How Does White Supremacy Survive An Education?

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Soon after he was identified, accused domestic terrorist James Alex Fields Jr.’s early Nazi sympathies were made public by his high school history teacher, Derek Weimer. If educators in this country ― particularly white educators, of which I am one ― weren’t already thinking about Fields’ school experience, that did it.

I am certain that Weimer did everything he could to teach history well, including teaching histories of genocide in such a way that his students wouldn’t feel a sense of kinship with the perpetrators. But given Fields’ radicalization, given that he is not at all alone, and given that so many white liberals have seized on the superficially defiant but ultimately self-soothing hashtag #ThisIsNotUs, we have to conclude that white supremacy survives the education we offer. Weimar says as much: “This was something that was growing in him. I admit I failed. I tried my best.”

I assume we — meaning white educators who acknowledge our country’s origins in and consistent history of racial violence — are all trying our best. And, “our best” suffers from our confusion about how to approach the enormity of the problem. We know that “white supremacy” means both the explicitly racist beliefs of someone like Fields, which we think maybe could be taught away, and the very fabric of our society. We may have a sense that “hearts and minds” work doesn’t work; we may be convinced that only systems-level solutions can begin to solve this systems-level problem, and, not being legislators, feel that all we can really do is vote and call our representatives on every lunch break.

As far as those options go, we are likely right about our inefficacy, and that is demoralizing as hell. But those aren’t our only possibilities for influence.

In a recent twitter thread, Gene Demby of NPR’s Code Switch put this beautifully, grounded in a different context: the dinner table. He acknowledges that we aren’t going to suddenly convince our racist uncle of the inherently equal worth of all people, but we can make it unacceptable for him to spout his bullshit. He says that this, over and over again, with everyone’s racist uncles―and more importantly, in the presence of our nieces and nephews― is what makes explicit racism socially unacceptable, which makes space for people of color to live their lives in public, and that does matter. It isn’t about hearts and minds, but norms and power.

As white educators, we can do something about norms and power. Our schools and classrooms, like the nation’s dinner tables, are mini moral worlds over which we exercise major—not omnipotent, but major—influence. We construct and uphold the default discourse of these spaces. In talking with fellow educators, including white ones desperate to do better, a few practices emerged as being in urgent need of our attention and commitment.

1. Refusing to hold the a**holes of history to the assumed standards of their time:

When we present colonizers, enslavers, and segregationists as people who were simply misguided by the times in which they lived, we feed our current “but, both sides!” discourse problem. “That’s just what they believed” is infinitely extendible, and deeply harmful when the beliefs in question go unexamined. Can we literally teach Karl Popper’s resolution to the Paradox of Tolerance and John Rawl’s similar conclusions—roughly that an otherwise tolerant society has a duty to be intolerant of intolerance, in order to preserve itself? Possibly not. But we can teach students that anyone who argues, in any era, that those different from them should have fewer rights is straight-up wrong. We can reject the canonization of “belief” and help our students distinguish between beliefs like “all people have inherent worth and deserve protection from violence” and “some people are worth less, and may be harmed with impunity.”

2. Ditching the meritocracy myth:

Recent surveys indicate that white evangelical Christians are more likely than others to blame poverty on the poor themselves. It’s easy to feel disgusted by that on its face, but something similar lives in many of us raised in Protestant-ethic-infused capitalism. We love to ascribe an individual’s misfortune to their own actions, because then we can feel impervious to similar misfortune. We’ll just do it better, and that bad thing won’t happen! But the logical extension is that entire groups of people who are born into the world on ostensibly equal footing (discounting epigenetics, which we really shouldn’t) but who end up with remarkably poorer outcomes from our systems are to blame for those outcomes. Given that Black and Latinx people in particular experience just such poorer outcomes, this narrative entails that they deserve them. That conclusion, and ahistorical ideas like the “Lost Cause” myth, which the United Daughters of the Confederacy worked tirelessly to get into textbooks, are foundational to white supremacy. Except in explicitly racist speech, this all flies pretty well under conscious radar, but it’s there, it’s pernicious, and it’s keeping our country dangerous for huge segments of its population. If we tell kids that everyone in the US has an equal shot at success, and they look around at who is “successful,” they will draw the conclusions white supremacists want them to. A precursor to ditching this myth is developing our own understanding of how disparate outcomes result from policy decisions, not biology or culture (for example, disparate intergenerational wealth transfer as a result of federal housing policy), so we can start there.

3. Examining our own policies:

We tend to think white supremacy happens elsewhere. How critical are we about what our own schools are doing? Policies on dress codes, tardies, and lunch procedures make big differences in kids’ experience of school and how they thrive (or not). Research by Camille Farrington on academic mindsets has demonstrated the importance of a sense of belonging to student achievement; how kids feel about where they learn matters in how well they learn. Critically examining our own policies hinges on our ability to acknowledge that white supremacy isn’t something that other people do, that just happens in the South, etc, so countenancing and countering our own regionalism may be a necessary first step.

4. Contextualizing test scores and “grade level” benchmarks:

Our dependence on standardized tests and presumption that they somehow alone in American culture are free from racial bias is a major contributor to what many persist in calling the “achievement gap” despite its racist overtones (see also Asa Hilliard’s work, among others). In my experience, many teachers simultaneously are able to see their individual students as whole beings (not just the test scores they arrive with) AND are quick to make generalizations about “my high kids” or “my low kids” based on those scores plus the teachers’ observations of how well the students perform on the work the teacher assigns. Given that those scores are tainted by our racist systems, and that the assigned work itself may be, and that we know the impact of low expectations, this mindset can cause direct harm to our students.

This list is not exhaustive, and as a white person raised in a white supremacist country, I am 100% sure I have missed multiple important boats. I hope that my colleagues will help me see where I have fallen short, now and always. People of color have said over and over again: “Get your people.” White people don’t do it, because it’s so uncomfortable. Roxane Gay recently wrote: “a white newscaster cries because talking about race makes her uncomfortable because discomfort is most likely the worst thing she can imagine.” White educators are particularly hamstrung by having been raised in white supremacy and having a job that comes with a presumption of expertise—a presumption we may internalize and adopt about ourselves, to the detriment of our ability to unlearn what we’ve been taught about history, meritocracy, and ourselves. I don’t know whether Charlottesville will improve our imagination, or spur us to finally collect our people. I do know that as a white educator I have power, and I am committed to using it toward collective liberation. May white supremacy not survive us this time.

Thank to Janine Gomez, Jean-Jacques Credi, Becky Martinez, Erin Blakemore, Caitlin McKenzie, Meg Riordan, Wanda McClure, Myra Brooks, Katie Washburn, Minna Scholten, Cheryl Dobbertin, and Ryan Maxwell.

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