance. As Author Arundhati Roy wrote, “The trouble is that once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And once you’ve seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. There’s no innocence. Either way, you’re accountable.” This is heavy and uncomfortable work for us because racism is tremendously heavy and uncomfortable. To read more about this unlearning and relearning process, check out Adrian Michael Green’s writing and instagram.
Yes, you are a good person.
Yes, you are well-meaning. Yes, you care. And, yes, you also have blind spots. Being a “good person” (for most of us) is not the question at hand. If you are navigating your work to understand racism by finding ways to prove that you are a good person, you are likely missing the fact that we all operate within a racist system and we all have a lot to learn about the ways white supremacy has infiltrated every part of our world and our lives. We need to connect our—often well-meaning—behaviors to our experience of systemic racism to be able to learn and connect the dots for ourselves.
Yes, it’s about race.
You are a fish swimming in an ocean of white privilege. You cannot see all of the ways the systems around you have been built to propel your success forward, support you if you falter, and protect your safety and emotional well being. When a person of color tells you that something is rooted in racism, no matter how large or small it seems to you, listen carefully to their perspective, trust what they are saying, and thank them for their willingness to educate you.
Find an alternative to defensiveness.
When we are “called out” or made aware of our contribution to racism, it can be hard to hear, especially when we care and have committed to anti-racism. When your chest tightens and you feel yourself getting defensive, take a breath, remember that we are all learning, and engage with your curiosity and openness. Try, instead, to thank the person for their feedback and ask if it is ok to ask clarifying questions to make sure you can learn from the experience. Respond in a way that is healing for you both.
Accept that you may not change everyone’s perspective.
But the process of asserting your awareness and perspective about privilege and race is part of your own awareness-building. Feel defeated. Feel outraged. Feel embarrassed. This is how it feels to be in the thick of re-learning the world through a more honest lens. Take a few steps away from people unwilling to learn as you strengthen your identity as an ally. Eventually, you will build more robust skills that allow you to invite these people into the conversation that will encourage their learning and broadening perspective along with yours.
We need you healthy.
There is a difference between “checking out” when it gets hard, which is a symptom of white privilege and doing things that support your mental and emotional health to stay engaged for the long haul. Learn the difference for yourself, and make sure to engage in things that bring you joy and positive energy so you continue to work toward a more just and inclusive world.
You need support too.
We all do. If you are feeling overwhelmed or even broken as you learn more, that means you are doing the work. It is important, however, that we don’t ask our friends, colleagues, and students of color to help us process our experiences of deepening our awareness. Find a group of other white folks who can hold you accountable and support you as you do this unlearning and relearning process. Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) is a great national resource for white folks to process and strengthen their allyship together.
Why Its Important to Be an Anti-Racist Ally as an Educator
Our work as white allies is deep and hard work. We are in this together, bound to each other, and our role as white people is to use our privilege to dismantle the systemic racism that has laid the foundation for our country’s policies, procedures, decision making, and relationships.
As Joan Olsson writes in Detour Spotting for White Anti-Racists “Racism in North America won’t end because people of color demand it. Racism will only end when a significant number of white people of conscience, the people who can wield systemic privilege and power with integrity, find the will and take the action to dismantle it. That won’t happen until white people find racism in our daily consciousness as often as people of color do. For now, we have to drag racism into our consciousness intentionally, for unlike our sisters and brothers of color, the most present daily manifestation of our white privilege is the possibility of forgetting about racism. We cannot.”
Many of you are probably thinking about how you can best support your students through this time. This Black Lives Matter Student Check-in Kit, developed by our team at Project Wayfinder, might offer some guidance. And, if you are just getting started and aren’t sure where to go, check out this Black Lives Matter trello board packed full of resources curated by my dear friend and colleague, Alexx Temeña.
This is part of a 4 part series from writer and Boston-based licensed clinician, Casey Pettit, who is also the Director of Strategic Partnerships at Project Wayfinder, about how educators can take care of their and their students’ social and emotional needs in the midst of school closures.
How are you as an educator strengthening your allyship and Anti-racist teachings? Join the discussion on our forum. Check out our list of Anti-Racist readings and resources on the Rethink Together Forum and think about how they can be utilized in your class and your life.