We ask that you post an initial response to one or more of these questions from October 1st-October 15th, 2018. Then, please respond to at least two posts to generate dialogues across contexts and experience. The dialogue period will be from October 15th-October 26th, 2018.
—Recommended reading and videos: (We recommend reading this article, or selections from it, and watching the two videos before participating in the dialogue.)
Video one: Sealey-Ruiz, Y. (2017). Teacher as interrupter. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n6n8kuRE9dU
What it takes to be racially literate. Priya Vulchi and Winona Guo Tedwomen 2017. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/priya_vulchi_and_winona_guo_what_it_takes_to_be_racially_literate#t-278569
Vetter, A., & Hungerford-Kressor, H. (2014). ―We gotta change first‖: Racial literacy in a high school English classroom. Journal of Language and Literacy Education [Online], 10(1), 82-99. Retrieved from http://jolle.coe.uga.edu.
You are invited to respond to one or more of these questions. (To post, please log in using a Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, or WordPress account.) Please feel free to share experiences, dilemmas, questions, or information about particular contexts of teaching and learning (e.g., where you student teach, teach, study, or participant observe) as you explore what issues of equity or justice look like in a particular domain for a particular person or group of people. You may also feel free to recommend or cite texts (e.g., articles, books, films) that may be of interest to others on a thread.
What is racial literacy? How did students enact racial literacy within Gina’s classroom? What challenges did students encounter?
As a future or current teacher, how would you describe your own racial literacy? How might you help students practice racial literacy in your own classroom? How might you deal with challenges that you are likely to face?
How do the recent high school grads in the TedX talk engage racial literacy? Do you agree that racial literacy should be taught in high school? If so, how might you begin/continue this work?
Do you agree with the framing of “teacher as interrupter”? If so, how might raising sociopolitical consciousness relate to racial literacy and your teaching/learning practice?
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Racial literacy develops from a deep understanding of race as it relates to an individual’s social, cultural, and political experiences (Vetter & Hungerford-Kressor, 2018). Generally speaking, racial literacy is fostered through exposure to and critical analysis of multiple perspectives as they relate to race. However, with the way that our mainstream educational system is currently structured, the sources that we learn from (i.e. textbooks, social media, teachers) rarely challenge students to consider perspectives that differ from the dominant one. For this reason, many individuals coast through life unaware that they are in fact racially illiterate. Pairing this illiteracy with the lack of empathy that is so prevalent in our society today and this lack of racial literacy is reproduced and reinforced generation after generation.
Educators possess a unique opportunity to counteract the continuation of racial illiteracy within our society by taking on the role of “teacher as interrupter” as discussed by Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz. This role involves challenging students to think about their own positionality as well as their views on ideas like race, class and gender in an effort to foster personal reflection and discovery. Sealey-Ruiz touches on the sense of arrogance tied to claiming to “have educated” another individual. This relates to a key idea from Christopher Emdin’s (2016) For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Ya’ll Too, which discusses the notion of reality pedagogy and urban education. Emdin questions, “What new lenses or frameworks can we use to bring white folks who teach in the hood to consider that urban education is more complex than saving students and being a hero?” (7). There is a tendency for educators teaching in urban communities to develop an incredibly problematic savior complex—the idea that one educator or school system can give students “a life” (i.e. a life featuring values established by stakeholders and not by the individual student). This concept leads to students feeling that their individual experiences, their feelings and emotions, and the positives that they see within their community do not matter (20).
Another skill that educators must possess in the classroom, as recognized by Emdin, is the ability to code-switch. Code-switching “focuses on where and how a speaker alternates between two or more languages or dialects in the context of a conversation or interaction” (175). This skill is incredibly advantageous, particularly for teachers with drastically different cultural backgrounds and experiences to their students. Emdin points out that the process “…involves valuing oneself and one’s culture while appreciating and understanding the codes of other cultures” (178). This idea relates back to Sealey-Ruiz’s emphasis on reflecting upon one’s own positionality as one learns about the diverse cultures that exist within our school system in order to develop a perspective that strays away from othering students in urban settings.
Both the ideas of the role of “teacher as interrupter” and code-switching appear within the journal by Vetter & Hungerford-Kressor (2014), where a teacher, Gina, develops an assignment surrounding the discussion of race in her 11th grade Language Arts class. Gina’s class consisted of students from a range of ethnic backgrounds (majority African American and Latino) as well as a handful of students speaking English as a second language. Due to the particularly diverse nature of Gina’s classroom, code-switching is a key skill for Gina to practice in order to connect all students with lessons in a culturally responsive way. Within her classroom, Gina also took on this challenge of “interrupting the status quo” that exists within her school site. Gina utilized the Students Partnering for Undergraduate Rhetoric Success (SPURS) Program, allowing her students to write a proposal argument surrounding something they wanted to change within their school or community. This proposal was then presented to university level students and professors for feedback. The students were challenged to think critically about concepts ranging from the importance of gaining multiple perspectives, to awareness of positioning, to the development of problem-solving strategies within a specific environment (Vetter & Hungerford-Kressor, 2018). All of these are examples of racial literacy practices and should be acknowledged as such. And although many of these strategies manifested themselves in Gina’s students in small ways, recognizing the emergence and development of racial literacy techniques within students is crucial for a teacher taking on the role of interrupter in order to validate progress of any magnitude.
Emdin, C. (2016). For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education. Beacon Press.
Sealey-Ruiz, Y. (2017). Teacher as interrupter. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n6n8kuRE9dU
Vetter, A., & Hungerford-Kressor, H. (2014). “We gotta change first”: Racial literacy in a high school English classroom. Journal of Language and Literacy Education [Online], 10(1), 82-99. Retrieved from http://jolle.coe.uga.edu.
The question of how I would define my personal racial literacy as an incoming teacher is a difficult one for me. In a word, I would describe my understanding of racial literacy as growing. While I have engaged with various texts, conversations, videos, and more about racial literacy in college, my K-12 education never exposed me to it. As a result, the very concept of racial literacy is sometimes very new to me—especially when considering racial literacy occurring in a K-12 classroom.
I grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood and thus attended a predominantly white high school. Race was talked about in History classes, but never beyond that. My teachers never exposed us to racial literacy—in fact, our teachers really did not expose us to a lot of cultural literacy (at least significantly less than I hope to include in my future classroom). It was not until I came to college that recognizing racial literacy and even exploring racial literacy became real to me.
Recently, I read an article (Bisonette & Glazier 2016) that discussed the nature of cultural representation (or lack thereof) in secondary-education English classes, particularly concerning the British cannon, which is traditionally taught. This article explained how “students belonging to historically marginalized populations frequently take issue with the exclusionary qualities of the British canon” (685). What is interesting about this, for me, is that perspective never really crossed my mind in high school—which is astonishing to me now. No one ever talked about the literature we read being written by “old white guys,” as it is (comically, though truthfully) described by many. I accepted Shakespeare as one of the history’s greatest writers—but I was never given the opportunity to appreciate writers like Toni Morrison (who is one of my favorite authors now) until I was in an A.P. English Literature class my senior year of high school. That was the first time I really engaged critically with a text written by an African-American author, discussing race. That was the first time. I was seventeen.
