Educators Disrupting Racism: One Journey

Jane West and Ashley WhiteIn Part 2 of this Q&A feature, AACTE consultant Jane West, a former teacher with a doctorate in special education and 30 years of policy experience in the nation’s capital, and Holmes Program Alumna Ashley L. White, assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin and 2019-20 Joseph P. Kennedy Fellow, share their mentoring/mentee relationship and how it has evolved over time to address race. (Read Part 1.)

Q:  Describe a good white ally.

White: This is not an all-encompassing definition and I am not the monolithic expert—I am speaking from my experiences in dealing with White people all my life, some who get it and many who do not. Allies of any kind have to accept the reality of system and practices that have put them in a position of privilege while disenfranchising others (e.g., the notion of heterosexuality or “able-bodies” as superior forms of existence). Allies must value the whole over the self. Allies must recognize that if one suffers, all suffer, even if not immediately. Allies must embrace their ignorance and lack of understanding in order to counteract these.

As it pertains to the subject of racism in society, racism in education, White allies have to accept the reality of racism in every system and they also have to accept that no matter the topic, particularly as it relates to education, issues of race cement long-standing inequities that cannot be resolved without centering the issues of race.  In other words, White allies don’t avoid our country’s foundation, which is built upon individual and systematic racism for the gain of the dominant class. White allies must learn to be quiet when Black and Brown folks are speaking about their experiences and perspectives. White allies must learn not to interrupt and to question themselves, especially when they feel defensive, undermined, or fearful. White allies have to stop hiding behind rhetoric of equity and understanding when their actions demonstrate the very opposite. White allies have to be willing to ask questions, not to prove they are right, but because they know they are wrong.

Most importantly, White allies must take a lesson from Jane and others who have long been questioning issues of racial inequity and how they fit into the equation. White allies must develop genuine connections with people, not because society finally erupts in anger and revolution and so one must align themselves on the side of “justice,”but because they have built a way of living that puts them in front of and amongst those who experience the brunt of inequity in education and beyond and they have done this long before the pressure of movements and public statements force them to do so.  White allies must demonstrate sincerity through their everyday actions and the way in which they use their power and capital to fight alongside us. White allies must build a record that demonstrates they are not here for a while or for their own personal gain and social safety, but continually and not out of selfish motives that will only perpetuate the ability of White people and systems to kneel on the necks of my people and other marginalized people of color. 

Q:   What is your message for your white colleagues and friends?

West: My message is my central theme for my doctoral students when I teach about policy and advocacy, and that is “use your perch.”  Students get very excited about policy and advocacy—and that is a great thrill for me—but it is important to know that policy and advocacy work can be carried out no matter what your role is or where you are located.  It is a mindset and a skillset that brings you to that work, and then comes the challenge of figuring out how to “use your perch” to do it.  You do not have to work on Capitol Hill to make a difference in policy.  You do not have to work for Black Lives Matters to disrupt racism. A higher education faculty member, a dean, a teacher, a student all have different perches. Just as each of us can incorporate advocacy and policy activities within our perch, so too can we all incorporate anti-racism activities from our perch.

So I ask myself “What can I do to disrupt racism from my perch?”  And I invite my White colleagues and friends to do the same.  Here is how I have answered that question for myself and for today:

  • When I am involved in developing conferences, presentations etc. I speak up to ensure that Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) scholars and leaders are an authentic part of that effort. 
  • Whenever I am asked for recommendations for speakers, authors, etc. I recommend BIPOC scholars who represent the area of focus and often demonstrate the intersectional lenses from which we should be viewing these issues. Of course to be able to do this, you have to know who these scholars are!
  • When I talk with my White colleagues and friends, I raise issues of race – usually personal stories – and invite a dialogue for reflection. 
  • When I talk with BIPOC colleagues and friends, I inquire about their experiences with racism so as to inform my thinking and future actions.
  • I educate myself.  I get ideas for podcasts, books. YouTube videos, and more from social media, from friends, from family and from colleagues.  My niece recently recommended a podcast to me and I pass on that recommendation to you.  Justice in America is the podcast series and I listened to Episode 20: Mariame Kaba and Prison Reform.  It is powerful. 

Final thoughts:

We believe that the power of informed and authentic one on one conversations; an intentional willingness and determination by White people to listen, believe, and deal with themselves and the systems from which they so benefit; and the relationships that can emerge from these efforts are powerful in the journey to transform our society.  We invite you to share your journeys with us.  How are you disrupting racism from your perch?

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Jane E. West

AACTE Education Policy Consultant