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Welcome to talkin ‘bout! This discussion series brings together educators, activists and youth to participate in a public conversation about timely and important topics in liberatory education.


The next discussion in this series, talkin ‘bout…teaching truth to power, will focus on how educators can teach about injustice and inequality to a group with an identity of privilege (for example, teaching about racism to white people, teaching about sexism to men, teaching about heterosexism to straight people etc.). This discussion is designed to build on the lively recent debate on the listserv about teaching white students about racism.

Here is how talkin 'bout works: A group of panelists who are doing work in this area will answer questions posted by a moderator to our online discussion board from Tuesday, November 18 to Wednesday, November 19. All visitors to the website are invited to post their own questions and comments for the panelists and for each other. Anyone can read the discussion without registering. To post, first you must register to use the site.

You can either reply to an existing comment or question by hitting "reply" or add a new comment or question by hitting "add comment." If you refer to a website in your post, please add the entire website address, including the "http://" because that will allow the address to hyperlink directly to the site.

The panelists for talkin ‘bout…teaching truth to power are:

  • Bree Picower, an Assistant Professor/ Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Teaching & Learning. Her study on "The Unexamined Whiteness of Teaching," explored the role that race plays in how student teachers conceptualize urban education. (teaching about racism to white students)

  • Orisanmi Burton, an educator, student, and writer living in Harlem, NY. In addition to working full-time as a Youth Worker/Media Arts Coordinator at The Brotherhood-Sister Sol, he is a Master's candidate at the Palmer School for Library and Information Science. (teaching about sexism to boys)

  • Melissa Davis, the Student Organizing Associate at GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network). She works with groups of youth to support them in creating safer schools for all students. She is currently putting together GLSEN’s Students of Color Organizing Conference. (teaching about heterosexism to straight students)

  • Marvin Lynn, Associate Professor and Director of Elementary Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Prof. Lynn conducts qualitative research on the work, lives and experiences of African American male urban schoolteachers and the role of urban teacher education programs in developing teachers for racial justice. (teaching about racism to white students)

  • Jenny Overman, a poet, performer, visual artist, educator and workshop leader. Jenny teaches elementary school kids in Oakland. In addition she does various kinds of social justice work around transformative justice and race and class privilege. (teaching about class to wealthy students)

  • Tara Mack (Moderator), Director of the Education for Liberation Network.

Talkin ‘bout…teaching truth to power will continue from Tuesday, November 18 to Wednesday, November 19, giving everyone plenty of time to contribute. We hope this will be an enlightening and lively digital conversation.


Good morning everyone. Thanks for joining us for talkin 'bout. And many thanks to our panelists for participating in this online event. I am looking forward to an energetic, rigorous and respectful discussion on this important issue.
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Spaces for folks to do their work

Avatar Posted by Thomas Nikundiwe at Jan 24, 2012 04:31 PM
Thanks for this very interesting topic. One of the hardest conversations I have with people is about the need for folks outside of a particular circle of privilege to have some space to the work that they need. This might come in the form of a conference or a meeting or a special lunch or class or whatever. While I find that this space is completely necessary, I find it hard to then invite people in the circle of privilege to a related space. Or more precisely, I find that those people have a hard time either understanding that the first space was necessary or afraid to enter the related space since it was generated from this separate space. I wonder if you all have thoughts about this. I wonder if you have thoughts about how to get people in privileged positions to understand that there are spaces that are not okay for them to be in and then still have them engage at a later time or in a different space the very thing that they felt excluded from.

Re:Spaces for folks to do their work

Avatar Posted by Melissa Davis at Jan 24, 2012 04:31 PM
In my work, I am currently putting together our Students of Color Organizing Conference and I find that I get this question of "why can't I attend" from a number of students. Within the work we do generally with students when we talk about Anti-Oppression we have also gotten the "minorities get special breaks for college scholarships and white kids have to work harder."
In response to the first situation Our response is to ask students why they feel so strongly against a student of color only space: Is it because this is the only time their "access" has been challenged and what does that say generally about their priviliege in this society. I also stay the course of their are situations and issues that effect some groups more strongly than others and such a space gives students an opportunity to speak about those situations and come up with solutions rather than having to disclose, educate and then move to solution finding, it's an opportunity to focus. I also ask those students who challenge to be an ally to poc communities and reach out and let them know about the event in order to give another student the opportunity.
In relation to the "minorities have it easier to get scholarships for college" We challeneg students to think about why those scholaships even exist in the first place, what's the context. A resource when speaking to such a topic, which may be a good way to speak about rae and privilige to HS aged students is Tim Wise, he has a really great article on the topic as well as "whiteness" as a concept.
I also think its' important to be honest with people and up front and say, these issues and topics will make you uncomfortable and you will not understand everything right at the beginning but it is about self exploration and learning the contacxt of the actions that is important. also, it is not about "exclusion" it is about coming to a space thatis safe to say what it is that you are feeling and situations you are dealing with.