The lack of emphasis on racial literacy—or cultural literacy, for that matter—is what first and foremost needs to change. Depending on where I teach as a future English teacher, simply introducing the concept may be the first step to helping students practice racial literacy. Having conversations about race, discussing how it is referred, and what that looks like in the literary world are all first steps I hope to enact. I fear my lack of experience—my lack of really witnessing this ever in the classroom—will hinder my ability to do this effectively. However, I understand that in many cases, if one teacher doesn’t expose students to this notion, it’s possible no one ever will.
Bissonnette, J. D., & Glazier, J. (2016). A Counterstory of One’s Own: Using Counterstorytelling to Engage Students With the British Canon. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, (6), 685.
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I really appreciated what you wrote! I too was never exposed to racial literacy, despite growing up in a predominately Hispanic area. This honestly amazes me because of my hometown. White is one of the larger races in my hometown as well but despite that, we should have been discussing the other races that were in our town. I remember doing a show in third grade that had songs about how we were founded. It talked about John Marsh buying land off of a Hispanic group and built our town shortly after. We should have been talking about that in class and going into history and literature surrounding Latinx culture. Instead as sang some songs and called it good.
Similar to you, I was never exposed to other types of authors until I was in AP English my senior year. I think by default we except William Shakespeare as THE English writer without looking into others. Tell me how reading stories by the same white author is going to culture me and prepare me for the “real world”. The real world isn’t white. It has so many different colors, shapes, and sizes, and it is learning those differences that will ACTUALLY prepare me for the real world. Even more, college was where we finally started having these types of conversations. I don’t understand how we can go to classrooms and not bring racial literacy into it because it is so important to realize how much of an impact it has on our history, our education, and just our world. We need to be celebrating and trying to gain an understanding of the people in our world in order to survive and prosper in it.
While I was fortunate enough to be educated in a diverse environment, this is simply not enough to be considered racially literate. I believe that entering into dialogue about race in any environment requires humility, open-minded, and the ability to choose your words carefully (not only so as to not be offensive, but to understand that words have power., so we should choose language with the intention of clarity of meaning). I also believe that while Shakespeare is the “norm”, he remains so because his texts are full of the same questions that we are still talking about today. They remain popular because they are still relevant.
I can relate to you in terms of knowing close to nothing about racial literacy back in high school. My majority of my high school was Asian, and the remainder was white. I was not exposed to many cultures whatsover, and the school never brought up anything about race. Just like you, we read literature written by “old white guys,” and although there were themes of color and race, it was usually only briefly touched upon, before turning to a more general and easily discussed theme. It wasn’t until I came to Chapman that I was realized that I was enclosed in a little cultural bubble. Taking classes such as Social Construction of Difference and even this current class has really helped challenge my views and has taught me about racial literacy. Although I have a long way to go, I definitely hope I can provide the environment for my students to promote racial literacy. I agree with you that the lack of emphasis on racial literacy needs to change, and that even having things as simple as conversations can be a great first step in making these changes. Great work!
My racial literacy is one built on years of stigma and stereotypes, ones that I’m not proud of and took years for me to acknowledge that they existed. I often use my liberal political ideologies as a shield for any attack on my own racial beliefs, yet those stereotypes dug deep inside me from an early age, and to this day I work tirelessly to rip them from their roots. I’m one of the lucky ones though, as my inability to take myself seriously gave me a path to look inward with a critical lense without immediately turning defensive. What I mean when I say a lucky one is that who I am and where I am from are areas that do not garnish the spotlight in educational academia. I did not go to an impoverished school or grow up with a family needing financial assistance or experience institutional oppression: in fact just the opposite. I grew up a straight, white, cisgender male in the uber-wealthy East Bay Area, in an extremely high-achieving high school with very little diversity. For the purposes of this conversation, however, what best characterizes these areas is the complete isolation from issues of race and class, and in my case having an entire hillside to separate us from those issues. It is in these areas, in schools where students are shielded from hard truths about what it means to be marginalized or living in impoverished communities that don’t have access to the same resources we did. It’s in this world, one that makes Chapman look diverse (in fact I only had 2 or 3 non-white teachers before enrolling at Chapman), where horrible ideologies are spread from parent to child and friend to friend, with very little to contradict them or push back. I’ve experienced this exchange first hand, and am ashamed to say that I was an active participant for much of my childhood. Only through discussions of race, class, identity, and privilege with people of different backgrounds did I learn that it is wrong to think that most Mexican people are lazy or that Black people can be quantified by the few rap songs I heard. But more importantly, through those discussions I learned that changing my own mind wouldn’t solve anything if I remained a passive bystander to those still spreading that kind of message. I strongly believe that I am not a solitary case of this, and even more so that discussions like these can reverse the flow of these ideas and create a more welcoming world for future generations.
I admire the talented teachers and researchers who go into urban schools to shine a light on the issues that plague them, from their lack of resources to the plight of students from marginalized communities, and seek to reverse these bad trends and give these schools and these students the help and instruction to help them help themselves. But it’s my opinion that effort and resources into researching and teaching racial literacy, or multicultural education to be broader, need to also be devoted to areas of extreme privilege. It’s in these areas where discussions like those described by Vetter & Hungerford-Kressor (2014) are needed because these students will rarely ever be confronted with those problems any other way. Winoa Guo said this best in “What it takes to be racially literate” by pointing out that the problem isn’t the inability to have a discussion about racism, it’s that many people don’t understand that racism and its effects exist at all. I grew up thinking that saying the N-word was fine as long as you didn’t say it loud enough for an adult to hear, rationally understanding the genesis of the word yet coming nowhere close to understanding the momentous effect that word has and how using it only strengthens its discriminatory power. I grew up being told that bordering lower-income areas were dangerous and “trashy” places, not realizing that my mind was making a connection between those adjectives and the large Mexican population that lived there. There was no one to shield me from this, and very little was done to give us a broader perspective of realities unlike our own other than cosmetic events like “International Week” (which got shifted to International Day over time). Yet, like Terrell said in Vetter & Hungerford-Kressor’s (2014) piece, events like these do nothing because most go back to what they were doing after the event, if they go at all. Again I argue that I am far from the only person that experienced this and that those like me will only change their minds about this when they are confronted with how these thoughts fester and grow within one’s self and deeply affect how these communities are seen and treated.
