In the work of learning to grapple with the impact of my whiteness in all spaces, I have to be at one with the idea that I am going to make mistakes. Often. I am not one who likes making mistakes. When I started to learn about mindset work, I realize that much of my educational career was spent in a fixed mindset in environments that rewarded my thought that learning was something people were naturally good or not so good at. Clearly, that is a problematic mindset in a million ways when going into teaching, and I quickly had to reprogram my brain around ideas of learning that were built on a broader definition of success.
As I approach anti-racist work in my own life and in my practice as a teacher, I have to find ways to root out the racism that exists in me. The biggest area of difficulty for me is in using language. I am a verbal processor – I talk fast and sometimes trip over my words. For someone whose professional life revolves around language use, I can be downright sloppy in my spoken language. So, it is the under-the-surface structurally racist uses of words and phrasing that are my kryptonite.
This is why I find Rachel Cargle’s work, in particular, her posts on Instagram, so powerful. Her practice of closely analyzing assumptions shows how comments become biting reminders of division rather than conversation. I strongly encourage you to follow her and to financially support her curriculum, The Great Unlearn. I find this quote particularly powerful for how she addresses “tone.”
As a teacher of writing, I have made this mistake and will make it again. It is a tricky line – the relationship between audience and purpose is one of the most tense and challenging areas where we grow our voices as writers. Most of the time, these arguments have to do with students sounding “whiny”, but sometimes, I have fallen short when criticizing a student’s work on what is a more deeply held value – sometimes one of faith or culture that is so deep in their ethos that I cannot approach it as it is not my lived experience. Her comment on “the work” is often what is what I am trying to drive at, but we end up in the emotion, and that may be non-negotiable as far as the student is concerned.
More often, these mistakes come in asking a student, inadvertently, a question or using a written example that is not designed to draw attention to the ways that society perceives them, but in action does. Once, early in my teaching, I referred to teenagers hanging out down on the corner in a vocab exercise, for which a student thoroughly chastised me. I did not know that meant selling drugs, and the sentence had become highly offensive to her. Then, I didn’t handle the situation the way that I would now. Fortunately, I was able to restore trust after a few weeks of truly demonstrating that I wanted to be better.
Here is the most important thing I have learned from making a lot of mistakes in this area: apologize but don’t expect acceptance. First, I try to apologize in the moment. Then, I have to leave the person to decide whether they accept my apology, which they are well within their right to reject. But, if the moment has passed, I have to just sit with the fact that I screwed up.
As Cargle and others point out, it is not the job of the person of color in my conversation to do the emotional labor associated with my inability to recognize the remnants of structural racism in my language. That is my work as a “well-intentioned” white woman. Explaining my intentions, rationalizing my mistake, pushing for their acceptance all require something of that person. My guilt is mine and only I can assuage it. I do this by verbally processing with a white, anti-racist colleague who helps me brainstorm ways to be more mindful and unravel the institutional practices that have shaped my implicit practices of language. I am very fortunate to be surrounded by excellent professionals who have made it their work to be anti-racist in all that they do, and they keep teaching me by giving me suggestions and leading me to voices of color who explain the needs of the communities who are struggling.
It is imperfect work, but I am committed to keep trying to be better and to dismantle the structures in society to allow these things to go unchecked. Then, we can aspire to future generations who have not internalized these divisions that continue to oppress.