Whiteness at Work
January 20th was my last day as a classroom teacher and it was both an end and a beginning. It was the end of an 18 ½ year career being a teacher. It was not the way I anticipated ending the career that I absolutely loved – and I am still in a bit of shock and grief over it. After some good days where I actually got up and did some work or met up with friends and bad days where I did not even get out of my PJs I found myself in my usual yoga class with my yoga buddy and one of our favorite instructors. At the beginning of class, she reads an intention. This particular reading hit home for me. It was an article by Julie Peters called Life Lessons from Yin Yoga, or, Should I Stay or Should I Go? Peters point was that yoga practice on the mat is for life off the mat:
We know, in yoga, that discomfort is okay. Discomfort can be good. It means that we have come right up to an edge—I imagine it as a literal fence…We can hang out in a place that threatens to reveal a deeper layer of our true selves, even while the mind is making up all kinds of tricks to try to get you back to your comfort zone, despite the fact that the only comfort you’ll often really find there is familiarity. Pain, though, is not okay. Pain is the body’s signal that it isn’t safe. Regardless of what’s going on in the mind, the body is sending out warnings that cause the body to tense up, the teeth to grit, the breath to quicken, and the sympathetic nervous system to rev up its fight or flight. If this happens, we gotta go. Get out of the pose, find a new one, adjust the props, or leave the room. It’s okay to not be ready yet. I sometimes think what we are practicing for in yoga is everything that happens off the yoga mat. When we get the difference between pain and discomfort in our bodies, we can get it in our lives. It gives us a good question: is this an uncomfortable patch that I can breathe through and learn from, or is it time to get out of this room/job/relationship/city?
Here is where I was a turning point in my grief over leaving the classroom. Here is how it happened.
In 2005 I decided to get my Master’s in Teaching from a private college in San Francisco called New College of California. It was a program devoted to social, environmental, and economic justice teaching. It was here where I fell in theoretical love with Paolo Freire, a Brazilian educator and philosopher who lead the way in critical pedagogy. He authored many books including, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. It was this book that confirmed many thoughts I had about education - what it should be, and how it impacts and is impacted by the world in which it sits. It also rocked my world and made me see things in a critical way with liberation as the goal. And this is where I began my true journey as a social justice educator.
Even as a high school student I saw the world as a place where all citizens are held under the thumb of government, even in a democratic republic. I saw unfair distribution of resources, segregated schooling, and ways in which people throw flesh-colored Band-Aids on problems to make people feel seen rather than dismantling oppressive structures and systems. Freire confirmed this idea when he suggested that those with privilege only become liberated when “the oppressed who, by freeing themselves, can free their oppressors.” As someone who is privileged, but wants to be liberated from systemic and structural racism, my career followed a path in which, after many years teaching in public school, I ended up at a private school with a mission and vision focused on social justice. Unlike my MIT private school, however, this school hoodwinked and bamboozled me with its pretty packaging only to find that inside is a haven for whiteness where the status quo is perpetuated by racism, altruism, and unjust moves that silence social justice work.
In 2010 I decided to get a doctorate in multicultural education. When working on my dissertation on whiteness in education I found no definition of social justice education. Using theory and ideas from many scholars, including Freire, I devised my own definition. On April 4, 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech entitled Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence at New York Riverside Church. In that speech he said, “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” Through the eyes of compassion, Dr. King succinctly illuminates how I define social justice.
The first part of the quote mentions flinging a coin at a beggar, a redistribution of resources where an injustice would be inequality. So, if you threw some change at a beggar and they have a little more money, then this is what justice looks like. But, it only redistributes what is available - giving the beggar a coin distributes resources, but the beggar must still beg. However, in the second part of King’s statement, “an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring” it is not enough to redistribute resources toward the ills of society or even question why they exist. Social justice is dismantling and eliminating systems that create beggars in the first place, and freeing those who feel that oppression limits their share of the resources available. This is how I define social justice – dismantling and eliminating oppressive systems and structures. This was no secret to those who hired me at this private school. This is how I jumped in and began teaching – to analyze and question oppressive systems and structures. Freire says those seeking liberation, along with those who work in solidarity with them, must develop a strong critical awareness of the world and the struggles of the oppressed. This can be accomplished by constructing knowledge, which “emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.” In other words, school is a place where students should be critically analyzing oppressive systems.