To do this, educators have to become the interrupters Dr. Sealy-Ruiz talks about, by asking students of privilege what they think and challenging them, not once but continually, to question why they think what they think and who is affected by that. Educators have to show these students not just large statistics but personal accounts, accounts of a girl from Pittsburgh having an identity crisis because she discovered that her own name not her own but that of her family’s ancestral owners or a man in Seattle trying to raise a child while his father is wrongly incarcerated. For me, a future Social Studies teacher, I want to expose these students to different histories that give light to the struggles of minorities and the working class, to the emerging LGBTQ community and the women fighting for equality. Of course, challenges will face me, many of which will be pointed at me trying to make white students feel guilty for their own identity. My goal is to not make the class a lesson in how many different ways the white man committed atrocities in history, but to show these students that while we as white people can’t be blamed for the sins of our ancestors, it is our responsibility to interrupt and reverse these trends so that we can make a better future for those our ancestors shunted to the side for their own betterment. In short, while I recognize the imperative of empowerment for historically marginalized communities, I believe that we also need to make allies of those communities as well, so we can all get better together.
I value your reflection about how you still struggle to come to grips with you lack of racial literacy from your childhood. It is not easy to admit past mistakes. I am glad that you have grown from those experiences and acknowledge your privilege so that you can rectify socially constructed racial issues. I also liked how you reflect on the environment in which you grew up with, describing it as something completely isolated from “issues of race and class.” You perfectly explain the idea of social reproduction, where people isolate themselves from hard truths and thus reproduce the cycle of privilege and oppression. I am glad that your education at Chapman has taught you about reading the world through a different lens that has provided you with more racial literacy. I absolutely love the point that you make about how racial literacy should be implemented in places similar to the one you lived in. People from these environments tend to abject lower-class citizens who are often targets of racial oppression. This is because they never had the conversations that explained how these systems of race and class work. This is so important to bring into a history classroom as you have so much content that can display how racial oppression in the past has caused racial divides in our present. I like how you phrased how it is our responsibility to interrupt and reverse devastating trends. Our first step is to know our privilege and to act upon that knowledge. This was such a thoughtful response. You’re going to make a great social studies teacher one day!
Thank you so much for sharing candidly about navigating racial literacy and harmful ideology that has been conditioned within you and your community. I can resonate with this because I also went to a high school in a very privileged area, and constructs of race and identity were not discussed as prominently as they should have been. While I did not grow up in this area prior to high school education– meaning I was more aware of how this extreme wealth made this community look and operate differently than other placed I had lived– I still did not have the words to articulate how such privilege had affected my peers and myself. Only when I got to college and experienced a broader socio-political climate in education did I find the words to navigate my feelings about the inequality that took place in this area. What you have to say about teachers being interrupters not just for marginalized populations, but also for those who abuse their privileges by simply not knowing they exist, is so important. Educators must also interrupt the narrative that white cis Americans have ceased affecting the world racially. They are part of the systemic hierarchy they benefit from. I can only hope that more people from communities like ours see racial literacy as a life-long endeavor, and in future classrooms, will strive to interrupt harmful discourses with that literacy in privileged spaces.
On the surface, “racial literacy” embodies the communication and comprehension of discourses that revolve around the complexities of race. Vetter and Hungerford-Kressor’s article, relaying the process and outcomes of their qualitative study of student dialogues, discusses how this form of literacy should engage students and help them develop ways to “think about the social, cultural, and political aspects of their experiences, with a focus on race” (2014, p. 83). Adding racial understanding into our literacy toolkits will allow educators and students alike to productively facilitate in discussions about racial inequities and to create opportunities for finding solutions to these societal issues.
The study observed Gina’s classroom while the class participated in a project; the objective of the project was for the class to define an issue and propose a potential solution (p. 86). Looking specifically at selected students, the researchers noticed how racial literacy was enacted during the project. For instance, Keisha showed interest in understanding “multiple perspectives” for the project by seeking out views from the non-Black community in the school, particularly students who represent the Latinx community (p. 91). Terrell expressed the difficulty of uncovering how to make people comfortable when talking about racial experiences (p. 95). The students realized that there is a hegemony of racial mistrust in their community and that the best way to seek a resolution is to have continued discussions with their school community; this is an aspect of racial literacy because it seeks to engage all members of the community who represent diverse, intersecting racial perspectives (p. 96). An initial challenge in this project was opening up these discussions. Gina had a difficult time initiating the conversations about race as she was afraid of students making biased comments (p. 97). Many educators may face this challenge in order to keep a peaceful classroom environment. However, this act does not do anything to challenge the status quo that transcribes to racial issues in society.
After reading Vetter and Hungerford-Kressor’s article, I started to think about my own racial literacy practices. As a student in a 4+1 Masters & Credential Program studying Education and English, I have had to delve into the issues of race in the classroom and in literature. One of the first courses I took as an undergraduate was about understanding difference in society, honing in on the systematic concepts of privilege and oppression and how these forces are enacted within our everyday lives. From there, I discovered new ways of reading the world around me through several literary texts and theoretical lenses. Although I have confidence in reading with Critical Race Theory in mind, as a white woman, I know that I have more to learn about how my privileges affect others around me. I still worry that I will not be fully mindful in my future classroom. One way that I would likely be able to incorporate racial literacy practice into my future high school English classroom would be to provide counter-narratives to the traditional canonical texts. This is based on Bissonnette and Glazier’s work, “A Counterstory of One’s Own: Using Counterstorytelling to Engage Students with the British Canon.” Essentially, by providing texts that discuss and curb the power of texts crafted towards a white, male-dominated, audience, students are able to see true representations of race. This can also open up dialogue about current racial issues. Like how Gina felt in Vetter and Hungerford-Kressor’s study, starting these conversations can be awkward. But, I believe that in order to interrupt the status quo, teachers must be willing to begin talking about the realities of race.
The TedX video demonstrates how productive conversations about race in high school can promote cultural awareness and appreciation. Priya and Winona discuss how racial literacy standards are currently at a low point in public schools. “Race” is almost glossed over and “racism” is depicted as something of the past instead of a long-lasting ideology that has shaped current socioeconomic divisions. They express how not having proper discussions of race can dehumanize experiences of oppressed racial communities and appropriate bias. I fully agree with these two young women; schools do need to elevate racial literacy standards. As they elaborated, ways in which we can include discussions of race is by listening to the stories of diverse people who represent realities that are oftentimes overlooked. Instead of teaching basic histories of African Americans, Native Americans, Asian American, etc., we should explore the stories of their current realities to see how those histories have framed current racial divisions. This can be done with counterstories, as I stated before; but, this can also be done by including the literacy practices of other races. For instance, spoken word poetry can be brought into the classroom. This creative platform can allow students to include their form of language to illustrate their harsh realities. We can then connect those stories to pieces of literature that represent similar themes.
