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Teaching Opinion

‘The Problem With Kindness': SEL & the Death of George Floyd

By Larry Ferlazzo — June 06, 2020 10 min read
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Today, Terri N. Watson, Oman Frame, and Martha Caldwell answer the question, “What should teachers learn from the killing of George Floyd?”

“Where was the kindness - for George Floyd?”

Terri N. Watson is an associate professor of educational leadership in the Department of Leadership and Human Development at the City College of New York. She will be joining the University at Buffalo’s Center for Diversity Innovation as a Distinguished Visiting Scholar for the 2020-21 academic year:

George Floyd died on May 25, 2020. His family, friends, and community loved him, dearly. During the final minutes of his life, he called out for his mother. He also addressed the arresting Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, as “Sir,” despite the fact that he was applying deadly force to his neck while two other now ex-police officers helped restrain him and another watched. Throughout George Floyd’s interaction with the officers, he was polite. Some would even say that he was kind. He complied with their demands and still met a violent end. And, as he lay dying, with his face pressed to the ground, he begged the officers for water. He begged the officers for mercy. He told them that he couldn’t breathe. They ignored all of his pleas.

Where was the love? Where was the compassion?

Where was the kindness - for George Floyd?

School reform initiatives include the development of students’ social and emotional learning (SEL) skills. However, kindness, I fear, like mindfulness and resilience, has been co-opted by ‘edu-celebs’ and packaged into glitzy professional-development sessions and sold to schools and districts primarily located in communities of color. These workshops are filled with buzzwords steeped in performative wokeness, a disingenuous demonstration of an acute awareness of social issues that affect marginalized populations, and claim to decrease bullying while improving student behavior and building community in schools.

The Problem With Kindness

Kindness did not save George Floyd’s life, and when teachers extol the virtues of kindness, they unintentionally encourage the further subjugation of people of color in general, and Black people in particular, in schools and society at-large. They do so by making acts of kindness transactional events rather than natural and expected occurrences. In the former paradigm, kindness becomes a selective act and is then extended to those whom the giver deems worthy. Those not afforded kindness are considered less than and not deserving of love, compassion, and, most importantly, kindness. In fact, their very humanity is negated. Unfortunately, this truth is evident in the death of George Floyd.

In his sermon, “The Birth of a New Nation,” delivered on April 7, 1957, in Montgomery, Alabama, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. alluded to a social revolution that would transform society into a “Beloved Community.” He began the lecture by sharing the story of the journey of the Hebrew People to the Promised Land. He also detailed Ghana’s triumphant battle for independence from British colonial rule and the rise of Kwame Nkrumah, the sub-Saharan African nation’s first prime minister and president. King wisely reminded us that the struggle for freedom is never easy, as liberation only comes through persistent revolt. He also noted that the aftermath of a nonviolent struggle for our liberation and our collective human rights is redemption, which provides the foundation for a “Beloved Community.” The deaths of George Floyd and scores of innocent Black Americans in the U.S. by law-enforcement agents have led to protests that currently stretch across the globe. The world is in need of redemption and a new version of society that embodies the ethos of community.

Schools as Beloved Communities

When schools and districts embed kindness initiatives into their respective curriculum and cultures, it is assumed that the children who attend those schools and live in the surrounding neighborhoods are not kind and that they come from homes and communities that lack love, compassion, and kindness. They discount the deep and meaningful bonds young people form with friends and neighbors and family members. Moreover, kindness initiatives reduce the virtue of practicing kindness to “Weeks” and “Months” and reward young people for doing what is often expected of them at home and in their community. This practice is counterintuitive to most cultural norms and the creation of a “Beloved Community.” As schools are microcosms of society, it is incumbent upon teachers to foster bonds among young people that manufactured acts of kindness often impede.

In order for schools to serve as “Beloved Communities” where love, compassion, and kindness abound, teachers must: (1) Encourage students to use their voices to speak truth to power and to call out injustices—both big and small; (2) Offer culturally relevant curricula that provide mirrors and windows for all students. Young people must know the beauty and strength of all people if they are to grow to be happy, healthy, and whole individuals; and (3) Examine classroom-level discipline and achievement data in order to create new and effective and affective policies and practices that promote the success of all students. The death of George Floyd should serve as a reminder to all teachers that while kindness does matter, our individual and collective humanity matters most.

Rest In Peace, George Floyd.

