For the past couple of months, my 16 year old and I have spent a couple of hours most weekends watching whatever musical production was being shared by The Show Must Go On. This weekend’s show was Hairspray. Watching it yesterday afternoon it seemed quite a choice at this moment in time and I wondered if this was long planned or if someone picked it in the past few days. So much of the story revolves around issues of racial segregation.
It’s always interesting to me how differently I can see or read something depending on my life at that moment. I certainly didn’t remember or anticipate a couple of lines that really stood out to me on this viewing. A young white girl, Penny (played by Ariana Grande) begins dating a young Black boy, Seaweed (played by Ephraim Sykes). In a room full of Black people, with only a few white kids there, Penny says her mom is going to kill her for dating him. Seaweed’s younger sister, Inez (played by Shahadi Wright Joseph) says, “No she’s not. She’s going to kill him.” The line is in the midst of lots of noise and debate. Enough so that Inez repeats it a few minutes later. Still, no one really seems to hear her.
Yesterday I heard her.
In this moment in time, a moment in which I am thinking about Breonna Taylor, Chris Cooper, and George Floyd, that line was loud.
In this moment in time, a moment in which the president tweets about protests outside of the White House, putting the word protesters in quotation marks and noting that the Secret Service puts the youngest agents at the front because they love it and it’s good practice, I heard Inez.
In this moment in time, a moment in which Twitter determined that a tweet from the president of the United States violated their rules by glorifying violence but that it is also in the public interest that people be able to view the tweet, Inez was the wisest one in that room.
At this moment in time, a moment in which people who have been staying home for their own safety and the safety of others are now gathering in cities across the country to protest state-sanctioned violence against Black people; in the midst of a pandemic that is significantly disproportionally killing Black people, those people at greater risk are putting themselves out there, Inez was absolutely right.
And I’m sitting at home watching Hairspray.
What are we, as white women teachers, doing to make this better or worse?
We are the great majority of educators. We have immense power over the future of our country in the ways we impact children in classrooms and schools now. Are our actions helping or harming? There’s not a middle ground on this. Either we are actively working to improve our society, to make it more just, to make the lives of people of color safer and more secure, or we are making it worse. No action is not a neutral choice.
On Friday, Kelisa Wing wrote Teachers Must Hold Themselves Accountable for Dismantling Racial Oppression. That’s quite a title. And it’s well worth the read. She lays out some ways we can all do better. Ways that are meaningful as well as being completely doable.
I teach young children. I struggle with how best to talk with kids in moments like this one. I want to respect decisions parents have made about what their child does and doesn’t know about what is going on in the world. I want to respect my young children of color and not place them in the position of being spokespeople for their race. In the past, I’ve followed my kids’ lead. I’ve tried to make space for these conversations but not initiated them myself.
I don’t know for sure if that’s the right decision, but I do know there are plenty of other things I can be doing that don’t require a moment like this one. Conversations about racial oppression (as well as other critical issues of social justice) should not just happen when it makes the national news. We need to be talking all the time.
This lesson is one example of how to do so. Jess Lifshitz frequently shares lessons and units from her classroom that model how to support students in their struggles to understand and learn how to take action. This morning I came across this graph on twitter and was shocked by far more than watching COVID move its way up. In a study of graphs we could take a look at this one and notice and wonder about what we see. What does it mean that, pre-COVID, malaria, malnutrition, and homicide were the three leading causes of death globally? How are malnutrition and homicide being defined? Does homicide include deaths during war? Who is most impacted by these top causes? What efforts are being made to solve or cure them?
I, as a white woman educator, have to find ways to have these conversations throughout the year with my young students. I have to give them opportunities to see what is happening in their community and beyond, to question why, to consider who is impacted, to think about how they can be a part of making our society more just.
I, as a white woman educator, have a responsibility to ensure that my students, all of them, see people of color in the books we read and in the history we study. My young students, all of them, need to see Black scientists, Latinx judges, LGBTQ+ authors, etc. They should know that anyone and everyone has a voice and power and brilliance.
I, as a white woman educator, have to push others around me to do the same. I have to be ready to identify when colleagues or friends or family members (or myself) are showing their racism. I have to be prepared to call in or out when I see it. And I have to be prepared to be called in or out by others. And take the time to reflect and to learn, when that happens.
White women educators, we have a lot of power. We need to remember that and be thoughtful about the choices we made. No action towards a more just society for everyone is not a neutral choice. It is harmful. We must work: on ourselves, with each other, and for everyone.