Including racial literacy in the classroom is, in many ways, being a teacher that “interrupts” the status quo. It raises consciousness in the students to see themselves as participants in a complicated society. In one of the classrooms I am observing, the teacher acts as one of these interrupters. Her classroom is currently working on a interdisciplinary project about immigration to America. On her wall she has an essential questions: “Who is America?” Around the question are the students’ initial answers that they wrote on PostIt notes. Some answers are “Freedom” and “Everyone,” while others are “Complicated” and “Hurting.” This literacy practice engages race in so many ways. By including these types of discussions, students will be able to feel a sense of autonomy in their knowledge and experiences. Interrupting the norms challenges students to think critically and to hopefully interrupt the hegemonic practices that lead to racial inequities. I hope to be a teacher that inspires students to do this.
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I love that you bring up Bissonnette and Glazier’s work in “counterstorytelling”. I think as future educators of high school English classrooms, showing students that other stories exist within the pages of the canonical texts they read is so crucial. This not only poses opportunities for racial literacy practices and discourses, but it also allows us as teachers to be consistently regarding our own privilege as “interrupters” of the mainstream stories that are told. Using these texts counteractively can communicate to students that the stories which are deemed “important” are backlit by the ones that were considered less so, by the ones that served as a platform for privilege to be propped up by. What a perfect representation to show how privilege has worked– not only to benefit those that possess it, but also to silence those that have not. From these counterstories, we can see how issues of race and inequality have been transmitted through generations. Not only this, but we can see how historical function of these inequalities prevail in today’s current climate, just like Priya and Winona illustrated through the counterstories of individuals they talked about in their Ted Talk.
I also think that you bring up a really great point about how counterstories can be told through multiple mediums. I’m reminded of Dr. Camangain’s work that we read about in MACI 412 where he utilized auto-ethnographies to help students “read and write their worlds”. This not only shows students that counterstories exist in literature already, but that their counterstories matter too. It empowers students to share their narratives in the way that expresses themselves authentically. Surely, this “interrupts” the mainstream pedagogy and detrimental ideology that is too often seen the classroom. I know that one day, we will be the Dr. Camangains of our schools, pushing students to see themselves and see their worlds in revolutionary ways.
Racial literacy is more than just reading and writing. It is understanding that race has an effect on the way our world works because of the people it effects. Not understanding or listening to what others have to say who are different from us, can, and will, hurt us. Racial Literacy is learning how one’s race has affected the way they learn, they way they live, the experiences they have had.
In Gina’s classroom, she wanted to create a space for dialogue to happen. In the article it stated how she was aware of her privileges as a white, female woman but still wanted to find ways to connect to her students. Creating a space that is open and that is safe for open dialogue to happen already shifts the energy in a classroom to become that students need. Learning happens in the classroom and that learning should be student centered. Allowing the students to talk about their lived-experiences, to find differences and similarities between each other, and to dig deep into the issues surrounding race can make a huge difference for these students. In our education classes we talk about how can we engage with the students? How can we bring them into the content? The answer is to create a space that allows for them to find how the content fits them and Gina did so with trying to prepare them for their personal arguments. In the article it stated, “Gina attempted to make the assignment relevant and meaningful to students‘ lives and communities” (Hungerford-Kressor, Vetter, 2014, pg 90) and she promoted this by asking students what they wanted to change about their school. This sets the stage for students to make things personal and dig deep. It opened up the door to stereotypes in the school, the way people are seen due to the color of their skin, and how privilege can be used to help not make things worse.
As a future educator of leadership, I already know I can have in depth diversity sessions and diving into what it means to be racially literate and how to understand that everyone has a backstory. One training that I went to that had an amazing activity was called the Privilege Walk. We all stood hands in a row and different lines would be called out directing us to move forward or back. For example, “Take a step back if you’ve ever been cat called or harassed walking down the street” or “Take a step forward if you live in a two parent household”. By the end of the game we were all at different levels and we were able to have a discussion as to where we ended up. People got deep with discussing their race, education, and overall life experiences. We also did another one with a worksheet that asked us to write in little bubble what made you, you. We would then get into groups and discuss why we choose what we did. I was able to talk to someone who was a first generation Native American and how that has shaped their time in college as well as how people view them in a professional environment. Even though I did not have that experience as a white woman, I felt closer to that person because of the open, honest communication. It is things like that, that I want to bring into my leadership facilitations. Being able to have discussions without offending, but understanding. We have all gone through things that have shaped who we are and it is important to listen to those things.
The Ted talk was absolutely gorgeous. I loved hearing the passion the students brought with their presentation. What really stuck with me and something that should be implemented into all types of curriculum is understanding someone’s head and heart. So many people just see the outside or what someone can offer them on a surface level and do not get to the good stuff. Looking at someone and trying to genuinely, authentically get to know their head and heart is what will bring us to a space of understanding.
Which leads in to being an interrupter. If you are not constantly reflecting over yourself and others, you are not going to make it. You need to interrupt yourself and realize where you stand and how to push yourself. It requires digging deep and know that you can make a difference. Use your pedagogy as a way to make waves and use the classroom for good. In order to create a well-rounded student, it takes pushing the limit and having students reflect outside the box. In our master classes we’ve been discussing what it is like for white teachers to go into these urban settings and how to relate to students who have various backgrounds and homelives. I still think it takes pushing and prodding to help create students who aren’t learning for the test but are learning to be better citizens. We can use our backgrounds to educator and help push our society in the right direction.
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Your example of the Privilege Walk that you participated in really struck a chord with me. I have participated in similar activities where individuals stand up to indicate identifying with a certain statement, but I have never heard of an activity that involves both stepping forward as well as stepping backwards depending on whether a specific experience places an individual at an advantage or disadvantage within the context of our society. I think this is so important because it acknowledges the intersection of privilege within each individual. It also allows for reflection around an individual’s position within the context of a certain group. Depending upon the context, a person may end up in a very different location compared to others. I wonder how an activity like this would play out in a K-12 setting, especially one where the teacher comes predominantly from a position of privilege and students come from a variety of backgrounds, including historically marginalized ones.
You also bring up a great point about the importance of creating a space for dialogue within the classroom. Allowing students to acknowledge their lived-experiences as being valid and meaningful is a huge step toward the development of racial literacy. Recognizing how these experiences impact us as individual’s allows for the discovery of similarities between others, which in turn leads to greater understanding and tolerance. The activity in Gina’s classroom gave students the opportunity to engage in this self-discovery within the context of their school. I am wondering what other ways we can encourage students to discover and acknowledge their lived-experiences within the context of a classroom. Specifically, are there ways to allow for this type of dialogue in a non-humanities based classroom (i.e. mathematics, science, etc.)?
