I often ask myself the question that seems to permeate every part of my pedagogy in American public education: who is this for? It's simple at the outset, but, when answering it, I find myself at an intersection of American pathology that is fraught with complications and, more importantly, American history. I'm native to a complicated membership of a working class that's known both desperate levels of poverty as well as upper education struggling within the middle class. Living there, then, means that while I'm able to go to the grocery store and purchase whatever I want there is a lingering and aching part of me that remembers saving pennies found in the couches of my friends so that I could make the ends meet.
All of that is seen through the lens of a person who also critically recognizes race. It is not a popular place to be, but I'm comfortable there now.
Last week I took part in an important conversation not just in my city but within the confines of the school district for which I work. It's crucial to note that it wasn't an accident. I might go so far as to admit that I lobbied for this, both in my writing and the important work of institutionalized racism. The topical racism which has become a momentous conversation in the United States scratches the surface of what we're truly built on, but it seems that if one permits entry into that discussion one is, somehow, less patriotic.
I call shenanigans on that.
The seminar, put on by CrossRoads Antiracism Organizing & Training, put things into perspective for me and other participants in a way I have never before experienced at a conference. That was, of course, the point. Led by Robette Dias (a member of the Karuk Indian Tribe in California) we went through a number of activities that helped us see America as she truly is: an Apartheid nation built with a framework of a European Colonialism power structure that never lets us forget who wants the power and what lengths they're willing to go through to keep it.
That's a strong sentence, I know. But, if we're going to talk about institutional racism we have to remember that racism is the enemy and the enemy uses pawns to complete the work.
One of the tools used by CrossRoads is to create an unabridged version of American history in an exercise called The Wall of History. Four large sections of wall were used by the audience to note the building of our nation from the knowledge of the participants. We didn't use our smart phones or Google to come up with what we've learned but rather worked together to create a comprehensive list of our knowledge of the past. It helps, therefore, to have educated people in the room with you. For example, when asked about the year that the first enslaved African was kidnapped and brought to the shores of this country, I was grateful that Kathryn Harris (whom I have written about before here and here) was sitting at my table. She's an African-American research librarian who has just retired from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library. (As luck would have it, she and I keep running into one another since then.)
"1619," she shouted out through the silence of the room. No one else knew that answer off the top of their heads when Robette asked the question.
Robette reminded us of the name of the ship that brought him here: Jesus. And, I thought, "Jesus. Really?" (Named both The Good Ship Jesus and Jesus of Lubeck.)
The 4 quadrants were broken down into categories so we didn't fit too much on each wall. The top portion was for us to name racism/racist practices and laws that helped build this nation. On the bottom, we later put resistance to racism. If you don't think American nation building is important or why there's such resistance to teaching history then look no further at why libraries were the first things to be burned down when a conquering culture tried to take over.
1492-1790 European Colonialism and U.S. Nation Building
1790-1954 U.S. Apartheid, Colonialism and Neo-Colonialism
1954-1973 Movement Time
1973-present Criminalization, Racist Multiculturalism, Color Blindness, "Post-Racial"
I should stop to mention that there were multiple institutions in that room. Education (both public and parochial), media, a medical school contingency, a local public university, and city organizers. It was hosted by the Springfield Coalition on Dismantling Racism (SCoDR) in the Sacred Heart Convent and one of the Dominican Sisters, Sister Marcelline, has pushed for this work for years.
In a sincere moment, I pulled Sister Marcelline aside and asked, "Why do you do this work? I mean, why is antiracism so important to you?" and she promptly answered, "Because, as a Sister, I'm involved with social justice." She actually continued on for quite a bit detailing the work that's important to her as a follower of Jesus and I told her that she could have left it at that one sentence and I would have understood.
Back in January, my father saved an article from our local independent newspaper, Illinois Times, because he wanted me to read about the work the church is doing (he's a die-hard Catholic who found a church quickly once he moved here) and he asked me if I knew some of the people mentioned in the article. I hadn't, but I got to meet them during this 3-day training.
Doing the work of anti-racism is where I am right now. For the last 10 years of writing online my writing has morphed into doing this work and not just the calling out of racism. This work, institutional work, is where we break down the barriers that intersect race and gender and class. It's not binary work, either, as discussions and caucuses moved us into groups of White/European and People of Color. Robette, being a Native American, got us to think about this country as a practice/culture of Apartheid but she also mentioned that the colonialism for Natives still hasn't ended.
"They still haven't left," she said dryly during our discussion. It was a salient argument in a sobering moment.
When people ask me what they can do, and those questions come with more frequency than ever before, this is what I want to tell them to do. Get your organization or institution this training. Get your politicians to look at our history and how we continue to perpetuate racism as policy in this country so we can have honest conversations about change. Get to de-constructing this national practice so we can move forward.
Honestly, we can't do it without this framework.
Image credit to Vicki Davis