"But that's segregation- no fair!"

Avatar Posted by Bree Picower at Jan 24, 2012 04:31 PM
Hi Thomas- I suppose this very challenge is a symptom of how privilege operates. The privileged mentality operates from a space that because in America everything is equal, then everyone should be allowed to go everywhere- in fact YOU are discriminating and being RACIST against ME if you don't let me go into your space. The tool at work here is that then people of color are the ones perpetuating racism and are responsible for strained race relations- taking the responsibility off white people (or straights, etc) for examining their own positionality. This perpetuates the misconception that a) people of color can be 'racist', which authors such as Derman-sparks and Daniels-Tatum do a good job of challenging and b) reverse racism is alive and well.

I think looking at Helms or Daniel-Tatums stages of racial identity is instructive as it shows at what levels of racial consciousness people might be at in order to be able to understand the need for such a reflective space. Until people in positions of privilege can recognize that they have it and that they can be involved in change, I don't know if they can participate in the ways that you name- because to do that means one recognizes the need for change, and prior to that level, most of their intentions are situated in maintaining the status quo.

My first question

Avatar Posted by Moderator at Jan 24, 2012 04:31 PM
My first question to the panel (and anyone else who would like to answer) is, can you share a little bit about the context in which you do this work? How do you teach to power? What challenges have you faced?

Teacher Education in the City

Avatar Posted by Marvin Lynn at Jan 24, 2012 04:31 PM
Hi all,

I apologize for not posting this sooner. I am a teacher education administrator and recently tenured faculty member in an urban university. One of the things I have tried to do is get faculty to engage in more face to face conversations about their own visions for social justice education by sharing their ideas with each other. I have also tried to get people to think outside of the box about the kind of program that might support an ongoing critical dialogue about how we enact social justice through our teaching and mentorship. We have recently developed a restructuring plan for our elementary teacher education program that forces us to be explicit about our focus on urban schools and provides time for collaboration and communication across disciplinary areas of focus. The program also deeply immerses students in the context of the communities we want to serve from day one and then provides them with a whole year of student teaching at the end of the experience. The new program also more closely integrates field experiences with the teaching of methods courses that address issues of linguistic, racial and ethnic diversity. I am proud of this work.

However, one of the challenges we face is that there is weak institutional support for teacher education on our campus. This is compounded by the fact that the campus's great cities commitment does not really spell out a role for education. In addition, the college has not effectively advocated for its fair share of the resources available. Secondly, college and department leadership is uncertain about whether teacher education is a priority. There is also a lack of certainty about whether we should take direct steps to recruit students of color into teacher education.

I find myself kind of stuck in between a rock and a hard place because while there is so much potential for amazing things to happen at this institution, so much of it is beyond my control. So the challenge is how do you garner broad support for teacher education when folks in positions of authority may be articulating a different set of priorities that may indeed run counter to those you and other committed faculty espouse? I don't think I've figured this one out yet. But I would appreciate your thoughts on this. Again, sorry for the late posting.


Answer to first question

Avatar Posted by Bree Picower at Jan 24, 2012 04:31 PM
Good Morning, and thank you to Tara and the Education for Liberation Network for inviting me to participate.

I teach at NYU, an urban private university in which typically 2/3 to 3/4 of my teacher education students are White middle class women in their 20's. My students of color are majority Asian students and I typically have a few Latina's and less frequently, African American women. I teach multicultural and social studies education to future elementary school teachers at the undergraduate and graduate level. My pre-service teachers are student teaching in NYC public and private schools during their program at NYU. I am also a core member in a grassroots teacher activist group called the New York Collective of Radical Educators (NYCoRE).

I use a variety of strategies to 'teach to power'. An overarching goal that I have for the courses I teach is to have students reflect on who they are and where they come from, and how that impacts the way in which they see who their students are. Once students have begun to question their understandings of the world, I try to actively provide them with both theoretical understandings and practical tools that can help them to become agents of change. This takes multiple forms, but includes listening to the voices of students and parents, engaging in an array of experiences off campus, learning in very concrete ways how to integrate social justice pedagogy into the reality of the classrooms they teach in, planning and participating in protests, actions, events etc. Without having tools of active engagements, my students find learning about power dynamics and institutionalized oppression to be overwhelming to the point that they retreat. They need to have concrete experiences to lock-in the transformational sense that they can participate in change.

