By Melody McAllister
In the midst of a pandemic, a time when many educators are already feeling the turmoil of crisis/remote teaching and students are feeling alienated even more, we are now also experiencing a time where police brutality against Black men and women can’t be ignored as it has been for years in White society. We’ve seen the murders of innocent People of Color by the very people who have sworn to protect ALL of us. White educators with large platforms are finally feeling the pressure to take a stand when they’ve never felt obligated to do so in the past. The message is clear, “Your silence says everything we need to know.” And that silent message is not a positive one, but a message full of complicity, or the willingness to go on with the status quo. But we are also seeing those who, when they finally say something may still be canceled on our social media. Whether your feelings are hurt, or you feel empowered for the first time, if you have pledged your commitment to end systemic racism in our public schools and public institutions in the light of glaring reality, your journey will not be an easy one.
Welcome to white guilt. When you finally realize your part in the perpetuation of systemic racism, shame and guilt are mountains you aren’t prepared to climb. This is normal. So cry it out. Yell it out and be angry. But instead of choosing an avenue of virtue signaling i.e. posting hashtags and calling it day, process your emotions with other white people you know who have been doing the work for a while. The work in dismantling systemic racism. Read the books and process with these friends. There really is such a thing as white guilt. When we place our white guilt on our Friends of Color, we are compounding the pain many have felt for their whole lives along with the most recent tragedy of watching an innocent Black man, woman, or child die needlessly from police brutality and then never see justice.
Read the books. Watch the Netflix series. Allow your heart to be broken. Allow the scales to fall from your eyes. And when you feel broken, fill yourself up with actionable steps you can do every day: listen to your Friends of Color, examine your bias and fears that you have when you encounter disciplining your Students of Color or when you talk with their parents, listen to TED Talks, and truly reflect on exactly what your role has been in silencing others or where you have been wrong. Pledge and contribute to organizations designed to empower People of Color, such as the NAACP, join peaceful protests, and support Black-owned businesses. This kind of work won’t always be picture perfect for social media and it isn’t an easy fix if you have been silent about racism for years. But it is the beginning and it’s the first place you should start or nothing else really matters regarding your role in making changes to dismantle a society built on systemic racism. Google “systemic racism” if you aren’t sure what it is or means.
Talk with your children. Your children are probably very aware of what is going on if you have had the news on or if they have attended public school. They probably have heard the N-word and maybe have even used it. Ask for their thoughts and start the conversation. A great place to start with children is also to read and learn about the many People of Color who have helped our nation develop in innovation, medicine, the arts, and business. Starting the journey of becoming anti-racist starts in ourselves and our homes.
It’s challenging to know when to speak out and when to stay silent and both are necessary actions when showing solidarity to our friends. Sometimes our Friends of Color need us to use our white platforms to speak out. But other times, when they are speaking, we can use our platforms to amplify theirs. How will you know when to do either? When it’s not about you. There’s the pain of guilt you first feel when you finally see the discrimination our friends have dealt with for years. But that is different from the pain you feel when you see an innocent man or woman’s life snuffed out knowing their family has a lifetime of grief to follow. One source of pain is about you and the other is about someone you probably don’t know whose life was ended by murder. When you choose your words, if you do use your words, make it about them.
Embrace the awkward and uncomfortable feeling that you are doing this all wrong. If you are just beginning this journey, you probably are going about it all wrong. If you stop, it was all superficial, but if you continue to learn and do better, the proof of your commitment will show. You aren’t above a sincere apology when needed. You probably will have to be called in for saying or doing something insensitive. Your willingness to be humbled in this process is proof of your commitment.
This is not a feel-good journey. It’s painful and grievous. The ignorant bliss that kept you from seeing racial trauma is no more. Once you begin this journey, you will start looking at each of your life’s decisions through a lens of privilege afforded to you because you are the “right” color by White society’s standards. This doesn’t mean you won’t experience joy in this mission, but knowing the joy of your work will cost you.
The cost will be friends and family who feel unburdened to put you in your place without any respect. Some will accuse you of being offensive, call you a name, or label you unfairly. You may lose followers or people who you thought were your friends. The truth is that you cannot make the choice of learning to be anti-racist for them. The people who choose not to do this work are making a choice to stay ignorant in the face of undeniable truth of the injustice that People of Color have endured for hundreds of years. Your commitment will show when you keep going and keep learning despite their actions against you.
People who want to stay comfortable will often say that talking about race in America is what is dividing us, not the racist institutions that we are finally seeing for ourselves. That is a myth. If you can talk about it with others in a respectful way, you are doing something we’ve largely ignored for the last four hundred years. If we can’t talk about it, we can’t learn from each other. When your Friend of Color tells you about their life’s journey and discrimination as part of it, believe them. Don’t silence them by saying it can’t be true. It is true. Again, believe them. Let their words soak into your heart and mind and drive you to make changes in your unique circle of influence.
This change in your lifestyle, of being intentional to be anti-racist is going to feel very awkward and then even exhausting. As a white person, it is our privilege to have just begun or even enter this arena for the first time. We entered late. The fact that we are just now showing up is still very hurtful for our Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) friends. So the commitment we make needs to be filled with humility and knowledge that we were able to ignore their reality for too long. But don’t let that stop you. Talk with your supervisor about hiring more BIPOC. Support your local or state chapter of the National Alliance of Black School Educators (NABSE). Don’t be afraid to be the only white person in a setting. All of the discomfort you feel actually grows you in the process of becoming anti-racist.
Our platform isn’t for the haters. People will find reasons to cancel or hate us. People will try and shut you down for speaking out or advocating in protest. Our platform is for those who listen and learn from us. That’s why our silence is so deafening. When we refuse to acknowledge racism or racist behavior, those who learn from us think that is the way to approach it. If we want our children or students to grow up knowing better, they must see us taking action, first.
Whether you have been doing the work for equity in education and life for a long time, or you have just started, there truly is power in our voices when we come together. If you can help guide another, help them. It can be frustrating that others are just now-finally-seeing injustice, but nothing good comes from self-righteousness. Keeping others’ dignity intact, though it may seem hard, helps them to continue their commitment to see and end racism.
Lastly, we always have a choice. When we begin the work and commit to it, staying silent is no longer one of them. On this journey, we will be too much for some to hear and not enough for others. We will do and say too much so others will tune us out. Others will claim we are lukewarm and still not doing enough. It’s just how it goes. But remember, why did we embark on this journey? For praise or for change? If it’s for change, don’t stop. Don’t ever stop.
Melody McAllister is a mom of five, educator, blogger, and author. She and her family left the DFW area to live out a new adventure in Alaska! Melody has been a classroom teacher for mostly upper elementary but is now a home educator for her four oldest children.
Melody originally wrote the I’m Sorry Story to help her fifth graders understand how to take responsibility for hurtful words and make sincere amends with friends. Inclusivity is at the heart of the illustrations and font. It’s a great conversation starter and includes activities and questions as a follow up for teachers and parents. She loves visiting with classes and sharing her story for a read-aloud! This story is great for all ages! You can find it at bit.ly/imsorrystory.