I had an excellent day at the 2018 AISNE Diversity Conference. I attended:
- Opening Keynote: “Understanding & Dismantling Privilege: The Importance of Disrupting White Silence, by Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility
- Workshop I: “Transgender Student, Faculty, and Family Experiences,” a panel facilitated by Alex Myers
- Student Panel: “Be Inspired: Student Voices, facilitated by Erica Ramirez
- Workshop II: “Using Oppressed Identities to Face White Privilege," with Robin Di Angelo
- Closing Keynote: “Beyond Tolerance: LGBTIQAP Students and the Need for Loving Policies & Practices,” by Darnell Moore, author of No Ashes in the Fire
I also had a great lunch with Dave Pillsbury P.24 and his colleagues from Northfield-Mount Hermon, and nice chats with a number of other people I knew from previous workshops and conferences.
In opening the conference, Claire Leheny, the Executive Director of AISNE, set the tone by noting, “The work we’re doing today is urgent. Fiercely urgent.”
Systemic racism is collective racial prejudice backed by legal authority and institutional control. It becomes embedded in media, family, etc. It is a system, not an event. We are taught that a racist is someone who does not like people based on race, knows this, and is intentionally mean to them. This excludes and thus excuses all of us who may not fit that definition but have nonetheless been infused with systemic racism.
Because we bring our histories with us. Our personalities were developed within a framework of white supremacy. And in accepting the reality of the existence and effects of systemic racism, we can both shed massive fear and guilt and actually learn and move forward.
We can refocus on *how* things happen rather than just the what.
Workshop I: Transgender Experiences
Fundamentally, trans kids just want to be kids, and supportive adults including parents and teachers just want that to happen for them. Like all kids, trans kids each have their own life experience; each one is special and unique. Different kids will want to be out - or not - in different spaces, and we need to ensure we understand and comply with their wishes. We also need to understand our legal obligations. Individual teachers and collective schools need to take responsibility to educate ourselves, be it through in-service training or other means. In the process, we should include parents of trans kids but not rely on them.
To create a supportive environment, we can and must provide safe spaces. Visible signs of support help, but we need to back that up with specific actions. Providing all-gender bathrooms is fundamental, as is ensuring the curriculum and library are inclusive. Health courses in particular are a chance for all kids to learn about the spectrums of gender and sexuality. Affinity groups are super important.
Also important is sensitivity to language, pronouns and preferred names specifically, and more generally, avoiding speaking in binary terms. We can be thinking how to refer to ourselves as a school. Panelists suggested, in response to an audience question on the topic, either “A school for people who aren’t boys” or “A historically girls school.” (Personally, I’ve been referring to us as “a girls school that also includes non-binary kids who were assigned female at birth,” but I’ll concede that’s a bit long and not that catchy.)
Feeling safe in school begins by building relationships, and even just hanging out and talking about one’s pets can be a first step. Students seek out adults who really listen, non-judgmentally, and who can maintain confidentiality. Teachers also need to be willing to confront situations and not just leave it up to the kids; in so doing, we can remember our discomfort is generally temporary but kids may be forced to lean into their own discomfort every day. Students believe that, sometimes, it’s best to take it to a teacher, and we need to be ready.
Sometimes, there can be a gap between students and adults. Having a Diversity-Equity-Inclusion committee (as our school is in the process of creating) is one way to close that gap. Adults need to remember that, when you’re in a small environment and are alone in your identity, you’re constantly seen as either an exemplar or a threat. Some kids may in fact feel constantly uncomfortable. Kids often appreciate when teachers leave them space but also don’t single them out. No one wants to feel they represent an entire group (race, religion, etc.), but neither do they always want people to speak for them.
Fundamentally, they just want to be seen and loved for exactly who they are.
Workshop II: Oppressed Identities and White Privilege
Because it’s infused so deeply into our beings, it’s hard, maybe even impossible, for whites to avoid committing acts of racism or microaggressions. When we do, we can follow this process that Robin DiAngelo laid out:
- Rely on other white people you can trust to pre-process so you don’t place that burden on the marginalized person. Seek loving accountability.
- Contact the person you oppressed and request permission to try and repair it.
- Show your understanding of why that was wrong. Listen carefully to any feedback you are given. Apologize. Minimize focus on intent and focus on impact. Ask what you missed. And listen.
- Ask what else needs to happen moving forward.
Often, white people with other historically marginalized identities (gender, religion, etc.) have a hard time acknowledging white privilege. But those identities can also offer a way in rather than a way out. When witnessing racism, we can turn to the feelings we had when subjected to (sexism, religious prejudice, etc.) and use that to ground ourselves in how people of colour might be feeling.
We may not solve racism in our lifetimes, or ever. But we can do better and that is not a small thing
Queerness is magic. Imagine what sort of magic, courage, power it takes a kid to defy the rules you’re expected to follow, to get back up every day and love the self. But also, we need to be willing to ask ourselves, “In what ways have we ever been positioned to rid someone of their magic?” - through silence, unthinking words, oppressive systems of thought.
Too often, “diversity” and “inclusion” are little more than catchphrases. It is possible to live in spaces where, on the surface, things look really good. But cosmetic changes can in no way change the practices, the matters of the heart, that truly shape our learning cultures. We don’t need cheap love, empty love.
Real love means we tell the truth and don’t lie. We have to take on the truth, the challenge, of making ourselves better. Real love requires a commitment to justice, to truth. It demands a commitment to removing every barrier. A practice of invitation and grace is a tool we can all put to work.
When we return to our schools, what are we prepared to lose to enable our kids to be their authentic best selves?
“How can you be an educator and ever feel it’s okay to give up?