In terms of challenges to teaching to power, a major challenge is White student resistance to themes of social justice education. In terms of the first challenge, for many of my White students, they have never discussed issues of race. Because of the ways in which my students have bought into mainstream ideology such as the idea of an American Meritocracy, they often are not aware of the ways in which societal inequity is maintained and reproduced. For my White and often Asian students, this often means that they have subscribed to the belief that Black and Latino communities and people are violent and should be feared, and that children of Color are responsible for their place in the 'achievement gap' (I prefer Asa Hilliard's term "the opportunity gap"- but for the case of these students- they would not see it as such). My students of Color, while typically much more aware of individual racism, have rarely been taught about institutional racism and how it operates.

In my research with White students around issues of race and diversity, I found that their resistance is more of an active strategy they use to protect their incoming stereotypical/ hegemonic beliefs about people of Color. Often this is characterized by fear, a sense of white victimization and a blame the victim stance. They use what I call "tools of Whiteness" to try to hold on to dominant ideologies when their beliefs are challenged. In my experiences teaching both undergraduate and graduate students, I have found that my undergrads are much quicker to put down these 'tools' and become very enthusiastic about teaching in a more socially just way. There are a variety of tools at play, and I can share them in more detail- but as an example- a new tool of Whiteness that is becoming prevalent and that I am doing some preliminary research on is "See, even you can be president". This tool operates to negate institutional or historical racism by implying that Obama's success has made all racial barriers fall, as the New York Times headline on November 5th would have us believe. In buying into such a tool, pre-service teachers free themselves from the 'burden' of having to learn culturally relevant strategies, of developing empathy and solidarity with people different from themselves, of having to understand the historic roots of oppression as clearly things are now "equal". Because of a sense of White victimization, continuing programs or strategies that address inequality makes even less sense because things are so equal that we have a Black president. Tools of Whiteness function to provide emotional, ideological or performative justifications for racism and ultimately maintain White supremacy.

Answer to first question

Avatar Posted by Melissa Davis at Jan 24, 2012 04:31 PM
To start out it is important to share the work we do at glsen within the context of our mission which is creating safer schools for all students regardless of their sexual orientation or gender expression. It is our true belief, which is supported by stats and figures, that all students are affected by homophobia and thoughts on the gender binary. It is with that thought process that we work with and engage many types of students. The experience I will share is majorly from the perspective of the student organizing department. One of the most important things we teach our students is how to work in an anti-oppression framework and to maintain the thought process that our work is for all students.
Mostly we try to engage the students in a lot of critical thinking and provide them with resources so they can come to conclusions on their own and with a bit of guidance from us. It’s important that they make the connections, not be handed the answers.
To make real change we want the students to have a sense of their own power. We encourage them to build coalitions for support, to meet with their school administration and meet with their state representatives as it pertains to advocacy work.
When we work with straight allies, we make sure that they are aware that they are an important component to the fight for safer schools. We also make it clear that allies are needed to make the movement stronger and more solidified.
Transparency is something we believe gives the students a chance to see what obstacles the movement is up against. So we talk about the opposition to some of our projects, but not negatively. We mostly emphasize that our projects are student led and student run and that’s what we pride our projects on. To be honest a lot of the opposition really focuses on their thought that "homosexuality is wrong" and "shouldn't be taught in schools" but we are teaching about creating safer schools, we make sure our message is encompassing.

Bulding Critical Consciouness in Our Boys

Avatar Posted by Orisanmi Burton at Jan 24, 2012 04:31 PM

As a Chapter Leader at The Brotherhood/ Sister Sol, a Harlem based youth development organization, my primary responsibility is to see to it that the 30 Black and Latino boys under my care develop into healthy and responsible young men. To achieve this end, we at Bro/Sis approach our work from a holistic perspective working closely with families, teachers, and community members to provide the support, guidance, and discipline that all young people need.

I am currently in my third year working with this particular group. My co-chapter leader and I started with them in 7th grade and will continue to support them throughout high school. As part of the chapter building experience, we co-facilitate weekly rites of passage activities -- Brotherhood Ciphers which attempt to tackle the many challenges facing our young men of color. In previous Brotherhood sessions we have looked at the Prison Industrial Complex, Sexism and misogyny, sexual violence and defining Manhood to name a few. We create spaces where young men feel safe and comfortable sharing their thoughts, opinions, and feelings. During the course of our first year we successfully developed a mission statement for the group and collectively defined what it means to be men, brothers and leaders (this is no small feat for a rambunctious group of 13 year olds).

