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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

But I’m Not a Protester. What Can I Do?

By Peter DeWitt — June 02, 2020 8 min read
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The death of George Floyd has brought the U.S. to its knees. Cities all over the U.S, including the one where I live, have erupted into rioting. As the days blend into one another, we also see a growing number of peaceful protesting in other countries around the world. The news channels cannot keep up with the devastation fast enough. Coronavirus was all we seemed to hear about for the last two months, and now it is taking a backseat to an issue our country has tried to sweep under the rug for many, many decades.

If you’re like me, you get up in the morning and cruise through your Facebook feed with a hot cup of coffee or tea. And if you’re anything like me, the posts we read make us uncomfortable. But the uncomfortableness we feel is nothing like having someone kneel on our necks when we are begging to breathe.

As I force myself to read the varying opinions from friends who are educators of diverse races, as well as those friends who are city, county, or state police, it’s easy to feel helpless. Should I yell? Should I post my outrage on Facebook and other social-media outlets? Should I go out and protest? How do I say I understand, when really I don’t?

The reality for me is that the outrage I feel is the same as it’s been during the countless other times this has happened in cities around the country. Just like school shootings, we have seemed to get used to these stories where African-American men have been killed for no reason. The latest has been the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, as well as the senseless 911 phone call on Christian Cooper.

At the end of March, there was a popular post on Facebook where people were outraged that it marked the first time in 20 years there was not a school shooting during that particular month. This, of course, is another issue to be outraged about in our country. But did you know that there were deaths of students on the streets of Chicago in March? That happens so much, the Chicago Tribune tracks it here.

All of this discrimination and racism, as well as a pandemic that brings social isolation, can lead to a great deal of trauma for all of us, regardless of where we are sitting around the U.S. One of the issues I struggle with is what to do next? There are “Friends” that I have on social media who post angry comments and shame others for being silent. Just because we do not post angry comments on Facebook doesn’t mean we are silent, right? And just because people do post their angry comments on Facebook doesn’t mean they will actually do anything other than post another angry comment, right?

What Can We Do?
I will never pretend I know what it’s like to be consistently discriminated against. As gay men, my partner and I have been yelled at on the street and have had comments thrown at us as we walked through the mall. There have been subtle moments of being discriminated against, but I am a white man and I understand privilege. My privilege has aided me many times more than it hasn’t. Just a side note, the topic of privilege is another topic that some don’t believe in, because well...they have privilege and do not see it. Or they choose not to see it.

I fear for my great nephews and niece who are biracial. I want them to have the opportunities in life that they deserve and do not want them to be denied those opportunities because of the color of their skin. I want my nephew-in-law who is from Kenya to be treated equally and not hear that he and my niece are discriminated against because their love may look different from what other people view as acceptable.

Many years ago, when I was on my third attempt at a community college (I was a struggling learner), I took a class that changed the way I viewed my world. It was a class in cultural pluralism, and I learned so much about the way marginalized populations (i.e., indigenous, African-American, etc.) had always been treated. I also learned about the topic of implicit bias for the first time. I learned about the way the media portray one group over another. For example, if you watch television, notice how many white people have speaking roles and how many African-Americans appear in the show and don’t speak at all.

For those of us in education, it’s when we see who is presenting at a conference and notice the keynoters are all white men, and very few are women or anyone of a different race. Or when we dive deeper into those conferences and notice that the diverse presenters who are presenting are asked only to speak about diversity. Diversity, as we can see right now, is a vitally important topic, but surely, African-American men and women can speak to other topics, too, right?

So, for those people who are looking for what they can do, I thought I would compile a little list. I would very much like those readers who have resources to post them in the comment section below. My list, which is not exhaustive, is:

Join Rethinking Schools - As a young teacher in a diverse school, I wanted to connect with my students and I was smart enough to know that I needed some more help. I began reading Rethinking Schools, and it helped me progress in the way of thinking that was inspired by the cultural-pluralism class. It was, and still continues to be, one of the most important resources in my educational career.

Read a blog - Education Week has had impactful writers over the decades. One is Bettina L. Love. Love has written some very brutally honest and open essays, like this one Dear White Teachers. You Can’t Love Your Black Students If You Don’t Know Them. Here’s the thing, when I say read a blog, I also mean that after reading the blog, you should change at least one thing about how you move forward. Don’t stay consistently in the precontemplative stage of change.

Read a book - There are numerous books to read in an effort to educate yourself. The book I read recently that helped secure a more thoughtful approach to how I do things is Christopher Emdin’s For White Folks Who Teach In the Hood...and All the Rest Of Y’all Too.

Teach about real history - When I was growing up, I didn’t realize how much of the history I learned was whitewashed. The class in cultural pluralism and the resource Rethinking Schools helped me see that there was a lot more to the stories I learned when I was growing up. I used the resources before in blogs and was told that they were liberal brainwashing, so I think that helps us see why we have racial issues in this country. Clearly, plays like “Hamilton” have shined a light on true history, and we need to keep exploring that with students.

The interesting thing is that teachers and leaders will not take this action because it’s uncomfortable and they will receive pushback from parents. They are also concerned that they will not have all of the answers, so it’s easier to ignore the issue. This is why we need strong administrators who will support teachers in these teachings and dive into these subjects in their faculty meetings.

Look at the images in your school/presentation - Representation matters. I do a lot of work in school climate, and when I walk through schools, I look for images that are representative of all students. However, that is merely the first step. Until we feel comfortable diving into teaching real history, having debates that lead to deep conversations, and making sure all students from all backgrounds feel equality in our school, focus on equity, check our zero-tolerance policies, and look at our suspension rates and what population of students get suspended the most, an image is merely an image.

Additionally, keynoters and workshop facilitators need to pay attention to the images they use. In our presentations during keynotes and workshops where we have pictures of people, are they mostly white men? Or do we have pictures from all different cultural backgrounds?

Stop saying you’re colorblind - It’s BS. Not only are we not colorblind, but we actually should see the beauty and depth in all of our colors. We need to ensure that we all have a voice, and fight for those who are voiceless. We need to understand that our experiences shape us, and those experiences are impacted by color.

Here’s the thing, though. I’m didn’t write this blog to make you feel better about what is going on, myself feel better that “I’m doing something,” or to make ourselves feel better because we can now check these off our lists and move on. None of these items means anything if we do not do something deeper with them. If we read a blog, a book, or an article in Rethinking Schools, we then have to use that information and take action. Many of us have become complacent, and I’m including myself in that statement as well.

In the End
Because of the rioting in the streets, there are people who would have protested but no longer feel safe doing so. As our friends on social media battle over whether the far left or the far right are the groups fanning the flames of the riots, and which political party is best for fixing our societal issues, we need to look at how we can stop oppressing groups who have consistently been marginalized. As it was said in a well-known quotation going around on social media and T-shirts, “Equal right for others does not mean less rights for you. It’s not pie.”

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D., is the author of several books including his newest release Instructional Leadership: Creating Practice Out Of Theory (Corwin Press. 2020). Connect with him on Twitter or through his YouTube channel.

If you would like to learn more about implicit bias, check out this N.Y. Times video from 2016.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.