“I believe one of our primary roles as educator is to interrupt the cycle of inequality and oppression.
This summer I had passionate discussions with people I love in which we disagreed over the words, “Black Lives Matter.” They say, “The phrase is isolating and discriminatory. We should be saying, ‘All Lives Matter.’”
I am white, and I argue this is the time in our country’s history to affirm that “Black Lives Matter.” I use this analogy: “It’s like a body. Obviously, we want our whole body to be healthy. But if I am diagnosed with lung cancer, I want that cancer treated now. I won’t be going to doctors saying, “My Body Matters.” I’ll be saying “My LUNGS Matter.”
Violence against black people is a cancer that threatens all of our society, and teachers need to be part of the cure. As an American history teacher, I take it as a sacred duty to teach the rich history of the United States with all its flaws and jagged edges. Students of all backgrounds who understand that the United States was built on an economy of enslavement may come to understand—and ultimately end—the culture of racism that has evolved over the course of centuries. With thoughtful and culturally competent teaching, we teachers contribute to building a truly welcoming, multiculturally rich, and inclusive American society for all participants. The positive outcomes can spill over our borders into the wider world.
Culturally Competent Teaching
This morning I listened to Maria Hinojosa’s Latino USA. The five-minute story When Race and Identity Collide in the Classroom awakened me from my five a.m. stupor. Hinojosa starts with a startling statistic: “Almost half of American school students are kids of color. But more than eighty percent of the teachers are white.” The piece features a black seventh grade boy who refused his white teacher’s assignment to write about a slave-holding president. There is a black sixth grade girl sharing the number of times she has walked out of classes disgusted with teachers’ superficial history lessons. Gloria Ladson-Billings reminds teachers to have “cultural relevance.” If we don’t, she warns, we may contribute to the well-documented consequence of disproportionate negative discipline meted out to students of color.
Ladson-Billings explains, “When students feel they’re not part of the classroom, and in fact that it’s openly hostile to them, then they do a couple things: they can either withdraw so they just don’t participate, OR they act out.” And, because teachers don’t take many courses in cultural competence, they need to catch up.
That’s why teachers from Stetson Middle School in Philadelphia formed a reading and discussion group around Rethinking Multicultural Education. Participating in this movement is one of my favorite friends and teachers, Jamie Stevenson, reminding us that white teachers can only effectively teach students of color if we understand “what their cultural background is, who they are as people...”
Preparing Ourselves as Multicultural People
So as we prepare our bulletin boards (including faces of all different ethnicities, shapes, sizes, and backgrounds) we can also prepare ourselves to be the most culturally competent teachers we can be—for each child, family, and colleague in our care.
In her classic text Affirming Diversity, Sonia Nieto calls on teachers to become multicultural people in order to be able to teach multicultural issues sensitively and meaningfully. “First, we simply need to learn more…. Second, we need to confront our own racism and biases…. Third, becoming a multicultural person means learning to see reality from a variety of perspectives.”
At this point in our country’s history, I am interested in helping students and peers understand the perspective that “Black Lives Matter,” and why. Simultaneously, to the best of my multicultural, peace and justice, and anti-bias education abilities, I will be inclusive of students and peers of all backgrounds, teaching countless issues of importance.
For this specific issue, however, here are readings to consider for educating oneself, one’s students in middle school or beyond, or a discussion group of colleagues. These will be provocative in the best of ways.
Black Lives Matter
First, read the New York Times editorial “The Truth of ‘Black Lives Matter.’” The editors write that people who say “Black Lives Matter” are “not asserting that black lives are more precious than white lives. They are underlining an indisputable fact — that the lives of black citizens in this country historically have not mattered, and have been discounted and devalued. People who are unacquainted with this history are understandably uncomfortable with the language of the movement.”
To dive deeper into this history, use many of the resources from Rethinking Schools and Zinn Ed Project to discover the long history of racism in this country. Consult Imani Scott’s Crimes Against Humanity in the Land of the Free: Can a Truth and Reconciliation Process Heal Racial Conflict in America? Chapters in the book detail the four-hundred year history of racism’s hold on the United States and the centuries-long struggle for equity and justice.
