Sunday, December 6, 2015
Why am I a white ally?
Every so often I attend a conference or professional development sessions that remind me why I am an educator. Truth is, I do sometimes wonder and think about wandering. But I keep coming back to a particular kind of work that keeps me engaged in the educational process.
This, right now, is one of those moments when I am reminded why. This week I return from the National Association of Independent Schools’ People of Color Conference as a white, anti-racist* ally. As I sat through phenomenal presentations and participated in challenging dialogue I was left pondering my path. What led me to taking on diversity and equity as my torch, as my particular work and passion? How have I become a white ally? Why me? What is my role as a white educator? Pardon me for being self-indulgent, but I need to explore this here.
As an elementary school student in Georgia in the late ‘70s I saw something I didn’t know was significant, but saw it nonetheless. In my elementary school there were four sections of sixth grade. My section, at the start of the year, was 100% White. Two other sections had little mixing of African-American and White while a fourth section was nearly 100% Black. Why? I honestly do not know but in retrospect, I have my suspicions. Mid-way through the year April joined my class; she was literally the first African-American girl I had ever met. None of the African-American students at the school lived anywhere near me. At this point in my life, as far I know, I ascribed no meaning to skin color; it meant little more than height or eye color. But it was Northeast Georgia in the late ‘70s (the KKK still recruited openly on the street) and obviously these observations stuck with me.
In the early ‘80s, middle school and my freshman year, I lived in Europe and attended a small international school. Students came from all over the world, but none were African-American. The summer before 8th grade the Head Master (still one of my professional role models) called and asked if I would take a new student under my wing, show him around town and get him prepared for the start of school. I found this request odd and didn’t know if such things were done for all new students. When I met him I could see he was African-American. I have no idea why my Head Master asked me to do this, but he became a great friend. He was my first friend who was also African-American. Living overseas taught me to appreciate those who were different from me and exposed me to the globe.
In the mid-‘80s we moved to suburban St. Louis where I finished high school. I attended a huge, new school that in my mind reminded me of The Karate Kid and its feel would soon be captured perfectly in John Hughes’ movies. I played basketball my sophomore year. On the evening of our first home game an African-American teammate asked if he could stay at my house until we needed to be back at school that evening. I asked why, couldn’t he go to his own house? He explained that he lived in North St. Louis 25 miles away, participating in the Voluntary Desegregation Program (bussing). I have no memory if he came to my house. This is the single moment at which I learned that being African-American in this country meant more than pigmentation; it carried social and cultural meaning. It made no sense to me. Through the rest of high school I had many African-American friends, took history and current events classes, and started to put some context to what I was observing.
In college, Macalester, I vividly remember an incident in the dining hall one night. An African-American student threw his food tray across the table at someone and yelled, “Don’t you ever call me ‘boy!’” I watched this from afar confused. I didn’t know what set the kid off. Another student I was sitting with gave me a quick history lesson.
Fascinated by issues of race and equity, I chose to end my history degree (at the University of Missouri – yes, that one) with an intense seminar program titled, The History and Development of Racism in America. One of only two White students in the class, my world was rocked. On the day of the verdict in the Rodney King trial I felt incredible anguish in the class. I felt helpless and stupid. Who was I to be in this space? I think my professor agreed.
I took my first teaching job in inner-city St. Louis. Most of my students were African-American. Most of my students were poor. Most of my students didn’t care much for school or me. On my fifth day a female African-American student leaned over my desk and said, “Mr. Janda, you ain’t gonna make it to May.” I took it as a dare. I didn’t want to stay, but was damn sure going to stay till May. That same year one of my students was shot in the back on a Sunday morning and died. It was covered in the newspaper, page 8, section B, a simple two-inch column. He was African-American. The front page of section A carried the continuing hunt for two missing White girls who had been snatched from their suburban yard two weeks prior. The value of my student’s life was clear in print. The young lady who dared me to stick around? She eventually became a nurse, caring for many of my students years later in another community, Columbia, Missouri.
Three years later I got out of the inner-city, nearly burned out of teaching, feeling like I had failed my students, feeling like the city was failing them too. I left, taking a job 120 miles away in a small college town, Columbia, home of that University, the one in the news – and started teaching African-American Studies.
I had a supportive administration, supportive colleagues, mostly supportive families and students, most of whom were African-American in my African-American Studies classes, who genuinely wanted to learn and make a difference in their world. I witnessed incredible talent, deep intellect, and learned far more than my students did. The course shifted from being one that focused solely on historical and cultural content to one that used content as a means to explore identity, activism and the future.