I want to focus on what you said about “genuinely, authentically” getting to know someone. I think this is such an important idea that can be drawn out further, as many of us talk about being understanding or empathetic but never really talk about how. Dr. Christopher Emdin talks about how effective a reality pedagogical approach can be, which posits that teachers need to come at issues from the perspectives of students, requiring them to understand not just their cultural differences in terms of ethnicity or gender, but also how students grew up. A point that I think lacks from this is that the experiences of our future students are not going to always be underlined by their racial identity, but instead that their racial identity is one part of who they are as people. Obviously, these kinds of identities are always at play, but I think if we as educators keep bringing everything back to race, it becomes clear that this is what we are trying to focus on and students may end up resenting those efforts. What I mean to say is that while I think it’s vital to discuss racial identities and be interrupters in the status quo of hegemony, students are more than just the color of their skin. In order to genuinely and authentically know someone, we have to be able to acknowledge that racial aspect without painting them with it on everything they do. Understanding someone’s taste in music or their guilty pleasure food, while seemingly superficial, also gives students the space to know that they are a valued person in the class for all the parts of them, not just those that make them oppressed or marginalized. Hope this helps.
What you mention about understanding racial literacy because of its importance in helping understand other people was so spot on! Racial literacy, like a lot of literacy, is a building block for building identity and learning about identity. I also agree with your understanding of how people need to engage with another to better see that played out. As nice as it would be to have students read an article and understand the implications of racial literacy, for most, it really will not click until they have participated in some kind of activity that brings it to life. The book by Priya and Winona (from the TEDx) is one helpful way of doing that. However, the examples you shared not only bring these concepts to life but also makes a PERSONAL connection that demonstrates why this type of literacy is important. Every year, my student leadership group participates in an activity called “Culture Maps,” in which we start with one circle with our name, then add a circle around it with our facts, obvious things about, add another circle about things we are involved in, another circle about the values important to us, and then a bunch of little circles connecting different words or phrases we use to describe ourselves that connect to one or more of the things we’ve already written down. No one’s cultural map is ever aesthetically “pretty,” which is what I love most. We are complicated people, and our lives, interests, and identities really demonstrate. How can we neatly categorize all our qualities onto a page when we ourselves do not fit into any particular box? What’s important about this activity is the questions and understandings that follow after we’ve shared our maps. In many ways, racial and cultural literacies are explained, which is something really beautiful. An activity like this brings notions we may not be familiar with to life, through people we work with, care about, or respect.
In Priya and Winona’s Tedx talk, the two raise how racial literacy is about being “equipped with the tools to understand, navigate, and improve a world structured by racial division”. More than this, racial literacy requires discourse about how truths regarding these racial divisions manifest on an individual and societal level. The young women also reference two fundamental issues in people’s understanding of racial issues: the heart gap and the mind gap. The heart gap references our ability to erase the individual in racial awareness– how we exchange “lip service” for compassionately seeking to learn about the individuals who experience racism and its effects. The mind gap suggests that the opposite also takes place: we do little to educate ourselves on the collective and how racism historically and systematically operates from a societal framework.
Because both factors are crucial in developing racial literacy, having these dialogues in the classroom mandates a conversation that regards the individual and his/her/their positionality in a greater social structure. It is important, as Priya and Winona suggest, to let students like Treniya have a voice in the classroom. Treniya traced her personal ancestry back to her great-great grandmother, who was a slave under a white man, and this white man assigned his last name to his slaves in an act of ownership. Because of this, Treniya was able to share how racism has made her believe that her last name is not a representation of her identity. Yet, from this personal anecdote, we can also create discussion about the greater racial issues at hand. Treniya’s story may be personal, but it also conveys how the longevity of slavery’s legacy has functioned to drastically change identity over the course of history. In this, the concept of racism is taken out of the isolated stagnancy of a textbook and placed in a context connected to real human lives that experience the painful repercussions of its institutionalization.
Establishing the classroom as a place to practice racial literacy is also necessary because of the privilege associated with identity. In author Allan G. Johnson’s book “Power, Privilege, and Difference”, he discusses that a “system of privilege” is a complicated structure, where one’s privileged positionality may not always indicate how individual’s reap the benefits of said privilege. Articulating how racial realities play a role in conjecture with these complexities of privilege and individual narratives is crucial in conversations about racial literacy. For example, my whiteness does not communicate to others how deeply entrenched alcoholism and mental illness has affected my family. It does not convey my relationship with anxiety and trauma of growing up with the closeted depression of a suicidal parent. Yet, looking at my ethnic background in the context of a racial literacy allows me to examine how the historical privileging of whiteness has played a role in my life as well. This systematic hierarchy has provided a framework for me to be positioned in a socioeconomic demographic where my family and I have access to quality health care and psychological resources like therapy. My racial positioning also privileges my voice to tell my story and have it heard in social spaces. Being an educator who understands and verbalizes these dynamics sets an example for students being involved in these classroom discourses and communicates to students the importance of understanding these layers.
Without integrating racial literacy into the classroom, our understandings of ourselves and the greater racial implications of our world become stagnant and superficial. I think adopting racial literacy dialogue in the classroom also legitimizes Sealey-Ruiz’s view of the “teacher as interrupter” of normative practices that negate cultural experience. This “archeology of the self”, as Sealey-Ruiz says, takes place within the permittance of racial talk because it allows pedagogy to be culturally responsive. Though teachers must adhere to certain standards of the public schools structure, like standardized testing, teachers can raise politically conscious discourses about how such aspects of education perpetuate racial inequality and how they do not reflect the culmination of student achievement.
In his book “For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too”, Christopher Emdin relates to this concept of racial literacy by recognizing its place in reality pedagogy. This approach to the classroom “focuses on making the local experiences of the student visible and creating contexts where this is a role reversal…that positions the students as the expert in his or her own teaching and learning, and the teacher as the learner” (Edmin, 2016, pg. 27). Therefore, “the teacher and students co-construct the classroom space”, and the realities of a racialized world are brought into a discussion where they can be critiqued and resisted. This means making student work relate to students’ lives and greater communities. This means starting dialogue that can engender activism and give political agency to students who want to see change in themselves and change in their world. I think adopting this type of teaching practice in the classroom will not only promote racial literacy, but continue to be a vehicle for that dialogue to go somewhere beyond the designated learning space. When this starts to happen, real change will be evident. What an amazing thing– for students to see their education affecting and inspiring the world and for them to position themselves as the history makers in the making.
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I first want to say thank you for showing vulnerability and opening up. Second, I absolutely love how you address privilege. You never know what is actually happening to someone beyond what that person shows. We cannot make assumptions about someone because we truly do not know what they are going through. I had stated in my post about an activity called the “Privilege Walk” that I took part in for Orientation Staff training. I have played this game before, but the twist on it this time was to hold hands with the person next to you. Once you clasped hands, the announcer would indicate whether or not you took a step forward, backward, or stayed in place. For example, the person leading the training said, “take a step forward if you have never had to worry about whether your car was parked in a secure area”. Most white men stepped forward, leaving women and others of color behind. Another was “step back if you have ever been cat called”, again women and others of color stepped back. The idea was to physically feel the tug from your arms (some people had to let go because of how far apart they were) and to physically see where you fell in relations to others. It was not meant to call anyone out or make them feel bad for their privilege or lack of. It was simply to raise awareness that if you have privilege and you are one of the people closest to the front of the room, you needed to use that privilege to create a positive change for those who were not at the front. It is understanding out privilege and using it to make a difference. You cannot infer what someone has gone through based on the privilege you are able to see, you have to dig deep and understand what makes up the person as a whole.
