Last week, I flew on a tiny plane.
No, seriously, this was a tiny plane. It sat ten people—including the pilot. We weren’t allowed to bring any of our carry-on bags into the cabin with us, because, as the airline employees explained, the weight of those tiny bags could throw off the plane’s balance (and presumably, although they left this part unspoken, cause us to meet a horrifying end).
When I booked the flight, I thought I was headed for a run-of-the-mill plane ride, just long enough for drink-and-pretzel service. To be clear, though, I’m not exactly in love with those kinds of plane rides, either. Any time I’m launched into the sky, I feel vaguely remorseful. Flying is scary.
So standing on the tarmac waiting to climb aboard my tiny plane, when it was much too late to turn back, I wondered if I would have still bought the ticket if I’d known what was in store.
But after twenty minutes or so in the air, as I got used to the roar of the plane and loosened my white-knuckle grip on the armrests, I realized that I was living in one of those moments I would remember, the kind of moment that I would tell people about later because it taught me something, that I would mark as having expanded my worldview. If I had known enough to avoid buying that plane ticket, I would have missed out on that moment.
So many of the experiences that have taught me the most have been ones that I likely would have avoided if given the chance.
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On Wednesday, activists unfurled a banner at the Boston Red Sox game reading “Racism is as American as baseball.” The sign hung over the field for a few minutes before they were escorted from the park.
Against my better judgment, on Thursday morning I spent some time scrolling through the comment feeds on articles about the event. Not surprisingly, people’s reactions were mixed. Some lauded the protesters for trying to provoke conversation about the reality of racism in our country (and our city). Others argued that the sign was too ambiguous to be meaningful. But the loudest group was the one attacking the activists. One commenter went so far as to call them “terrorists.”
Several commenters complained that this action had disrupted what should have been a peaceful family event. They said it wasn’t fair to force parents to explain the word “racism” to their children (ignoring the fact that, for the parents of children of color, talking about race has never been a choice). They said that a baseball game wasn’t the time or place for political activism.
In other words, they wouldn’t have bought the ticket if they knew what was in store.
White folks, there will never be a “perfect” time or place to talk about racism. If we wait for the right opportunity to present itself, we’ll give ourselves permission to opt out again and again. We’ll never get on the plane.
We have to challenge ourselves and each other to engage in hard conversations about racism and its poisonous effects on our society and our selves. If we don’t, we send the message that working towards a more equitable world isn’t all that important. Teachers, especially, cannot afford to wait for a better time. Our students deserve more from us.
If we believe that all of our children have the right to the same opportunities, that they should all grow up knowing that they are smart and valuable and capable of greatness, that it’s not okay for students of color to attend under-resourced schools or be disproportionately funneled into the criminal justice system, then we have to get on the plane. Getting comfortable actually talking about racism is the first step we can take in being able to work together to make progress towards equity.
So what are some of the conversations we should have? There are a lot of places to start, but we could:
- explore our own racial identities and investigate how those identities impact the ways we read our students’ actions
- analyze whether our classroom or school policies disproportionately impact students of color
- envision what true equity would look like in our school community, and ask what stands in the way of that vision
Conversations like these won’t be easy or comfortable. We have been conditioned not to talk about race. Many of us grew up believing that it was better and more polite to pretend to be “color-blind.” We worry about messing it up or offending a person we respect or giving someone the wrong idea about who we are or what we believe. But we’ve got to remember: the experiences that teach us the most are often the ones that we would avoid if we had the chance.
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This article explains 11 basic understandings White people should have if we want to work towards racial justice.
Teaching Tolerance has great resources to help teachers facilitate conversations about racism inside of our classrooms, but they also have professional development tools that can help us talk to each other. Try this identity reflection activity or PD plan for discussing common beliefs about racially and ethnically diverse students.
This discussion guide can help schools structure a series of discussions on racism.