One Monday I looked over the senior class rankings which had been left in the teachers’ lounge and was stunned to find the bottom 50 students were almost all African-American, many of them my students. On Tuesday I went to class, asked my student teacher to take notes, and asked class, “Why do I see such awesome talent and dedication in here, but you show it nowhere else? No, this isn’t rhetorical, I want to know!” They stared at me. I figured I could get them to talk for 20 or 30 minutes. After a few more seconds of silence they spoke. They spoke for four days straight. I listened, I questioned, I sought understanding. On Friday they said to me, “Mr. Janda, you hear us, you get it. Now you have to do what you keep telling us we have to do. You have to go make a difference. You have to go tell all your teacher friends how to teach us!” The kids were right. I had told them they needed to learn, take their lessons from school and go change the world. Now they were challenging me to do the same.
With the support of an amazing principal (who was African-American), a supportive superintendent (who was also African-American) and other school leaders, and eventually supportive parents, colleagues and even more students I raised the subject of racism, inequity and underachievement in the classroom and have been doing it ever since. It is awkward to be a White guy speaking passionately about equity and diversity. It’s unexpected, maybe unorthodox, and often lonely. I have had White family members roll their eyes. I have had colleagues stand up and leave my professional development sessions and from then on avoid me altogether. I’ve been questioned by the media as a curiosity and been firmly and directly confronted by an African-American community leader only to discover her deep support. Being White in this work confuses people. But why is it assumed that only the victims or targets of inequity can raise the issue?
I have discovered that being a White, cisgender, heterosexual, upper-middle class male lends me awesome power to speak to the issues. I am not so easily brushed off. I often have people’s ear, and with it respect, before I even start speaking. This is my unearned White, straight, male privilege. I am not so easy to ignore.
Early in this work I found myself pointing out to people that I had nothing to gain by speaking out – it wasn’t my battle. I was only using my cultural and social capital to help others, to help my students as they had asked me to do. In a very real sense, I could use my privilege to step out of and away from the fight because I was not forced by my skin color, gender, religion or sexuality to fight these fights day in and day out. But that is not altogether true. If we have improved academic achievement across the board we end up with less crime, greater health, a stronger economy and ultimately better communities for us all to live in. When I foster diversity in my community I help to improve the breadth of ideas and expressions. When everyone is at the table, everyone’s experience is improved.
Uncle Ben told Peter Parker, “With great power comes great responsibility.” We all have power. In the world today some of us have different powers than others. As a White male I must use my power to make a better world for others. This does not mean I have to give up anything – other than perhaps some unearned privilege, the very definition of inequity. If I am halfway up the ladder (because I was born there) I can build a wider ladder and help others on their climb. I don’t have to leave the ladder to help. Life is not a zero-sum game. There doesn’t have to be winners and losers. Life is not a competition. I give up nothing by making sure others get a fair shot at an education, a job, an apartment, a mortgage, health care or justice. And achieving that level of equity will not happen if I opt out of the struggle.
So tonight I fly back across the country home to California, returning from Tampa and the People of Color Conference, filled with gratitude for the opportunity to actually be invited as a guest to (shut up and) listen to my colleagues of color. I am grateful for the chance to connect with other White allies. I am grateful for the opportunity to see some of my own students excited to bring this work back to their school. I am grateful for being inspired and having my batteries recharged. I am grateful for the opportunity to have the responsibility to take on this awesome struggle to create a more equitable world for everyone. I am grateful to the students and colleagues of color who challenged, supported and pushed me along this path.
To my allies of all backgrounds and in the words of three young, African-American, female community activists after one of my presentations 15 years ago, “Keep on keepin’ on!” To all of you, Black, White, Brown and Benetton, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Use your voice, use your power. These times depend on you.
*Allow me to describe what I mean when I say anti-racist. It is different from not being racist. You may not behave in racist ways or even harbor discriminatory thoughts. But what are you doing about it? When someone says something discriminatory, do you say something? When you recognize systemic practices that exclude and oppress others, do you work to dismantle those systems? To be anti-racist is to be actively working to dismantle systems of oppression. If you aren’t actively doing this then you are by inaction continuing to take advantage of those systems. Furthermore, I use the term anti-racist here, I wish to include being anti-sexist, anti-classist, anti-homophobic and so on.