In a classroom, it is up to the teacher to set the tone for the rest of the year. If it is going to be a place where you simply read the text and don’t get everything of value out of the course, then that’s how it is going to be. If it is going to be a space that is open, allows for vulnerability, for courage and bravery, for love and acceptance, then those students are going to be able to walk out of that classroom knowing they can change the world. We as educators have so much responsibility, but it is one we should be ready to take on. We have the ability to prepare students to excel in the real world and part of that is teaching them that humans help and support each other in any way they can whether it is through their race, gender, socioeconomic status, or kindness.
Racial literacy is so much more than just “seeing color.” It is an ongoing journey of learning about the experiences, challenges, and hardships of the vast multitude of cultures out there. In Vetter and Hungerford-Kressor’s article, they say that, “racial literacy develops an understanding of how race shapes the ‘social, economic, political, and educational experiences of individuals and groups’” (pg. 84). Regardless of what we want to think, race plays a critical role in our society. People are being actively criticized and condemned every day because of certain stereotypes or norms that have been set up in our society. However, many times people are just “racially illiterate.” By being unaware of certain historical contexts and hardships, people may say something or react in a way that might cause miscommunication and unnecessary conflict. Because of this, it is so important to teach racial literacy in the classrooms. Students may grow up in a sheltered community, with limited access to the different cultures out there. It is up to educators to help branch out and expand their students’ knowledges so that they will be more prepared for the real world. Vetter and Hungerford-Kressor put it very well in their article, saying, “We use a racial literacy framework to highlight the importance of recognizing, responding to, and countering forms of everyday racism, especially in classrooms” (pg 83).
Gina’s classroom was a great research study that brings up multiple points of how to bring racial literacy into the classroom. By fostering a proper classroom environment with certain lessons and activities, students were able to engage in dialogue, to learn about diverse and unfamiliar experiences, to learn about race, and to facilitate problem solving in the community. One of the dialogues in the transcripts that stood out to me was when a group of girls were discussing the importance of having a different perspective for their group. One girl mentioned how they didn’t need someone of a different race, because their project was aimed towards black people. They also talked about how they stuck with themselves, and the Mexicans stuck with themselves. Their discussion continued and led to the understanding that they should at least have a different perspective so they know why there was segregation in the school in the first place. By engaging in these types of dialogue, it is risky and sometimes challenging because students may say things that might offend others. However, it is so important to have these conversations because it helps foster racial literacy and awareness. Racial literacy is a process, and it has to start somewhere. Everyone has their implicit biases, but by communicating ideas and having these dialogues, they will learn to know what to say and how to say it in the future.
The TedX talk with Priya and Winona really helped explain the importance of raising the bar for racial literacy. They made the concept of racial literacy so personal by talking about the challenges that many people around America had to face just because of their race. Each story was so unique and different, and yet they said that they were just a dozen out of the millions of hardships that Americans are going through each day. Priya and Winona mention that the biggest problem is that people just aren’t not understanding each other, and this is what causes the conflict. One thing they said that really stood out to me was that “It’s not just knowing that the culture is there, but understanding the history, hardships, and everything else that goes with that culture. It’s truly trying to empathize and see from their perspective.” By learning everyone’s story, people will be able to better relate and work together.
After watching the videos and reading the article, it really made me realize that I was not as racially literate as I thought. I grew up in a cultural bubble, as the majority of the people I interacted with were Asian. My high school was 92% Asian. As a result, I had many biases and stereotypes of different races, mainly because I had very little experience with people of different races. I understand that there is so much to learn, especially after coming to a much more diverse university here at Chapman University. It is so important to understand the different cultures out there to be able to help my students. Because of this, I believe it is necessary to hold these types of conversations in my classroom, not only to provide the opportunities for my students to learn about racial literacy, but also to help myself become more aware of racial literacy and the situations that arise.
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You bring up a great point when you say, “Regardless of what we want to think, race plays a critical role in our society”. I think many people claim to “not see color” in an attempt to prove that they are not racist, but this only serves to hold us back as a society from growth and progress. Acknowledging and celebrating diverse cultures and backgrounds validates other individual’s lived-experiences. Conversely, pretending that differences do not exist ignores culture and diversity altogether. Claiming to “not see color” simply proves that an individual is racially illiterate. This lack of racial literacy is what leads to the miscommunication and unnecessary conflict that you bring up. Understanding comes from acknowledging an individual’s lived-experiences and the way that these experiences impact their views, opinions, and actions.
I also appreciated the example that you bring up from Gina’s classroom regarding the dialogue surrounding the importance of various perspectives in their project. Although the conclusion that the students come to may be problematic, the conversation itself is so very important. The fact that the concept of including individuals that have drastically different lived-experiences came up in their conversation indicates the development of racial literacy. The development of racial literacy is one that is ongoing, so any indication of progress should be encouraged, particularly in a K-12 setting where individuals are developing the skills that they will use throughout their lives.
You mentioned how often, people are “just racially illiterate.” I completely agree with you about this fact. Sometimes it is not that people have prejudices towards other people, so much as people do not know how to accurately participate in a dialogue that articulates what they want to say–and what they mean to say–in the correct form. I see this a lot in my experiences as a Resident Advisor. Every year, I hear a student say something or do something that, because of their background, they do not know is inappropriate. Our role as educators is to introduce those racial literacy practices. Of course, to do that, we must have a degree of fluency in those topics, as well. More often than not when I correct a student, he/she/they will ask me, “Why? What is what I said incorrect?” I think one of the most challenging questions we also have to ask ourselves, to answer that question, is “Why is this literacy practice important?”
I appreciate you sharing your personal experiences regarding a “cultural bubble.” I think this is something a lot of people can relate to! For this reason, I also think it is so important to explore the lives of people from all backgrounds. The book Priya and Winona published is a great example, because like you mentioned, it really helps showcase the realities of people’s lives in the United States TODAY based on their race or ethnic identities.
I agree with a lot of what you wrote. I do think a lot of kids grow up in sheltered communities, and if they aren’t sheltered it’s very likely they aren’t talking about these issues in class because they seem uncomfortable. I was never presented with any of these issues until I got to my first year of college and it’s a shame to think that if I had not been able to get a higher education past high school, I would have never become aware of racial literacy. In fact, I hadn’t heard it be called by that name until today. I feel like being aware of these misconceptions opens our minds and changes our view of society. Like, who says one culture is faulty as opposed to another? Being self-aware that we make judgments based on misconceptions shows the ignorance we are allowing to live within us. As teachers, we have a responsibility to teach students what they would not learn outside of school. So it is truly unfair for students who don’t get the opportunity to expand their consciousness on this topic.