Most of the young people we work with are from the Harlem Community. Many do not have an adequate support network at home or in school. They learn the mores of manhood from what they see performed on their respective blocks and from media. The moment they walk into The Brotherhood/Sister Sol's Harlem Brownstone they are challenged to envision and articulate alternatives to these often troubling renderings of manhood. This has been one of my challenges. How can we as educators counteract the litany of negative images of Black & Latino manhood/womanhood during our few hours of after school time when during the other 19 or so hours of the day they are bombarded with conflicting ideas and not given the opportunity the process them.

Thus far my strategy has been to instill in all young people the tools for critical thinking and engagement. In conversations and in sessions with I am constantly questioning them, challenging them to clarify and qualify their statements. My goal is for them to forge their identities on their own terms - to create their personal truths, rather than accepting the truths of others.

Drawing Discussion to a Close

Avatar Posted by Moderator at Jan 24, 2012 04:31 PM
Thanks for a great conversation over these last two days! I am now declaring that talkin 'bout...teaching truth to power has officially come to an end. However, that does not mean that people can no longer post. This discussion board will remain here for a few weeks, so both panelists and participants are more than welcome to continue the conversation. What it means is that the panelists are officially released from their duties as panelists. Many thanks to Bree, Marvin, Melissa, Jenny and Ori for sharing their ideas and insights with us. And thanks to all those who participated.

post #1-jenny overman

Avatar Posted by jenny overman at Jan 24, 2012 04:31 PM
hi everyone....thank you tara for inviting me to the panel..

Mainly I have done this work as a performer, workshop leader and facilitator. I perform in the
San Francisco Bay area and in Nyc. As workshop leader I facilitate in a variety of settings to people who have white skinned privilege and/or class privilege, I also sit in many circles with folks who are speaking about money and wealth.

In my poetry, writing and performances I address my own class status as upper class woman. In telling stories about my class back round I aim to process my own internalized oppression around class while also sharing a world which is often experienced in an isolated way. As a workshop leader and facilitator teaching about class privilege to folks who are upper and owning class I find it is crucial to begin with the idea that we are all inherently good. I also do this when talking to white folks about whiteness and racism. The challenges I wrestle with both personally as a performer and as a facilitator relate to issues of shame, guilt, isolation and safety. Often progressive people with wealth are working to justify their position,
prove their “goodness” and shed shame and guilt. Many wealthy folks do not have spaces where they can discuss the complexities of their class status. When those spaces are created it is amazing to watch how liberated people begin to feel.

The end result

Avatar Posted by Jorman Nunez at Jan 24, 2012 04:31 PM
Hey, this is a great topic, and difficult to talk about, so I applaud the panelist for the responses that they've given.

My question is about the end. The conversation is always difficult, the tension quickly shoots up, and its easy for the conversation to go nowhere. I wanted to know more about what is your goal? More specifically, what place do you try to get privileged folk to be at? Do you try to get them to admit that they are oppressors, do you get them to feel guilty, etc. Whatever that place is, can you describe it for me. Thanx

ends and means

Avatar Posted by Katy Swalwell at Jan 24, 2012 04:31 PM
Yes - what are the goals? I've been thinking about this a lot and wonder if the goals of a liberatory/social justice education are different for kids from privilege vs. kids who are marginalized (which raises the question if anyone fits so neatly into those categories - what to do with them?).

As a teacher who self identifies as a social justice educator, I've found myself (and my colleagues) justifying and making excuses for our experiences in privileged communities - I don't think we knew how to articulate what our goals were for those students. I struggle with this "guilt" because I think social justice education is extremely important with kids who are born into institutionalized power. Yet I find myself also struggling with how best to teach them without dissolving into guilt or defensiveness.

My dissertation research starting this fall is investigating social justice teachers choosing to work in communities of privilege. If anyone is interested in continuing this conversation or is in the Madison/Milwaukee/Chicago area and wants to stay connected, please email me at

Re: The end result

Avatar Posted by Melissa Davis at Jan 24, 2012 04:31 PM
Our goal is for students to understand their role in processes and understand that organizing in "a bubble" can be hindering. We speak to our students a lot about casting wide nets and coalition build with other student clubs in your school or other organizations that you wouldn't necesarily think you have a connection to. I suppose if I can sum up all of our goals it would be "to help students find and make connections". Meaning, connections between homophobia and other-isms, connection between organizations, connections between what makes a school usafe and how to work with others to acheieve their goals. We work with our core group of students over a school year and via workshops, conference calls, and summits we try to give them the skills to this this work on their own with our help remotely.


