DOING THE WORK: Anti-Racist Teaching and Community Building in the Era of Black Lives Matter
I come from an intellectual tradition that sees scholarship as akin to combat. I was trained to see scholarly jousting as the means by which we refine and sharpen ideas. Consequently, as the brutal summer of 2020 unfolded, I channeled my anger, fear, and the viscous existential dread of being an Afro-Latino into a pugilistic fervor. I loaded chapters and articles onto my syllabi like ammunition into a magazine and answered calls to arms all over our new-found digital battlegrounds. Out of this work came both the class and podcast, We Can’t Breathe! [hereafter WCB!], a project designed to speak to and elucidate the landscape of contemporary anti-Blackness. This was a project subtended and made possible by Westtown’s own, always emerging anti-racist commitments. Put simply, WCB! wouldn’t have been possible at any other institution where I’ve worked—and at no other point in time in Westtown’s history.
This project was made possible, in part, by the care and collaboration of White colleagues and administrators and enlivened by a multiracial and multicultural cohort of participants who cut across multiple constituencies of the broader Upper School community. This launch taught me a lot about the requisite labor for untethering ourselves from the tendrils of White supremacy. Social media has made us all ambassadors of our own personal brands, curating expertly tailored feeds to project an ideal self to the world. Some of us retweet passages from Ibram X. Kendi and post pictures of “ACAB” graffiti onto Instagram in an effort—conscious or not—to drive traffic to and generate interactions with our profiles. The clout chase is both real and intoxicating. And yet posting a black square does not an anti-racist make. Ending racism will require a radical transformation of our material conditions, and in this regard social media on its own is a woefully insufficient tool. Robust and lasting advancements in anti-racist work happen in the frictive interstices where communities are built and sustained. This demands more of all of us than a really punchy meme. Teaching and recording WCB! taught me a lot about the complexities of this work at an old, historically White institution like Westtown. Here are some provisional maxims about allyship and camaraderie pulled from the love, support, and encouragement I received launching WCB!
Trust your talent! We don’t have a dearth of content experts on issues of race or of visionary diversity, equity, and inclusion practitioners. In fact, as Pamela Newkirk has noted, diversity work has become a fast-growing and profitable industry. The issue emerges when otherwise talented educators and administrators are not positioned to make transformative changes within their realms of the institution. This is a vision of diversity wherein difference makes no difference, one where hiring “the right people” passes as the work itself without regard to the fundamental need to change institutions in order to make them more equitable. I was grateful to be met with boundless confidence from the administrators who greenlit the course and helped me shape its final form. I remember asking our Head of School Tori Jueds in an email chain, “who teaches Judith Butler to rising ninth graders?” Her response was simple and affirming: “You do.” Having the palpable support of folks I report to spoke to the trust I was being conferred to challenge and stretch our community, requisite work for living more fully into our anti-racist commitments.
Participate. Allyship is tricky business. It’s easy to stand in solidarity with a marginalized group from the comforts of our Twitter feeds. It is an entirely different order of work to engage in the depth of self-examination that allows us to see just how deeply constituted we are by systems of inequity, and then engage in the lifelong work of challenging that within ourselves. I have two sisters, countless women cousins, and was raised by a single mother. And yet, I am still unquestionably a product of a misogynist society that tells me at every turn that my life, time, energy, and pursuits as a man are more important, worthwhile, and meritorious than those of the women in my life. Those messages reside in me and ambush me, rearing their nasty and ugly heads precisely in those moments where I delude myself into believing that I’ve achieved a final investment in my feminism. It is precisely at this moment, where I stop being vigilant and start being arrogant, that I hurt the women in my life the most. This is precisely what necessitates that my feminism be a lifelong investment. It also means that I have to show up when called to task by the women in my life. To see so many White parents, colleagues, and students turn out for this course—even after having read the syllabus!—was incredible. Those who didn’t know it was being offered or couldn’t otherwise make it work with their schedule tuned in through the podcast; their notes, comments, and emails were indispensable in my own prep. Additionally, a handful of the very administrators who helped me get WCB! off the ground also carved out time in the midst of trying to figure out how we were going to do school in the fall to participate in the course. I think it makes a great deal of difference when teachers and administrators don the humbling, exposing, and vulnerable mantle of student in these spaces. It reminds the community that this is our work.
Strive for Sustainability. I put together WCB! In a frenzy. It was meant to speak to the moment, I could not have foreseen just how well received it would be or how much it would grow as a result. Something alchemical happens in a really great class that exceeds the boundaries of syllabi and course grades. A free and gradeless course open to the entire Upper School presented unexpected opportunities and forged unforeseen connections. I learned early on that I was unflinchingly committed to this course and that I wanted WCB! to be something that lived long after the July end date. However, a project like this nevertheless exacts a price. Every volley of emails was another meal my godsons, the inspiration for this course, had to cook on their own. Every session that exceeded the two-hour timeframe ate into time I should have been devoting to my own research. Thankfully, I was fairly and competitively compensated for the work. The cost of racism on all of us is not reducible to dollars and cents; however, for too long we have considered anti-racist work as ad hoc and secondary work. That is, uncompensated work done on an as-needed basis without consideration for the cost it exacts on educators and practitioners. It is unsustainable for schools, colleges, and universities to subsidize their anti-racist commitments on the backs of students, faculty members, and administrators of color who comprise the disproportionate number of diversity workers. Here at Westtown, our move to measure affinity work towards full-time equivalency goes a long way towards living into this ideal. However, there’s more to be done beyond paying one teacher for one class.
WCB! Was made possible by decades of growing pains and pathfinding. I’m the grateful inheritor of this legacy and I’m proud to be contributing to it. I love Westtown—flaws and all. My hope is that these insights inspire us to continue to be ambitious, undaunted, and self-reflective. I’m excited to offer this course again next summer, and to continue to be in the thick of this work with this community.