Are we still talking about ___?: Cultivating Lasting Empathy

Over the summer, I attended a professional development experience called the White Responsibility Teach-In. At this multi-day workshop, we heard from about a dozen leaders in the fields of education and anti-racism, but no voice was louder and bolder than that of Ijeoma Oluo, author of So You Want to Talk About Race? One quote that I’ve thought about nearly every day since August–mainly because I turned it into a poster and hung it in my classroom–reads: 

“In a country built on the genocide of one brown people and the enslavement of another, it’ll never not be about race.”

Even as a teacher that talks, educates, and writes about race often, this statement still hit me like a brick. In that moment, so many questions flew through my head. I believe what Oluo says, but have I done enough to relay that to my students? What do I need to revise in my curriculum to put race in the forefront and not just make it a once-per-week conversation? Is discussing race regularly political in any way? If so, what kind of push back will I get? Will I be indoctrinating my students?

So far, race–and the history of oppressed groups–has played an even more prominent role in our in-class discussions this year. My high school juniors in American Studies, for the most part, have taken this in stride and I was pleased to see many of my students pursue related topics for their fall trimester final projects–making connections between slavery and mass incarceration, noting the persistence of gender discrimination in the workforce, highlighting constant violations of the rights of Native peoples. 

That said, everyone once and a while I feel it. Everyone who has taught or talked about race in a predominantly white setting knows what it is: the long sigh, the subtle flinch, the turning of heads to their laps or their screens. The verbal or nonverbal signs that scream, “oh, we’re talking about this again.” 

In those moments, I question everything. Did I push too far? Have we talked about race–or gender, or class–too much this week? Did I make it political? How can I make everyone more comfortable? Thankfully, I’ve done enough anti-racist work to know when to hold the line and even the stampede of questions running through my head at that moment rarely knocks me off course anymore. That said, not all of us are prepared to fend off the masses. 

So, what do we do when you feel it, or when you more audibly hear someone–student or colleague alike–sigh, “are we talking about ___ again?” Thankfully, our field is rich with evidence supporting these ongoing conversations and I encourage you to use your knowledge of the past to point to the deficits and needs of the present. For our students, you need to provide them with information that allows them to come to the conclusion of necessity on their own. Just last week, my students listened to a New York Times “The Daily” podcast episode about a lapsed white nationalist and we watched a 2012 Frontline special on the activities of the KKK in the twenty-first century. No one was questioning our discussions of race after that. You also meet the person where they are and reach out for that one-on-one conversation if need be; five minutes with a person to ask them what they are feeling can do wonders in these conversations. And you read and you read and you read….don’t just take my advice, listen to Oluo, Robin D’Angelo, Ibram X. Kendi, Beverly Tatum, and many, many more. 

I’ll leave you with some last words from Oluo, from the second chapter of her book: 

“Race is everywhere and racial tension and animosity and pain is in almost everything we see and touch. Ignoring it does not make it go away. There is no shoving the four hundred years’ racial oppression and violence toothpaste paste back in the toothpaste tube.”

So, let’s work together to squeeze it all out.

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