Response to Combating Racism Together

This article is a personal reflection of the 2020 Washington Week State Leaders Institute by attendee John Blackwell.

John Blackwell As academics who value valid evidence and scientifically proven knowledge, we know that, concerning human beings, there is only one race—the human race. We have lived our entire lives knowing that race is one of the most divisive topics you could ever introduce in any conversation or classroom. Robin DiAngelo, in her book, ‘White Fragility’: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism, explains so clearly the idea of race was created, “as an evolving social idea that was created to legitimize racial inequality and protect white advantage.” Despite this knowledge, the term racism has been weaponized to condemn anyone who uses it. When having discussion about racism, it is difficult for one to see beyond their emotion to get to the actual facts.

This year, AACTE addressed this when it brought together members of the social justice group, the Education Deans for Justice and Equity, in an SLI session moderated by Michael Dantley of Miami University. Dantley and other Education Deans for Equity and Justice, Kathy Shultz of the University of Colorado, Tamara Lucas of Montclair State and Rene Antrop-Gonzalez of SUNY, New Paltz, challenged attendees to consider their thinking and the language they use when communicating with students about the subject of race.

As we enter the 21 Century the idea of whiteness as the dominate race is still a part of our social construct. The nation, through the election of a Black president, thought we had driven racism out of our national thinking.  But, as we have seen, the post-racial America many had hoped for, is not the reality. Educator Preparation Programs are on the frontline of preparing the teachers who will lead the classrooms of our nation. It is inherent for us to prepare teachers who can navigate the most diverse PK-12 classroom this country’s history.  The current data on teachers in America indicates that 79% (NCES 2017-18) of the teachers in our public schools are White. They are teaching the most diverse student population (White 44%, Black 15%, Hispanic 28%, other 13%, NCES 2020) we have ever seen. We need to prepare our preservice teachers to allow for the discussion of race and racism to occur in the classroom. This discussion, I believe will move the country forward and not drive us apart. If these teachers are not equipped to be able to talk about racism and identifying structures in our society that uphold and promote racism, we are doing our profession a disservice. 

There is an old adage in this country that says “speak truth to power.” Most of us will equate this phrase to the civil rights movement but it actually has its origins in ancient Greece. “Parrhesia,” which means free speech, is a practice that has been utilized many times throughout our history. As educators, we need to feel empowered in our classroom to practice “parrhesia” in our curriculum and prepare our preservice teachers and candidates to work in this current climate. DiAngelo tells us that “Interrupting racism takes courage and intentionality; the interruption is by definition not passive or complacent.”  So I would encourage us all to practice what the late John Lewis called “Good Trouble.” That necessary trouble is needed to redeem the soul of America. Educators must do what we know in our hearts is right when teaching the children of this nation, so the United States can live up to its promise that all people are created equal and have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

John Blackwell is coordinator of assessment at Virginia State University and an ACSR Board member.

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