Avatar Posted by jenny overman at Jan 24, 2012 04:31 PM
this is a great question.

i mainly teach individual workshops and perform so i have not as of yet had the opportunity to facilitate a long process with a group over time. that said...
i never try to get anyone to feel guilty. mainly i attempt to open up honest conversation. this may seem like only a drop in the bucket, but for me just standing on stage and owning my privilege is HUGE. i have seen very few people do this. my first goal is simply to begin a conversation that people have been told NOT to have for years. after that my gaol is that people will begin to learn about accountability, how their actions, behaviors etc...effect people who are oppressed. it is my experience that folks will only get paralyzed by guilt, i have seen a lot of amazing social justice work happen (money moved, money raised, organizing etc) when the "wealthy" people are given a safe space to talk openly about their class/wealth/power. i believe this first needs to happen in a same class environment before it can effectively go cross class. goal would be to have conversations end up in movement and/or a movement. i know this is possible, and it happens,,,i also know it is slow. unwinding internalized oppression is a slow process.

Who's doing the teaching?

Avatar Posted by Moderator at Jan 24, 2012 04:31 PM
Thanks for the opening comments and questions. I want to add another thought to the mix. I'm wondering how the identity of the teacher impacts the nature of the discussion. Does it make a difference if the teacher shares the identity of power (in other words if it's a white teacher working with white students or a man working with male students)? What impact does this type of teaching have on your ideas about your own identity?

Different strategies?

Avatar Posted by Moderator at Jan 24, 2012 04:31 PM
I'm struck by how many of the answers we've had so far emphasize the importance of the relationship between students and teacher. Some of you talked about very intense experiences with students opening up about their own personal experiences with power and oppression. So building on this issue, I'm wondering how the identities of the students and teacher informs those relationships. How does it affect your teaching if you share the identity of power with your students (i.e. a male teacher teaching boys/men about sexism, a straight person teaching straight people about heterosexism). What if you don't? (I actually posted this question yesterday, and you guys thought I was going to let you get away with avoiding it. ha...ha...ha... :)). How does your identity affect your relationship with your students and their relationship with you?

race and discussions

Avatar Posted by Bree Picower at Jan 24, 2012 04:31 PM
It's interesting, and hard to comment on because there are so many complexities. I had one semester in my teaching where all of my students were white (says a lot about my institution). During that semester, those students shared more problematic assumptions and tools than in any other semester. Do I think they were more racist or ignorant than any other white students I've taught. Unlikely. I think because of the absence of any people of color, and having a white professor, they felt safe to unload their deepest unspoken assumptions. This was quite helpful really because they were able to examine things that they had never felt they could say before. So I think in that experience, that was helpful in having a shared identity. In semesters where I've had even one student of color, the white students edit themselves much more. So I'm not sure that it was the shared identity, or the absence of people of color that created that space. While that was helpful, I don't need to begin to list the ways in which the demographics of my students is deeply problematic in terms of equity, access etc...

I do think it's also helpful for my white students to see a white person who is comfortable talking about race and advocating for antiracism as I hope that I can serve as a role-model for them in terms of breaking white silence around issues of race.

Re:Different strategies?

Avatar Posted by Melissa Davis at Jan 24, 2012 04:31 PM
Ineterestingly enough in the work that I do with students my sexual orientation is not something that is brought up. That is not to say that a student has never asked but I am clear that my own orientation and identity does not and should not hinder or validate the work I do. Luckily I do not work in a homogenous community as it relates to sexual orientation, we actively seek out students from all orientations and gender expressions because that is what gives development to conversations and gives richer perspectives.

Second day

Avatar Posted by Moderator at Jan 24, 2012 04:31 PM
Welcome to the second day of this very energetic discussion. I'd like to open the day with a question that relates to Bree's first comment. You used the phrase "tools of whiteness," which I really like, to describe the arguments that students use to resist critical discussions of racism. I'm wondering what the incentive is for people to put those tools down, if you will. After all, people with an identity of power derive benefit from having that power. And if the tools are what helps them maintain that power, why should they put them down? What's the motivation for white people to peacefully give up racism, or men to quietly give up sexism etc. if they get material benefit from having that power? I can understand how it might be possible to reach individuals and persuade them through education to relinquish some power, but to what extent is it possible to do that with a group? I think this connects directly to Jorman's question about what your goals are when you are doing this kind of teaching. Are you trying to convince a handful of people in a room? Are you, as Jenny suggests, tying to get a group of people to at least start talking about these issues in a different way? What are goals that are both meaningful and realistic for this type of work?

