This post originally appeared in Education Week‘s Bookmarks blog.
By Marilyn Rhames
I spent much of my downtime this summer thinking about issues of race. From various situations in the community where I live, at my school, and on the national media with the Trayvon Martin case, the struggles of black people seemed to bombard me everywhere I turned—especially when I looked in the mirror.
So, in an effort to preserve my sanity, I began reflecting on how ‘my people’ came to be Americans—the pride and inner-strength it required for us to endure—and then I wondered if our overall social condition in this country would ever equal that of my white brothers and sisters. On Labor Day, my family and I went to the movies to watch the Civil Rights epic Lee Daniel’s “The Butler.” The movie was so powerfully inspiring that I lay awake almost all night.
Another huge source of inspiration and validation came from reading the book Taking It Personally: Racism in the Classroom from Kindergarten to College (Temple University Press, 2001). It is a must-read, co-written by Ann Berlak, a Jewish education professor who had always led a privileged life in America, and Sekani Moyenda, an African-American teacher who was raised by her mother, a member of the Black Panther Party.
The voices of the two women—Ann who taught Sekani in a muliticultural education course but ended up being schooled by Sekani—are brutally honest and convincing in their argument that institutional racism runs rampant in the American education system, particularly through the otherwise harmless assumptions that teachers and school administrators make about black children and their families every day.
Moyenda provides much of the anecdotal and cultural evidence of institutional racism in the chapters that she writes, while Berlak provides much of the scholarly research that justifies why a white woman like herself had become a “black militant” regarding equality in education. Berlak writes:
It was given to me, privileged by race, class, and schooling, to legitimate Sekani's right to teach children in public school classrooms to be militant, and to put her into a position to raise the issue of militancy so powerfully in 'my' [graduate education] class. I used the prestige of my position to attempt to encourage students to re-accent civility and militancy, to take particular meanings from Sekani's words, to read Sekani's views in an uncommon way."
Even in the book, Berlak owns her position of power as a white person, though she willingly lends that power to give voice to Moyenda, whose “words were still heard by many as less legitimate because she was Black and female ... [and] ‘might unconsciously be considered [by whites] to be not that intelligent.’”
As an African-American woman, educated and dignified, I have experienced the exact same racial degradation that Moyenda writes about when describing her childhood and role in the workplace. My righteous indignation or “black militancy” has often been misconstrued as jealous anger toward the white people or irrational, repressed rage toward white society. Moyenda states in the book that her goal is to make all teachers—black, white or otherwise—"black militants,” which Berlak defines in the book as “not random and senseless violence, but as actions intended to bring about institutional change in order to increase the degree of justice in an unjust world.” What could possibly be wrong with that?
If you are ready to have some difficult, but real conversations about race relations at your school, I highly recommend this book for a professional learning community, or PLC, book club, or as the anchor text of a whole-school professional development.
I’ve just picked up Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New Press, 2010). It’s another startling book; it reads like the heartbreaking sequel to Taking it Personally.
The opinions expressed in Charting My Own Course 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.