I am a student teacher who is applying for licensure at the end of this December from Western Massachusetts. I am student teaching at a mostly white school and I believe that we do need to talk about racial literacy in our classrooms, especially in a school like mine. Most of the classes that I student teach in have no students of color and I think that is very scary for teachers to talk about racial literacy, but in situations like this I think it is even more important to do so. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article along with watching the supplemental videos and think they are extremely helpful to talk about race and racial literacy in the classroom. The TED Talk about racial literacy coming from recent high school graduates was extremely eye opening and gave me hope for my students right now and in my future classroom. I want to be a teacher so that my students can become racially literate. There are too many people in the world who have incorrect information or just focus on certain aspects of race so they aren’t able to come to the correct conclusions. The fact that this TED Talk was from two high school graduates who also just wrote a book gave me something to strive towards. They had to do so much outside research and interviews from all over the country to find out the information that they did and I think that is something we, as teachers, should also strive to accomplish. I personally want to buy the book that they wrote and directly use it within my classroom so that students get the “heart” aspect along with providing them statistics for the “mind” as they describe it. This shows that race isn’t outdated like it sounds in their history classes and old novels such as To Kill a Mockingbird. It shows that it still is prominent today which I think is the most important idea to show these students.
In my specific classes I mentioned that they are mainly white and I think this will raise some issues, but I really think it’s important to show the many different forms of racism that Carlin Borsheim-Black outlines in his article “‘It’s Pretty Much White’: Challenges and Opportunities of an Antiracist Approach to Literature Instruction in a Multilayered White Context” (I highly recommend this article that was shown to me by my Professor, Professor Sarigianides of Westfield State University, if you would like some ways of approaching racial literacy as well). This directly relates to the other video about teachers as interrupters. I think that teachers do need to be interrupters because we need to provide the information that we know we didn’t get in school and wish that we did. Teaching isn’t just about teaching the curriculum that we are given and just feeding the students information. Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz mentions that you need to ask yourself, what are you doing to raise their political consciousness? Teaching isn’t about preparing these students for a test. Teaching is about getting students ready to tackle the world around them and realizing who they are in this world. Our students deserve better than what we got in high school and middle school; they deserve to have all the information we can give and know that there is also so much to learn. This relates to one of the conclusions that the students in the article, “’We Gotta Change First’: Racial Literacy in a High School English Classroom” by Amy Vetter, came to was that racism can’t just be solved in a day and there needs to be ongoing action. For students to be able to come to this conclusion on their own is absolutely incredible, but they need our help to get to that point which is where we, as teachers, need to step in and assist them as much as we can to get to that point. I hope to have a classroom that can support this idea of racial literacy and open dialogue in the classroom because I think that it’s our duty as teachers to open their eyes to as much truth as possible.
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My name is Emmery and I am a student at Chapman University studying to become a high school English teacher. I admire your perspective of racial literacy. It is imperative that we teach students who are a part of dominant, privileged structures to be able to recognize the manifestations of racial difference. As a white female, I too have some innate hesitations to talk about race to a white audience. But, for teachers like me, it is even more crucial that we promote more racial literacy in an all-white classroom. If students do not evaluate their position in society, they may unknowingly reproduce the hegemony that maintains powers of privilege and oppression.
I like how the TEDx talk inspires you. When I first watched the video, I was shocked that these young women knew so much about race coming out of high school. But, I was even more shocked by my own reaction. In my opinion, students of this age should be as knowledgeable as these two young scholars. Like you said, us teachers need to strive toward teaching this type of literacy so that we can enable positive change. The Carlin-Borsheim text that you mentioned sounds very interesting! Texts like this will encourage me to be more of an interrupter of problematic norms in school settings. In a way, it will help me teach beyond the curriculum so that we, as you say, can “open dialogue in the classroom.” By opening up these conversations, we will (instead of feed students knowledge) help students come up with their own solutions. Overall, you give great insights to this topic. Great response!
I admire how you said that although you have no students of color and teach in a mostly white school, you believe that it is even more important to teach about racial literacy. The lack of diversity definitely plays a role in the degree of racial literacy in your classroom, and it may make it difficult to start a dialogue about race. Without different cultures or experiences, it is also difficult to bring different perspectives to the table. However, I definitely agree with you, and think that regardless of the obstacles, providing your students with a chance to learn to talk about race and racial literacy would be a huge opportunity. I really like how you mentioned buying the book written by the two high school graduates to help provide the stories of culture and race and to bring that into your classroom. That is definitely a great start to promoting racial literacy, and would be a great way to start a conversation. I also resonated with your final point, with how the students in the article “We Gotta Change First,” by Amy Vetter, came up with the conclusion on their own, but also through the careful guidance of their teacher. I agree that teachers should be interrupters and should challenge students to think about these situations critically. Great post!
What Sealey Ruiz talks about with raising student’s political consciousness was especially poignant for someone like me who, as a future social studies teacher, is dedicated to raising the level of political discussions in classrooms. That being said, what really struck me about what you said was how racism sounds outdated from the novels we read, like To Kill a Mockingbird. This is a problem that is constantly weighing on me, as history textbooks and state standards talk about these issues as if they live solely through our history and not in our daily lives. What I believe exacerbates the problem are the practices of teachers who don’t take the extra step to have a deep discussion about these issues on race or class or identity on a broader scale. When we study texts like To Kill a Mockingbird, or at least when I did, the discussion stopped at the waters’ edge of the text, only analyzing themes or deeper social commentary within that time frame. However, its the teacher’s obligation to go further than that because understanding character arcs in different books or knowing the dates of the Civil War is utterly useless without asking students why does this matter TODAY. Giving students the ground to talk around an artifact instead of just about an artifact is a small but crucial step because tying these themes into today’s world is essential to raising their political consciousness. Another similar point is that we as educators, especially those who plan on teaching English Literature, have to understand the context of a text because oftentimes these books were written as a comment or criticism of their era’s trends. I think it is not only irresponsible but downright reckless to use books like the Great Gatsby without having a serious discussion on the dangers of capitalism and industrialization or Heart of Darkness without talking about imperialism and the negative effects of globalization. Are these difficult subjects to talk about? Absolutely. But are they necessary? Absolutely.
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I am currently student teaching in western Massachusetts in a middle school setting. Although the classrooms I am in are racially diverse, I still think that it is important for us to address race and racial literacy to these students. The recent graduates in the TedX talk engaged in racial literacy by researching individual’s ties to racial history within areas like slavery and work camps in the United States. This helped them understand how history that many may see as far behind us still affects people living today in very real ways. The key in this type of education seems to be understanding the history of this country in a multifaceted way so that students can make connections between the injustices that are going on today and the ways that they came about many years ago.
