Recently, I published a middle-grade children’s book called What Is White Privilege? While checking Twitter a few days after it had garnered some attention, I discovered a barrage of angry messages calling for actions to discredit my book and my name. After processing my initial shock, I remembered that the reality is that visible equity work incites anger and hatred. What is critical is that we explore why this happens and how we can respond to it, particularly in the context of the classroom and for the hearts of our students.
First let’s consider anger and hatred. It can be rooted deeply in poor teaching, misunderstanding, separation, and fear, but ultimately, it is rooted in pride. All of this bars us from seeing each other as fully human. And while I want to sometimes just say, “Haters gonna hate.” I know that is not a solution because hate has consequences, particularly when it’s sourced by people in positions of power. Hate leads to rage, to disengagement, bias, isolation, racism, bad policy, corrupt systems, violence, and generational hatred that perpetuates bad systems and hurts people. It is both the storming of the Capitol and the passivity and the excuses made for those storming the Capitol. It is both the bombing of Black churches and buses, the destruction of Black bodies and communities, and the turning of a blind eye to these violent atrocities.
Where might this type of anger and hatred come from? I want to speak specifically to white folks here. I am one, and, for the past six years, my work for equity and racial justice has focused predominantly on educating white students in a way that impacts hearts, minds, and, as they move into the world, systems. What I have discovered is that hatred and anger that lead to violence and oppression stem from a false belief in one’s personal superiority, desire for power, and in one’s belief of deserving better. Just consider the term “white supremacy.” Derived from the Latin term supremus, meaning “highest,” is the term refers to an ultimate and evil elevation of the white race. When that belief or elevation that one puts their hope in is threatened (perceived or in actuality), anger and hatred erupt as one believes they are being robbed of something which they are owed. This, I believe, is at the root of white supremacy, and it hurts all people, even the supremacists.
So what can we do? How can we address this kind of anger and hatred? Our classrooms are the front lines. Here, we must teach about human dignity—the innate characteristic in each of us that exists simply because we are human. Though we each carry around a pile of imperfections and struggle and hurt, we are each distinctly and wonderfully made, and as educators we can honor that in students and help them see it in others. In an article titled “When I Recognized Race,” writer Rayshawn Graves describes the time someone in his mostly white classroom told him “Being Black is not cool.” When Graves told his parents, his father told him to respond with “Black is Beautiful.” (Side note: Check out the book Beautiful Blackbird by Ashley Bryan to hear your kids chanting that statement). Graves reflected on his father’s suggestion in this way: “What my Dad did in that moment wasn’t an attempt to build my pride on the insufficient hope of my skin color or ethnicity. He wasn’t doing this to proclaim that to be Black is to be better than everyone else. Rather, he was dignifying something that had been downtrodden.”
How do we “dignify something that has been downtrodden” in our classroom? In our schools, we need to acknowledge that what we teach and the way we teach can recognize or deny the dignity of students in our classrooms, our communities, and our nation. As we consider how to uplift the dignity of students of color, intentionally educating our white students is an important step. The suggestions below are made with that in mind but can be easily adapted for classrooms with varying demographics.
Consider curriculum. A large part of elevating the dignity of all people is teaching curriculum that accurately reflects the diverse experiences of all people. From children’s books to history books, from math story problems to the pictures of scientists hanging on the wall, there is room for diversification and representation.
Consider demographics. In a highly segregated school system such as ours, fear thrives because we are not in authentic relationships with people who are different from us. Partner with schools with different student demographics. Do this in authentic ways, not in service, but in partnership. Give up the power of your podium, and bring in experts from varying racial and ethnic backgrounds to teach your students. Learning from people elevates the dignity of people.
Consider bias. Walk your students through addressing personal biases. Model vulnerability by considering your own and how your biases might impact what you teach, the way you teach, and how you respond to different students. Talk about recognizing and responding to those biases.
Consider feelings. As anger or pain or sorrow arises from these new topics and experiences, press into those feelings. Help students or staff understand them and work through them. Explain the difference between righteous and unrighteous anger. Discuss how we can and should be angry at things that are atrocious and wrong, and how that anger can serve as a catalyst for change. Then, figure out how to make that change in a way that doesn’t mimic the abuser.
Consider discourse. Help your students strategize to have conversations with people who are in disagreement with them. Teach them how to actively listen, respond, source-check, and move toward people with compassion in a way that might quench the anger.
What could our world look like if we could see others not just as citizens with a constitutional right to equality, but as humans innately and uniquely sharing equally in dignity? What could our world look like if our anger wasn’t a result of feeling our superiority (i.e., privilege) threatened, but a result of seeing someone else’s dignity denied? What could our world look like if these were the lessons taught in schools and classrooms? What we teach in our classrooms matters. May we strive to help our students change the world by helping them see that each one of them holds unique and innate dignity.
Leigh Ann is the proud sister, daughter and granddaughter of teachers. She has taught in rural, suburban, and urban schools witnessing the disparities that exist in U.S. Education and working to dismantle those disparities. She is the founder and principal of Undone Education Consulting and the Undone Movement which works with teachers across the nation to end educational inequity.That work includes teaching predominantly white student populations to recognize historical truth and privilege and dismantle systemic racism. To do this, Leigh Ann developed an extensive curriculum and created the Connect, Absorb, Respond, and Empower (CARE) conference which brings authentic and relationship building conversations about race and bias into high schools. She earned a Bachelors in English and Spanish from the University of Delaware and Masters in Teaching from Pace University. She was a 2019 finalist for Iowa Teacher of the Year. Erickson is grateful to play a small part in a conversation about race and equity that has been happening in this country for centuries.