Teaching Critical Consciousness: Why white people don’t “get it”…but still can.

I write today with an effort to inform and provide a foundation of why we see such a resistance to change and specifically, racial justice. It hurts me to log into social media lately. It feels heavy and dark and feels like I’m navigating a world without light. I’ve seen numerous posts from friends that ask, “Why don’t white people get Black Lives Matter?” “They are choosing not to”. This will be a synopsis and quick glance into this sentiment.

While there is certainly a level of chosen ignorance, there are deep and complex reasons that people choose not to “get it” or simply can not “get it”. For one, issues of racism and racial injustice aren’t new. They’ve been alive and well for a long time. They exist and therefore, we (as a collective) have let them continue. What is so hard for people to understand is that, as a United States of America, we have a long history of white supremacy, thus deeply embedded in our fabric as a nation. Considering the “newness” of these topics to so many Americans (I say newness, meaning some people have only recently been confronted with these issues because of the media), it is NOT possible to have a handle and to deeply understand one’s role in white supremacy or the system of racism. Further, most individuals are insecure beings, avoiding the ability to confront larger issues that would mean they might have to examine a possibility of “less power” (i.e. sliding over on the bench so others have a seat too). This means that many white people aren’t willing to delve into a complex and dark past that confronts the evil that has existed in our world through a system that upholds white supremacy

So why don’t white people “get it”? Well, here’s my take:

  1. Confronting History and White Supremacy

First, most people have not taken the time to actually learn the actual history of the US. If there is anything, the recent racial unrest has indicated, it is that we (as Americans) are not provided factual history in our educational upbringing. If we had, we would understand that this country was built on the backs of slaves https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/white-house-was-fact-built-slaves-180959916/, the existence of sundown towns still exist (look it up if you don’t know), Abraham Lincoln order a mass hanging of indigenous populations https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/largest-mass-execution-us-history-150-years-ago-today/, and Mt. Rushmore was sculpted by a individual with ties the KKK https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2020/07/03/mount-rushmore-gutzon-borglum-klan-stone-mountain/. Certainly, these are just a few examples of embedded white supremacy in our world, however they continue to be overlooked. What they do reveal is the way in which our system still operates just the way it was designed.

Unfortunately, until individuals and white individuals can confront these dark pieces of our past and accept that we have risen from white supremacy and continue to uphold and maintain it, there is little hope that one will completely understand Black Lives Matter and/or racial injustice. These is essential a reckoning that can only happen when insecurity is lamented and people can search for meaning of life outside of their own being. This reckoning is essential wrapped in power, where fear drives the ability to look the other way. From the conversations I see, the behaviors and actions of the current administration, and the right-wing supporters that continue to turn a blind-eye, we are not going to get anywhere fast. Especially when power and money are on the line.

2. CONFRONTING SYSTEMS AND PERSONAL PRIVILEGE TAKES TIME

Say it again for the people in the back. Confronting these issues not only takes time, it takes personal work. I’ve been studying, learning, and engaging in social justice work since 2009. I am NOT an expert. I have to check my personal biases everyday. I have to check my privilege everyday. I make mistakes, I say things that are embedded in systems of oppression. I am trying to always be better. It take INTENTIONAL WORK and most people do not want to commit to that kind of work.

This summer, I read the book, “So you want to talk about race?“. In this reading and within my anti-racist educator group, I had a revelation. In the text, the author, Ijeoma Oluo mentioned that by default, white people are racist because we live and participate in racist systems and whites systems each day. I actually read the words, “I am racist” out loud. I hated the sound, it made me disgusted and embarrassed, even though I was the only one around. I then tried to understand, why this reaction? Of course, being seen as a racist is not something people want to be associated with but I thought about it more deeply. What was uncomfortable about it to me personally? Had I really done enough work to not be racist? What is enough work nd how do I measure it? How does me saying this out loud change how I participate? This moves into issues of white fragility, which I will not go into in this post but what I want to reiterate is, confronting white supremacy and racism take time. A LOT OF TIME because it is inherently personal and necessitates reflection and commitment. Most people in our world, aren’t ready to confront, commit to personal reflection on issues of privilege and oppression. Most people have not done the true work to be anti-racist. Does this mean people can’t do the work? No. BUT again, it. takes. time.

3. WORKING, LEARNING, AND TEACHING THROUGH RESISTANCE

I am committed to making this an actionable blog post because I want to help people start to confront themselves and others to move toward being anti-racist and holding others accountable. In our world, resistance and power are king; vulnerability, empathy, and humility are peasants. One of my colleagues, Dr. Cameron Beatty of Florida State and I write A LOT about teaching others who are resistant to confronting these issues, resistant to complex issues such as racism, privilege, etc.

I am compiling a list of my favorite efforts to dismantle systems, confront personal bias and assumptions, and to learn and teach others through resistance. I have adapted and adjusted these to fit the general community instead of in academic settings. Have a resistant uncle, sister-in-law, or other family member? This is for you.

Strategies for working through student resistance:

Adapted from Beatty, C. C. & Manning-Ouellette, A. (2018). The role of liberatory pedagogy in socially just leadership education. In K. Guthrie & V. Chunoo (Eds.). Changing the Narrative: Socially Just Leadership Education (pp. 229-243).Information Age Publishing. https://www.amazon.com/Changing-Narrative-Leadership-Contemporary-Perspectives/dp/164113335X

  • Scaffold discussions. All people enter into conversations at different levels, your discussion should build and be informed through understanding their experiences and knowledge formation.
  • Embracing vulnerability and mistakes. We must engage in difficult conversations that project bodies and voices into vulnerable situations. These vulnerable spaces must include our family, friends, and peers. Noting that we will likely make mistakes when discussing challenging topics is one way to align with vulnerability and embrace it. Acknowledging that we might not know the “correct” answer is an initial dialogue that is important. Identifying uncomfortable or controversial dialogue and making meaning of it, models vulnerability and identifies humility. 
  • Focus energy on the people that are on the fence. People that are at the cusp of critical consciousness are not always identifiable, however, focusing energy on those that are minimally engaging in material helps breathe movement into a sea of resistance. This does not mean that we should avoid resisting folx. It does mean that while reflecting on difficult discussions from the course, focusing on the malleable individuals invites more creative thinking, positivity, and drive for us to continue to dialogue through controversy.
  • “Call in” all people. We need people to “call in” or challenge thers who are engaging in oppressive language or behaviors, or ascribing to only dominant narratives or theories and ask these individuals why they are choosing to engage in these ways that often marginalize others. By “calling in” others, radical change in the power relationships that show up in the classroom help others to develop personal strategies to address oppressive forms of knowledge (Beatty & Manning-Ouellette, 2018; Beatty & Tillapaugh, 2017).

Adapted from Manning-Ouellette, A. & Beatty, C. (2019). Teaching socially just perspectives in first year seminars: A faculty guide to strengthen inclusive teaching methods. Journal of Faculty Development, 33(2), 19-24.

Ask ourselves these questions to do the personal work:

Check-in. Do I have a process of understanding and checking my own unconscious bias in my work?

Personal Commitment. What work have I done to critically analyze my assumptions of the people I work with?

Ongoing Process. How will I seek ongoing support to continue inclusive, equitable, and just education?

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