putting down the tools

Avatar Posted by jenny overman at Jan 24, 2012 04:31 PM
i am reticent to respond to this question because it feels like a huge one to tackle! however, anyone wanting to think through this question should read "white like me" by time wise. this weekend i will be teaching a workshop to middle and upper class white jewish teens. the workshop is on prison/restorative justice. in sharing with them how dysfunctional the prison industrial complex is, i will also have to explain to them how issues around the PIC effect their a black man given 10 yrs for a minor offense comes out of prison and cannot get a job because he has a record, and meanwhile his family has been scraping by those 10 yrs and his kids are acting out because dad is in prison and when dad comes out he is traumatized from life inside, less adjusted to the world (so much happens in 10 yrs), he literally cannot find work! his eldest son wants to help his dad out because he cannot bear to see his family suffer. so the eldest son drops out of HS, but the son cannot get work, in their neighborhood there are no jobs...and the son feels completely disempowered. there are little to no choices here. the son begins to commit small crimes, robbing wealthy white ladies in the upscale part of town.....and it goes on the cycle continues...if the oppressed are feeling oppressed, they will act up, there will be violence and the oppressors will be victims. racism and classism is a divide and conquer thing. it separates us from each other.

a few more thoughts,,,,

Avatar Posted by jenny overman at Jan 24, 2012 04:31 PM
although not confronting these issues may feel "safer". it is actually less safe. isolation, separation, internalized oppression, self hate, etc...are some of the costs...along with violence, misunderstanding....the list goes on. i also think looking at the obama campaign is a great source of what worked. people of all different race/class backgrounds got together and a movement happened.
re: the economy...many wealthy people are losing money right now...along with poor people....i think this is forcing the upper class to take a look at the structures of power in the US...another idea to chew on.

To be present and to notice

Avatar Posted by Orisanmi Burton at Jan 24, 2012 04:31 PM
This is a question that I toil with often. The importance of setting attainable goals for we want our young people to walk away with cannot be overstated. Otherwise we run the risk of coming off as though we are trying to "fix" them. I know that when I have conversations about sexism and misogyny with my boys the tenor of the conversation is often in direct conflict with what they are seeing and hearing at home. Knowing that, I cannot expect them to walk away as reformed sexists after a two-hour session. What I do expect them to do is notice the things we discuss in sessions. If they are aware of sexism and misogyny during the course of their daily routine they can begin to develop a critical vocabulary, and in time begin to explore how they participate in or condone oppressive behaviors.

Incentivizing consciousness about racism

Avatar Posted by Marvin Lynn at Jan 24, 2012 04:31 PM
I don't know if there is a way to get people to want to talk about racism. I think we have to be better at making sure that these experiences are productive ones. I have been thinking quite a bit about the need for teacher educators to employ some of the methods used in counseling. I've been a fan of Robert Carter's work for a long time. He is a clinical psychologist and professor of counselor education at Teachers College, Columbia. One of the things he does is a course called "Racial-cultural counseling laboratory" where students are required to "go deep" into their own histories and excavate their own understandings of race, ethnicity, culture, gender and so on. When I was a student at Teachers College in the 90s I remember talking to students in the program who were taking this course or something similar. I remember how important it was for them to be able to openly reflect on their own understandings and experiences of race and then reflect even more deeply on how these understandings influence and shape their attitudes and behavior. They were graded based on their willingness to engage in deeply personal and authentic conversations about race that often made them vulnerable in ways that they had not experienced prior to the course. I knew of students who failed the course because they simply were not willing to reflect. I knew of African American students who were forced to reckon with their deep-seated feelings about gender or sexuality in ways that made them uncomfortable but ultimately moved them to a different place. Students who survived the course--from what I recall--were able to engaged in deep self reflection about their own racism and think much more openly about what they and others did to promote white supremacy. I think if we are going to really have an impact, we are going to have think about this clinical approach to dealing with racism. While it may not be possible to "unlearn" racism, we can certainly make teachers much more conscious their own roles in perpetuating it. I had some success with a similar approach in a graduate elementary education course at the University of Maryland. But it meant that we were sitting around the table every week telling very personal stories about things we experienced and how that shaped how we understood the way society is constructed today. It also meant that we were required to push each other by making bare those contradictions and unmentionables that held us captive. I had people come out of the closet during those sessions. But, at the end of the day, while we were reading sociological studies on social inequality, we bonded in the struggle to help schools become agents of social justice. It was a great experience. What was nice is that I was then able to instruct this same group in a second follow up course that focused on creating and sustaining multicultural curricula in elementary and secondary schools. So I was then forced to help people find resources that they can draw on in biology or algebra to help them develop useful teaching tools. We were able to really focus on the teaching because we had one all the head work previously. I didn't have to spend time convincing anyone why multicultural curricula was necessary.