Unless, of course, that school thinks social justice means philanthropy, altruism, and charity. But guess who warns about charitable acts? Yes…Freire. He states that “it is necessary for the oppressors to approach the people in order, via subjugation, to keep them passive.” He explains many ways the oppressor does this, including the myth of charity and generosity of the elites, when what they really do as a class is to foster selective “good deeds.” By offering false charity, good deeds that make the oppressed feel seen, but do not offer better opportunities, Freire says, “Such a situation in itself constitutes violence, even when sweetened by false generosity, because it interferes with the individual’s ontological and historical vocation to be more fully human.” This is what the private school meant by social justice. But, just as King said that whatever caused a human to need to beg in the first place needs to be restructured, Freire says, “True generosity consists precisely in fighting to destroy the causes which nourish false charity. False charity constrains the fearful and subdued, the ‘rejects of life,’ to extend their trembling hands. True generosity lies in striving so that these hands—whether of individuals or entire peoples—need be extended less and less in supplication, so that more and more they become human hands which work and, working, transform the world.”
This is a long way to explain that because charity and philanthropy are oppressors’ tools and the school I worked at defines this as justice, I was demonized. But it wasn’t just me. My teaching partner, whose philosophies align very closely with mine, was demonized too. We worked so well together that an effort was put in place by the school to cleanse itself of our outlandish teaching practices that make students think critically about the world in which they live and analyze why structures are put in place to oppress. But again, this is what I was sold, what I felt I should be doing, what I have been trained to do, and what I believe is social justice education.
My teaching partner, a Black woman, was told by a white woman (we will call her Rachelle) that other white women fear her. In a school for social justice. The Head of School, another white woman, whitenessed (a white person witnessing a racist act in silence) this exchange. In a school for social justice. In hindsight, this is when they picked up their torches and pitchforks.
At the end of November, we had a meeting scheduled to discuss the plans for our grade level for the 2017-2018 school year. This meeting was quickly changed to meeting with us separately to discuss how people view us as a team. This is where my teaching partner learned that white women fear her and I was told I don’t fit in. When I heard the racist comment Rachelle made, I approached her and told her the comment was racist and asked what her plan was to mend the relationship. Not only did she not have a plan, she still cannot see why this is racist. Then she went on to lie about the conversations she had with these women about their privilege and what they might really fear. These were my words with her, she took them as her own and pretended she understood whiteness in the workplace.
Rachelle and the head of school, who we will call Minerva, took it so far as to write up improvement plans for our teaching, which problems had not been brought up before. So now, out of the blue we are bad teachers that need these white women who believe charity to be social justice education planning and teaching with us. Ummmm…that’d be a no. No we will not let your whiteness change our definitions of social justice and perpetuate the status quo with you. Not today. Not ever. As you can imagine, while Freire and King may have supported us, the school did not. So, we quit. Whiteness won.
Between our resignations and our last day at work the school prepared for, of all things, a march to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. During the march, White leaders who, without caution told a Black woman that White people fear her, were leading children in chants of justice, equality, and freedom. In preparation for this march, students were taught Black anthems, some from the civil rights movement and some from enslavement. The history of these songs and their meanings and origins were not taught. The songs were given to white students as their own when they should understand them as tools of solidarity belonging to oppressed and marginalized peoples. They were also given to students of color, including Black students, without celebrating their history and contributions to the world. While both of these are straight up wrong, the former is cultural appropriation, the latter the ultimate failure to students of color.
We were told our last day would be Friday, January 20th. In response to a transition plan that cast our narrative to the side, never to be told, we wrote a letter to the board and our families explaining what was going on. Then, in a move of solidarity, we went to work the day after we sent the letter, which was MLK day and were approached with hugs, kind words, and surprise from parents and a few staff members who didn’t know what was going on. We had decided this would be our last day of work. We were going to tell our students, pack up our rooms and never return to where whiteness wins. But in doing so, Minerva and Rachelle got wind of our plan and took our kids out of our rooms without letting us tell them why we were leaving. So in the end, the reasons we were told we were being put on an improvement plan were all white lies--lies white people tell themselves in order to protect their whiteness. Lies white people tell themselves to continue to live with their charitable deeds. It was not about children, as none were supported. It was not about our teaching, as it was never brought as a problem. It was not our personalities, as we had positive relationships and allies. It was white fragility, white lies, and white supremacy living under the guise of social justice. Lesson learned: When working for the resistance in revolutionary ways, you will be demonized, berated, and harassed. It is whiteness at work.
This whiteness at work that pushed me out of the classroom and prematurely ended my teaching career also became the beginning of a new chapter in my life. The chapter that is CRREW – the dream out of grad school to be able to show teachers how institutional racism, racial identity development, and whiteness impact student success in school – my new life off the yoga mat.