Thursday, August 5, 2010

Nothing can be Taboo!

I am really grateful to be able to post on this blog and talk to a wide variety of individuals here in the U.S. and across the globe. After a conversation on Twitter with Will, the wonderful @peoplegogy, I thought it was time for me to speak up about some of the thoughts that arise when we are dancing around topics we are afraid to broach.

First of all, I must say that as a white woman teaching in California, I understand that I often look different than my students. In California we have a beautifully diverse group of students with many different backgrounds, languages, cultural influences and parental influences. I cannot use that line that many teachers use: "I am color blind. I don't see color." This is simply not true! We all see color, we see the similarities and differences of both the kids and adults we work with every day. I see them, and I embrace them, ask questions, want to learn more, become curious about the unique constellations of qualities that make them who they are.  Through many years in working with kids and families, I had to come to terms with the fact that I grew up in a somewhat ignorant, racist home and that I would have to always stay on alert for erroneous thoughts that might creep into my head. I am human. I am fascinated by people and strive to know them for who they are and not who I think they are!

It's time for us to stop generalizing about what kids need. YES! I agree with Will that we do need more educators that kids can look at and identify with! We need more teachers of color, as well as more male teachers.  Kids size us up, and make assumptions about us, based on our skin color and what they believe about us based on that. I have had kids stop dead in their tracks when looking at the wedding picture on my keychain. My husband, whose family came to England from Jamaica in the 1960's throws people for a loop when he speaks with his beautiful British accent. I have had kids utter racist remarks in Spanish, which sparked a discussion ( yes, I held my cool!) in which I asked him to think about what he had said. He came to me the next day with a huge apology; I did not want an apology, but for him to understand the depth of his comments. He was a 5th grader I had come to know through an after school homework club. He was not my everyday student but I was compelled to use this experience as a teachable moment for him and his group of buddies who had witnessed the incident.

My point here, and I do have one, is that it's time for ALL of us to stand up, join hands and fight for all kids. We cannot assume we know what they need but must rely on our friends who may know more than us! I have, at times, been afraid to talk about issues of race, color, culture and equity because I feel almost like I need to apologize for being white. I am done with that! I cannot make up for the injustice that still happens every day. I can, however, confront the small-minded folks of any ethnic background who want to put kids in boxes and limit their futures. We can help by finding our common ground, by engaging in dialogue not just with people who look like us and talk like us, but by being brave enough to cross that river of taboos. If we are going to help all kids, we must stand united and fight for them.

I will end with a couple questions.  How do you handle barriers that arise in conversations people are afraid to have? How do you embrace and learn from people of all backgrounds and cultures?


  1. Joan,

    Wow. Very powerful indeed. I appreciate your honesty and your willingness to publicly write about such a charged topic. Like any organization or institution, the public school system is a mirror to the overall society. And I hope that all of us take the time listen to each other's stories and concerns and find a way to appeal to our better selves.

  2. Thank you! You have stated this eloquently from the heart and I love that you have made this appeal. I am reminded of one of my educational mentors, Vivian Gussin Paley. From her book White Teacher she too realized that she could no longer pretend to be colourblind but to envelop and notice. I agree that it is time for us to band together and to genuinely embrace each child through engagement and curiosity. Only then are we truly meeting needs.
    Thank you again.

  3. Your honesty is refreshing-not being afraid to take on the topic of race is key, so you've won half the battle already. I just had a conversation about this topic on twitter where a white teacher asked "what's a young,white female teacher to do?" My answer to her was be open, learn about the culture you are teaching, and have those tough conversations when needed.

  4. Thank you all for your comments. I remember when I first joined Twitter sitting on the sidelines and watching the conversation go by, afraid to jump in. Now I know that if things are going to change we can build trusting meaningful relationships that will build bridges. Will is doing that here and I applaud him!

  5. Thank you for this post, Joan.

    I will start by quoting you: "I did not want an apology, but for him to understand the depth of his comments." This sentence and this sentence alone shows how much you are there to help the kids - to me, that makes a real educator.

    I've read and re-read this post so many times - it has had such a profound effect on me. You are right in saying that we must join hands and fight for the kids. It is for them. I will never get tired of saying that everything is for the kids.

    Great educators like you can help kids realize and understand the beauty of diversity ad embrace it.

    Thank you so much again, Joan!

    Kindest regards,

  6. Vicky,
    Thank you for taking the time to write such a thoughtful comment. I know that sometimes I may sound idealistic but I will not compromise my ideals. All kids need as many advocates as they can possibly have speaking up for them.
    Thanks again.