So I advocate for this very personal approach followed up by a second course that focuses on helping people find tools that will help them teach successfully in diverse contexts. But you can't have one without the other.


building on Marvin's comment

Avatar Posted by Bree Picower at Jan 24, 2012 04:31 PM
I really agree with what Marvin is saying. I think this work is deeply personal and emotional, and in order to have these discussions be 'productive' as Marvin says, we as facilitators need to be prepared to take on some of the emotional reaction that our students experience in coming to terms with their role in societal hierarchies.

For me, in my work with pre-service teachers, I think some of the motivation comes from the understanding I try to help my students have, that in order to be a successful teacher with students who are different from themselves, they need to interrogate these issues. Popular media images of white teachers are deeply problematic- and I do a whole session where we identify the tools of whiteness at play in films like Dangerous Minds and Freedom Writers. However, at the onset- these images do put into teachers minds that there is something about being white and teaching in communities of color that I'm going to have to grapple with. That is a starting point- that then needs to be deeply interrogated so that they see the answer is not to use the tool of "I'm just trying to help them". But because most people go into the field with a desire to be successful at their job, the recognition that this is a necessary part of their preparation can be helpful.

I think often about the basic idea of fairness. That's how i encourage my pre-service early childhood ed teachers to begin addressing issues of social justice with young children- and I think it works with the pre-service teachers as well. I think tapping into people's sense of right and wrong can create a motivation to try to lay down some tools when they realize that they are using them for the forces of evil and not good. Of course, not everyone is going to want to do this- and some of my students have been quite forthcoming about that.

For those that do, however, I agree with Marvin that ongoing follow up and support is an absolute necessity. I've been facilitating a group of former students who are currently 1st and 2nd year teachers who have found the course to be transformational and want to support in teaching from a social justice perspective. They are doing incredible work- that's my end goal...

Jorman asked my question! :)

Avatar Posted by Moderator at Jan 24, 2012 04:31 PM
So I was just about to post another question, but it was precisely what Jorman just asked. I realize that the panelists vary in the duration and intensity of the work they do with students. Maybe when you're talking about your goals, you could put them into the context of the amount of contact you have with your students.


Avatar Posted by Shanti Elliott at Jan 24, 2012 04:31 PM
I run a high school social action program in a predominantly white and privileged progressive independent school. I came into the job aiming to shift our school’s social engagement orientation from one of service to one of solidarity, but have in the last couple of years come to find that the notion of solidarity also has a power differential to deal with. Part of our program (11th -12th grades) focuses on developing social awareness and group action projects on issues from sexism to war on drugs to environmental justice. Another part of our program (9th-10th grades) focuses on breaking through some of the barriers between different neighborhoods (and different ethnicities and social classes) through growing project-based partnerships that foster connection through fun learning experiences (like hip hop dance and poetry workshops, theatre games, and mosaic projects).
My question has to do with how students position themselves as civically engaged people in relation to people dealing with hardship. When our students partner with students in neighborhoods that are dealing with issues of school closings, racial profiling, and violence – problems far from the experience of many of our students – students have a hard time relating. Some say, “it’s not our problem” – meaning not that they don’t care; they are concerned about the problems their peers face -- but they worry about imposing themselves in a do-gooder kind of colonialist fashion. I don’t know that there is a clear footing for them (us); much of my focus is in creating space and support for dwelling in the struggle that good individual and group reflection engenders, but this is itself hard, and I welcome feedback about guiding the reflection process and the social commitment that may grow from the students experiences and processing.


Avatar Posted by Bree Picower at Jan 24, 2012 04:31 PM
Hi Shanti-
that sounds like a great program. I have come across a similar dynamic with some of my teacher ed students as they start to engage in issues of inequality. For many of them as privileged students, they inevitably begin to compare their circumstances to those of their students who are in urban underresourced schools very different from the ones they went to. They have a number of reactions- one of which is similar to what you name- in that they retreat "it's not our problem". Often this comes from an extreme sense of guilt that they get when they compare their circumstances to their students. I've found that one thing that helps is to make it clear that this isn't an "you vs. them" comparative situation. The goal is to look at the broader systems of privilege and oppression in order to ask the question of "how is the system set up in which I receive privileges and material conditions that others don't". This shifts the sense of guilt of "I have more than them" to what is inherently wrong in this system.

Re: solidarity?