Six recommendations for educators

Oman Frame and Martha Caldwell, the authors of Let’s Get Real: Exploring Race, Class, and Gender Identities in the Classroom (Routledge 2017) are veteran educators and co-founders of iChange Collaborative. They provide diversity, equity, and inclusion consulting, professional-development training, online courses, and identity resource groups for educators:

We begin by acknowledging that our Black friends, colleagues, and students are hurting. In the midst of a global pandemic that disproportionately impacts their families and communities, they are again forced to bear witness to cruel and senseless acts of violence against Black bodies. As we mourn the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, we remember Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and so many others. Our collective grief calls us to face 400 years of state violence that still visits inequity, fear, and intergenerational trauma on Black communities.

No more sitting on the sidelines watching someone else do the work. No neutral place of refuge in the comfort of color blindness. Now is the time for everyone to take a stand. We have serious work ahead, and it’s not going to be easy. Racism is an open wound, and no Band-Aid fix will help it. Healing will take strong medicine and time.

Many educators have already laid the foundations for change, and if you have, be prepared to lead the way. If you’re new to the movement, the power of your convictions will lead you to the people and resources you need. Here’s the approach we recommend.

1. Start with yourself. Before you begin teaching students about racism, you have to do some internal work. Schooling is based in white middle-class culture, and as such, it conditions us to think instead of feel. We learn to devalue emotions and elevate the intellect. Yet feelings buried alive never die. They live under the surface of consciousness and sabotage our thinking. The distorted thinking that emerges can only enact harm.

Racism is irrational. It cannot be reasoned away. It operates through the repression of the human emotions that connect us to each other. Only through sitting with feelings of grief and sadness, guilt and shame, anger and powerlessness can we process our way from pain to power. Allow your feelings. Honor them as the sacred signals they are, telling you that all is not well. Hold space for yourself and for those you love to process and transmute these difficult feelings so they can inform and enlighten you.

2. Find a community of resistance. Grief is not easy to process alone, so it behooves us to do the work of grieving together. Surround yourself with a community of like-minded people who share your commitment to dismantling racism. Start or join an anti-racist book club, a people of color peer-affinity group, or an anti-racist white educators’ group. These groups operate as sanctuaries for educators to share stories, experience, ideas, and resources. Such communities are invaluable ways to encourage and support each other’s development as anti-racist educators and reinforce the race conscious work we are called to do together.

3. Listen, listen, and then listen again. Center the experience of your Black students and colleagues. First, listen with the intent of empowering their voices. Second, listen to learn. They are living and breathing the politics of race every day. Racial profiling and the fear of violence is a common theme in most of their lives. Provide a safe environment for them to share their experiences if they choose to. They live close to the problem, and they are better positioned to lead the way toward solutions. Follow their lead.

4. Stay focused on the root causes of injustice. Don’t be distracted by controversies over how people are protesting. Maintain a clear focus on why. Frame and reframe conversations as many times as necessary to highlight the historical roots of systemic oppression.

5. Know and teach the history of race. Racism cannot be understood by well-meaning people without understanding history. A survey of U.S. history—slavery; Jim Crow; debt peonage; unfair housing practices; inequitable access to banking, health care, and education; restrictions on citizenship and voting; the rise of the prison industrial complex—reveals the causes of systemic inequities that still plague us today. In facing our past, we can connect current social situations to the historical causes that gave rise to them.

6. Teach resistance and resilience. There’s far more to the story of Black Americans than oppression, so balance the narrative you teach with the history of excellence and accomplishment. The lives of Black Americans are centered around resilience, love, energy, joy, and survival. The Black experience has not occurred in a vacuum of despair. Black Americans have overcome insurmountable obstacles and have still found ways to be joyous, grateful, and gracious.

We can unpack and unlearn racism, and by working together, we can empower the next generation to change the trajectory of history. Now is the time to step up our game. Welcome to the movement. It’s time to get busy

Thanks to Teri, Oman, and Martha for their contributions!

(This is part six in a multipart series on this topic. You can see part one here, part two here, part three here, part four here, and part five here.)

The question was:

What should teachers learn from the killing of George Floyd?

In Part One, Antoine Germany and Lorie Barber shared their thoughts. In Part Two, Dr. Tracey A. Benson and Holly Spinelli contributed their commentaries. In Part Three, Joe Truss and Janice Wyatt-Ross made their recommendations. In Part Four, Jeffrey Garrett, Keisha Rembert, and Erika Niles wrote their responses. In Part Five, Denise Fawcett Facey and Adeyemi Stembridge, Ph.D., offered their voices to the conversation.

You might also be interested in numerous past posts appearing here on race and racism in schools and how to combat it: Race & Gender Challenges

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