This IS a test, it’s a test that has been a long time coming for me, but one I have prolonged as much as possible. The title of the blog was supposed to catch your eye, make you think of a man I am truly honored to call a friend, José Vilson. I wanted the name to make you think of his book, and the many issues we have in classrooms all over America. I want you to also think about those same issues that lie outside the classroom, that permeate every second of every day. That issue is the one of race.
It is an issue I have struggled with, one that I have not engaged directly in- because I am a white man of privilege. As such, I have never been sure of exactly where or when I should insert my voice on this subject. As someone of privilege, I am aware of how what I say (or what I do not say) can influence the conservation on race. It wasn’t until one Sunday night, when I was trapped in MSP airport for 3 hours waiting to catch my flight home to Bemidji, that I decided to reach out for help. I want to be part of this conversation, but I truly do not know where to start. That is where this blog, and those that respond to it, can help.
I before I type these next few paragraphs, I want you all to know this- that I am scared. I am scared to continue, scared to hit publish, scared to share these thoughts publicly on social media because they represent an internal struggle within me and my life’s journey. They represent a struggle I continue to attempt to balance every day when dealing with my students and in my life. I am scared of the weight of judgement that will be rained down upon me as a man, a husband, a father, a teacher of our youth. Although I have this fear, I am continuing to type this, and hopefully when I reach the end I can finally find strength to hit send.
I was born in Virginia, and as such, I received a very strong message about people of color as I grew up. Children are very observant of what is happening around them, and adults in the community did a good job in demonstrating the beliefs of those with privilege. The issue was this- I never was comfortable with the message I was receiving. I kept silent, hearing those words but never pushing back on them. As a youth in a military home, questioning adults was not an option. When I was 3, we moved to Minnesota and I grew up on a farm in a white community. I went to a school that was predominantly white, even though we were located between 3 reservations. I was not experienced in the issue of race, and my only really experience with people of color was still from the experiences of my early youth.
I continued to struggle with that view until college. In college I lived in a diverse community, I had many friends- and those friends included many people of color. I started to push back against those early images I retained from my youth. While living on campus, within the dorms, I was able to push past those prejudices and focus on the people I was interacting with. I did not have to worry about judgement from others about my friends there, although they still suffered from judgement every day.
As a teacher, I started teaching in a public school located on a reservation. Throughout my 15 years of teaching I have taught in a school that was primarily students of color. I try to be aware of my message and my voice, but coming from my background I am sure I can’t help but fall into those times of “well intentioned” teaching. I need someone to push back on what I say or do in the classroom, sometimes it comes from my students. I have lost count of how many times I have been called racist by a new student, and each time it happens I reflect on what actually happened in the classroom before I respond. Many times they are saying that as a knee jerk reaction. “Johnny, I need you to continue your work on your assignment” is immediately followed by “You’re racist.” It’s the other times that concern me. It’s like being slapped in the face, and I always try to reflect on the conversation, body language, body positions in the room, and who I addressed first in a situation in the classroom. If I ever have a doubt that what I said or done was wrong, I immediately apologize, although by that time it is too late- the damage has been done.
There are times throughout the year where the class will talk about race, and how that has affected their learning. It is quite an eye-opening conversation with every group I have. Although many of the issues remain constant, there is always a new insight that I take from each talk. All of the talks will have a racist versus prejudiced thread, and many of my students do not know the difference between the two. Many students do not know how to articulate themselves beyond using the word racist, so we talk about ways to talk with a teacher about how they are feeling and what factors within the classroom cause those feelings. Many of my students come from very diverse and challenging situations, they have a need to be heard and respected for who they are. They typically are not allowed this, but it’s one thing I try to address and acknowledge. They need a place they can feel safe, respected and valued for being themselves.
Like my students, I need a place where I can feel safe and respected for this conversation of race. I want to learn more about what I am doing right or wrong, or even what I am implying by not saying anything at all. The biggest reason why I have been struggling with this for so long is that I feel ashamed. I am ashamed because I have not pushed back against what I know is wrong for so long, but I also feel shame and fear of how my family and friends will react to my seeking knowledge and how I will interact with the topic of race. It’s the latter that has chained me into inaction, and although I keep struggling against those constraints- they keep me silent, firmly entrapped.
I want to have a conversation about race: within me, my classroom, my community, my country. I know that conversation won’t be neat or easy, but I also want to be able to know that while emotions may run hot- that I am having it with people in a constructive way. This IS a test, we all are being graded on this every day, and for me- I need a lot of review and chances to retest so I can get it right.