Avatar Posted by Melissa Davis at Jan 24, 2012 04:31 PM
I think that the program sounds realy great. On a personal level and also within our framework here at GLSEN, it is really important to not come in as the "saviour" but as a group wanting to work in coalition with. I believe it's important that there are conversations with the said groups you want to work with to get their perspective and what they think is important to address. For example we are working on a new Day of Action called TransAction! and we are now (after learning fromother mistakes) having planning meetings with people with the trans and Gender non-conforming communities to find out what they need/want from an educational day of action.
My $0.02

when critical thinking becomes personal: roadblock

Avatar Posted by Josephine Salvador at Jan 24, 2012 04:31 PM
Hi everyone-- and thanks for hosting and being on this panel. I'm not sure to whom to direct this qustion. Here goes: At my school, we talk about a lot about and do teach in ways to develop critical thinking skills. (I can give more detail on that, if needed.) I work in a predominantly white, Jewish, upper class independent school. Critical thinking seems to be okay when students are analyzing something "other"-- a text, a movie, someone else's story-- when the subject becomes more personal, it seems that those well-honed skills fall apart. The responses range from the usual: defensiveness, finger-pointing, etc. and critical thinking seems to be frightening. or at least very uncomfortable. Any ideas about critical thinking about self, specifcally privilege?

using art, story, going slow...step by step

Avatar Posted by jenny overman at Jan 24, 2012 04:31 PM
thanks Josephine...sounds like an interesting and challenging opportunity. have you tried bringing in an outside speaker pr performer to share art, personal story etc.? sometimes that can facilitate a discussion which focuses on the issues of privilege through someone else's story, it can be less threatening. i once performed for a group of wealthy, white, wall street retired adults,( i was concerned they would be defensive). i felt that the performance gave them something to relate to, meanwhile they could remain "safe", they could decide if they wanted to continue the discussion post show, and indeed some did! ideally it would be wondeful if we could dive into the conversation, but many kids/people have been so deeply conditioned to shut down here. i think it is a slow process. unfortunately, most upper class kids have never had this conversation.

i think this is tricky work in a mixed group, but another idea is to ask...what do we like about privilege, what is privilege? how does it serve and not serve us? using art/collage in response to questions has always been effective for me as it is a way to work with the ideas of privilege, and then people can share about their art. this is less threatening than a direct conversation. imagine you have done this...but setting ground rules is crucial,,,speaking from the i etc..

teaching to power in teacher education

Avatar Posted by Katy Swalwell at Jan 24, 2012 04:31 PM
Hello, everyone! This topic is fascinating - thanks to the network for sponsoring it. I'm currently a teacher educator working at UW-Madison in a program grounded in social justice and culturally relevant pedagogy. Our population of student teachers is predominantly white, female, and middle class (as am I). It seems we have two challenges in front of us:

1. helping students confront their privilege in order to teach from a social justice perspective and
2. helping students see this kind of teaching as necessary even if (or especially when) they are teaching in homogenous communities of privilege - not just with kids of color or in low income communities.

Are other teacher educators having the same experiences? We seem to be doing a good job at #1, but are getting stuck at #2... any suggestions? Should we be preparing them to teach this way with all kids? What does that preparation look like? Is it different in more heterogenous teacher ed programs?

Dealing with conflict and anger

Avatar Posted by tom snell at Jan 24, 2012 04:31 PM
Hi, everyone, and thanks for hosting this forum.

One of the obstacles to moving forward in confronting white privilege that many of us face is an aversion to confrontation. We all know how easy it is to collaborate with an effort to shove racism under the rug, and it takes an effort to train ourselves to bring these issues to the table when it is unexpected and inconvenient--which it always is. If any of you have experience or insight in supporting nonconfrontational people to feel more confident in an atmosphere of conflict, I'd be interested to learn about that.

Going a step further, another disincentive to acknowledging and confronting white privilege is the anger that can surface very quickly, especially when a person feels the need to defend herself against a charge of racism. So I welcome any thoughts you may have about dealing with anger in this context.

As educators I think we are in a unique position foster concrete skills which empower conflict-averse people to call out and confront racism and white privilege. Thanks for sharing your insight and experience.


Avatar Posted by jenny overman at Jan 24, 2012 04:31 PM
hi tom...just a brief comment, in my experience working with white people around whiteness...i have seen drama therapy, theatre of the oppressed and things of that nature help to unleash the both the aversion to confrontation and the issue around anger.

the role of race

Avatar Posted by Bree Picower at Jan 24, 2012 04:31 PM
I've found that framing the conversation around "what role does race play" in any given situation helps to diffuse the sense of talking about racism per se. This has helped me in having white students examine who they are and where they come from in a way that makes them slightly less defensive. For example, in an assignment I give in which they write their 'racial autobiographies'- i've found they are much more forthcoming when asked what role that race has played in their lives then when asked to identify instances or examples of racism.

That being said, I do think that conflict and anger have a place in this work as it is very challenging for white people to identify and transform their understandings of race. I think that feeling very uncomfortable is an inevitable part of the process.

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