Are We Tackling Race, Or is Race Tackling Me?

In the last three days, I forked over nearly $20 for chips and salsa at the overpriced market across the street from school without batting an eye, consumed half of that purchase before giving my dogs a half-a#@ed walk and throwing myself into bed, nearly the rest of the other half of the chips and salsa and a Grasshopper Sundae (size small, but that makes no difference at all) the following day, kept a 6:30 pm bedtime, and prayed to whoever runs the universe that tomorrow is a snow day.

My poor eating habits and sudden onset exhaustion are directly correlated to introducing issues of race in the classroom this week. Such an endeavor utterly wears me out–like so much so I will probably sleep all weekend to recover a bit of myself–and now, today, I realize why people just choose to avoid teaching race.

Cause to really do it, to go all in, particularly as a Black woman teaching mostly white kids, means I have to steel myself for the ignorance–because they really DO NOT know–while reminding myself not to react too viscerally (particularly hard today when one innocently remarked that he didn’t know why Black folks had problems with one picture of a lawn jockey that smacked of racist tropes) and to occupy the stance and the mantra: raise awareness, but don’t preach, as English educator Bruce Penniman suggested in his book.

Real talk. To even raise awareness is incredibly challenging, largely because if one is perpetually in the position of Colonizer, why should that person even care about the Colonized?!?

Therein comes the theory. Oh post colonial theory, you are both a conduit and a curse because when you give kids a different way to read a text and they start to think about what voices have been left out of the conversation and what that means?!? Get ready for the mishegas that follows. You can’t prepare yourself for it, actually. You will be bowled over (silently, of course, as you bite your lip to keep from reacting) at their comments about skin tone (and why and how people of color can be so many different…colors?!?), as they repeat the stereotypes as they try to present their views, as they make their classmates of color attempt to make the floor open up beneath their seats so they can stop having this conversation. You will step into the conversation gingerly, but confidently, as you give them the language to talk about what they’ve internalized for years and what they believe to be true. 

There’s a moment, sorta like in the Matrix, where I hear a bunch of students’ voices transposed over my own, another that’s not my own yelling you better right this ship, KP, and I step out of the room to gulp some air that feels incredibly stale and repeat 100 times, as fast as I can, itsworthititsworhtititsworthit.

I thank the universe again for a White male student teacher who isn’t afraid to speak truth and own his privilege and who spells me while I have a minor meltdown because this is so hard and why do I have to do this, all I wanted to do was give them a different lens for reading a text. I didn’t think THIS was going to open up so many doors that I knew were going to open but…all…on the same day?!

I’ve become increasingly more agile at talking about issues of power, race, privilege, equity with non-POC students, while positioning myself as a person who cares about my students and one who also considers it critically important that they understand–or at least wake up for a moment–why we live in a world that isn’t fair for everyone because others have particular rights and privileges that are unearned, closely protected, and unwilling to relinquish.

But all those thoughts go through my mind, as I stand in the hallway gulping (or am I gasping?) air, sipping water, getting myself together, reminding myself not to take it personally. Of course, I’m lying. I can’t help but take it personally. They are my students. On my watch. I have complete confidence that some of them might just run the world some day. I need to make sure they’re paying attention and actually doing some good in the world. 

This work with postcolonial lit theory is merely a crack in the door as we confront these big ideas and issues, and debate Okonkwo’s inflexibility, and question if Dolce and Gabbana bears any responsibility for sending their racist earrings down the spring 2012 runway. But I do know that they’re becoming more aware–and again, it’s incremental progress, but, in issues such as this, it’s best to take progress where one can find it–and questioning what single story/master narrative it is that they’ve been consuming for years and why we need counternarratives. 

I did sit at my desk for a good thirty minutes after my last writing conference today:  immobilized because it takes so much out of me mentally to talk about these issues. I do know that if more of us were talking about this stuff, then I could share the load and not feel so wrung out at the sheer amount of work required simply to raise awareness. I cannot even begin to fathom, at this moment, the next necessary steps that will help them continue making connections between these ideas and texts and what’s to come.

There it is. I used to be so skeptical–disbelieving is probably a better word–when people would tell me that they didn’t really “teach race” in their classrooms, thinking that they didn’t do it because they didn’t want to do it. I think, now, that there’s some truth in that. How do you initiate these conversations knowing that they will require far more of you as a teacher than drafting an essay assignment? That you’re going to probably feel wiped out as a result of those conversations for at least the next week? That you’re going to replay myriad comments and interactions for weeks to come? 

It can wear you out. It’s certainly worn me out.

 

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