I agree that racial literacy should be taught in high school because it is a great age for students to make cross-subject connections about racial literacy and history as well as examine their own racial literacies. If kids in high school are taught to think about historical events such as slavery in not just cold facts but also poetry written by enslaved people and art or paintings by this group, they will come to understand the historical significance as well as the emotional and psychological toll that slavery had and continues to have on people hundreds of years later. I agree with the graduate students that it can’t just be a heart or mind approach to racial literacy, but it has to involve many facets in order for someone to say they have racial literacy and will continue to want to build that library of knowledge about racial issues.
I feel like the role of “teacher as interrupter” is something that has the potential to make a huge change in the classroom. You have to embrace the diversity of students and let them know that they are expected in the classroom. Things like English and History have a tendency to whitewash and ignore diversity and act like race isn’t a problem and can just be ignored. This leads to misinformation and people of color not knowing that they are even important or relevant. When all they know is white, they think something is wrong with them. You have to open the eyes of students and show them there is different ways of life and different people and have them, in a way, live out these experiences through a book or story.
The word “interrupter” has such a negative connotation, but in this context, it is given a positive reformation. It is important to be the guide in the classroom and to “interrupt the status quo” as Yolanda Sealy-Ruiz puts it. I think that this interruption is one necessary. For if one cannot enter into the conversation then one cannot change the conversation. You must be able to enter, change, and reform to make the conversation one which is productive. Much like Sealy-Ruiz has changed the connotation of “interrupter” one must find his or her own voice to change the connotation of “race.”
Though constructed race is a societal convention we as teachers have a very important responsibility and power to have these dialogues with our kids and engage in them even when they re awkward and scary. It is important to teach our children to be brave and to voice their opinions so that later, in the future, they may continue to share them and change the conversation.
In my classroom, I plan to engage in these conversations when they relate to texts we are reading. For if we can engage the students with real-world issues we can encapsulate their minds and encourage deeper comprehension of the fictional world, but also the real world. If students have the capability to make these connections, the job of the interrupter has been done, though it is certainly far from finished for it will continue on for many years to come as the question circulates.
As a white teacher, yes it is scary, but the risk and vulnerability are worth the endless possibilities.
Personally, I think that the notion of learning to be racially literate is interesting. This is mostly because of the freedom that being in an English class grants students.
If I were to attempt speaking about this in, say, a math course, then students might come at me with the thought that I’m trying to play around with the race cards — but in this case it’s so much easier to speak upon it because English deals with literature from all sorts of authors and cultural backgrounds. I suppose it’s fun to discuss, in a way, because there’s no “fear” that needs to be tagged with this concept for us — we’re allowed to speak about political and philosophical topics, to a degree. Isn’t this just another way to teach students?
I think it is important for students to see where they are socially placed in society; however, I do not believe this should be a negative lesson. I think students should all be proud of their background and heritage. Learning about the past helps children to change the future. The bad parts of the past should not be repeated, rather learned from. Interrupting the status quo of the classroom helps students to see privilege and institutionalized racism. This should not bring down certain races, but hold everyone to the same standard of being human.
I definitely agree with the framing of teacher as interrupter. I know that I wasn’t able to understand how socially constructed many parts of our identities are, especially race, until my freshman year of college when I took a sociology class; I think understanding social constructions is key in empathizing with others. We’re in a unique position as English teachers because we have so many opportunities to teach our students to be racially literate not only through pre-existing literary texts, but through students’ own narratives. We are able to promote a dialog about race in ways that other content areas cannot. We want to teach students understand their own personal worlds and the world around them, but we also want to teach them to solve these problems in their communities. Ultimately, we’re trying to influence students to be culturally and civically engaged adults, right?
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If public school teachers are meant to prepare their students for functioning in the real world, then it can only be seen as reasonable and even imperative that public school teachers prepare students for all aspects of American life, and that means acceptance of racism as a real thing. Most people don’t seem to want to identify as racist; what we recognize as racist is often institutional and we defend it passively when we fail to acknowledge our own part in it. I’m a white male, and so there’s a certain moral imperative for acknowledging institutions that benefit white men. The only fair thing to do is to show the influence of racist thinking in our history, literature and popular culture. The only way to mitigate the influence of such conditioning is to address it openly, and in the process help all students understand that their worth isn’t bound up objectively in those institutions that disadvantage them.
While I agree with the framing of “teacher as interrupter”, it is important for us to consider all the implications for which students differ within the realm of socio-politics and racial literacy. Our class watched a TEDTalk following this video, where one of the speakers made the comment: “racial justice is a national epidemic.” Immediately this made me think of McCarthyism, and how Americans feared the growth of communism in the United States. This was the result of accusations made by Joseph McCarthy, who campaigned on identifying and eliminating suspected communists in the United States government. The way we use language is very important, because we may interpret words differently based upon our backgrounds and upbringings. “Epidemic,” in this context reflects a state of hysteria—which is not an accurate representation; an accurate representation of “epidemic” would be the opioid epidemic in the United States. Although I can see why the speaker would use such words―to get the audience’s attention by highlighting such importance―it must be noted that this can have major ramifications.
In order to navigate through the understanding of sociopolitical consciousness, as educators we must first develop a dialogue that establishes boundaries, defining topics and terms which will be discussed. In the course of this development we should recognize that we can’t place blame or guilt on white students for the systematic oppression created by their ancestors; we must help them become consciously aware of the oppression which continues to manifest in our society.
As an 8th, 9th and 11th grade ELA teacher in Western Massachusetts, my racial literacy is built upon many years spent in a predominantly White high school with teachers who failed to interrupt their students understanding of race and how it should be discussed in the classroom. Because discourse surrounding race was not made available to me or my classmates, we lacked the ability to observe how racism is still thriving and present in our society. I spent many years without the awareness that because I am a straight, white male, I have inherent privileges that have been unfairly awarded to me.
Although I did not experience a racially literate classroom growing up, graduate school at Westfield State University has allowed me to explore my own racial identity. It soon occurred to me that I never thought about my race or what it means to be White in America. My background and foundational understanding about the way I see the world was based upon the fact that I am a White male, living in a predominantly White town with privileges that were once invisible or believed to be earned.
Westfield State University, specifically Professor Sarigianides, introduced the concept of a racially literate classroom to myself and my classmates. Our Professor provided a safe space for us to voice our opinions, experiences, and ideas about race so that we could also introduce similar ideas in our own classrooms. My classmates and I observed the process of cultivating successful discussions about the presence of race in literature and in our own lives.
My time spent in high school without racial literacy and the exploration of my own racial identity in graduate school has proved to me that engaging in discourse surround race is both beneficial when understanding text and the world that we live in. Middle and high school students should be allowed the opportunity to explore their own race by having discussions about racism and how they observe it happening in the real world. Teachers must give students the tools to participate in the ongoing discourse in order to interrupt the hegemonic ideologies of racism.