Perhaps re-reading the iconic White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, by Peggy McIntosh is timely. At the link below, from the National SEED Project on Inclusive Curriculum, find detailed suggestions for reading and deeply processing this 1989 article in the context of today’s issues on race and in other contexts of diversity, such as region, gender, economic status, religion, and physical ability. McIntosh pushes us to recognize the systemic racism in this country, and to develop “a) the ability to see in terms of systems as well as in terms of individuals; b) the ability to see how systemic discrimination, the downside, is matched by systemic privilege, the upside; c) the ability to see many different kinds of privilege systems.”
Additional resources, which teachers can tailor to their particular classroom levels and subjects, are available from Teaching Tolerance. The monthly magazine, the online blogs, and the deeply linked Perspectives for a Diverse America curriculum provide resources on race and ethnicity, LGBT, gender, religion, immigration, and other issues.
Letter to My Son
At my own son’s suggestion, I have been reading and reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Letter to My Son, and I commend it to teachers and students from high school onward. Hearing this father’s anguish, owning it as our responsibility, and teaching our students of all backgrounds how racism’s roots pervade United States history are moral imperatives for culturally competent and compassionate teachers. In an Atlantic piece full of personal experience and reflection, Coates writes about the connection of systemic white on black violence in the context of U.S. history, “At the onset of the Civil War, our stolen bodies were worth $3 billion, more than all of American industry, all American railroads, workshops, and factories combined, and the prime product rendered by our stolen bodies—cotton—was America’s primary export…. Our bodies were held in bondage by the early presidents….” He continues, “Here is what I would like for you to know: in America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.”
In an interview with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, Coates reveals that his book, Between the World and Me, reflects his ongoing fearful conversation with his black teenage son. Jon Stewart feels Coates is offering “an opening to a conversation” for the wider society, and I think teachers would be wise to participate. In spite of daunting times, I agree with Coates, who affirms “Struggle is important, whether success is assured or not.”
To help each of our students in the era of Black Lives Matter, we must prepare our multicultural selves for engaging every single one of them. Here is a place to begin.
-Susan Gelber Cannon
- http://latinousa.org/2015/09/04/when-race-and-identity-collide-in-the-classroom/ Five-minute audio piece by Yowei Shaw aired on Latino USA, 9-4-15
- New York Times: The Truth of Black Lives Matter: editorial, 9-2-15
- Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack: Text and discussion suggestions pdf: PDF with SEED (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity) training suggestions for using the article with groups. Many good suggestions with the original document at the bottom.
- Peggy McIntosh introduces developing White Privilege list (6-minute video)
- Peggy McIntosh: How Studying Privilege Systems Can Strengthen Compassion. TEDxTimberlaneSchools 16-minute video
- Perspectives for a Diverse America, Literacy-based curriculum from Teaching Tolerance
- Introduction to Culturally Relevant Pedagogy: Teaching Tolerance’s 4-minute video features Jackie Jordan Irvine, Geneva Gay, and Kris Gutierrez.
- The Atlantic: Letter to My Son, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
- Daily Show: Jon Stewart interviews Ta-Nehisi Coates: 14-minute interview has commercials, but is worthy companion to entry for teachers and/or students into Coates’s work and thinking. Aired 7-23-15.
- Sonia Nieto: 2009 powerpoint on multiculturalism: Sonia Nieto’s PowerPoint from 2009, Promoting Bilingualism and Multiculturalism Through Powerful Learning Communities, will download automatically at this link.
- Rethinking Schools
- Teaching Tolerance
- Zinn Ed Project
- Rethinking Multicultural Education: Description and ordering information for this compilation of thoughtful articles: “Rethinking Multicultural Education reclaims multicultural education as part of a larger struggle for justice and against racism, colonization, and cultural oppression—in schools and society.”
- Nieto, Sonia (2004) Affirming Diversity: The Sociopolitical Context of Multicultural Education (6th ed.)
- Crimes Against Humanity in the Land of the Free: Can a Truth and Reconciliation Process Heal Racial Conflict in America? (with 4-minute video introduction to the book by Dr. Imani Scott)
- Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates (with 3-minute video of Coates reading the book)